Socrates’ allegory of the cave reveals much about the nature of the city and its relationship to philosophy and politics. While being able to be interpreted many ways and through many different lenses, the allegory of the cave gives a foundation for what Socrates believes to be accepted among human beings, even if they don’t know what is happening to them.
His allegory is purported to raise certain questions among his examiners. What is the thing that holds men back from achieving their true philosophic potential? Since classic political science viewed dissent of the city to be detrimental, Socrates goes against the popular paradigm and raises the question,
“What if everything we believe is a lie?”
Socrates believes the allegory of the cave reveals an ignorance on the part of the people, and a misunderstanding of the highest forms of life. The allegory of the cave reveals that political life is limited because people are not inclined to philosophy and are most of the time resistant to go against what they were brought up to believe. In this respect, Socrates’ allegory of the cave is a symbol for the perpetual limitations, which are eternally placed on politics.
Beginning in Book 7, Socrates introduces the allegory when he says,
“Next then,..make an image of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks bonded so that they are fixed, seeing only what is in front of them, unable to because of the bond turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from the fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which we see a wall, built like the partitions, puppet handlers set in front of the human beings and which they show the puppets.” (Book 7 514 a,b)
Here, Socrates is outlining the basis for which people’s true nature is, in terms of their mindset. This basis of bondage for their heads and necks relates directly to the bondage of their intellect, absent philosophy.
Now an important part of this foundation is the distinction that these prisoners have been in these ties “since childhood”. This distinction is made because it aligns itself to the people of Athens. Most of them have been brought up, since childhood, to believe in certain ideals. These ideals can be attributed to the belief that religion is vital for the health of the state, that Athenian society was searching for the good of all people, and that Homer was truth in virtue and action.
The first step for Socrates is to break the bond of juvenile thought. The next very interesting part of the first fragment of the allegory is the idea of puppets. Socrates uses the word “puppets” to give a certain understanding of childish toys that are being used to misdirect. It can be interpreted that Socrates views the paradigms of society as childish and are also being used to misdirect people’s attention at an adolescent level. In other words, Socrates believes people are being bonded in thought and instructed to believe in things that are for those of a lower train of thought.
He starts his next portion of the allegory with, “Then see human beings carrying all sorts of artifact, which project above the wall, and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood, and every kind of material; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent” (Book 7 515a). Socrates is starting his thesis on determining what is real and what is fake. When Glaucon interjects that Socrates’ story is going down a strange path, Socrates again brings forth his reasoning, “They’re like us,” he states while talking about the people who are viewing these artifacts and hearing these sounds.
“For in the first place, do you suppose such men would have seen anything of themselves and one another other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them?”, asks Socrates (Book 7 515a). He shares the idea that this is all the men who are bound are able to see. They do not know of the other bound men, nor do they know that what they are seeing is not a true object, but only a mere shadow of the tangible objects.
Glaucon answers Socrates’ question by saying it would be impossible for these men to know what they truly are or what is around them because of the shackles that are placed upon their heads, as well as the realities that were placed in front of them. It is important to remember that these men have never known anything else, as they have been in these shackles since childhood.
“If they were able to discuss things with one another, don’t you believe they would hold that they are naming these things going by before them that they see?…And what if the prison had an echo from the side of the cave facing them? Whenever one of the men passing by happens to utter a sound, do you suppose they would believe that anything other than the passing shadow was uttering the sound?”(Book 7 515b).
Glaucon agrees that while these men are hearing things that come from other places, they would be inclined to believe that the motions and sounds that belong to men would be wrongly attributed to shadows and artifacts. It is here where we see the metaphor of men’s minds outside of philosophy. The bondage and misdirection of focus are symbolic of how Athenian society at the time of Socrates was forming the minds of its citizens. Truth then, is subjective to these men. Their situation and concluded knowledge gives them only one-sided abilities on how to decipher reality. They are never really given a choice on what to believe and are never shown the objective truth that is all around them. In this sad reality of this first part of the allegory of the cave lies an understanding that likens men’s minds to that of bonded slaves. The nature of the city then can be concluded to enslave the minds of its people.
“Now consider, ..what their release and healing from bonds would be like if something of this sort were by nature to happen to them” (Book 7 515c). This is the first time in the allegory where Socrates gives a situational example in which man is given a natural chance to break out of its bonds. He continues, “Take a man who is released and suddenly compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light: and who, moreover, in doing all this is in pain and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before” (Book 7 515d).
The man who is released is likened to the philosophic man. It is here where we first see how the allegory of the cave reveals that the city is antithetic to philosophy, just as a bonded man is antithetic to a free man. “What do you suppose he would say if someone were to tell him that before he saw silly nothings, while now, because he is somewhat nearer to what is and turned more toward beings, he sees more correctly; and in particular, showing him each of the things that pass by, were to compel man to answer his questions about what they are?”(Book 7 515d). Socrates’ idea of “what is” is fascinating and must be looked at with deep diligence.
He started the allegory with an idea of wrongfully determining what is real because of a lack of proper education. Socrates then proposes an objective truth to the reader. His belief in this objective truth makes one believe that everyone should aspire to find it, as we now know that Socrates believes that the men who are absent of this truth are in fact bonded by the neck.
Glaucon answers in the affirmative when asked, “Don’t you believe he’d be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown?”(Book 7 515d). Socrates is making the argument that the bonded man would revert back to his previous understanding of the realities of the cave, and in many senses the realities of what his life has been. Glaucon obviously agrees that change in thinking is difficult, especially when the alternative is a strongly held belief that has characterized your upbringing and shaped the way your life has essentially run until this point.
Socrates then goes on to ask, “And if he compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt and would he flee, turning away to those things that is able to make out and hold them to be really clearer than what is being shown?” (Book 7 515e). His argument is that the objective truth that is the light would not be accepted by those who have been in the darkness. He likens the truth to be like a bright light. He likens the viewer of the light to be a man of the cave whose eyes would not be well adjusted when viewing the light. Obvious pain and biological reactions would occur.
This analogy truly shows Socrates view of the understanding of philosophy. The reaction of ignorant people’s minds to philosophy is likened to that of eyes that are experiencing sunlight after a long period of darkness. It is in this passage that Socrates’ relationship of philosophy to the city is intellectualized. He continues, “And if I said, someone dragged him away from there by force along the rough steep, upward way and didn’t let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged? And when he came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes full of its beam and unable to see even one of the things said now to be true” (Book 7 516a).
When Glaucon agrees, we once again see the mastery of the setup being employed by Socrates. He is showing man’s true reaction to the philosophic truth. When again speaking about the philosophic light, Socrates says, “then I suppose he’d have to get accustomed, if he were going to see what’s up above. At first he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the phantoms of the human beings and the other things in water, and later the things themselves. And from there he could turn to beholding the things in heaven and heaven itself” (Book 7 516a). All of these great things will never be realized without the breaking of the bonds that hold men to believe in false realities and the courage to break out of the bonds, face the sunlight, fight back the pains of the body and mind and let go of everything you’ve previously believed. The analogy then explains that it is in philosophy and only philosophy that the truth is possible.
In dealing with the connection of philosophy to political life, Socrates sees many difficulties .
“Now reflect on this too,.. If such a man were to come down again and sit in the same seat, on coming suddenly from the sun wouldn’t his eyes get infected with darkness? ..And if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about the shadows while his vision was down, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not short at all, wouldn’t he be the source of laughter and wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?”(Book 7 517a).
Glaucon agrees that we are privy to the understanding of the reaction to the philosophic man in a community setting. Those who have not seen the light will laugh and scorn those who have. The man responsible for bringing people to the light will receive anger and hatred and push people to even to attempt to kill him! What a debacle! Socrates goes on to explain that the people who have not seen the light will insist that it is not their eyes that are corrupted, but their intellectual adversaries’ because the light is subjectively false. Philosophy in political life then has many limitations.
Socrates however is hopeful when he says, ”Then our job as founders, is to compel the best natures to go to study which we were saying before and to go up that ascent; and when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted” (Book 7 519d). When Glaucon asks what it is that is now permitted, Socrates replies, “to remain there”, meaning in the cave.
For it is not the job of the political life to bring them out of the cave, but the philosophic life to “harmonize the citizens by persuasion and compulsion”(Book 7 520b). For it is the belief of Socrates and philosophic understanding of the allegory of the cave that truly understands political life as binding.
“And thus the city will be governed by us and by you in a state of waking, not in a dream as the many cities nowadays are governed by men who fight over shadows with one another and form factions for the sake of ruling, as though it were some great good. But the truth is surely this: the city in which those who are going to rule are least eager to rule is necessarily governed in the way that is best and freest from faction, while the one that gets the opposite kind of rulers is governed in the opposite way”(Book 7 520d).
It is here we see the condescension of Socrates’ on modern politics. For while politics and philosophy are seen to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, to Socrates’ understanding, philosophy is crucial to having a just city and one that is based on an objective truth and a freedom from shackles. The possibilities of political life are enormous, but the limitations pressed upon them is based on an understanding that is promoted by unjust action and promulgated by those who lust for control. As we see throughout Socrates’ time, dissent of the city and its strongholds of belief were seen as an abomination.
In conclusion, the allegory of the cave reveals that the nature of the city is one of a bonded subjective truth. It is the goal of the city to keep its people shackled in their beliefs and unquestioning of their rulers. The man who can allow himself to be released from these shackles can attain the good life through truth. This truth is only possible through undergoing a complete and bold change, and pushing through the pain and scorn to ultimately achieve a better understanding and a better life. As it pertains to political life, Socrates gives his understanding of the role of philosophy when he says,
“If you discover a life better than ruling for those who are going to rule, it is possible that your well governed city will come into being. For here alone will the really rich rule, rich not in gold but in those riches required by the happy man, rich in a good and prudent life. But if beggar men hungering for private goods, go to public affairs supposing that in them they must seize the good, it isn’t possible. When ruling becomes a thing fought over, such as war-a domestic war, one within a family-destroys the men themselves and the rest of the city as well.”(Book 7 521a)
True philosophic men are seen to despise political life, but they are the ones most fit for it. In order to achieve a just city, philosophy must be allowed to flourish, and the paradigms of society must be questioned. Dissent against the city, not love for it, is the greatest form of patriotism.