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The Republic by Plato - Barron's Booknotes
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The final step in the prisoner's journey is his realization that the sun is in some way the cause of all things being visible. At this point the prisoner has ended his educational journey. He has climbed the four levels of awareness-from shadows, to sensible objects, to science, and, at last, to knowledge of the principle of all things-the idea of the good. He has been liberated from ignorance. His education is complete.

What began as a contented, painless, yet shadowy existence grows-and the growth is painful-into a marvelous realization of the source of all things, of happiness, justice, truth, beauty, and goodness. The world of imagination, the first level of the divided line, is not, it turns out, the beginning of knowledge. It is no more than a realm of comfortable delusions. It is the city where people constantly argue over things of no eternal importance (over shadows of the imitations of reality). The educational journey, the road to knowledge, begins when shadows are recognized as shadows, and such recognition is painful. It always hurts to realize that one's past beliefs are mistaken. But without this pain knowledge can never be attained. Knowledge begins on the second level of the divided line, with the realization that one's former beliefs were merely reflections of actual things.

NOTE: But who, really, considers shadows to be real things? For Socrates the shadows are the opinions of society through which people filter their ideas about life. Most people, he implies, do not even see everyday events in themselves; rather, people see events through the dark glasses of social customs and values. Consider the issue of public nakedness in Book V, or the issue of censorship in Books II and III. Your opinion on such issues is strongly influenced by your upbringing and by your needs for social approval.



Meanwhile, in the sunlight, the liberated prisoner counts himself as truly happy. He delights in the beauty of truth and the wisdom of eternity. His happiness is disturbed only by an occasional thought about the poor, pitiful souls back in the cave. On the one hand, he wants to help his former companions, but on the other, he fears if he returned to the darkness his companions would greet him with hostility and ridicule. He would no longer be able to see their "realities"- and of course they wouldn't be able to "see" his realities either- and so they could not converse with one another. He would be taken for a fool or, worse yet, for an enemy of the people. Would he not be as useless to them as philosophers are in ancient Athens? Would he not be in danger of being forced into courtrooms to explain himself before the shadows of justice that keep the prisoners (the people of the city in the cave) from understanding men who have seen justice itself?

The paradox is that only people who have caught sight of the idea of the good-the philosophers-can act wisely in a city. And only they can educate others, can bring their chained friends out of darkness into light, from ignorance to wisdom. They have the "art of producing vision." Therefore, Socrates' task is to show Glaucon how the philosopher, the liberated prisoner, can be persuaded to go back down into the cave.

Socrates does not question that the philosopher must leave his supreme existence in the sun and return to the people. He says that

the law is not concerned with the special happiness of any class in the state, but is trying to produce this condition in the city as a whole, harmonizing and adapting the citizens to one another by persuasion and compulsion, and requiring them to impart to one another any benefit which they are severally able to bestow upon the community. (519e)

The benefit philosophers bestow is knowledge of what is good for the whole. Besides, they owe it to society. They must pay for the education they have received, by serving the people of the state. So Socrates says to the philosophers: "Down you must go then, each in his turn, to the habituation of the others and accustom yourselves to the observation of the obscure things there."

The philosophers' reward for their services is that during their tenure as rulers and educators they will still be able to spend much of their time in intellectual pursuits (their special pleasure). Philosophers, nevertheless, must be forced to rule the state. Because they are not "lovers of rule," they will not want to rule-but they must. It's their duty, their function in the state. Only philosophers, Socrates says, know how to turn the souls of the people toward the idea of the good.

A circle has been completed. The philosophers were initially dragged past the shadow puppets into the sunlight. Now they must be compelled to go back into the cave to persuade the people there to accept their wisdom. The philosophers' educational process was long and painful, yet worth the effort. They have been liberated from the chains of ignorance. And they are happy in their wisdom. But the former prisoners must become liberators. They must educate their chained fellow men. How?

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