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Table of Contents
THE HIGHER EDUCATION OF THE GUARDIANS
The depths of corruption and the heights of divine wisdom were the topics of Book VI. You saw how a society can unwittingly lead a gifted youth astray, and then what steps the soul must take to progress from the lowest level of awareness (the shadows of reality) to the highest level (the idea of the good). These topics may at first seem unconnected. Why does Plato discuss the corruption of youth by a corrupt society alongside a discussion of the most magnificent knowledge of rational beings? The Allegory of the Cave, which begins this book, brings these topics together in a provocative way.
Book VII is perhaps the most tightly written book in The Republic, All of its parts are tied to an explanation of the necessary educational experiences of philosopher kings. There are three principal parts: 1. the Allegory of the Cave; 2. higher education; and 3. the six educational stages of philosopher kings.
THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE (514a-521b)
An allegory is a tale that uses symbolic characters and objects. The Allegory of the Cave metaphorically presents a person's travels from ignorance to wisdom, and also reveals the philosopher's obligation to society.
This famous story is Plato's most vivid and sublime image. Some scholars suggest that Plato probably took the idea for the cave image from the mystery cults. It is said that one of the rituals of the mysteries was to put candidates for initiation into caves representing the underworld, and then in glorious light reveal sacred objects to them.
NOTE: The image of the Divided Line in the previous book serves as an itinerary for the journey out of the cave. Your best method for understanding the cave is to refer constantly to the divided line as Plato guides you through the four steps from darkness into light. Also, several other considerations should occupy your mind as you read the allegory: In what ways does the cave represent a system of education? Why is it so difficult to liberate people from the bondage of ignorance? As an educated person, what are your responsibilities to your fellow man, to society?
Socrates begins the story like this: Imagine prisoners living in a cave. Since childhood they have been chained facing the rear wall of the cave, unable to move their legs or to turn their heads. Now imagine that some distance behind them and on a higher level of the cave floor a fire blazes. Between the fire and the prisoners is a low wall behind which people hold up puppets representing animals, human beings, and other objects. These puppeteers speak, seeming to give the puppets voices. The fire casts the puppets' shadows on the rear wall. These shadow puppets are the only reality the prisoners have ever known.
One day one of the prisoners is freed from his bonds and forced to turn toward the fire. The sudden burst of light is painful and he cannot see the puppets clearly. At the same time the prisoner is told that what he believed was reality is in fact an illusion. Because of his ingrained belief in the reality of the shadows (and because he can't see the puppets) he refuses to believe that his life has been spent looking at shadows of imitation objects.
Behind the fire there is a long, narrow path that goes to the cave's entrance. The prisoner wants to return to his chains, but he is dragged outside into the sunlight. This light is even more painful than the firelight. He desperately tries to flee, but he is again forced to stay in the light. First he is able to see shadows of trees, people, and other things, then reflections in water. Eventually he looks at the things of the world themselves and goes on to contemplate the heavenly objects-stars, the moon, and, finally, the sun.