Plato’s Republic is one of the most influential works on political theory. The book is rich in logical deliberations and thought experiments in its endeavor to identify the ideal form of government for any society. Some of the ideas and theories articulated in the work include ‘theory of forms’, ‘definition of philosopher’, ‘immortality of the soul’, ‘metaphor of the sun’, ‘role of poetry in society’, ‘allegory of the cave’, etc. Of these, the most commented and profound idea is the ‘allegory of the cave’ that is presented in Book VII of the Republic.
The ‘allegory of the cave’ is a richly allusive and multiple layered illustration of the value, nature and consequence of knowledge. Though Plato is the author of the book, his role is one of committing to text the conversation between his mentor Socrates and his brother Glaucon. Socrates equates the darkness intrinsic to a cave to ignorance. To the contrary, the shining light is synonymous with ‘truth’, ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge’. The shining light could either be those that were created by man as in a lamp or bonfire; or that most potent and perpetual manifestations in the form of the Sun.
The most striking point in the allegory is Socrates’ stance that ‘truth’ can be ‘glaring’. For a man confined to the darkness of the cave for a long period, the darkness itself creates an apparent reality that becomes normative due to its familiarity. So the man exposed to ‘light’ for the first time experiences shock due to the unaccustomed brightness of the source. But slowly, upon adjustment and exposure, the enlightened man understands reality for the first time and soon comes to see his past ‘knowledge’ or ‘expertise’ as based on illusion.
The allegory of the cave is witnessed in practical geo-politics today. This is nowhere more pronounced than in the ‘blind’ self-promoting policies emanating from Washington D.C. The behavior of the American government since the end of the Second World War, for all its high sounding rhetoric, is reminiscent of cave-bound prisoners in Plato’s allegory. The content of the American press, to a large extent, is self-serving propaganda. What passes on as just cause and justifiable action, especially on the foreign policy front, is often founded on a lack of perspective and balance. This is akin to how the cave-bound prisoners could not conceive of alternative possibilities of reality. Not only could the American government t see the viewpoints of, say, Afghans in 2001 and Iraqis in 2003, but it treated opposition with contempt. This was exactly how the enlightened prisoner treated when he returned to the cave with ‘corrupted’ eyes which could not immediately adjust to the ecosystem of the dark.
In the social realm too people suffer from ignorance and narrowed vision. The root cause of most interpersonal fissure is due to the tendency to look after the ‘self’ at the cost of the ‘other’. One could equate the limitation of ‘self’ to the limited knowledge possessed by the cave dwellers. In Plato’s allegory, knowledge is expanded and transformed once the horizons of the mind were expanded through exposure to a broader range of experience. Likewise individuals will suffer less when they replace self-interest and broaden it to collective or group interest.
Ferrari, ed., G.R.F. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.