Plato: Higher ed: ascent of the soul
Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Education for Plato is all about the ascent of the soul. Higher education is its culmination, the end of a process that, we must not forget, begins with pre-natal care. In Book VII of the Republic there is a portrayal of this ascent that repeats much of what I wrote about in the previous essay. It is worth retelling.
Imagine people in a theater-like cave facing a wall that serves as a screen. They are chained so that they can’t turn around. For as long as they remember this is how they’ve been; they suppose it to be their natural state. Behind them is a parapet and behind that a great fire. Along the parapet, puppet like figures are paraded, and their images cast upon the wall engage the minds and imaginations of the viewers. It is a sort of entertainment that makes their imprisonment endurable.
Because they have never seen anything else but these shadow-images, which are mere appearances, the people are likely to take them for real. They also hear sounds, echoes bouncing off the wall in front of them, which they associate with the images before them, which also seem alive to them. Suppose, then, the viewers are set free, their chains removed, and some of them are forced to turn around and walk toward the light. Would the light not hurt their eyes, and wouldn’t they rather desire to return to the darkness, and to their former place, and to the shadows they had grown used to?
Suppose one of them were made to ascend further, to go outside the cave into the sunlight and not be allowed to return for a long while. Initially he would be dazzled by the sun, and prefer the darkness of night, and the gentler light of the stars and the moon. But, gradually, he would grow accustomed to the surrounding reality and experience the pure daylight, and in this light he would acquire knowledge of things as they really are, of which everything below is merely a shadow and a copy. He would discover the true archetypes of everything he saw in the shadowland. So he would come to love this real world more than his former habitation, most especially the generative warmth and informing light of the sun that makes everything pleasant and comprehensible.
Now, if he were to return, after having grown accustomed to the light, he would at first be at a disadvantage with his former fellow prisoners, and by his apparent incapacity to live wisely as the others supposed they did. In time, however, because he had seen the true archetypes of the puppets and their shadows, he would excel, because he can rely on knowledge of things as they really are and not mere opinion. Besides, this higher knowledge has made him indifferent to mere power and wealth below and all their enticements. Because of this, he would seem most fit to be a leader, for the best leaders never think of themselves but only of what is truly best for those they lead.
The fable is Plato’s memorial to Socrates. The solitary figure, who ascended and returned, represents Socrates, and all the talk about philosopher kings makes no sense unless one has Socrates in mind. But the fable is meant to be also an allegory of human existence generally. Socrates is our representative.
The cave is the world of becoming. The real world is beyond the cave. In the one, the mind is filled with images and opinions; in the other, it directly apprehends reality. Philosopher kings are individuals who have made it to the sunlight, but have a duty to descend and introduce enlightened rule into the world of becoming. Their desire is to remain above, to increase in knowledge, but they are obliged to return and to be bearers of true justice.
The world beyond the cave is the realm of Ideas, true archetypes of everything that appears below, the sun represents the idea of Good, which is the true enlightener of the mind, but which is also the generatrix of all being, itself beyond being, which infuses all that it shines upon with energy and purpose, which is to say, with life. This super-reality can be neither seen, nor touched, nor heard, nor even imagined, if truth be known, but only reached by thinking, the purer the better, which is what higher education is supposed to achieve.
Now as we set off on the path of higher education we must shake off the allure and charm of Plato’s artistry, and proceed in an entirely different way. We must become sober rationalists. Socrates represents this ascent a radical change, a complete turning or conversion of the soul. The well being of society depends on it, for, as he observes, much of the social evil in the world, especially the greatest of it, is done by individuals of high intelligence, whose motives are shamefully ignoble and base. Had they received a proper education, had they received higher education, they might have become social benefactors; they and we would have been happier.
I am reminded of a remark in Plato’s Laws that crime is shame of a city where it happens, a failure of education, and hence capable of a remedy. Plato, of course, was an elitist, he believed that higher education should be extended only to the few, but in this democratic age in which we now live, we recognize that it must be open to all, a goal that our current system of higher education has not yet achieved. There is wisdom in this: a state whose members are self-governed will be the most amenable to justice.