If Images are Inferior, Why is the Allegory of the Cave an Image?

The Platonic vocabulary is often skeptical and even antagonistic toward the uses of images.  This denigration is attributed to the mutability of images, so that we could really apply this criticism to anything that changes, which would apply to all of the visible world.  Among many other places in the Republic, Socrates makes the distinction clear by explaining how what we think about determines the very certainty of that thought:   

Well then, consider that the truth of the soul is thus: Whenever truth and what is shine upon something, the mind attaches to this, it intellects and knows and appears to have intelligence.  But whenever it attaches to that which is mixed with obscurity, that which comes to be and passes away, it has opinions and sees dimly, changing opinions here and there, and seems not to have intelligence (Republic 508d3-8). (1)

These two sides of opinion and knowledge, perishability and persistence, are, as Socrates will shortly explain, the sensible and intelligible realms.  Socrates says there are two kinds of objects of the sensible realm, shadows, appearances and reflections, but then also those things of which these are the shadows, appearances and reflections.  It is obvious that these mere reflections are inferior to the objects which they represent: animals, people, etc.  It goes without saying, moreover, that everything in the sensible realm is inferior to anything in the intelligible realm.

Now here is the part I take particular interest in.  Socrates says that all of the shadows, appearances and reflections in the sensible realm are images (τὰς εἰκόνας) of other things in the sensible realm.  Because of this, they obviously have the least substantive mode of existence, and along with this, the lowest level of cognitive certainty.  Yet image-language is precisely what Socrates employs, and is his own self-characterization of what he does, in the allegory of the cave.  He tells us at the beginning of Book VII, as he is about to explain the cave allegory, “make an image [ἀπείκασον] of our nature in such a condition concerning education and lack of education” (514a1-2). (2) (3)

The question arises then, why are we using an image to describe a program of education the goal of which is to lead one away from images?  This is especially curious because it comes right before Socrates exposition of philosophical education, beginning with arithmetic.  Perhaps the allegory of the cave is a necessary propaedeutic before one begins— not to undertake such an education— but to even understand its purport and goal.  Or perhaps because the uninitiated reader has not yet taken the first step to a philosophical education, he must be accommodated where he is at, in this case at the lowly level of understanding mere images, so that he can be taken where he needs to go.             


(1) οὕτω τοίνυν καὶ τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς ὧδε νόει· ὅταν μὲν οὗ καταλάμπει ἀλήθειά τε καὶ τὸ ὄν, εἰς τοῦτο ἀπερείσηται, ἐνόησέν τε καὶ ἔγνω αὐτὸ καὶ νοῦν ἔχειν φαίνεται· ὅταν δὲ εἰς τὸ τῷ σκότῳ κεκραμένον, τὸ γιγνόμενόν τε καὶ ἀπολλύμενον, δοξάζει τε καὶ ἀμβλυώττει ἄνω καὶ κάτω τὰς δόξας μεταβάλλον, καὶ ἔοικεν αὖ νοῦν οὐκ ἔχοντι.

(2) ἀπείκασον τοιούτῳ πάθει τὴν ἡμετέραν φύσιν παιδείας τε πέρι καὶ ἀπαιδευσίας.

(3) Similarly in Book VI Socrates explicitly states that the ship of state metaphor, wherein the pilot is the true philosopher, gazing outside of the ship to guide the craft, is an image [εἰκών] (487e5).

Are Philosophers and Philosophy Useful to a City?

Several hundred years before the birth of Socrates, Thales the philosopher was said to have fallen into a well while observing the heavens.  Thus the impractical and detached reputation of philosophers was born.  In Books 6 and 7 of the Republic the issue of the usefulness of either the philosopher or philosophy is brought up several times.  What is this uselessness, and how does the philosopher become useful?  In that earlier book Socrates admits that philosophy is indeed useless, but blames this “uselessness on those who don’t use [philosophers], not on decent men” (489b).  Later, in Book 7, we return to the usefulness of philosophy.  Socrates, although himself noting that the study of geometry has as its ‘“useful byproduct” war, chastises Glaucon for wishing to highlight the practical benefits of astronomy (527c-d).  Socrates insists that the real significance of these studies is the cultivation of the eye of the mind. 

What this points to is that if there is going to be a conversion from “uselessness to usefulness” by the study of philosophy, this change cannot come about by pandering to the currently perceived needs of the city.  Rather the city must come to see its need for something beyond the daily worries attendant on activities like farming and warfare.  And we must additionally keep in mind that Socrates is proposing a city that has the general welfare in mind, not the concerns of any individual or one group.  Yet it is precisely at this point that this concern for the welfare of the city makes it most shocking demand, according the allegory of the cave. 

In the cave, the cave-dweller, let us remember, was not liberated by his own devices, but Socrates tells us that he was released and “compelled to stand up,” “compelled to answer [what the shadows] are,” “compelled…to look at the light itself” (515c-e).  On the other hand, the philosopher, himself a liberated cave-dweller, must not live the care-free life of contemplation, he too has to return to the cave to liberate and educate the remaining captives (520b).  So for the betterment of the city, both the philosopher and “cave-dweller” must, in some sense, submit to a course of life other than what they would have normally chosen, had they not been looking to the betterment of the city.  What informs this decision and what is the guiding principle of their lives if it is not the oracle of mere personal preference? 

The answer, as it turns out, is a paradox.  Normally we expect that if we are to attend to the betterment of say, our garden, we put on our overalls in order to focus on the garden.  This is not so with the case of the polis.  In the case of the city we must fix our attention outside of the city, to things seen only by the inner eye, intellection.  Recall that in Book VI Socrates’ initial response to the charge of uselesness is to give us an image of men on a ship. He tells us that when the true pilot navigates, he looks to, “year, seasons, heaven, stars, winds, and everything that is proper to the art” (488d).  But he does not look at the ship. Nor does the philosopher in the cave look at the cave, but he attempts to focus the attention of the cave-dwellers to eventually look at the sun.  Thus it turns out that the philosopher and philosophy are extremely useful; without him and it, the entire city is unable to see or even to learn to see what they should really be fixing their gaze upon, the Form of the Good.           

Plato’s Theory of Forms as the Object of All “Lovers”

Plato is a notorious indulger of etymology.  Not only in the Cratylus, the most famous and lengthy application of that science, but everywhere in the Platonic corpus there are appeals to the source and the sense of words.  Often these etymologies strike the reader as ludicrous, not necessarily because we know better through linguistic rigor, though we do, but because surely some of the explanations offered had to have been absurd to even the Greeks of the time.  It is frustrating then to determine the purpose of these etymologies: are they mini-myths guiding us to some moral end? are they jokes? are they (improbably) earnest explanations on Plato’s part, shockingly ignorant of the actual derivation of the word?

Whatever the explanation turns out to be, the most helpful method of exposition will be to unravel the etymology following Plato’s own announced method of explanation.  When we come to the Republic, Book V, we meet with one of the most famous explanations in all of Plato, etymological or otherwise (474c).  Here Socrates embarks on the task of explaining who the real philosopher is.  He begins by reminding Glaucon that it was agreed that “lovers” of something love all of it, not one part.  He continues to give examples of these lovers, literally “philo-” prefixed to an adjective or noun, coining what we can straightforwardly translate as, “lovers of X” or “X lovers.”  His examples include lovers of boys, lovers of honor, lovers of wine and lovers of food.

Socrates, I offer, is under the conviction that when we say that when someone is a lover of X, he loves each particular manifestation of that X.  If one fails to do so, he is not a lover of X.  This is odd reasoning, one might say, because if I am a car-lover, meaning that I, a rich man, collect cars, but nevertheless do not have a penchant for Chevrolets, then somehow I am disqualified from the title of car-lover.  This appears out of sorts.  However, let us look at this from another extreme.  If someone were to be a donut-lover in this sense, that he only loved sprinkled, chocolate eclairs, would we be right to call him a lover of donuts?  In this case it is much more suspect; we would prefer to call such a man a lover-of-sprinkled-chocolate-eclairs. 

It is perhaps in this later sense that Socrates is appealing to our everyday use of language.  When we say we are a lover of wine, to use one of his examples, we are implicitly going over and above a confession for any particular instance of wine.  This is simply what the term means.  If I had simply been after this or that cup of wine, why then, after having imbibed it, I should no longer have a need for that moniker.  Yet the name sticks. I say I am a wine-lover, not was a wine-lover, because there is something compelling me, a desire for wine which transcends instances of wine, and goes further yet. 

This then is what Socrates is after.  So the lover of wisdom, literally the philosophos, is he who determinately seeks after all and every kind of wisdom that there is.  Not the wisdom here or there, but the true Form of wisdom.  He seeks after that which does not pass away, and precisely because he is never satisfied having learned this or that, it is shown that this or that is not what he was looking for.  He yearns for a glimpse of what is, for he hastens after knowledge, not opinion.