This post, along with the one on Rousseau, and many to follow, are part of an upcoming project – stay tuned.
When we read Plato we can’t be sure whether it is the philosopher himself, or his teacher Socrates. Sometimes this “voice” is called Platosocrates. Socrates called himself a “gadfly,” a kind of hindrance or pest who questions those who are said to have knowledge. I.F. Stone has criticized Socrates for his lack of commitment to a philosophy and says it represents instead a method of doing philosophy.
Socrates was convicted in Athens of corrupting the youth and was sentenced to death, which traumatized Plato, who seemed to lose faith in Athenian democracy, and dedicated three dialogs to the trial, the most famous of which is The Apology, which is not much of an apology, but rather an argument that those who claim to know, in fact know nothing, whereas he, knowing he knows nothing is wiser than all of them. Socrates was in a sense trying to prove the oracle of Delphi right – the oracle had proclaimed Socrates the wisest of all men.
Plato is called the philosopher and with Socrates sent philosophy off course after 200 years of its existence by undermining its authority. As Paul Strathern (1996, 7) put it:
Plato was the ruin of philosophy, or so some modern thinker would have us believe. According to both Nietzsche and Heidegger, philosophy never recovered from the attentions of Socrates and Plato in the fifth century BC. Philosophy had been under way for less than two hundred years, and in many ways it had scarcely started . But this is where seemingly it went wrong.
The Republic is perhaps the most famous Book on philosophy of all time. It tells of an ideal Republic led by philosopher kings. It undermines family structures in away reminiscent of Marx. But the most famous passage in this most famous work of Plato is the allegory of the cave, which I contend is an illustration of the nature of knowledge and possibly the way to enlightenment:
THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE (360 BCE, Benjamin Jowett translation)
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.
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?
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 it’ 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?
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 and take 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 now
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he ‘s 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?
Last of 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.
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.