Drawing From His Allegory of the Cave and His Theory of Social Justice, Explain Carefully Plato’s Sympathy for Such Attitudes, His Hostility Toward a Political System Like Our Own. Is He Justified, in Your View, in This Hostility?
Socrates is the main character in The Republic, and he tells the allegory of the cave to Glaucon, who is one of Plato’s brothers. In book seven of The Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon, who is his interlocutor, to imagine a group of prisoners who have been chained since they were children in an underground cave.
The light of the fire hurts his eyes and makes him immediately want to turn back around and “retreat to the things which he could see properly, which he would think really clearer than the things being shown him.”In other words, the prisoner initially finds the light (representing the truth, an alternative truth or reality) very challenging to see and so does not want to pursue it. It would be easier to look away back into the shadows. However, after his eyes adjust to the firelight, reluctantly and with great difficulty he is forced to progress out of the cave and into the sunlight, which is a painful process. This represents a journey of greater understanding and the challenges that come with it. We have all found the journey of gaining knowledge, interpreting it and applying it a challenge in one way or another in our personal and professional lives. The story continues: So the prisoner progressed past the realm of the firelight, and now into the realm of sunlight. The first thing he would find easiest to look at is the shadows, and then reflections of men and objects in the water, and then finally the prisoner is able to look at the sun itself which he realises is the source of the reflections. For me, this represents the way in which knowledge can be delivered may be best understood within the context of previous experience including socially acceptable constructs. This allows connections to be made between our prior views of the world and the formation of new information or knowledge that we have perceived and interpreted. When these connections relate to prior experience or conceptualised within familiar paradigms, they become easier to digest, absorb and interpret successfully. Simply being told new information in an abstract way or delivered in a style and manner that is out of keeping of social norms may not be a successful strategy.
But Plato wrote dialogues, and even Socrates, after a lifetime in which he wrote nothing, responded to his imminent execution by composing a hymn to Apollo (Jacob Howland, 2004). Their animosity to speeches, and speech writing, is only apparent; in actuality, Socrates and Plato seek to vindicate the possibility of genuine communication against those who would reduce discourse to dictation, dialogue to monologue. Philosophy takes place in conversation, whereas the state, like the crowd that praises it, speaks “with one voice.” It is not the philosopher but the sophist, therefore, whose “wisdom” is beyond words—because, for the sophist, words mean whatever he says they mean, just as, for the politician, the law is whatever he says it is. Each in their own way, sophists and senators collapse logos into nomos. When, at the beginning of Republic, Polemarchus forcibly insists that Socrates stay for a night of philosophical discussion, Socrates responds by saying, “If it is so resolved, then that is how we must act.” Socrates ironically invokes the declaration by which the Athenian legislature passed a new law. The same declaration also appears at the beginning of Aristophanes’ Clouds, as Strepsiades’ facetious response to the snoring Pheidippides (Plato). In that opening joke, Aristophanes implies that speech, like law, is no more meaningful than the gas a man passes in his sleep.
Platonic Writings, Platonic Readings, ed. Charles L. Griswold, Jr. (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988).
Jacob Howland, The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2004), p. 36.
Plato: Complete Works, p. 507 fn. 1.