In Book VII of The Republic Plato introduces his ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ which presents itself in the form of a Socratic dialogue between Glaucon, the brother of Plato, and Plato’s teacher, Socrates. In it, Plato attempts to, “make an image of our nature in its education and want of education,” and presents his Theory of Forms as it relates to the discernment of reality. The concepts that Plato conveys in the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ even find practical applications, especially in his notion of a society governed by philosophers. Most significant, however, is Plato’s examination of the human soul and the human condition in The Republic and the role that this plays in presenting his ideas as concretely as possible. Thus, one finds that in his ‘Allegory of the Cave’ Plato has much to say about the search for understanding and enlightenment, man’s perception of the world, and the intricacy of the human soul.
Plato’s initial focus in his ‘Allegory of the Cave’ is almost entirely metaphysical; he is concerned not with knowledge, but rather with the nature of reality. Socrates, speaking to Glaucon, describes a group of prisoners chained to a wall in a cave who have been there since birth. Behind them is a fire, which lights the cave, and between this fire and the prisoners is a road where people carry all sorts of human, animal and other forms, which are then reflected onto the opposite wall of the cave. Unable to turn their heads, the prisoners are only able to see the shadows that these forms cast upon the wall and Socrates makes the point that, “such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.” Plato makes an interesting point about human nature in this case, emphasizing the idea that human beings have a tendency to accept the reality that they are presented with. He goes on to say that, upon being introduced to the world outside of the cave, a man would “be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown,” a natural human reaction when facing the realization that one’s entire concept of reality has proven to be false. After his discovery of the world outside of the cave, the man would begin to adjust, “first he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the phantoms of the human beings and the other things in water; and, later, the things themselves…then finally I suppose he would be able to make out the sun.”
Here, the process of adjusting to the light outside of the cave can be likened to the learning process in that it is a gradual process that builds upon itself and the world outside the cave is likened to the intelligible realm. Plato explains that, “in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything.” As in Plato’s ‘Metaphor of the Sun,’ the sun acts as a metaphor for the source of enlightenment, which Plato believed was the Form of the Good from which all just things gained their utility. Thus, the intelligible realm is composed of the ideas of things, rather than the things themselves, which exist in the sensible realm and are constantly changing.
Plato further argues that once a man is able to see this “idea of the good,” it is his role to “go down…into the common dwelling of the others and get habituated along with them to seeing the dark things.” He makes an interesting point about the role of the philosopher in society here, arguing that it is not the goal of the philosopher to remain in the intelligible realm, but rather to see the good and share it with his fellow man for the common good. It is with this that Plato suggests a city governed by philosophers would be the most just, both because philosophers are able to access the intelligible realm and because, as he says, “that city in which those who are going to rule are least eager to rule is necessarily governed in the way that is best and freest from faction.”
Plato’s concept of a city governed by philosophers was novel in its time, and the idea of governance by those whom least desire power remains a logical means of avoiding the violent struggles for power which have be seen throughout history. But perhaps the most critical assertion that Plato makes in his ‘Allegory of the Cave’ concerns human nature, and the inability of the common man to move beyond the sensible world into the intelligible world. Thus, what Plato stresses is the importance of the philosopher in society and the philosopher’s role in aiding others to see the Form of the Good. In the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ Plato notes that should a man be freed from the cave and allowed to see the outside world and the sun, which represents the Form of the Good, “he would consider himself happy for the change and pity the others.” Here, Plato offers all of us the opportunity to take on the role of philosopher, to question our reality, to seek out knowledge and to eventually see the good.
Though Plato is clear that a society governed by philosophers would be most just, he presents this simply as an ideal circumstance in a hypothetical situation. The important point that Plato has to make about the human soul is its stubbornness, greed, and desire for power. Though he extols the philosopher who is able to see the good and move beyond the sensible realm into the realm of intelligible things, he has little to say about the common man whom, according to Plato, is in need of the guidance of the philosopher and is unfit to rule. He presents them as being comfortable in their world of illusions and both unwilling and unable to move outside of the cave to experience the intelligible world.
This theme is common in both literature and film, with books such as Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and George Orwell’s 1984 exploring similar themes, along with films such as The Truman Show and The Matrix. Plato feels it is the philosopher’s role to govern society not because they have no desire to rule, but rather because he may exist in the intelligible world and is therefore superior to the common man who is limited by his inability to recognize the disorder and irrationality of the sensible world.
The Republic forms the basis of Western philosophical thought and continues to be influential from both a philosophical and political perspective into the 21st century. Plato has much to say about the just man and the just city, and in formulating his concept of a city governed by philosopher-kings, he reveals much about the human soul. What is most intriguing, however, is his notion of the intelligible world, a state of enlightenment, which results from an understanding of the Form of the Good. With this, Plato’s argument that only the rational members of society, the philosophers, should be allowed to govern finds credence, as they are the only ones capable of grasping the Form of the Good. But, beyond this, Plato offers the opportunity to all of his readers to practice philosophy and to use their reason to access this intelligible world. Above all, the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ emphasizes the fact that one should not simply accept the reality that they are presented with, but that they should question the nature of knowledge and reality and attempt to move beyond the sensible world.