PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday January 27, 2003


[6.3.] The Analogy of the Cave.


In Book VII (514a-518b; pp.128-130) of the Republic, Plato asks us to imagine a group of people chained from birth inside a cave, seeing only shadows cast by puppets held before a fire burning behind them. They are restrained so that they cannot even see each other or themselves. These prisoners would take the shadows to be real things.


If one of them were suddenly released, he would find it difficult to look at the fire which casts the shadows and more difficult still to face the sunlight thrown upon the visible world outside. Eventually, though, he would be able to do this and even to contemplate the sun itself.


Since the trip is extremely difficult for most people, the escapee is compelled, after having ‘seen the light’, to go back into the cave to try to get others to see. When he enters the cave, at first he won't be able to see anything. To those still chained in the cave, it will appear as if his eyesight had been destroyed -- they will think he had suffered some terrible harm by leaving the cave. And if he tried to help them escape from the cave they would resist -- perhaps going so far as to kill him.


Socrates tells Glaucon that the cave corresponds to our visible world and the fire-light to our sun. The ascent to the outer world is the upward journey of the soul in the intelligible realm. In the world of knowledge, the very last thing to be apprehended, and apprehended only with great difficulty, is the Form of the Good, just as the sun would be the last thing to be beheld by the cave’s occupants. The road up from the cave is difficult, but the trip is worthwhile because the sun is worth seeing, i.e., to agathon is worth knowing:


In the world of knowledge, the essential idea of the good is the limit of what can be seen, and can barely be perceived; but, when perceived, we cannot help concluding that it is in every case the source of all that is right and beautiful, in the visible world giving birth to light and its master, and in the intelligible world, as master, providing truth and mind--and that whoever would act wisely, either in private or in public, must see it. (517c, p.130)



·         those who make the ascent / come to know the Forms become "unwilling to take part in the affairs of men" (517c, p.130)-- to deal once again with day-to-day affairs or the material (and less-than-completely real) world

·         if forced to deal with such things (e.g. to appear before a court of law with regard to a question of justice), he who knows the Forms will appear to those who do not know them to be "awkward" and "ridiculous" (517d, p.130)



[7.] Education (Republic Book VII).


One of the central claims of Plato's political philosophy is a partial answer to our Question 4: What should a Political Society do?

·         Plato believed strongly that one of the primary responsibilities of a PS was to educate its citizens. (This is in contrast to the prevailing view in Athens during Plato's lifetime, which was that education of the young was a personal, familial responsibility.[1])

·         He thought that the ideal polis would educate everyone, not just those who will become rulers and auxiliaries. But only those capable of becoming rulers will be fully educated.


(The following details come from a chunk of Book VII that's omitted by Cahn):

·         All people (including women) would receive a primary, general education until the age of 18, followed by two years of military training.

·         For most, education ends at this point. But a select few who show intellectual skill and pass certain tests enter into a probationary period of further training to become guardians. This period begins with ten years of intellectual training emphasizing mathematics. At various times candidates are pruned out during this period and given lower-ranking offices in the guardian class.

·         Those who get through this period enter into a five-year period of philosophical study (and the pruning continues as before).

·         Those who make it through (now in their 35th year) begin 15 years of high-level government administrative work, and during this time they undergo further tests of character.

·         At the end of this period, at age fifty, they are admitted into the highest class, the rulers or philosopher-kings, whose time is split between ruling the polis and the further study of philosophy:


...the time has now arrived at which they must raise the eye of the soul to the universal light which lightens all things, and behold the absolute good; for that is the pattern according to which they are to order the State and the lives of individuals." (Rep bk. VII 540a-b; Jowett trans.; not in Cahn)


So one of the ultimate goals of this process of government education is the production of a class of rulers who know better than anyone else what's good for the community as a whole. They will be experts at governing, just as physicians are experts at health.


Here Plato is absolutely rejecting the democracy that obtained in Athens during his lifetime. He did not think that everyone (not even every adult male citizen) had the moral right to participate in governing. For Plato, you should not be allowed to participate in running the polis unless you have the requisite knowledge, i.e. unless

(1)    you are born with the requisite innate abilities; and

(2)    you undergo decades of appropriate education.


Allowing a "regular Joe (or Jane)" on the street to participate in guiding the polis would be no better than allowing him or her to prescribe a course of medical treatment for a disease. Only those who are experts at ruling (and who've proven themselves to be so over the many years of education, testing and work) have the moral right to rule.


[1] Schmandt, A History of Political Philosophy p.52.

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