The compulsory emancipation: The role of Necessity in Plato´s Cave (PART I. Republic VII 514a-515e)

The compulsory emancipation: The role of Necessity in Plato´s Cave (PART I. Republic VII 514a-515e)

Abstract: This paper will focus on the first part of the Allegory of the Cave (Rep. VII 514a-515e). We will suggest that, in the most elementary interpretative level, the interior of the cave can be read together with the simile of the Sun and the Divided Line (Rep. VI 504 et seq.) as a symbol of (i) the ontological structure of reality and (ii) human cognitive condition in relation to that structure. However, we will observe that, even if in a way Sun, Line and Cave constitute a single metaphor, the Cave brings a novel development that was absent in the previous constructions. Besides the metaphysical and epistemological theories, there is in the Cave (iii) a social one. In this line, we will suggest that the interior of the cave represents not so much physis as the polis; the situation of the captives not simply doxa based on aisthesis but public opinion based on cultural inputs – especially those provided by art. We will suggest that the shadows in the cave can be likened to the products of imitative arts and that, on the whole, what takes place in the underground can be paralleled to what occurs in democratic societies as Plato conceives of them in Book VIII (555b et seq.). We will also claim that this implies a new word regarding the speculation about human cognition, as long as it shows reason´s natural passiveness, and that the reference to reason´s passiveness brings a pessimist trait into Plato´s epistemology. We will specially observe the way in which one of the prisoners leaves the cave and we will explore what seems to be the paradox of a compulsory emancipation. We will attempt, finally, to penetrate the symbolism of the figure of the “redeemer” and pose the “problem of the first philosopher”, suggesting that its appearance is a matter of théia moira.

Key words: intelligence; opinion; alienation; polis


I. Introduction

At the beginning of Book VII of the Republic Socrates quickly invites his fellows to compare human condition regarding education and its lack (παιδεία and ἀπαιδευσίας) with an imaginary scenario he immediately begins to portrait. This brief opening is like a condensed prologue to the tragedy that followsi: the so-called Allegory of the Cave, which will be the object of the present paper. Outstanding literary and philosophical creation, the Cave opens at every step to hermeneutic infinity and remains a perennial source of interest and analysis; there is no need, thus, to delay in justifications.

II. Reconstruction of the passage

Let´s suppose that we can treat the allegory as a piece of drama and divide its action into three acts. We will now consider exclusively the first act, which would go from 514a to 515e, that is: from the beginning of the description to the liberation of one of the prisoners. A concise reconstruction: there is a subterranean cave, connected to the surface by a long, steep and narrow corridor. Down there, human beings are kept in captivity since childhood (VII 514a). They have their “legs and necks chained so that they cannot move and can only see before them”, and are “prevented by the chains from turning round their heads” (VII 514a). Behind their backs there is a wall, of the kind of those above which puppeteers (τοῖς θαυματοποιοῖς) make their marionettes (τὰ θαύματα)ii appear (VII 514b); over there, there is a burning fire; beyond, a space through which a strange procession of men carrying various objects and figures circulates. The final dynamic is similar to that of a Chinese shadow theatre: the firelight illuminates the objects and figures so that their shadows are projected over the wall and before the prisoners. A strange image you speak of”, says Glaucon, “and strange prisoners” – “They are like us”, Socrates replies (VII 515a). With this perturbing remark, the construction begins to reveal its tragic nature, as long as pity and fear – two characteristic tragic emotions, according to Aristotleiii – enter the scene: pity, since the situation of the dwellers of the underground is lamentable; fear, since their condition is said to be also ours.

Incapable to turn around, the prisoners see solely the shadows and hear the echo of the voices of those who carry the marionettes, believing that what they hear comes from the shadows and that the shadows their-selves are the true things (τὸ ἀληθὲς, VII 515b-c). A little later, Socrates will say a further, startling word regarding the captives´ behavior: were they able to engage in dialogue, they would repeat the names they hear, rendering “honors (…) and prizes for the man who is quickest to make out the shadows as they pass” (VII 516c-d).

At this point, and in such a bizarre setting and celebration, a first great change in action takes place – a first turning point of the plot, if we insist in the dramatic reconstruction of the allegory. Socrates invites his interlocutors to imagine one of the captives leaving the cave. Against what one could expect, the vocabulary of suffering, coercion and violence marks the emancipation process from the beginning. The passive voice is used all across these passages, as well as the vocabulary of compulsion and force: the prisoner does not free himself – he is freed (λυθείη) from the chains and compelled (ἀναγκάζοιτο) by someone (τις) to stand up and look around; in doing so, he feels pain (ἀλγοῖ) in his eyes; he is then constrained (ἀναγκάζοι) by questions he is incapable to answer and forced (ἀναγκάζοι) to look directly at the firelight, feeling pain again (ἀλγεῖν); finally, he is dragged (ἕλκοι) by force (βίᾳ) up the ascent until he reaches the upper-world (VII 515c-516a).

III. The Cave as the “visible world”: aisthesis and doxa

The first act ends at this point. In order to penetrate the symbolism, we must follow Socrates´ advice (517a-b) and liken the “region revealed through sight” to the interior of the cave, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the Sun. This, as tradition recognizes, remits to the simile of the Sun and the image of the Divided Line at the end of Book VI. The ascent and the contemplation of the things above which is about to happen, and still following Socrates´ clue, should be seen as the “soul´s ascension to the intelligible region” (517b), that is: as the educational process, the παιδεία, which thus becomes obliquely defined as the passage from opinion based on sense-perception, to knowledge based on Forms. This is all Socrates says to guide the interpreter. And it is enough, at least at the most fundamental hermeneutic level: in fact, Socrates had announced at the beginning that his intention was precisely to built an imaginary scenario representing human condition regarding education and its lack; with the comment at 517a et seq. the task is completeiv.

However, it seems that we need to move ahead the Sun and the Line (and, thus, somehow ahead the interpretative clues given by Socrates) to reach the full significance of the allegory. There is something new in the Cave that was absent in the previous constructions.

The simile of the Sun and the Divided Line, in Book VI, constitute the hardcore of the Republic´s epistemology and metaphysics that begins to be developed still earlier in the dialogue. Sight and intelligence are in one sense two similar, in another two different psychic powers; as long as they are different, they have each its proper object: the proper object of sight is light and the visible; of intelligence, Ideas and the intelligible. The visible things are generated and multiple, the intelligible Idea is eternal and unitarian; the Idea is the model – the thing, its copy (V 477b et seq.). Metaphysically speaking, the interior of the cave shares, then, the ontological status of a copy: it is a secondary, evanescent and illusory reality – a mere appearance, a miragev. Epistemologically speaking, the cognitive state of the prisoners, (namely: opinion) is as shallow and weak as its object. Invoking a lexicon Plato uses elsewhere, the captives are asleep (V 476cvi) – and so are (for VII 515a) we. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”vii.

Despite the endless controversy regarding the precision with which these metaphysics and the epistemology related to it adjust to the allegory of the Cave, we will assume here that, in general terms, they fit sufficiently wellviii. It seems fair to say, then, that the Sun, the Line and the Cave can be read together as a single metaphor: the metaphor of lightix, which is twofold, ontological and epistemological, light representing being and knowledge, darkness representing phenomena and opinion. However, it is also obvious that there is something completely new in the Cave; the Cave involves, indeed, social connotations, which were totally absent in the previous constructions.

IV. The Cave as the polis: the role of art

The captives begin their lives neither in nature´s heart nor in isolation, but among their pairs and in an environment in which human intervention is crucial. We already know how cognition takes place in the abstract: we have a hypothesis regarding its nature and potentialities; now, we are lead to consider how it manifests in concrete: in concrete, Plato seems to suggest, intelligence comes to come to be in a “collective” or “cultural” condition. Thus, the Cave is essentially a metaphor about human nature and condition, which is conceived as collective and social. “The Cave is not just the degraded state of a bad society. It is the human condition”, Anna saysx; and we reformulate: the Cave is about human condition, which is, in concrete, to come to be and develop in the midst of a bad society. Deepening the hermeneutic effort, the interior of the Cave, then, seems a good candidate to symbolize the polis and, in particular, a degenerated polis, in which mechanisms of alienation and control are used to dominate the masses. Plausibly, the Cave symbolizes Athensxi.

This is what Wilberding calls the “”more or less orthodox” interpretation, namely “that the prisoners represent the ordinary man, i.e. the majority of men in the polis, whose mental state should be characterized as unreflected belief”xii.

Nothing is said about the men who carry the puppets next to the fire except that they are there and perform this action. Who are they? As long as they seem to be in charge of perpetuating the illusion (which, by the way, we confirm here that is not based on simple/natural aisthesisxiii) we could think they represent sophists or artists, as Plato conceives of them in the rest of the dialoguexiv. In fact, the last possibility emerges more naturally from the general construct, as long as Plato compares the wall interposed between the procession and the prisoners to the “partition that the puppeteers raise between them and the public to show their marionettes”. The reference to the “magicians” and their “wonders” (τοῖς θαυματοποιοῖς … τὰ θαύματα) suggests that what takes place inside the Cave can be conceived as a spectacle; the prisoners, as an audience. The critique to imitative art in Book X comes indeed to mind right away: inside the cave, the shadow refers on the puppet that projects it; the puppet, in turn, refers to the visible object it represents; the visible object, finally, is a copy, a generated instantiation of the Idea that sustains it. Shadow, puppet and visible object are then three steps away from the truth, as Plato says the objects of imitative art are (Rep. X 597e et seq.).

V. The prisoners in the cave and the genesis of public opinion

If this interpretation is along the correct lines, the prisoners in the cave could well be a metaphor to what in Book V Plato describes as the “lovers of sights”. There (474a et seq.), Socrates distinguishes the philosopher, lover of wisdom and learning, φιλομαθής, from the φιλόδοξος, “lover of opinion“, who he also calls in this context φιλοθεάμων, “lover of spectacles“. This double nomenclature perfectly describes the circumstance of the prisoners of the cave. Despite their enslavement, they seem to amuse themselves and react to the sinister spectacle they witness with startling enthusiasm; this, in fact, is suggested by the way they compete with each other and engage in contests about the shadows, celebrating the one who is more skilled. This evokes a particular passage in Book VI:

When the multitude is seated together in assemblies or in court-rooms or theatres or camps or any other public gathering of a crowd, and with loud uproar censure some of the things that are said and done and approve others, both in excess, with full-throated clamor and clapping of hands, thereto the rocks and the region round about re-echoing redouble the din of the censure and the praise” (Rep. VI 492b-c).

Were they able, the prisoners of the cave would clap and the walls of the underground would for sure re-echo. In this context, then, the prisoners of the Cave may well represent the crowd, hoi poloi, the manipulated masses, and the agitation of the subsoil could be conceived as an analog to public opinion and its origin.

VI. The “compulsory emancipation”

Now we come to the point in which one of the prisoners starts his way out of the cave. If the Line and the Sun provided a general and hierarchical scheme of cognitive human condition, now a further conception is advanced in relation to the way and the means through which the higher levels of knowledge can be reached. Opinion (and wrong opinion, more precisely), which is the “natural” cognitive state of the great public in the city, can be left behind (this was already suggested in the Linexv) by means of education. “The Cave is Plato´s most optimistic and beautiful picture of the power of philosophy to free and enlighten (…) Few thinkers (…) have given more striking, and moving, a picture of philosophical thinking as a releasing of the self from undifferentiated conformity to (…) truth”, says Annasxvi. But how “optimistic” is Plato´s message? Strikingly, the process of emancipation does not begin as a movement of self-will, but as a consequence of external intervention. The passive voice and the vocabulary of coercion, violence and necessity that marks this instance of the process of emancipation suggest that reason is passive, easily vulnerable to subjugation, reactionary and gregarious. In fact, the prisoner is released and, at least in one instance, he struggles to come back to the place he previously occupied (xxx). Putting it short: rational progress is neither spontaneous nor autonomous. That it is not autonomous is not very surprising, since we are in a context whose main topic is education: there is nothing strange in figuring teachers in that process. However, the compulsory side of the liberation is somehow odd.

It is odd, firstly, because it contrasts sharply with something Plato will state also in Book VII, namely, that education through compulsion is sterile:

[A]ll this study (…) must be presented to them while still young, not in the form of compulsory instruction (…) Because a free soul ought not to pursue any study slavishly; for while bodily labors performed under constraint do not harm the body, nothing that is learned under compulsion stays with the mind” (Rep. VII 536d-e)

As Barney says: “The result is a paradox if not a downright contradiction. How can the ascent to the Forms be compelled, if nothing learned by compulsion will stick?”xvii.

It is odd, secondly, in view of what Plato has said about the philosophical nature. We know the released must have (or developxviii) a philosophical nature, since at the end of the allegory he comes back to the Cave as an enlightened and as a (potential) Ruler/Guardian. But back to Book V, when Plato was distinguishing between “lovers of sights and opinion” and “lovers of wisdom”, he portrayed the latter, that is, the philosophers, as having “by their very nature” (V 474b) a strong inclination towards study and a powerful desire (love) for the totality of wisdom (475b). The philosopher “feels no distaste in sampling every study, and (…) attacks his task of learning gladly and cannot get enough of it” (V, 475c). “Truth is the spectacle of which true philosophers are enamored (V 475e), and what they want is to approach being in itself and contemplate it in and by itself” (V 476b). What is more important, the philosopher is said to be “able to follow when someone tries to guide him to (…) knowledge” (V 476c). And we should also remember that in Book IX Plato claims that the pleasure linked to knowledge of the Forms is the utmost pleasure for human begins (IX 583a-586e).

On the one hand, if the Cave is a prison, as it obviously is, we have good reason to expect that leaving it was something somehow wanted, something “deeply desired” by the prisoners, as Barney puts itxix. On the other hand, given the philosophical nature, we would expect that the emancipatory process started with some sort of internal movement: we would expect that curiosity entered the scene, or that the idea of the Good exerted over the soul of the released a similar force of attraction that the idea of Beauty exerted over the soul of the lover in the Symposium (XXX). Had that happened, we would know that the released would be one of the “few” (V XXX) gifted with a philosophical nature, since he would have broken the chains out of a power coming from within. But this is not what happens. The released becomes a philosopher, but is not exactly one of those “lovers of wisdom” that are called/attracted to knowledge “by their very nature” or who feels “pleasure” during the process; instead, he is “forced” and “dragged” entirely from without. In the cave, the hero does not wake up from sleep naturally, but when shaken, and shaken violently, by another.

This, I believe, is one of the most stimulating enigmas of the Republic – and one that may not have any solution. Is human intelligence essentially avid? Does it awaken naturally, and naturally long for and head at superior, universal understanding? Or is human intelligence essentially passive, doomed to be overcome by the seduction of the sensible and to remain forever anchored among illusions, unless something unexpected and external pulls it out of its lethargy? Perhaps it is both: given a social context, the first may be the case of the few; the second, of the many. This could be a reasonable answer. However, it is not an answer that can be found in the Cave.

VII. The problem of the first philosopher

So let´s suppose the philosophical nature needs to be compelled towards understanding. Who or what is the something or someone (τις) who releases and then compels the released? I believe there are two options here: or the external force represents studies, or it represents Socrates (or, more generally, “the philosopher”). One could suspect that it could be Eros: the same Eros that elicits the genius according to Diotimaxx. But it is sufficiently evident that this Eros is not what is at stake in the Cave: in the Symposium a sort of sublimation takes place, in the Cave, something like a traumatic episode. Furthermore, as we have already noticed, in the Symposium there is an attraction exerted by the Form (of Beauty, in this case) over the subject, whereas in the Cave, quite on the contrary, everything that approximates to the light (to the Form of the Good, in this case) causes pain and rejection in the subject. There is an important question regarding intellectual motivation here, a question of resistance towards understanding. This is an issue Plato is well aware of: the many are not motivated at all towards understanding and knowledge (xxx); but here the character is (or comes to be) a philosopher, not a member of hoi polloi. Finally, in the Symposium the erotic impulse, even if elicited by an external object, is in itself something that arises within the lover: it is a source of motivation and of creative action/active creation; in the Cave, instead, as far as we have seen, it is all about external constraint.

Let´s suppose, then (somehow “forgetting” 536d-e), that what compels the unreflective mind towards understanding is study and, more in particular (as Plato will put it himself a little later – 522c et seq.), subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy etc. – Socrates states, indeed, that arithmetics “strongly directs the soul upward and compels (ἀναγκάζει) it to discourse about pure numbers” (525d)xxi. This seems weak but possible: if the Cave is about the education of the guardians, then it seems licit to bring into the interpretative effort what is later said about this education. Here Barney says an interesting word: there is a possibility to read anankê as necessityxxii. Thus, the studies that constitute the guardian´s curriculum would be necessary to knowledge, meaning that they are not elective. The potential candidates to guardianship are indeed not violently forced to study, say, arithmetics, but arithmetic is just one of the mandatory subjects of their curriculum if they are to become guardians: “a course can be compulsory without anybody being forced to take it; a subject can be compelling without the instruction being coercive”xxiii. This is what Barney calls the “curricular reading”. However, again, this alternative seems weak: what happens in the Cave hardly induces to traduce anankê as necessity in the sense just portrayed; instead, everything leads us to imagine the compulsory force as a person, and the anankê performed by this person as a compulsion that acts against self-will.

So let´s consider the second hypothesis: is Socrates a good alternative to the figure of the redeemer? Firstly, the mysterious redeemer proceeds by asking questions; secondly, his questions leave the questioned confused – two characteristic traits of the Socratic method. But there are problems with this alternative. Ahead in the construction, the released will see the Sun, come back to the cave and try to liberate his former fellows: this character also looks pretty much like Socrates, especially since his ultimate destiny is that of death. However, this character was the one being released initially. Thus, unless we figure Socrates liberating Socrates, we need to search for further options.

Perhaps with this double evocation of Socrates Plato wants to transmit that the guide/the teacher must look like a philosopher. “It is natural to think of the forcefull agent as someone who has previously ascended to the upper world himself”xxiv. However, again, this alternative is also problematic. If the releaser is a philosopher, and to be released from the cave needs a philosopher, then: who liberated the first philosopher? There is no satisfactory or explicit answer to this question. In fact, if we were to think the allegory as a dramatic composition, the redeemer would be a single character that enters the scene, performs its action and then disappears (indeed, the freed will go through the nocturnal phase of his path and see the Sun entirely by himself). There is no explanation to what or who is responsible for the releasing: it appears from nowhere and causes a change in circumstances that is completely new and unconnected to the causal chain that linked and maintained the events before it appeared. Thus, insisting again on the intention of mirroring the Cave as a dramatic composition, the redeemer could be represented as a deus ex machina, which enters the scene in a mysterious way and produces unexpected changes in the plot. Indeed, nothing of what is described in the first act of the Cave – none of the avatars of the spectacle, nor any impulse arising from the prisoners their-selves – explains the reversal. As Annas states: “The inexplicable nature of the conversion to enlightenment” and “the prisoner´s release from bonds is an unexplained intervention, not an extension of anything done before”xxv. The appearance of the first philosopher could then finally be an issue of mere luck, a gift from the goods, a happy exception to the rule. There may be, then, a third interpretative alternative here: that the external force is neither studies, nor Socrates or the philosopher as a general category, but theiai moiraixxvi. Anyway, whatever the power that releases the prisoner is, the fact is that there is an interference in the lives of the many and some of them are able to face reality as it is.

i See use of the prologue by Euripides as a Socratic influence in drama in Nietzsche´s The birth of Tragedy (XXX).


iii Poet. (XXX)

iv On a more primitive interpretative level, we may de tempted to liken the cave itself to the body and the chains to the senses. Consider 519a-b: “The leaden weights of kinship with becoming, here said to be fastened on by physical pleasures, powerfully recall the chains of the Cave image. Given that the prisoners are “like us”, we must suppose that this bondage is the customary residue of miseducation into any ordinary society. We can achieve wisdom fro eikasia only with pain and difficulty, by shedding a kind of crust of irrational attachments and habits binding us to the body” BARNEY, p. 8.

v Veil of maia – vedanta + adviya

vi Cfr. Also 520c-d.

vii SHAKESPEARE, The Tempest, Act 4; Scene 1.

viii There are huge divergences in relation to eikasia; in relation to “the visible” as a symbol of “the sensible”, etc etc (Ferguson; Annas)


x ANNAS, p. 252


xii Quoted in BARNEY p. 6

xiii This is further evidence that the Cave does not represent “human condition” in an abstract, general way.



xvi Annas, p. 253

xvii BARNEY, p. 5.

xix BARNEY, p. 4.

xx BARNEY (xxx)

xxi Consider also 523a, 524c, 529a

xxiii BARNEY, p.6.

xxiv BARNEY, p. 7.

xxv Annas, 254


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