The Republic Summary and Analysis

Book VII

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"On Shadows and Realities in Education"

Summary: Book VII

In Book VII Socrates continues work toward a more complete representation of the good. Another of Socrates' figures, the Allegory of the Cave, awaits the philosophic pilgrim who has come this far like the gaping mouth of the cave itself. It is his most elaborate figure yet and, assuredly, his most important.

We are to imagine a dim cave in which a group of prisoners, chained in such a way that they cannot move their heads, stare at a wall all day. Thanks to a small fire, the prisoners see the shadows of their captors projected on the wall. Having always been in the cave, they believe the shadows are true; likewise, the echoed voices they hear, they also believe to be true. Then one day a certain prisoner is released. The secrets of the cave are disclosed to him, and he is lead up into the sunlight, which blinds his unaccustomed eyes. The third part of the allegory has the Œenlightened' prisoner, who has looked upon, contemplated, and adjusted to the true light of the sun, must return to the cave. There he finds his new eyes ill-suited for cave life and is cruelly mocked by the other prisoners.

In the subsequent deconstruction of his allegory, Socrates informs his uncomprehending auditors that the guardians of their State will be like the enlightened prisoner re-descending into the darkness, only this time, willingly, out of obligation, and in name of the greater good. The others cry injustice‹but Socrates assuages them, explaining that the guardians owe the greater part of their illumination the State and, in truth, will be required to spend only some of their time below, in service.

Next is a search for that knowledge which will raise men from darkness into the light. It shall culminate the guardians education. After eliminating the music and gymnasium of Book II as insufficient for the elite, arithmetic, geometry, solids in motion, are in turn suggested, tried, and accepted. Each science partakes of a dual nature, the abstract and the real, and thus fit Socrates' purposes well enough. Astronomy and music are similarly approved, with the caveat not to mistake their actual ends for true ends. Finally Socrates comes to the dialectic, the preeminent, last, and most rigorous science.

Selection of the guardians from the best quality men, then an outline of their education and training follows. Guardians are introduced to the sciences listed above, as a kind of amusement, in childhood. At twenty the candidates begin comprehensive study of the subjects; at thirty, the most accomplished of those remaining are instructed in the dialectic for five years before taking an office, or descending into the cave, in order to gain experience. After fifteen years of this type of service, at the age of fifty, and if the candidate has proven himself worthy in all respects, he becomes a ruler of State, a true guardian.

Analysis: Book VII

The Republic's most famous allegory, designed to encapsulate Plato's Theory of Forms, the Allegory of the Cave is evidence for not only philosophic genius, but imaginative genius as well. A summary interpretation of the allegory's Œmeaning' cannot be better or more concisely stated than in Socrates' addition: "the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual worldŠ" So, to be very clear on one point of possible confusion, the blinding sun of the allegory is not the real sun, but a symbol for the good.

The concept of duty and service are addressed in response to the objection raised by Glaucon. While contemporary philosophers are, for the most part, self-taught, they have no obligation to serve their state; however, the guardians are nurtured and educated, that is, liberated, by the State‹they are unshackled. Therefore, and if their probity is not enough to dictate for them, compulsory service to that which has made them what they are is just.

The unique quality of arithmetic is its capacity to differentiate and unify at the same time; for example, the number one is both singular and infinite (i.e. between 0 and 1 lie an infinite multitude of numbers [fractions]). Platonic ideals are commensurate, in this mode, with abstract numbers, while calculations‹of five apples, for instance‹work with actual manifestations.

Mathematical sciences join Plato's educational curriculum only so far as they remain fixed on the proper goal: the ascertainment of being and not becoming. But dialectic is superior to all of them in that it has no hypotheses, no presuppositions. It is worth reproducing here the following syllogisms as found in the text:

"As being is to becoming, so is pure intellect to opinion. And as intellect is to opinion, so is science to belief, and understanding to the perception of shadows."

The guardians must master dialectic and be able to employ it to grasp the good.

In the course of the dialogue, Plato has constructed the fundamental outline of the liberal arts education offered by most contemporary universities, whose pedagogy descend from Plato's Academy.

The long and arduous road to becoming a ruler of the State begins with informal intellectual stimulation. Plato advances the position of early learning as amusement, so as not to discourage children from it. Gradually, the most promising children are tested; those who succeed, move onward. The education and training of a guardian is a combination of the different types of knowledge and experience available to human beings, from the purely speculative and academic to the experiential. In this way, the guardian emerges, after fifty fully realized years, the only person capable and worthy of ruling the ideal State. He (or she) is, in Plato's terms, the perfect, or at least the complete and just, ruler‹the philosopher-king, just as the State can be the only truly just state.