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Catherine H. Zuckert-Socrates And The Allegory Of The Cave

‘The Platonic Cave’ from Hendrik Laurensz Spiegel’s ‘Hertspiegel’. Amsterdam, 1694.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Catherine H. Zuckert’s impressive and seminal ‘Plato’s Philosophers’, University of Chicago Press-2012 paperback edition. Book Part II, chapter five.

Socrates is telling us about the allegory of the ‘Cave’, in Plato’s work ‘Republic’ (514a–520a) to compare “the effect of education (παιδεία, Paideia) and the lack of it on our nature”. It is written as a dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the analogy of the sun (508b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–511e).


‘Socrates asks Glaucon to consider the cave as third ‘image of our nature in its education and wants of education’ (Republic 514a). Human beings do not entirely lack knowledge, Socrates suggests with this third image, but we do not possess knowledge, properly speaking, of the whole. In contrast to the first two, Socrates’ third image does seem to allow for the existence of poetry when he describes human beings carrying artifacts in front of a fire on a path leading out of a cave. These artisans shape the entire sensible experience of the prisoner chained to the floor. All the later see are the shadows of the artificial objects on the wall in front of them, cast by a flickering, unsteady, artificially produced light.

Chained by their necks so that they cannot turn around and investigate the source(s) of the images they see and the sounds they hear behind them, Socrates notes, the prisoner would not ‘have seen anything of themselves’. Bound to the floor of the cave, human beings do not understand their own condition. They do not understand that they are confined, by what, where, or with what results. Socrates suggests that the confinement is a result of their bodily needs and pleasures when he says that ‘if this part of such nature were trimmed in earliest childhood and its ties of kinship with becoming were cut off-like leaden weights, which eating and such pleasures as well as their refinement naturally attach to the soul and turn its vision downwards-and it were turned around towards the true things, it would see them most sharply.’ (519-b).

Socrates does not say whether the ‘artifacts….and statures of men and animals’ of which the prisoners see only the shadows are simply copies of the real things in the world outside or include ‘imaginary’ combinations fabricated by those who carry them. Nor does he say why some human beings, who where obviously freed from their chains and able to see something of the outside world, decided to make such fire and to project images of artifacts into the cave. He does suggest that most human beings do not recognize sensible beings as images of intelligible kinds or principles of order as the image of the divided line indicates. (We know that none of the pre-Socratic philosophers, much less ordinary people, in fact did). Socrates’ image suggests that most human beings understand things mediately rather than immediately, by means of man-made constructs-like words and the language composed of them, or stories about the divine origins and causes of the generation of the things we encounter in the world around us. (Poets have been said to be the ‘makers’ as well as the communicators of both). To understand what the things we perceive truly are and how they are related to each other as well as to us, humans beings have to get beyond the human constructions, to see both the construction and the things as they truly are.

In this image of the cave, Socrates thus suggests that human beings have to overcome two different kinds of impediments if they are to learn the true nature(s) of the beings. Not only do our own bodily needs and sensations direct our attention and efforts away from the intelligible towards the concrete and urgent. Human beings also lack direct or immediate access to the intelligible beings themselves. We have to use artificially devised languages, invent means of counting or measuring, and fabricate accounts of the origins, interconnections, and significance of our experiences, which distort both the experience and its purported causes, in order literally to discover those causes-the intelligible beings and the man-made means of access to them.

To overcome both these impediments, Socrates further suggests, human beings need a ‘liberator’-or someone who not only releases a prisoner from his chains but also forcefully turns him or her around and drags him or her up out of the cave, painfully, into the light. And the need for such a liberator changes the character of the education Socrates describes. What differentiates human beings from one another, according to Socrates here, is not intellectual ability-everyone is said to have the power-but the objects of their attention. In contrast to what he said earlier about music and gymnastics, the education images by the emergence from the cave is no longer a matter of preventing young people from seeing bad examples of behavior. Nor is the goal simply the imitation or duplication of the ideas of the virtues in the souls of citizens. Socrates now states (518d-e) that all virtues but prudence are merely matter of habit. Philosophers are no longer described therefore, as painters or sculptors who will copy the divine ideas of the virtues onto the blank slates of citizens. Now Socrates claims that their knowledge of what truly is enables them to distinguish the shadows better than the cave dwellers once the philosophers’ eyes readjust to the dark.

It is no longer their knowledge that makes philosophers the only fit rulers, moreover. It is rather that, having experienced a better life, they do not desire the wealth or fame rule might bring. Only those who do not want to rule will rule for the sake of the community, not their own. Because such people do not desire to rule, they have to be compelled. They will be ‘compelled’, it seems, by the force of argument. It would not be just to force these people to live a less satisfactory life, Glaucon objects, by forcing them to sacrifice their own desires and happiness for the sake of others. Socrates responds that they would be reminded that they have received their education from the city, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the whole. In other words, they would be compelled to rule by their own understanding of what is just.

Readers cannot help but ask whether philosophers who might actually arise in any city have actually been educated by their city (and so would be obliged, as they see it to rule). Since the city (or the political authority who rule it) determine what ‘shadows’ or ‘images’ their citizens are allowed to see, philosophers seeking to discover the true nature of things would have to question the laws of the city. In the last part of his image, Socrates thus emphasizes the antagonism with which a philosopher who had viewed the sunlight world would be greeted if he were forced to return to the cave and challenge the passionately held convictions of its prisoners. Popular opinion is not as malleable, nor will the many be as easily persuaded to accept the rule of philosophy, as Socrates initially suggested.’



‘The Platonic Cave’, an Epigram

By Hendrik Laurensz Spiegel.

In ‘Collected Works of H.L. Spiegel’,

Amsterdam, 1694.

Most men are dwelling in blind darkness,

without cease only care and rejoice about vain studies.

Look how their eyes are drawn to the shadows appearing in front of them!

Look how all observe and like these shams of Truth!

Look how they foolishly entertain themselves with the vain illusion of reality!

Fewer are those who, standing in a much purer light above the pit and separated from the stupid crowd, discriminate these illusions, shadows of things, and weight all in the just balance!

For having cast away the cloud of error, they are able to distinguish the real goods.

They are eager to pull up towards the light the others from the blind night that hides them.

Alas! Those do not feel any love for the light: So great is their lack of reason!’🌿 🌿
Catherine H. Zuckert-Socrates And The Allegory Of The Cave

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