Steven Peterson's Reviews > The Republic of Plato

The Republic of Plato by Plato
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Nov 19, 09

Read in June, 1968

The Cornford translation of Plato is still one of the standards, even though other translations might well be better in this age. It is also the version that I used as an undergraduate student at Bradley University in my Political Philosophy class! To get to the point: Socrates' greatest student was Plato. In "The Republic," Plato, through the voice of Socrates, provided the keenest metaphor to describe his understanding of the problem cod defining "reality." His allegory of the cave serves as the takeoff point. Socrates describes the situation to Glaucon thus:

[Socrates:]: Imagine the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track with a parapet built along it, like a screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top. . .
Now behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Naturally, some of the persons will be talking, others silent.

[Glaucon:]: It is a strange picture. . .and a strange sort of prisoners.

[Socrates:]: Like ourselves. . .; for in the first place prisoners so confined would have seen nothing of themselves or one another, except the shadows thrown by the firelight on the wall of the cave facing them, would they?. . .And they would have seen as little of the objects carried past. . .Now, if they could talk to one another, would they not suppose that their words referred only to those passing shadows which they saw?

[Glaucon:]: Necessarily.

[Socrates:]: And suppose their prison had an echo from the wall facing them? When one of the people crossing behind them spoke, they could only suppose that the sound came from the shadow passing before their eyes. . .In every way, then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects.

Next, Plato has Socrates examine what happens if someone is taken from the cave out into the light of day. This person then comes to understand that all is illusion and shadows in the cave--whereas earlier that person had defined the images as reality. In this sense, through education, one could come to see reality and escape the confines of the cave. And when that person would re-enter the cave, he would realize the nature if illusions and be able to try to illuminate with his (or her) wisdom the lives of the people in the cave. This, of course, would be difficult since the denizens of that dark region would not themselves have directly experienced the light of knowledge.

Who is best able to see what is outside of the cave? The philosophers, of course. Plato believes that there are absolutes, "forms," out there in the "real world." Circles that we humans craft can never equal the ideal type "out there," what we might call "circularity." There is an abstract idea of circularity, the perfect circle, the essence of circleness. This is the truth of the object. Only through training can a person begin to understand and appreciate these forms, these ideal types. Only those whose passion and talent is the pursuit of knowledge and who can come to possess wisdom are able to see these "forms." Only then can the subject properly "see" the object, in this case circularity. Note, in contrast, the arguments by the Sophists that the subject is incapable of properly perceiving and understanding reality--even if there is a reality to be apprehended!

And, in his metaphor of gold, silver, and bronze, Plato makes this even more explicit. Each person, he claims, is dominated by one of three elements--appetite (bronze), courage (silver), and wisdom (gold). It is in our nature at birth which one of these characterizes each of us. Only those whose central core is gold can ever hope to see the forms and understand the absolute truth that exists. The rest are, in effect, condemned to a life in the cave. Education is needed to take the raw material within a person and shape that individual's capacity to come to see truth, to apprehend the forms or ideal types.

In the end, then, only a few can ever come to know reality. And it takes them much of their lives before they are adequately enough trained to accomplish this Olympian goal. It is unsurprising, of course, that Plato argues that these few, these philosopher-kings (or queens, since he accepts that women may be capable of these same feats of intellectual insight), should also become the rulers of the ideal society. That is the nature of his "Republic."

This is one of the great works of political philosophy. Its assumption that there is a "special class" suited to rule is open to question. His elitism will not sit well with many readers. The belief that humans can apprehend objective reality is also open to question. His sense that individuals are predestined to serve as "producers," "auxiliaries," or "philosopher kings/queens" (yes, he felt that women might become leaders, an unusual conclusion for the time) will not convince many contemporary readers. However, this is one of the standard translations and provides a credible entrée to one of Plato's greatest works.
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