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The Process of Transitioning from Ignorance to True Knowledge

Plato’s Republic illustrates the educational process in which people attain the knowledge of virtue, and in discovering this truth people are able to live a happier life. This is displayed through the allegory of the cave, which presents the painful but enlightening journey in finding the truth. Socrates puts forward the image of a group of people who have been living in a cave since childhood, they are prisoners “with their legs and necks in restraints, so they’re held in place and look only to the front, restricted-by their neck restraints, from twisting their heads around.” (VII, 514B). Behind them is a fire which brings enough light to cast their shadows on the wall. Socrates states that, “such people wouldn’t consider anything to be the truth other than the shadow of artificial thing.” (VII, 515C). This essay argues, with support from the philosophies of Jean- Jacques Rousseau, that the allegory of the cave depicts the process in which people attain knowledge of the good; that the true understanding of virtue has to be learned individually and cannot be given or taught by another. Furthermore, it will bring insight on the paradox in which the good life is a happy, but painful life.

The prisoners residing in the cave do not question their reality since their condition is all they have ever known. This portrays the false virtues of society, which people readily accept without question, a life in darkness limited by the appearance of things. This directly correlates with the ideas presented by Jean- Jacques Rousseau, in his Two Discourses. He argues that man, in society, has made his morals creating the deceitful veil of  politeness; people formulate virtue from the appearance of virtue in society rather than virtue itself. Rousseau states that, “The honest man is an athlete, who loves to wrestle stark naked; he scorns the vile trappings, which prevent the exertion of his strenght.” (Rousseau, 59.2). The imprisonment of the people in the cave represents the vile trappings of society. The French philosopher continues to argue that man mistakes opinion for wisdom, holding a false appearance of virtue; “we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.” (Rousseau, 77.2). Notably, Socrates points out that a man cannot be told to leave the cave for he believes that the cave is the only truth; if another enters the cave, tells him the falsehood of his life, and forces him out he will still only see the  appearance of things. Socrates states that, “And if one were to drag him away  from there by force…until he’d dragged him into the light of the sun…and when he came into the light…wouldn’t he be unable to see even one of the things now said to be the true ones?” (VII, 515E). People can only learn virtue through their own experiences, this type of education is procedural “At first he’d most easily see the shadows, and after that the images of human beings and other things in water, and only later the things themselves, and turning from those things, he’d gaze on things in the heavens and at the heavens  themselves…”(VII, 516B). Socrates continues to claim that, “Than, at last, I’d imagine, he’d gain sight of the sun, not in its appearances of the water or in any setting foreign to it, but he’d have the power to see it itself, by itself, in its own realm and contemplate it the way it is.” (VII, 516B). Thus, it is through ones own experiences and in their compilation of those experiences  they can see true virtue. In contemplation people are able to provide conclusions in the real realm.

When someone is released from the shadows and reaches the light he feels the pain from knowing the emptiness of his past life. In living the good life people no longer live in the darkness, conducting unnatural behavior associated with the false virtues of society. Without  living knowing the truth, you are deprived of true happiness. Glaucon questions the metaphor of the cave asking, “do you think he’d be logging for those rewards and feel jealousy towards the ones honored by those people and in power among them…and wish powerfully…and submit to everything rather than live in that way?” (VII, 516D). However, Glaucon misunderstands the syllogism of the man released from the cave, as Socrates states “if you take the upward journey and sight of the things above as the soul’s road up into the intelligible region, you won’t miss my intended meaning.” (VII, 517B). Notably in regards to virtue,  Rousseau points out that in society great honor comes from the respect of others rather than self content. Honor comes from “public entertainments, the politeness of our behavior, the affability of our conversation, our constant profession of benevolence.” (Rousseau, 60.1) The vanity of man establishes honors from specific faculties, which are by nature unequal; this creates a false perception of the good cheapening virtue and leaving it unhonored. This aspect of society gives rise to vices such as, jealousy and the wish for power which were mentioned by Glaucon. The journey of the man leaving the cave and learning the true meaning of things represents man’s ability to find true virtue in society, overcoming the the vices of jealousy and desire. Thus, once the man leaves the cave and comes to the light, he will not submit to everything because he understands the limitations of living a dark life of false virtue.

The educational process of virtue involves the redirection of the soul, and all people hunger to grow and nurture the soul. The soul is nurtured in attaining the knowledge of true virtue, and once that occurs people will not revert back to an unvirtuous life because they understand that it is damaging to the soul. Socrates states that, “if someone coming from contemplation of divine things to things of a human sort is awkward and looks extremely ridiculous while his sight is still dim.” (VII, 517D). Once people learn the truth they feel pain in learning the falsehood of their life prior to gaining the truth. Socrates states that, “If such a person were to go back down and sit in the same spot, wouldn’t he get his eyes filled with darkness by coming suddenly out of the sun?” (VII, 516E).  A man will never be able to return to unvirtuous conditions and be happy. Although Socrates states that the virtuous man laughs and pities those who are unable to see virtue, and remains happy by the fact that he has the knowledge of virtue. It is not always easy to laugh and pity the ignorance of others. Even though the soul is nurtured it is often in pain, being hurt by those who act unvirtuous, especially those who are in close relation. It remains in the process of contemplation to heal from the unvirtuous to forgive and pity them. However, once a person experiences the transition from ignorance to knowledge and has “…seen the truth about beautiful and just and good thing;”  and he is dazzled by the great radiance of that educational process and with virtue itself. Thus, when a person learns the truth, even if his soul is continuously hurt by others, he will never return or conform to the unvirtuous lifestyles of other.

 

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