Winter 1995, Volume 12.1
The Philosophers' Journey: Re-Reading Plato's Allegory of the Cave
Peter Vernezze (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Weber State University. He has published articles in Ancient Philosophy, Journal of the History of Philosophy, and Teaching Philosophy. He is currently working on a book on Plato's theory of happiness.
Few images in Western literature are as vivid as Plato's cave. In Book VII of the Republic, Plato compares the state of human existence to that of people living in a subterranean cavern. The populace, whose only source of light comes from a fire burning inside the cave, are chained together with their faces permanently turned toward a wall. When objects are passed in front of the fire, the prisoners are only able to view the shadows that these objects cast on the wall, and, in their ignorance, believe that these shadows constitute reality. By chance, a few individuals are torn away from the rest, forced out of the darkness and led upward toward the light. These are the philosophers, who are at first so dazzled by the sight of this higher reality that they are temporarily blinded. When their eyes have become accustomed to the brightness, they recognize that what they had formerly taken for reality is but a poor imitation of it: the fire in the cave pales in comparison to the sunlight, and the objects of which they have seen shadows in the cave were but figurines of the real objects that exist outside. Although they naturally enough desire to remain in their new surroundings, this wish is thwarted when they are forced to return to the darkness and utilize their newfound knowledge to govern the inhabitants below.
Two claims frequently made in the course of the cave analogy—one concerning the nature of reality, the other concerning the nature of the philosopher—seem to be responsible for a widespread, but I believe misinformed, view of the philosophers' life in the Republic. First, the cave analogy bifurcates reality into two parts. Whereas the majority of us must be content with viewing shadows in the darkness of the cave, the philosophers, if only temporarily, behold reality in a world of light. Here, we see the results of what is sometimes referred to as Plato's two-world view, the belief in a sphere of eternal Forms separate from the world of temporal objects. By thus pointing to a distinct realm of philosophical speculation, the cave analogy implies what I will call the Metaphysical Thesis (MT): that the world of the philosopher is the world of Forms and is distinct from and superior to the world of temporal objects.
Second, and not surprisingly, the cave analogy demonstrates the philosophers as holding a definite preference for one of the two realms. For the philosophers' nature is so structured that they not only desire to remain in the world of speculation, but literally must be forced to return to the darkness of the cave. Hence, we can conclude from the cave analogy what I will call the Existential Thesis (ET): that the philosopher is a reluctant participant in the world of everyday existence. As a result of these two theses, readers of the Republic often come away with the view that the philosophers sacrifice their own happiness when they return to the cave in order to rule. Their reasoning seems convincing. Since there exists an ideal realm that the philosophers have access to (MT), and since Plato forces the philosophers to abandon this world to serve as reluctant participants in another (ET), returning to the cave to rule must require that the philosophers sacrifice their happiness. Although this view pervades the literature on the Republic1, I will argue that just the opposite is the case. Despite its initial plausibility and widespread acceptance, the claim that the philosophers sacrifice their happiness when they return to rule is refuted both by an examination of the text and by an attempt to read the cave story in a wider, mythological context. Far from diminishing their well-being, returning to the cave is necessary if the philosophers are to achieve the fulfillment that will constitute their happiness.
I. Plato and Myth: The Hero's Journey
The cave analogy is part of a larger strategy that pervades Plato's dialogues. The Republic, the Phaedo, the Gorgias, and the Phaedrus all contain elaborate tales of the soul's journey that, like the cave analogy, represent an obviously fictional rendering of a larger philosophical point. If we are to interpret these tales correctly, we will have to first understand their wider context. Hence, I wish to begin my investigation of the meaning of the cave story with a study of the larger mythological implications of that tale. In particular, I want to use Joseph Campbell's analysis of the structure of myth to illuminate some central points about the cave story in the Republic.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell has described a tale that appears in various guises in civilization after civilization: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (30). Dubbing this tale the "monomyth," Campbell relates an assortment of stories from diverse cultures that follow, with more or less accuracy, the basic pattern. The Greek hero Prometheus enters the heavens in order to steal fire, a fire that will be the salvation of humankind. Although he is born into royal prosperity, Buddha leaves his father's household to venture forth into the world as a wandering ascetic monk. Ultimately, he retires under a Bo tree, overcomes the forces that confront him there and receives enlightenment, returning to the cities to teach others the way. Moses departs from the land of Egypt and wanders into the desert, there to ascend Mt. Sinai and receive the commandments that will become a guide for human conduct (3135). According to Campbell, these stories reveal a common saga and a shared struggle that he calls the hero's journey, which consists in "a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return" (35). Put more succinctly, the three basic elements of the monomyth or the hero's journey are: separation, initiation, and return.
The philosophers' life in the Republic shows obvious parallels with the stages that comprise the original hero's journey. Like the hero, the philosophers suffer a removal from the world of everyday existence. Recall that the philosophers begin life chained alongside their fellow prisoners in the darkness of the cave, sharing not only their fetters but their ignorance. Freedom, both physical and intellectual, does not come until they are forcibly removed from these surroundings, dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight.
The parallel to the hero continues with the philosophers' initiation into what has come to be known as the world of "the Forms": eternal, immutable objects of knowledge that are responsible for the objects of the world having the characteristics that they do. As they emerge from the darkness of the cave, the philosophers discover an absolute and unchanging beauty that does not, like physical beauty, grow old and fade but remains forever beautiful. They find out, too, the existence of absolute and unchanging ethical standards that allow them to pass judgment on matters of right and wrong. Simply put, they realize that the objects they previously took for reality are but pale imitations of these Forms. Whereas the cave allowed them to view only the shadow that a figurine of a dog cast on the wall, they are now able to study the Dog-itself. Since their former state was three removes from reality, they view it with disdain; for they now see that their previous existence was founded on shadows and illusions and that all their past beliefs about the nature of reality must be discarded.
This attainment of a higher realm of knowledge and of being, however, is not without its cost. For while it privileges the philosophers, it also places them under an obligation. Since the state has raised, nurtured and educated them, the philosophers are not able to do with their wisdom whatever they wish.2 Rather, the philosophers are compelled to return to this world and take control of government, providing their culture with direction and vision and thus completing the cycle that Campbell lays out as constituting the hero's quest.
II. The Hero and MT and ET
The problem of the hero's attitude toward this world, as Campbell points out, is an age old one. Recall that MT and ET, as ascribed to the ruling philosophers in the Republic, imply that the philosophers view this world as radically inferior to the realm they had previously inhabited, the realm of the Forms; and that therefore the philosophers are profoundly unhappy during their existence in this world, wishing to remove themselves from it for a more ideal realm. A similar dilemma, however, arises for the classic hero. Quoting from the Upanishads, Campbell lays out the issue succinctly: "Who having cast off the world would desire to return again" (207)? Having undergone a fantastic journey that has resulted in entrance into and knowledge of a fabulous realm, the hero must, according to the standard tale, return to this world of everyday struggle in order to bestow some benefit upon humanity. Although a few attempts at refusal existeven the Buddha doubted the wisdom of the returnby and large heroes do return and utilize their wisdom for the good of humanity. The question relevant for this essay concerns the hero's attitude toward humanity: Does the hero, like the interpretation of the philosopher at issue, view this everyday world as inferior to his ideal one (MT) and despise his existence here (ET), or does he take a fundamentally different and more positive attitude toward this world?
In order to answer this crucial question, I will invoke Campbell's important distinction between a literal and allegorical reading of myth. Whereas the literal reading takes the story at face value, the allegorical reading examines the underlying meaning of the myth, focusing on those elements of the story that have wider implications than an initial scrutiny might reveal. Campbell's favorite example of confusing the two involves religion. If taken at the literal level, the story of Christ tells of a man, the son of God, who was crucified and rose from the dead. However, according to Campbell, this is not the "correct" interpretation. Rather, the story of Christ is to be taken at an allegorical level as communicating to us something about our lives; namely, that we all must be crucified, that is, destroyed in some way, in order to come to find the divine nature of our existence. In the same way, Campbell believes that the hero's stories are not primarily about the protagonists, but are directed at and intended to mark out a path we need to follow to live a complete life. According to the allegorical interpretation, the tales of the hero's journey inform us that we all must set out on a similar quest, involving a separation from the life we had known, an adventure into strange, mysterious realms where we discern some higher knowledge, and then an integration of that knowledge into our lives.
When we understand the tales of the hero's journey in this allegorical way, we see that the issues of MT and ET simply do not arise for those embarked on a hero's quest. There can be no schism between two realms of existence—a higher and a lower—as MT implies, because the allegorical reading reminds us that there is only one realm of existence, the one where people are born, live and die. Since the hero's journey is about our lives in this world, the reference to the other realm is not about an actual possibility. Rather, it is about a state of mind in the phenomenological world—a state of mind that requires one to step outside of one's daily routine and go in search (in this world) of higher meaning and truth than we are currently in possession of. Since there is no "other realm" for the hero to compare this one to, MT is ruled out as a possible thesis for the hero.
Neither I believe do those embarked upon a hero's journey accept ET, the thesis that they despise this world because it is such an imperfect copy of the one where they had journeyed. What is important to recall is the simple point that the hero again and again does return to this world, thus affirming its value. As Campbell puts it in response to the line quoted earlier from the Upanishads, "in so far as one is alive, life will call" (207). Hence, the heroes return not necessarily of their own free will, but to perform some task demanded of them by virtue of their experience.
Although at first glance the obligatory nature of the heroes' return might seem to undercut the chances of their finding contentment in this realm, we should not in fact be surprised to see them fulfilled through the responsibility they have undertaken. Who knows a more miserable time than when we have two weeks off with nothing to do; who knows a time more fulfilling than when we are engaged in some duty: fighting a war, raising a child, aiding a sick friend? As Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being has observed, "the heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment.… Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes… [a human] to be lighter than air, and become only half real, his [or her] movements as free as they are insignificant" (5). That our burdens fulfill us is no esoteric notion but an obvious truth that needs to be uttered only because it is so often ignored. This I conclude is why, far from being disdainful toward this world, heroes are in fact fulfilled, for they are not merely satisfying their own whims, but aiding in the completion of some higher mission. Hence, neither does ET apply to those engaged in the hero's journey.
III. The Republic on ET and MT
A prima facie case now exists for claiming that the philosophers in the Republic neither possess a low opinion of this world, nor demonstrate disdain toward their life in it. Since those embarked on a hero's journey adhere to neither MT nor ET, and the philosophers as Plato describes them in the Republic seem embarked on a classic hero's journey (experiencing a separation from the world of everyday existence, an initiation into a higher level of understanding, and, finally, a return to impart their wisdom to the rest of humanity), it seems reasonable to conclude that the philosophers will not exhibit MT or ET. But what does the Republic itself tell us about the philosophers' attitude toward ruling? Does it confirm society's long-standing prejudice against philosophers as those ill at ease with and out of place in the world of everyday affairs? Or does it present a different, more constructive view of the philosophers' role in society?
As a first step toward answering these questions, we need to begin by analyzing the philosophers' motivation in the Republic. The philosophers are defined in terms of their intellectual ability. Plato tells us that they are in love with knowledge (Rep. 485b), have a passion for philosophy (499c), and are lovers of reality (501d). Although on the surface this love of wisdom might seem to require exclusive devotion to the object of love, and hence complete commitment to knowledge at the expense of all practical affairs, Plato's theory of the erotic is not so simple.
As Plato tells us in the work devoted to the erotic, the Symposium,3 eros has for its object the beautiful (Symp. 204d), an object it desires for the purpose of "giving birth in beauty" (206e). This need for reproduction is explained by the fact that eros, which seeks immortality as its goal (207a), can achieve this end only by procreating in the beautiful "because reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality" (206e). This procreation occurs at two levels. At the level of the body, men "turn to women and pursue love in that way, providing themselves through childbirth with immortality" (208e). Similarly, those pregnant in soul will utilize the medium of beauty in order to leave behind a product that will assure their immortality: they "bear and bring to birth wisdom and the rest of virtue" (209a).
Plato's description of Solon, Lycurgus, Homer, and Hesiod illustrates the mechanism involved in procreating at the level of the soul. Lycurgus is said to have left behind fine laws as his offspring (209d); similarly Solon is designated as the father of virtuous Athenian law (209d). Homer and Hesiod are likewise responsible through their works for making humankind virtuous (209e)4. Even the famous passage where Plato describes the philosophers' ascent up the ladder of beauty to the vision of Beauty itself, he makes clear that the philosophers achieve immortality by bringing forth virtue (212a).
Since philosophical eros has as its goal the engendering of virtue in others, we can now see that the philosophers will satisfy their eros more by returning to the cave than by remaining outside and refusing to rule. Plato refers to the philosophers as the craftsmen of justice and civic virtue (Rep. 500b), a claim that implies that the philosophers will shape the ethical attitudes and beliefs of the members of the state and hence propagate virtue on a grand scale. In addition, before they retire from ruling, Plato tells us, the philosophers will "educate others to be rulers like themselves" (540b). This suggests that the guardians-in-training will be the intellectual children of the rulers, allowing them precisely the immortality the Symposium described. Hence, both in their tenure at ruling and in their training of future guardians, the philosophers will have the ideal forum by which to satisfy their eros and bring forth virtue in others. By contrast, a life of pure contemplative activity would not allow the philosophers to satisfy their eros, since pure contemplation does not provide a similar mechanism for achieving the immortality that is the goal of that desire. Since the philosophers' eros requires that they transmit their virtue through time, and since engagement in the political process allows the philosophers to do this more effectively than a life without such engagement, we should expect the philosophers to reject MT, the claim that the ideal world of speculation is superior to the realm of everyday life. It is their political activity, and not detached contemplation of the Forms, that will allow them to truly fulfill their defining passion. A comparison to the bodily lover of the Symposium might be helpful here. Although the initial object of physical attraction is a beautiful body, the ultimate goal of the erotic drive, according to Plato, is reproduction, i.e. children (Symp. 207a). Similarly, the philosophers, at first fascinated by the transcendent Forms, will not be fulfilled until they reproduce in their own manner, bringing forth virtue in others by means of ruling the state.
But what of ET, the claim that the philosophers are reluctant participants in the realm of existence? Two sets of texts are generally cited in order to demonstrate their reluctance to rule the state. The first set of texts refers to the requirement that the philosophers will be "compelled to care for and guard the others" (Rep. 520a, cf. 539e), whereas the second set of texts declares philosophers to be "least willing" of all the members of the state to rule (520d). If, the argument continues, the philosophers are unwilling to rule and must be compelled to do so, then clearly they must disdain their tenure at political office.
These texts, however, are unconvincing and ignore the evidence in Plato to the contrary. Simply because the philosophers are compelled to rule does not mean that they will disdain ruling; for they are also compelled to contemplate: "it is then our task to compel the best natures to study the Good" (519c, cf. 539e). Since no one thinks the philosophers look with scorn upon contemplation, we should not take their compulsion to rule as evidence that they will scorn that activity.
Nor are the texts indicating the philosophers' reluctance to rule any more troubling; for what is important to note is that these texts speak of reluctance of "the prospective rulers" (520d) and of "those intending to rule" (521a). Indeed, all of the comments which describe the unwillingness of the philosophers to rule apply only to those who have yet to actually take up the task. Since they have recently removed themselves from the cares of everyday existence to study the Forms, it is only natural that they should be reluctant to leave that study. But there is no textual evidence to suggest that this reluctance will be a permanent part of their attitude toward society, and hence no reason to ascribe ET—the claim that the philosophers are reluctant participants in this realm of existence—to them. Indeed, we have every reason to believe that the philosophers willingly undertake the command to rule, since it is through their activity in this world that they fulfill their erotic desires. That this is, in fact, the case is conclusively demonstrated by a much overlooked passage in the Republic. When asked whether the philosopher will rule, Socrates responds, "Yes, by the dog, he certainly will, at least in his own kind of city" (592a). I conclude that, far from being reluctant participants in this world, the philosophers look upon this realm as the one where their desires are ultimately fulfilled, and so, reject ET.
An initial reading of Plato's famous allegory led to the widespread conclusion that the philosophers view the world of everyday existence as inferior to their ideal one and look upon their task of ruling in this world with disdain. On account of these two claims, interpreters routinely conclude that the philosophers sacrifice their happiness when they abandon their contemplative endeavors and return to rule the state. I have tried to demonstrate, however, that the cave analogy, like the objects in this world for Plato, is not what it appears to be. In returning to the cave after having viewed the light, the philosophers are following a well-trodden path: that of the hero. And like the hero, the philosophers are not victimized by their return to this realm, but ultimately benefit from the tasks which they perform. This message should not be lost. In his masterpiece Plato is not praising the life of isolation, but calling all of us to a life of commitment.
1 For a sampling of the literature in defense of this view, see Annas (262-264), Cooper (151-177), Irwin (236), Kraut (330-342), Nussbaum (136-164), Reeve (154), White (22-43). For a criticism of these views, see Vernezze (331-349).
2 Nor is it an option for the philosophers to refuse to command to rule. Plato states quite clearly that since the philosophers have been educated by the city, "they must each in turn go down and live with the other men and grow accustomed to seeing in the dark" (Rep. 520c). Indeed, the obedience of the philosophers to the commands of the state—a result of an education whose organizing principle is obedience—is assumed to the extent that the possibility of refusal of the command to rule is not even dealt with in the Republic. I would like to thank Dr. Neila Seshachari for bringing this point to my attention.
3 Both sylometrics (Bury) and substantive dating (Vlastos) place the Symposium in the same group of dialogues as the Republic, making it legitimate to flesh out a concept raised in one dialogue with content from another.
4 Plato's concept of achieving immortality through one's writing is not quite the same as the analogous Romantic concept. What is important for Plato is not merely that the work live on and be read by others, but that people in the future be made virtuous through the work. Indeed, at the highest level of procreation, one achieves immortality not through leaving behind a work, but through instructing in virtue (209c).
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Bury, R.G. The Symposium of Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1956.
Cooper, John. "The Psychology of Justice in Plato." American Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1977): 151-177.
Grube, G.M.A. Trans. Plato's Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1974.
Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
Nehamas, Alexander and Paul Woodruff. Trans. Plato's Symposium. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1989.
Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Reeve, C.D.C. Philosopher-Kings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Vernezze, Peter. "The Philosopher's Interest." Ancient Philosopy 12 (1992): 331-349.
Vlastos, Gregory. Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.