Book 7 Summary and Analysis
1. The Allegory of the Cave (514–521b)
Socrates continues his indirect description of the Good with his allegory of the cave. In the cave, men live shackled to the wall, only capable of staring straight ahead. All they can see are the shadows of images carried between a curtain and a fire by some other people, who talk and make noises. The prisoners assume that what they see and hear is reality.
If a man were released and forced outside, the brilliance would be painful and make everything difficult for him to understand. Socrates says the man would prefer the cave, but as his eyes acclimated he would realize that he had been living a life of illusion in a world where he never even realized the sun existed. He might, out of pity, return to the cave to try to enlighten his former fellows, but if he attempted to release them to experience what they would see as madness, they would try to kill him.
Socrates says that this allegory explains why philosophers are so often mocked by society; they have been blinded by the truth of the Good, and those to whom they try to explain themselves find their ideas incomprehensible. These people are trapped in the illusory world of the senses just as much as the prisoners were trapped in the cave.
Socrates believed the ability to perceive the world of forms “is in the soul of each” (518c), requiring only a proper education to be released. The rulers of the city must receive this education and then return from their studies to care for the city. Without their rule, the city will be “governed by men who fight over shadows with one another and form factions for the sake of ruling, as though it were some great goal” (520c). Fighting over ruling leads to the destruction of the city. The philosophers will therefore feel obligated to repay their debt to the city that raised them by ruling it properly.
Of all the passages in the Republic, the allegory of the cave is the most famous. Its story of the intellectual’s search for truth and the rejection of his vision by society has touched centuries of artists and philosophers alike. In modern times, the parallels between the shadow-puppet screen and television lead people to wonder if they are living in a world of illusion. The image remains remarkably fresh.
Despite its age, the meaning of this allegory continues to be vigorously debated. Allan Bloom says it is a metaphor for the relation of the philosophic soul to the city. The “horizons of law and convention” hold everyone back from the journey of knowledge (Bloom, 1991:402). Bloom concludes that Plato uses this section to show that the good city is a failure because making a philosopher rule goes against his self-interest.
According to Rex Warner, Plato is trying to teach the reader the importance of “progressive philosophical enlightenment.” Unless one attempts to undergo these studies, there will be “no hope of bringing order into a distracted world” (Warner, 1958:77).
While Plato’s allegory is clearly intended to further differentiate the world of the senses from the world of the forms, the story presents a more hostile attitude toward the “real” world than the earlier similes of the line and sun. Plato’s frustration with the political society of Athens is almost overwhelming; he depicts its citizens as not just nearsighted, but violently determined to ignore the ridiculous situation in which they live. Even given his often hopeful comments about the common man’s abilities, Plato seems to have given up all hope for the reformation of Athens.
An alternate argument could be made that Plato himself, by insisting on the superiority of the world of the forms, is just as guilty of living a life of delusions as Athens. Yet his attempts to reform tyrants and his formation of the Academy show that he was endeavoring to make progress in the real world. These actions show that he was following the program he advocated, of bringing the light of the truth into the cave, although he...
(The entire section is 1,386 words.)