Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Republic: Allegory of the Cave

The Allegory of the Cave

This has been called the most famous metaphor in Western philosophy. Socrates asks us to imagine men who have spent their entire lives imprisoned in a cave underground, seeing only shadows and believing these to be real. One of the men escapes and sees the “real” world, not of shadows but of real things. He then travels back into the cave to enlighten his fellow prisoners with his observations.

In Plato’s city-state, education will allow the philosopher-kings to see the real world. They then must return to the cave to help the great masses. This is their obligation to the state which has given them an education.

Another way to think of this is to ask someone what beauty, courage, justice, etc “is”. Do you imagine, believe, think or understand the real concept of the word? Are these just "shadows" to you or do you really understand their meaning (can you seperate the word from an image?)

No child left behind and information control

Socrates was sentenced to death for crimes including corrupting the youth and impiety. In the Republic, Socrates surprisingly proposes a very strict regimen of study for the children of his ideal city. The classics from Hesiod and Homer, whom he calls ancient texts, must be significantly edited to remove any improprieties about the "gods". Foreshadowing Christianity, Socrates says that no god would do anything that would harm people - gods only do good things. Because Zeus is pure virtue and without fault it is therefore impossible for him to do anything that is not good. This is a severe deviation from traditional Greek thought, especially editing texts which many Greek consider sacred. However, this editing does reflect much of the editing that would take place at the "Council of Nicaea" when Christians tried to determine who/what God was.

God is never the “author of evil” to anyone. God would also never assume a less perfect form (a beggar, a traveler, etc) since he could never lie or deceive.

Plato has a complete plan for finding and training his philosopher-kings from childhood to their 50's. This includes much schooling in mathematics, which he regards as a step away from empirical reasoning (using the senses) toward a pure form of investigation using math and logic. For example instead of thinking of 2 apples or 2 oranges, Plato wants you to think of an intangible number “2”, not associated to any particular object.

Plato's Ideal Government
"the state is the soul writ large"

Socrates explains the best and worst forms of government in this order: monarchy, oligarthy, democracy and tyranny. Finding democracy in third place is strange given the development of this form of government in Athens. Plato seems to think that democracy is a world of absolute freedom where everyone can do as they please. He thinks this will descend into anarchy as everyone pursues their own interests and will eventually lead to a strong leader emerging (a tyranny).

Socrates describes a most bizarre form a government which seems authoritarian and proto-communistic, with the goal of establishing harmony and diminishing discord. First, information control is critical, such as regulating what poetry, stories, music and education the youth receive. The guardians also do not get to own property, which is a great idea and sort of reminds me of a cross between the Doges of the Republic of Venice and samurais of medieval Japan (both property/salary-less).

The utopian vision become absurd when Socrates describes how babies will be taken from their mothers so no one knows whose child is whose. This will discourage people from treating other people's children differently, since any kid could be yours. I wonder if this makes it easier to find a baby-sitter? I would have to think this would really mess a kid up, especially if you do not look like any one else! Plato also wants people to share wives (which would keep you from coveting your neighbor's). Unfortunately sex is entirely for procreation and only done on certain times of the year (to ensure we all think those kids belong to us).

Lying should be reserved only for the rulers of states to control the masses, but lying to rulers is the worst crime. This seems to contradict the virtuous nature of the philosopher-kings.

Poetry and Television

When I see people in television shows I remind myself that this is not how real people act (or should act). I am becoming more aware of it since we hope to start a family and I am becoming more cognizant of the ridiculous behavior of many TV characters. Plato saw the same problem with plays and stories performed or read in his day. Socrates states that stories that depict characters acting in inappropriate or unmanly ways will be banned or edited. I guess he thought this would be easier than just having a heart-to-heart with "your" child. Children should be taught false stories first, then true ones.

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