Greg Heil | 7:00 AM
Due to the import of “The Allegory,” writers have been analyzing it for well over 2,000 years. Some have interpreted it to have one meaning, others, another.
As we seek to understand exactly what Plato was seeking to accomplish with his allegory and subsequent analysis, we must think about the argument he was trying to make, and whether or not he was successful. As I will point out, the connection between his allegory and his analysis is quite tremulous.
It is important to realize that “The Allegory of the Cave” is just a small part of a larger work: The Republic. In The Republic, Plato attempts to communicate what he views as the ideal government. As he progresses through The Republic, he is trying to provide evidence for all of his positions and his thoughts on government.
His end goal with “The Allegory of the Cave” is to convince the readers that politicians should not want to rule and lead for the sake of power, but they should rather not want to lead at all. Instead, they should only lead out of compassion for those who are unenlightened: people who are like the prisoners in his allegory.
But why are the rulers the enlightened ones? In Plato’s theoretical world, Kallipolis (the ideal city) is ruled by philosopher kings, as they are the only ones qualified and enlightened enough to make decisions of such magnitude. Philosophers are lovers of wisdom and yearn for true understanding, and in Plato’s view rulers must also love wisdom and yearn for true understanding in order to rule fairly and intelligently.
Whether the philosopher becomes a ruler or the ruler philosophizes does not matter. In the ideal world, all kings are philosophers, says Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave” and the following argumentation is supposed to support this broader argument: that some people truly are enlightened and see things “ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den,” and that those people who see so much better are the ones that should be ruling the country (456).
Since philosophers were the most enlightened of all people, and since Plato wants them to take on the role of rulers and to rule with compassion, Plato specifically targets them with this allegory. In the actually writing, Socrates addresses Glaucon, a student of his that he presumably is trying to lead to enlightenment. Socrates is acting exactly like one of the people in the allegory that he shares who has gone up to the light and returned to help other people reach true understanding.
However, Plato is not writing to people like Glaucon. I think he is writing to people much more similar to himself and to Socrates. He is saying to fellow philosophers that they should be like Socrates and be the people that return to the darkness to help others see the light. They should not be satisfied with just enjoying their understanding, but should rather seek to help others achieve understanding too. On page 452, Plato says that philosophers who are enlightened will most likely remember their old friends in the cave and “felicitate [themselves] on the change, and pity them.” While Plato is saying that this is what they will likely do, he is also saying that they should want to do this, too.
In order to convince his audience of the above points, Plato presents his inherently logical allegory first, expecting the reader to agree with him. Indeed, one of the primary strengths in “The Allegory of the Cave” is Plato’s language and logic.
He layers his arguments one on top of the other to create a mighty tower of argumentation that is tough to crack. He does this by thinking of all possible angles and objections as he builds his story. For instance, the prisoners have always been in the cave, they have always been shackled, and they have never been able to look around. In this hypothetical situation, all of what Plato says will bear out.
At times it seems obvious that Glaucon just has to agree with Socrates. While this is an allegory, all of Plato’s assumptions and examples seem very plausible and intuitive As far as the allegory itself is concerned, Plato has considered all of the angles and the possible objections.
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Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.” A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, 2010. 449-457. Print.