In The Republic, Plato uses four images to describe the philosophers’ education: the ship, sun light, the divided line and the cave. These images allow Plato to portray the search of knowledge and the process of education symbolically persuading the audience. The task of education is to disabuse potential philosophers of common conceptions. These images can be seen as examples of Plato’s figurative explanations. Plato confronts this accusation if his political philosophy is to speak to the realities of politics. He follows the abstract argument with one acknowledging the importance of popular perceptions.
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The image of ‘the ship’ symbolizes profession of politicians and difficulties of the statecraft. The city is like a ship and its public the ship’s owner, a powerful but deaf and myopic man with scant knowledge of seafaring. Politicians resemble sailors who vie for the ship’s captaincy, scheming against their competitors for the owner’s approval, all of them hostile toward someone with real knowledge of navigation. This metaphor allows Plato to avoid direct claims of poor political leadership but teach the audience about the statecraft and its weaknesses. “If he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not–the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts” (Bloom 173). Politicians call the true captain’s study of the stars and wind stargazing; in their eyes, every attempt at navigation is useless. Plato simply transfers the comic situation to ship. This metaphor presupposes the philosopher’s knowledge of statecraft, and so far Plato has not shown that there is any such knowledge. The image also fails in falling back on the comparison of moral knowledge to a skill. Socrates is not merely explaining why philosophers seem useless in existing societies, but why they really are useless. Given how political power unfortunately operates in the world, knowledge of the best policy for a state to pursue has nothing to do with the execution of that policy. The ship of state illustrates pedagogical function.
Using an analogy drawn from the world of visible things, Socrates asks people to think of the sun, the light of which provides the energy that causes all other things to grow as well as the means by which people can see them. The form of the good, he says, is like the sun. All other things, including ourselves, exist because of the form of the good, and people can know these other things, which include triangles, chairs and chairness, justice and the form justice, as well as the form of the good itself – only because of its ‘light’.
The stages of the educational regimen for philosophers correspond to the types of being and knowing laid out along the divided line, and that Plato transposes his increasing sense of certainty about knowledge into a greater degree of reality of the objects people know about. It is through imagination that readers have images, but because images are a pathetically inferior type of being, Plato regards imagination as totally irrelevant to the education of the philosopher. The sort of inquiry with which philosophical education begins, such as investigations of ordinary objects like one’s index finger, corresponds to belief on the divided line. The study of mathematics and geometry corresponds to thinking and allows readers to begin to operate with intelligible rather than visible things.
The allegory of the cave illustrates the place of the form of the good at the top of Plato’s hierarchy. Most of people, Socrates says, are like prisoners chained before a wall in a cave, unable to turn our heads. What people call reality is actually a mere shadow play on the wall, projected from behind our backs by persons carrying statues of humans and animals and carved likenesses of other ordinary objects before a fire that is behind them. Philosophers who achieve knowledge of the form of the good are like prisoners who have broken their chains and made their way up and out of the cave into the sunlight. “Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?” (Bloom 193). There they see just how far removed from reality they previously were. In the cave, they knew only shadows of what were only copies of ordinary objects; in the light of the sun they are able to see the objects themselves and finally the sun itself, which gives being to all else.
For philosophers, the final phase of education corresponds to the understanding of forms on the divided line. It refers generally to the pitting of speech against speech, but exactly how it operates, and precisely what forms it can deliver are not so easy to understand. For instance, Plato argues that people are able to recognize chairs as chairs, in spite of the differences between particular chairs, and in spite of the similarities between chairs and other things, because there is a pure essence of chair or pure chairness, so to speak, that preexists any particular chair and that particular chairs “participate” in. The “participation” of particular chairs that people see with eyes in chairness is both what causes them to be chairs, rather than something else, and, because people know pure chairness with our minds, what allows people to recognize them as chairs. Plato seems to think that the forms explain the diversity of particular things in the world people live in, and that it is the reality of the forms that gives determinate reality to the particular things that participate in them.
The images and explanations are complementary representing a single while of knowledge, education and pedagogy. Socrates contrasts knowledge of the form of the good with knowledge of mathematics and geometry in terms of their respective certainty as well as their respective objects. While I said previously that geometry and mathematics constitute absolute knowledge, Plato would have me qualify this statement. In geometry, for example, people can prove with certainty highly complex principles involving triangles setting out from a few simple definitions of points and lines and principles such as “parallel lines never meet.” The public corrupts young intellectuals by forcing them to court popular favor rather than pursue the truth. It persecutes anyone who tries to educate them, thus diverting that teacher’s talents to the undignified practice of political intrigue.
The complementary can be explained by clear argumentation and unity of meaning applied to these images. For instance, Socrates opens his discussion by assuming the existence of Forms. Here they stand opposed to the objects of human sight, and this opposition between the visible and the intelligible suggests an analogy between the sun and some corresponding entity in the realm of the intellect. Just as the eye sees objects only thanks to the sun’s supply of light, human reason can know the Forms only thanks to the intercessions of the Form of the Good. And as the sun, the source of all energy, also makes possible the existence of every living thing, the Form of the Good not only lets people know about Forms, but causes them to be in the first place. The complexity results from Plato’s desire to use the Divided Line to make two points at once. First, it explains to an unprepared audience how the objects of opinion are related to objects of knowledge, by inviting that audience to see the visible world as a mirror image of another, more solid place. The reflection relationship uses our ordinary conception of greater and lesser reality to point beyond ordinary experience toward a greatest kind of reality.
The complementary nature of arguments is explained by a close link between four images. For instance, the Allegory of the Cave involves the Divided Line’s distinctions among kinds of knowledge, involves the imagery of sun and light that first illustrated the Form of the Good. The four stages of things that the liberated prisoners see, the shadows of the statues of things; the statues themselves; shadows of those things of which the statues are images; then the things themselves—correspond to the four stages of objects of cognition along the Divided Line. The Allegory of the Cave addresses political questions by illustrating the political consequences of the hierarchy of knowledge. It addresses the images of education and governance. The primary aim of these images is to direct attention to the fact that there is another world beyond the visible world and that it is only of that world that people can have certain, absolute knowledge. Plato treats the form of the good, then, as a final and highest reality upon which all other things are dependent. It is a sort of cause of all causes; without knowledge of goodness our knowledge of other things is uncertain.
The Republic of Plato. Transl. by Allan Bloom. Basic Books; 2 Sub edition, 1991.