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Questioning the Cave

After weaving in the analogies of the three waves, the ship of state, the sun, and the divided line, Plato finally discusses The Republic’s most famous image of the cave in Book seven. Yet, this image, although the most well known, seems secondary to the analogy of the sun, and questionable in regards to the ship of state. The sun acting as the guiding “form of good,” is the leading force for all the other analogies, including the cave. The sun sits at the top of the vertically depicted divided line, and along with reaching the intelligible, it is the absolute existence for the three waves, the ship of state, and the cave. The cave’s ability to have its captives reach their full capacity of truth and understanding puts the analogy below the sun, and still within the intelligible realm. The ship of state sits one rung below the cave, as a person may not be fully endued with the truth and good of the sun if they have not been deprived of it. The divided line does prove to us that the visual and the intelligible are connected as what is seemingly an ascending process, and because of this, the ship of state questions the idea as to whether the captors in the cave work with an education and the full understanding of their situation.

The ship of state’s true helmsman, although unassuming and seen as a “stargazer and a windbag and useless to them”, is essentially the equivalent of a philosopher-king within The Republic’s founded city (6.489a). Going unnoticed by the sailors and lacking the desire to rule the ship, the true helmsman essentially holds the knowledge of sailing, the training in the philosophy of his art, and the understanding of the needs of his crew. It is this that determines his ability and potential place within the ship of state’s hierarchy, even if “the most decent people engaged in philosophy are [perceived to be] useless to most people”(6.489b).

Quickly moving forward toward the cave analogy, we see a similar model being depicted, however, the hierarchy is not as clearly defined. Humans are enslaving humans from birth, and the captors in the cave are “going along this little wall carrying all sorts of articles that jut out over the wall, figurines of men and other animals fashioned out of stone and wood and materials of all kinds, with some of the people carrying them past making appropriate sounds and others silent”(7.515a). In an earlier city hierarchy, those born with “iron and bronze in [their souls are] the farmers and other skilled workers,” and would thereby do the work requiring manual labor and not receive an education (3.415b). Since we are not explicitly told who, or of what class, the enslavers in the cave are, it can be assumed that they are of the craftsman class, ordered by those with an education, to take the captives through the laborious process to philosophical enlightenment. This is where the crucial difference from the ship of state and the cave becomes clear: whereas we had an educated man steering the ship, how can an uneducated man, educate what will most likely be future philosophers?

This sort of education is, of course, not a difficult thing to arrange and follow, however, if these people working within the cave are uneducated and uninformed of their situation, they will question and doubt the enslavement of their young and philosophically undeveloped “brethren,” as it does not align with the noble lie told earlier—a potentially detrimental notion for the city and the future philosophers. Yet, even if these humans within the cave are fellow philosophers whose souls have made the transformation from the visible to the intelligible by “gain[ing] sight of the sun . . . and contemplat[ing] it the way it is” then it seemingly reduces the city’s hierarchical “caste” system and duty of the philosopher, thereby contradicting the noble lie as well (7.516b).

The sentiment of the original question still stands however, because for as neat and clever as the allegory of the cave is, it leaves the education of the captors open-ended and disputable. And in reference to the divided line, at which the sun reigns over the intelligible, an analogy firmly rooted in the visible—the ship of state—is able to question a very important component of the cave allegory in the intelligible. If this is an intentioned decision on Plato’s behalf, then perhaps this also lends itself toward a notion of the distinction, or lack there of, between the visible and the intelligible.

 

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