SOURCEBOOK

The Republic Excerpt - Allegory of the Cave

Source Author
Plato
Source Date
360 BCE

This excerpt of The Republic comes from Project Gutenberg.1


BOOK VII.

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is
enlightened or unenlightened:--Behold! human beings living in a
underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching
all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have
their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only
see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round
their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and
between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will
see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which
marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the
puppets.

I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of
vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and
various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking,
others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the
shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of
the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were
never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would
only see the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not
suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the
other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by
spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of
the images.

That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners
are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is
liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and
walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare
will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which
in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one
saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now,
when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards
more real existence, he has a clearer vision,--what will be his reply?
And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the
objects as they pass and requiring him to name them,--will he not be
perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are
truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have
a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the
objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in
reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he said.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and
rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of
the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he
approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able
to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Not all in a moment, he said.

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world.
And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and
other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he
will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled
heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the
sun or the light of the sun by day?

Certainly.

Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of
him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not
in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

Certainly.

He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and
the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and
in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have
been accustomed to behold?

Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den
and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate
himself on the change, and pity them?

Certainly, he would.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves
on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark
which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were
together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the
future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or
envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

'Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,'

and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after
their manner?

Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than
entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun
to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his
eyes full of darkness?

To be sure, he said.

And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the
shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while
his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the
time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be
very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him
that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was
better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose
another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender,
and they would put him to death.

No question, he said.

This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the
previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of
the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret
the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual
world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have
expressed--whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or
false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good
appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen,
is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and
right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world,
and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and
that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in
public or private life must have his eye fixed.

I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.

Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this
beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their
souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to
dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be
trusted.

Yes, very natural.

And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine
contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a
ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has
become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight
in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of
images of justice, and is endeavouring to meet the conceptions of those
who have never yet seen absolute justice?

Anything but surprising, he replied.

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the
eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out
of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's
eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when
he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too
ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out
of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the
dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess
of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of
being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the
soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason
in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of
the light into the den.

That, he said, is a very just distinction.

But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong
when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not
there before, like sight into blind eyes.

They undoubtedly say this, he replied.

Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning
exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn
from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of
knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the
world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure
the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other
words, of the good.

Very true.

And must there not be some art which will effect conversion in the
easiest and quickest manner; not implanting the faculty of sight, for
that exists already, but has been turned in the wrong direction, and is
looking away from the truth?

Yes, he said, such an art may be presumed.

And whereas the other so-called virtues of the soul seem to be akin to
bodily qualities, for even when they are not originally innate they can
be implanted later by habit and exercise, the virtue of wisdom more than
anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by
this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other
hand, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence
flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue--how eager he is, how
clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of
blind, but his keen eye-sight is forced into the service of evil, and he
is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?

Very true, he said.

But what if there had been a circumcision of such natures in the days
of their youth; and they had been severed from those sensual pleasures,
such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached
to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision
of their souls upon the things that are below--if, I say, they had been
released from these impediments and turned in the opposite direction,
the very same faculty in them would have seen the truth as keenly as
they see what their eyes are turned to now.

Very likely.

Yes, I said; and there is another thing which is likely, or rather a
necessary inference from what has preceded, that neither the uneducated
and uninformed of the truth, nor yet those who never make an end of
their education, will be able ministers of State; not the former,
because they have no single aim of duty which is the rule of all their
actions, private as well as public; nor the latter, because they will
not act at all except upon compulsion, fancying that they are already
dwelling apart in the islands of the blest.

Very true, he replied.

Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State
will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have
already shown to be the greatest of all--they must continue to ascend
until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen
enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.

What do you mean?

I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be
allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the
den, and partake of their labours and honours, whether they are worth
having or not.

But is not this unjust? he said; ought we to give them a worse life,
when they might have a better?

You have again forgotten, my friend, I said, the intention of the
legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy
above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he
held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them
benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another;
to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his
instruments in binding up the State.

True, he said, I had forgotten.

Observe, Glaucon, that there will be no injustice in compelling our
philosophers to have a care and providence of others; we shall explain
to them that in other States, men of their class are not obliged to
share in the toils of politics: and this is reasonable, for they grow up
at their own sweet will, and the government would rather not have them.
Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a
culture which they have never received. But we have brought you into
the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other
citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they
have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty.
Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general
underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you
have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the
inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are,
and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just
and good in their truth. And thus our State, which is also yours, will
be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit
unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about
shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in
their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which
the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most
quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.

Quite true, he replied.

And will our pupils, when they hear this, refuse to take their turn at
the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of
their time with one another in the heavenly light?

Impossible, he answered; for they are just men, and the commands which
we impose upon them are just; there can be no doubt that every one of
them will take office as a stern necessity, and not after the fashion of
our present rulers of State.

Yes, my friend, I said; and there lies the point. You must contrive for
your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and
then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which
offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold,
but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas
if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering
after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to
snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be
fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus
arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State.

Most true, he replied.

And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition
is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Indeed, I do not, he said.

And those who govern ought not to be lovers of the task? For, if they
are, there will be rival lovers, and they will fight.

No question.

Who then are those whom we shall compel to be guardians? Surely they
will be the men who are wisest about affairs of State, and by whom the
State is best administered, and who at the same time have other honours
and another and a better life than that of politics?

They are the men, and I will choose them, he replied.