The Allegory of the Cave

Chapter 1

The Allegory of the Cave

At the beginning of Book VII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously invokes an image of human nature with respect to education and the lack of it, likening our situation to that of prisoners in a cave. Imagine an underground cave-like dwelling, its entrance entirely out of sight. Inhabiting this cave are human beings whose feet and necks are chained so that they can neither get up nor turn their heads; they can only see straight ahead. Above and behind them burns a fire, and between them and the fire there is a raised path and a low wall, like the screen above which performers display their puppets. Behind this wall men pass to and fro carrying statues and figures of human beings, animals, and other objects in such a manner that the artifacts appear over the top of the screen, projecting onto the wall opposite the fire. The prisoners, unable to see neither the objects carried behind them nor one another, behold only the shadows of themselves and of the statues cast onto the wall in front of them.

 

The prisoners represent the vast majority of the human race: “they’re like us.” They live in a world in which images are mistaken for realities. What is a shadow, after all, but a mere image of something real (in this case a statue, which is itself an image of something even more real, namely a living human being or animal)? Moreover, the prisoners have not the faintest clue that throughout their entire lives they have been exposed to nothing but distortions of the truth—they are, in other words, unaware of their ignorance (just like Euthyphro, the fanatical young priest about whom you will read in the next chapter). The shadows represent the authoritative opinions that govern the hearts and minds of whole communities, and give a transcendent purpose and meaning to our particular existence.[1] These shadows are to be contrasted with the light of truth illuminating the world beyond the cave (but which also makes the shadows visible within it). The people carrying the statues are the lawgivers and poets who establish the cultural values and cosmic worldview that characterize and define a given society. In his excellent commentary on Plato’s Republic, Professor Allan Bloom explains: “We do not see men as they are but as they are represented to us by legislators and poets. A Greek sees things differently from the way a Persian sees them. One need only think of…the significance of cows to Hindus as opposed to other men to realize how powerful are the various horizons constituted by law or convention.”[2] These authoritative opinions are not accurate reflections of nature, but rather a curious amalgam of nature and convention. To quote once again from Professor Bloom: “The first and most difficult of tasks is the separation of what exists by nature from what is merely made by man.”[3]

 

This, precisely, is the business of philosophy, which literally means “the love of wisdom,” coming from the ancient Greek words philein, meaning “to love,” and sophia, meaning “wisdom.” Philosophy is a rigorous, logical, and systematic activity of the mind that seeks to discover the ultimate nature of reality, including and especially the nature of the human being. For Socrates, the single most important question the philosopher grapples with is: “What is the best way of life for a human being?” Socrates reasoned that if he could provide a correct answer to this question, he would have solved the riddle of human happiness, which is what everyone longs for and actively, if not always thoughtfully, pursues. We are all of us, therefore, in need of philosophy. But let us continue with the cave allegory.

 

Next, imagine that one of the prisoners is forcibly turned toward the firelight. He would be pained by the sudden brightness in his eyes, and would be unable to make out the statues being carried before the fire. Moreover, he would have difficulty believing that the statues are more real than their pale shadows decorating the cave wall, as these latter are all that the prisoner has ever known since childhood. And if the prisoner were compelled to look at the light, his eyes would hurt and he would avert his gaze, turning instead toward the comfortable and familiar darkness. Lastly, if someone dragged him away by force up the rough, steep path out of the cave and into the daylight, he would be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged. Once out of the cave, the glaring sun would leave him temporarily blinded, unable to see objects in the natural world. Gradually, however, he would recover his sight, first making out the shadows of things on the ground, then seeing their reflections in pools of water, followed by a direct vision of the objects themselves. Lifting his gaze still higher, he would behold the moon and the stars at nighttime, and then finally see “the sun itself by itself in its own region.” The prisoner, having spent his whole life mistaking the soiled fragments of the truth for the truth itself, has finally achieved liberation from the cave of ignorance; he has literally become enlightened.

 

The sun represents what Socrates refers to at the end of your reading as “the idea of the good,” which is the source of all being and intelligibility. That is, the idea of the good is responsible for all that exists as well as for the fact that whatever exists is capable of being understood by us. It is “the cause of all that is right and fair in everything…—and that man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it.” This idea is the key to the mystery of the good life. Anyone who is to live the best and most satisfying life—a life wherein one is in possession of the comprehensive human good—must be emancipated from the prison house of ignorance, making the ascent to the fundamental principle that informs not only the human condition, but the very cosmos itself. (Exactly how we are to liberate our minds from false opinions and strive for and ultimately apprehend the truth about the ultimate nature of things is a question we will discuss in the next chapter.[4])

 

To the one who has been liberated from the tyranny of shadows—and who is therefore genuinely happy because he has seen the light of truth—the habits, opinions, honors, customs, and praises, indeed the very lives, of the prisoners languishing in the darkness below can only be seen as pitiful, slavish, and crude. The philosopher, meditating on the lives of the cave-dwellers, will echo the sentiments of Achilles as he wandered miserably through Hades in Homer’s Odyssey: better it is “‘to be on the soil, serf to another man, to a portionless man,’” and to undergo anything whatsoever rather than to think and live as they do.

 

Upon re-entering the cave, the philosopher will be unable to see properly because of the darkness, and the other prisoners will ridicule him, thinking that the voyage into the light of day had ruined his sight, thus rendering him incapable of competing with them in forming judgments about the shadows. Finally, if the philosopher attempted to liberate and enlighten the other prisoners, he would be met not with gratitude and an open mind, but with violent hostility; they would kill him.[5] Why is this so?

 

You will notice from the above that the emancipated prisoner does not exit the cave on his own initiative and by his own unaided efforts: rather, he must be compelled to escape. He must be dragged away by force up the rough, steep path out of the cave and into the light of the sun, after which he will be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged. Why the dogged resistance to enlightenment? One reason why so many people are disinclined to live “the examined life” is that, in addition to requiring a sharp mind, iron self-discipline, and a formidable memory, doing philosophy is extremely hard work. The path out of the cave is not smooth and flat, but arduous and rugged. In a sense, it is much easier and perhaps more superficially pleasant for us to remain smugly contented prisoners in the cave, human beings tending as they do to follow the path of least resistance. It is a lamentable fact of human nature that not everybody is willing to carefully examine his or her most basic assumptions and thereby gain freedom from the uncritical acceptance of the beliefs that we inherit from those who came before us. Do most human beings seem to prefer a comforting illusion to an unsettling truth? If the answer is “yes,” then we have discovered another reason why philosophy is a difficult enterprise: it requires a degree of courage on the part of the truth seeker, namely, the courage to follow the argument wherever it may lead. This in turn forces us to risk abandoning some of our most comforting and emotionally sustaining beliefs once we discover them to be philosophically unsound. For the lover of wisdom, this risk is worth taking. Why? Because by doing philosophy, we achieve true freedom and independence of mind. As Socrates says near the end of the Apology, “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”

 

[1] I am here reminded of the fundamental claims about the human being, as well as the nature and scope of government, postulated in the Preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence—claims which most Americans (as Americans) accept as indisputably true.

 

[2] Plato Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 404.

 

[3] Ibid., 405.

 

[4] It is important to note that Socrates himself never claims in the Republic to have made the ascent to the idea of the good, a point we will come back to when discussing his paradoxical description of “human wisdom” in the Apology.

 

[5] This is exactly what happened to Socrates in the year 399 B.C., when he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by the city of Athens for corrupting the youth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Plato’s Euthyphro

Plato’s Euthyphro, consists of a brief conversation between the philosopher Socrates and a younger priest named Euthyphro, a man who boasts that he has superior knowledge of divine things. The discussion takes place at the courthouse in Athens, where Socrates has arrived to give his apology, or defense speech, before a large gathering of his fellow-citizens. Socrates stands accused by certain prominent members of his community of corrupting the youth. To corrupt here means to do harm or make worse. As Socrates explains, his accusers say that he creates new gods while not believing in the old gods, the gods of Athens, who are the protectors of her laws. By making innovations in the established religious tradition (presumably by way of his “divine sign”), and by calling the ancestral gods’ existence into question, Socrates is believed to undermine the youth’s attachment to Athens’ laws as well as to the shared understanding of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, which gives purpose and meaning to his fellow citizens’ lives. In the eyes of the political community, Socrates is a dangerous subversive.

 

Euthyphro, on the other hand, is at the courthouse for an altogether different matter: he is prosecuting his father for murder. He relates that one of his servants had killed a household slave in a drunken rage. Euthyphro’s father tied up the perpetrator and threw him in a ditch (in order to prevent escape) and then sent someone to consult a priest (homicide in ancient Greece being a religious crime) to find out what should be done. Before the messenger returned, however, the servant died of exposure. In today’s legal parlance we would probably describe what occurred as a “negligent homicide,” but in Euthyphro’s eyes, his father has committed murder, thereby arousing the wrath of the gods. In proceeding with the prosecution, Euthyphro aims to cleanse himself by bringing his father to justice.

 

Euthyphro remarks that his relatives (to say nothing of his own father) consider it impious for a son to prosecute his father for murder, especially given the particular circumstances of the case. Socrates himself expresses shock when he hears the news: most men, he says, would not know how they could do this and be right. Euthyphro, says Socrates (and not without a tinge of irony), must indeed be far advanced in wisdom regarding divine things in order to move forward with the prosecution. Euthyphro (without the slightest trace of irony) wholeheartedly agrees: his relatives’ understanding of piety is simply wrong. In fact, it is Euthyphro’s accurate knowledge of the divine attitude to piety and impiety that accounts (in his mind at least) for his superiority to the majority of men.

 

Since Socrates is about to be put on trial on the charge of impiety, he proposes that he become Euthyphro’s pupil, that he may once and for all acquire a correct understanding of piety from one who purports to be preeminently wise in this regard. Euthyphro consents, and so begins the discussion of the nature or essence of piety and impiety.

 

Socrates wants to know what kind of thing piety is, what form it takes such that one can discern it in a multiplicity of pious actions. As he says a little later, Socrates wants to understand the “form itself that makes all pious actions pious…so that I may look upon it, and using it as a model, say that any action of yours or another’s that is of that kind is pious, and if it is not that it is not” (6d–e). Let us give an example to illustrate what Socrates means by a “form.” Imagine you are in a room full of different varieties of chairs: you see arm chairs, deck chairs, plush recliners, dining room chairs, bean bags, collapsable camping chairs. They all bear different shapes, colors, and styles: no two chairs are identical. And yet somehow we immediately recognize them all as belonging to the same class because, different as they are, they all exhibit the exact same form or essence—what we may call the form of chair-ness, if you will. The overall purpose and design of the different styles of chair is one and the same. This is precisely what Socrates seeks to elicit from Euthyphro with respect to piety: what is the unifying form or essence which all pious actions exhibit?

 

Euthyphro responds that the pious is to do what he is doing now, namely to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or theft or anything else, and without regard to whomever the wrongdoer happens to be. His understanding of piety is grounded in Greek ancestral tradition or, more precisely, in the tales the poets tell about the gods. Euthyphro appeals to the story in Hesiod’s Theogony where Zeus imprisons his father Kronos, who in turn had castrated his own father, Ouranos. Zeus was believed to be the best and most just of all the gods, which therefore makes him (in Euthyphro’s eyes, at least) the most appropriate model for human conduct. Euthyphro denounces his indignant relatives as hypocrites for accusing him of impiety while at the same time honoring Zeus as the best and most just of the gods. Their self-contradiction is a sure sign of their ignorance of divine things.

 

Socrates then admits that he finds it difficult to accept such stories about the gods, and that this is likely the reason for which he stands accused of impiety. How can Euthyphro possibly believe such things to be true? Are we really to accept that there is perpetual war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and many other such things as are spoken of by the poets? (It is worth noting that Socrates casts doubt on the veracity of the poets’ accounts of the gods on four different occasions between 6a and c.) Not only does Euthyphro believe the above-mentioned stories about the gods, but he knows of still more tales that are sure to amaze anyone who hears them. Socrates, however, shows no interest in mere stories, but rather in arguments. As he says later in the dialogue: “…if one of us, or someone else, merely says that something is so, do we accept that it is so? Or should we examine what the speaker means” (9e)? For Socrates, the truth can only be discovered through reasoning, not by an appeal to tradition or authority.

 

Socrates points out that Euthyphro’s first attempt at a definition of piety, that it is what he is doing now (i.e., prosecuting his father for impiety), is defective insofar as it is (at best) an example of piety rather than a definition of the form or standard of piety. For how can we know this or that action to be an example of piety before we have even established a definition of piety? Proud as he is of his own wisdom, Euthyphro clearly has not given the matter very much thought.

 

At this point Socrates repeats the question: “Tell me then what this form itself is, so that I may look upon it, and using it as a model, say that any action of yours or another’s that is of that kind is pious, and if it is not that it is not” (6e). Euthyphro then comes up with a new formulation: what is dear to (or loved by) the gods is pious, and what is not is impious.

 

Socrates almost immediately seizes on a potential problem with Euthyphro’s second attempt at a definition of piety: the gods (at least as the poets depict them) are in a state of enmity and discord with one another. Now what, asks Socrates, are the kinds of subjects which give rise to hatred and anger? If two people were to disagree as to which of two numbers is greater, or which of two objects is larger, or heavier, they could turn to counting, measuring, and weighing, and soon resolve the disagreement once and for all. Thus quantifiable or measurable objects cannot be the cause of insoluble disagreement. But what about such things as the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad? Is it not because we humans differ about these things and cannot reach a sufficient decision about them that we become enemies to each other? This is as much the case with human beings as it is with the Greek gods as portrayed by the poets Hesiod and Homer; as we saw earlier, the gods are constantly quarreling with one another because they consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad. And since they like what each of them considers beautiful, good, and just, and hate the opposite of these things, it turns out that the same things are loved by some gods and hated by other gods. In other words, if, as Euthyphro claims, piety is what is dear to the gods, and if, as the poets tell us, different gods love and hate different things, then we are left with the absurd conclusion that the same action will be both pious and impious. Euthyphro retorts that on one subject in particular no gods would disagree with one another, that whomever has killed anyone unjustly should be punished. Socrates agrees with this, and merely points out that the gods (if indeed they have competing notions of the just and the unjust) may differ as to who the wrongdoer is, what he did, and when.

 

We remarked earlier that Socrates has a difficult time taking seriously the poets’ portrayal of the Greek gods as being in constant enmity with one another. Why do you think Socrates views such tales with suspicion? One might begin to formulate an answer to this question by examining the nature of the divine. What does it really mean to be a god? Perhaps we could start by distinguishing the divine from the merely human. Man is a mortal creature, and as such he is needy, incomplete, imperfect. His reason, as Socrates says in the Apology, may be worth little or nothing. The divine, by contrast, emerges as perfect in every conceivable way: the gods are immortal (they are indestructable, and hence beyond natural necessity, i.e., they do not have to eat or sleep, they never get sick, etc.) and they must be perfectly rational and wise (that is, they are not ignorant, because, as perfect beings, they enjoy perfect rationality). Now if to be divine means to have perfect wisdom, then all the gods would be in perfect agreement about what is good, beautiful, and just, because they would each know the truth about goodness, beauty, and justice—that is, they would know the forms of the good, the beautiful, and the just. In other words, there could be no enmities or battles among perfectly wise gods. What I think Plato is trying to get the reader to see here is that the poets’ (and therewith Euthyphro’s) understanding of the divine is not at all philosophic, but rather completely irrational, a product not of disciplined reason but of a wild imagination.

 

Once again Socrates implores Euthyphro to explain to him in no uncertain terms what proof he has that all the gods believe that man died unjustly who while in his service became a murderer, and then, bound by the master of the dead man, died in his bonds before the one who bound him found out from the seers what was to be done with him, and that it is right for a son to proceed against his father and denounce him on behalf of such a man. Seeing that Euthyphro hesitates to respond, Socrates suggests revising the second failed attempt at a definition of piety in a way that avoids that failed definition’s absurd consequence. Euthyphro agrees and formulates his third attempt as follows: piety is what all the gods love, and impiety is what all the gods hate. Socrates, insisting that he and Euthyphro should carefully examine this new definition rather than merely accepting it as true, now asks: is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it? The two questions may look very similar upon a cursory glance, but are in fact completely opposed to one another. What is the difference?

 

The first question presupposes that the nature or essence of piety can be known independently of the gods. This is consistent with Socrates’ discussion of the form of the pious, a rational standard that can be grasped by reason and used as a model to determine whether a given action is pious or impious. The second question assumes that the pious (whatever it is) depends entirely on the arbitrary whims (the likes or dislikes) of the gods, and this, one might add, tells us nothing about the nature of piety. At best it gives us a quality or characteristic of piety, namely the quality of being loved by the gods.

 

Socrates then asks Euthyphro whether piety is a part of justice or justice a part of piety, to which, after a little clarification, Euthyphro agrees with Socrates that piety is a part of justice, namely the part concerned with the care of the gods. But does it make any sense to speak of caring for the gods in the same way that men care for horses or cattle? To care for something is to bestow a benefit on the object of one’s care, to make it better. Can the gods be benefitted from our care? Clearly not, as they are immortal and thus beyond natural necessity. What Euthyphro means by caring for the gods is the kind of care that slaves take of their masters, a kind of service of the gods that takes the form of prayer and sacrifice, or begging from and giving gifts to the gods. Piety would then be a kind of trading skill between gods and men: we give them sacrifices in return for the many good things they give to us. But how exactly are the gods benefitted by what they receive from us? They receive honor, reverence, and gratitude, all of which are pleasing to the gods. Piety once again is defined as that which is dear to the gods. We have gone around in a circle!

 

Socrates insists that he and Euthyphro investigate again from the beginning what piety is. This is especially critical in Euthyphro’s case, as he could be on the verge of making a terrible mistake if it turns out that his prosecution of his father is in fact an impious act. The intransigent Euthyphro will have none of it, however, and he quickly departs.

 

There are a number of important lessons to be learned from Plato’s Euthyphro. One is that, although Socrates and Euthyphro fail to arrive at a satisfactory definition of piety (thus making the whole conversation seem like a waste of time), they can at least be said to have made some progress toward a correct definition by removing three bad definitions from the pool of potentially good ones. Secondly, one might say that this dialogue is an exercise in self-knowledge, which Socrates believed to be an essential ingredient in the human being’s quest for wisdom. Euthyphro proclaims his superiority to everyone else with respect to his knowledge of divine things. Yet, when pressed by Socrates to provide an account of piety, Euthyphro fails miserably, revealing that all along he was not even faintly aware of his severe limitations as a thinker, of his complete ignorance of the nature of piety. Euthyphro is, in other words, ignorant of his ignorance, which is why he does not take philosophy seriously (as evidenced by his hasty departure at the end). Thinking himself already wise, he sees no need to pursue wisdom. Men such as he, as Socrates states in the Apology, are like a sluggish horse which needs to be jolted into coherence through the gadfly’s sting, that is, through living the examined life. This involves a deep and lasting commitment to discovering the truth by way of critical examination of one’s own (and others’) opinions about what Socrates calls the “greatest things,” the good, the just, and the beautiful.

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