Human Nature, Allegory, and Truth in Plato’s Republic
In the allegory of the cave, perhaps Plato’s most famous image, in Book VII of the Republic, the philosopher sets out on an allegorical (allēgoría) consideration of the nature of truth (alētheia), and how this pertains to human existence. The allegory of the cave places on display the eternal conflict (enantía) between appearance and reality.
Yet before the Republic arrives at the essential question of human servitude to self-imposed ignorance, Plato first offers a definition and explanation of man’s nature. Plato does not consider questions of social/political importance until he proposes a metaphysical/anthropological definition of human nature. Without an understanding of man as entelécheia, or a soul that seeks completion in the spatial/temporal realm, no exegesis of Plato’s thought can effectively address social/political concerns.
The Republic begins with Socrates explaining his claim that the just man is the happy man par excellence. Socrates argues that in order to have a happy and good life, man must first have an idea of the ends of human existence. This is what he means by the examined life. Virtue (arête), then, serves as the foundation of the art of living. Socrates tells the other men who have assembled in the house of Cephalus, including Glaucon, Adeimantus, Polemarchus, Euthydemus, and Thrasymachus, that the truly just man does not want to appear just, but to actually embody and practice justice. Of course, this takes more effort and good will than just appearing just; to be just one actually has to demonstrate virtue in our actions.
This Socratic conviction is later refuted by Thrasymachus, who argues that the unjust man demonstrates his superior intelligence in appearing to be just. Thrasymachus attempts to demonstrate that this type of individual always gets his way through the affronted appearance of justice. Affectation and effrontery in matters of justice, Thrasymachus tells Socrates, are more efficient ways of achieving recognition than the practice of genuine justice. Thrasymachus thinks of intelligence as craftiness. This enables opportunists to effectively confuse truth (alētheia) with appearance. History demonstrates how much immediate personal gain this activity can offer. Thrasymachus’ notion of justice as “right is might” is an early form of what Marx would later perfect as “the ends justifying the means.”
Citing the tug of war between these two lines of reasoning about virtue does more than establish Plato’s notion of morality. Plato cannot accomplish the latter without first demonstrating how morality is grounded in essence, which is communicated to man through the forms. The interplay that exists between the opposition of appearance and reality is a central component of Plato’s metaphysics. For instance, the opposition between divine reason and irrationality is the main theme of the Statesman. On the other hand, the Good is equivalent to transcendent, divine perfection. Socrates persuades the two sophists that man’s attention ought to entertain a higher truth (the Good). The Good is transcendent and therefore lies beyond the world of the senses (aísthēsis). The Good may be transcendent in relation to the make-work world of man, but it is not transparent, as this is the driving force behind all of our actions and behavior.
When Adeimantus counters Socrates’ argument by stating that the ideal State may not exist, Socrates’ rebuttal suggests that man’s temporal existence must be guided by the quest for virtue. This theme also appears in Gorgias, where Gorgias and Polus argue that the greatest good is defined as power. Plato’s Republic is essentially a metaphysical anthropology that asks the question: “What is the nature of man?” In one form or other, this is the major concern that all Platonic dialogues address. This line of questioning allows Plato to humanize and vitalize knowledge in his dialogues.
What is so essential and challenging in Plato’s thought to warrant portions of it being couched in allegorical terms? Allegory possesses a universal quality that makes it easier to grapple with man’s nature. Allegory also provides practical answers to some of man’s most pressing conundrums. Aesop’s Fables is a prime example of this. Conveying lasting and universal understanding to children through analogy, Aesop goes a long way in explaining epistemological and metaphysical tensions that are central to the human condition. Plato’s realization that allegory is perfectly suited for human understanding creates cohesion in his theory of forms.
In Book VII, where the allegory of the cave first appears, light is not only treated as being “the largest diamond in the crown of beauty,” but also the ultimate diamond in the crown of truth. Plato posits the sun as being analogous to the form of the Good. As such, it is the nature of the sun, when seen as the Good, which allows man to live the good life. Let us keep in mind that Plato utilizes allēgoría in order to make a difficult argument plausible. It is equally important to remember that ancient Greek philosophy conveys meaning through the juxtaposition of mythos and logos.
Is it the case that not all people can possess the essence of truth? This is a question that subsequent philosophers have asked. Plato, and Parmenides before him, argued that truth requires an active engagement. This suggests that truth is never attained through a passive attitude toward human reality. This entails that man must be proactive in his search for truth. This also suggests that the quest for truth is fundamentally tied to the nature of man as a cosmic, metaphysical being. Plato argues that our ability to decipher truth will affect the nature of the ideal State, morality and the good life (eudaimonia). We also encounter this question in Book VII of the Republic, where Plato begins by questioning how far our nature can become enlightened.
In the allegory of the cave the prisoners are said to be captives of their own ignorance. In that allegory darkness exists in direct correlation to ignorance—as light is to truth. Light produces a liberating effect for people who attempt to live the good life. But truth at what price? There are truths that can be known in their immediacy—their essence easily intuited—but the test of truth in terms of the good life can only be attained with the passage of time. This is why Plato argues that time is the ultimate test of truth.
The scientific method requires quantifiable evidence. Philosophical truth, more often than not, requires time to flush out fallacious premises. The dialectical nature of truth-seeking, especially as this acts as the ground of the good life, is ultimately arrived at—if at all—through sustained effort. Truth, Plato tells us, is objective and serves as the ground of human reality. This, he contends, remains the case regardless of our animated rants and machinations to the contrary. This is truth with a capital “T.”
For example, this idea (the analogy of light to truth) was utilized during the Middle Ages in what is known as the mysticism of light. Plato’s thought informs medieval architecture and art. Neo-Platonism influenced Christian stained glass-making in the attention to color and the allegorical effect of the design in conveying a story. The idea that God partakes in creation as light was a central aspect of cathedral building, especially how light (transparency) and height (verticality), are dispersed throughout the interior of the building.
The prisoners in Plato’s cave have little difficulty seeing the light that is given off by the fire behind them. To them, the fire is all the light that exists. Thus, they construe appearance as reality. When light is immediately contrasted with darkness, as occurs in a total solar eclipse or a blackout in our own age, light is then no longer taken for granted. Taking light for granted conveys Plato’s notion that people often cannot “see” that which is nearest to them. The dilemma, as Plato views it, is that light, because of its translucent nature, is so near us that we fail to see it. Hence, truth as alētheia does not reveal itself to the passive onlooker. Instead, truth reveals itself to the active participant in the struggle to attain the fruits of the Good. Socrates is clear about this:
But whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort . . .
The prisoners who leave the cave face a dilemma; once they witness freedom and the warmth of the sun, they naturally want to remain free. In other words, once we come face to face with truth, it becomes difficult to concern ourselves with the banal vainglory brought on by appearances. This is why Socrates argues that after a cave dweller has left the cave and has seen the sun, he will refuse to partake in the ignorance of the prisoners who remain in the cave. At that point, the released prisoner begins to pity his fellow prisoners for living in a world of shadows. This is one reason why truth—light in the allegory—has such a liberating effect on man.
Truth has many practical benefits. For instance, reason and conscience dictate that we attempt to turn the “other” to the light of truth. This is certainly expected of parents in relation to their children, for instance. The purpose of truth, what amounts to living-in-truth, is to guide our lives through the objectifying forces that work against the individual. Truth allows us to better understand the many difficulties that we must deal with in everyday life.
Truth is like a sieve that retains substance while discarding hollow opinions. Truth, as presented by Plato and other ancient Greek thinkers, delivers us from ignorance as a way of life. More importantly, the attainment of truth has a heroic quality that cannot be separated from virtue. Socrates adds:
. . . and when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual, and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
Plato makes it clear that the rational part of the soul enables man to attain truth. This is the task of the enlightened. This is also where Socrates’ personal “daemon” plays a strong role in Plato’s work. Socrates’ daemon represents an intuitive form of truth-seeking. While this daemon does not tell him precisely what course of action to take, it does tell him what not to do. This negative condition of truth allows Socrates to embrace the spirit of philosophy, the elēnchos. The daemon acts as a fiduciary of sincerity, one that forces him to understand his own ignorance. This is an essential characteristic of the spirit of philos-sophia that Socrates does not allow us to forget. Socrates seems to suggest: “I, who have spent my entire life on a quest for truth, have great respect for universal principles, and the incessant questions that this respect raises.” The sophists Socrates battles are representatives of sophism in any epoch. There is a profound irony in Socrates’ handling of truth. He comes close to suggesting that for many people the nature of man is more akin to the easy vagaries of sophism than it is to a lasting engagement with truth. To struggle against this objectifying impulse requires virtuous heroism.
In his allegory of the cave, Plato addresses the question whether human life is commensurate with truth. This question is especially relevant to education. According to Platonic pedagogy, in order for education to take place, there must already be present a minimal capacity for understanding and knowledge in the student. This is the capacity for inference. When Socrates states that one cannot put sight into blind eyes, he is suggesting that some individuals have an innate disposition to envision the nature of truth. This means that an individual’s capacity for learning already exists in the soul. This is facilitated by the teacher, Plato tells us, who effectively positions the soul to view the world of Being in opposition to Becoming. This is the case with the prisoners who reflect about the nature of the figures that they see reflected on the wall. It is these prisoners who can benefit most from education, given that education, in Plato’s estimation, should serve as a guide that undertakes the task of turning the soul around to face truth.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University. Part II of this essay turns to Plato’s idea of the teacher.
Posted: May 5, 2013 in Essays.
No More Idols: Taking Measure of a Modern Prophet
Volume 34, Number 4 (Winter 1994)