“Philosophy involves seeing the absolute
oddity of what is familiar and trying to formulate really probing questions
about it.” –Iris Murdoch1
“They say about me that I am the strangest person, always making
people confused.” –Socrates2
Imagine a dark, subterranean prison in which humans are bound by their
necks to a single place from infancy. Elaborate steps are taken by
unseen forces to supply and manipulate the content of the prisoner’s
visual experience. This is so effective that the prisoners do not
recognize their imprisonment and are satisfied to live their lives
in this way. Moreover, the cumulative effects of this imprisonment
are so thorough that if freed, the prisoners would be virtually helpless.
They could not stand up on their own, their eyes would be overloaded
initially with sensory information, and even their minds would refuse
to accept what the senses eventually presented them. It is not unreasonable
to expect that some prisoners would wish to remain imprisoned even
after their minds grasped the horror of their condition. But if a
prisoner was dragged out and compelled to understand the relationship
between the prison and outside, matters would be different. In time
the prisoner would come to have genuine knowledge superior to the
succession of representations that made up the whole of experience
before. This freed prisoner would understand those representations
as imperfect—like pale copies of the full reality now grasped
in the mind. Yet if returned to the prison, the freed prisoner would
be the object of ridicule, disbelief, and hostility.
Viewers of The Matrix remember
the moment in the film when Neo is released from his prison and made
to grasp the truth of his life and the world. The account above roughly
captures that turning point in the 1999 film, and yet it is drawn from
an image crafted almost twenty-four hundred years ago by the Greek philosopher,
Plato (427-347 B.C.E.). Today the Republic is the most influential
work by Plato, and the allegory of the Cave the most famous part of
the Republic. If you know that Socrates was tried, convicted,
and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, or that Socrates thought
that the unexamined life is not worth living, you may also know that
Socrates in the Republic likened the human condition to the
state of prisoners bound in a cave seeing only shadows projected on
the wall in front of them. Transcending this state is the aim of genuine
education, conceived as a release from imprisonment, a turning or reorientation
of one’s whole life, an upward journey from darkness into light:
The release from the bonds, the turning around
from shadows to statues and the light of the fire and, then, the way up
out of the cave to the sunlight…: [education] has the power to awaken
the best part of the soul and lead it upward to the study of the best
among the things that are.3
> The allegory of the Cave gives literary shape
to Socrates’ most fundamental concern, namely that our souls be
in the best condition possible (Plato, Apology 30a7-b4). Socrates
also believed he was commanded by the god Apollo to practice philosophy;
it both animated and cost him his life. Yet it is not obvious how philosophical
investigation improves the condition of the soul—still less how
the Socratic method in particular does so, consisting as it does in testing
the consistency of a person’s beliefs through a series of questions
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I believe, and will show here, that the allegory of the Cave is part of
Plato’s effort to make philosophical sense of Socrates’ philosophical
life, to link Socrates’ persistent questioning to his unwavering
aim at what he called the “care of the soul.” On this theme
of care of the soul, there is a deep resonance between The Matrix
and Plato’s thought in the Republic. Like the allegory
of the Cave, The Matrix dramatically conveys the view that ordinary
appearances do not depict true reality and that gaining the truth changes
one’s life. Neo’s movements toward greater understanding nicely
parallel the movements of the prisoner in the cave whose bonds are loosened.
The surface similarities between the film and the allegory can run to
a long catalog. The first paragraph of this essay reveals some of these
connections. But there remains a deeper affinity between the two that
I shall draw out here, especially in Part IV, having to do with Socrates’
notion of the care of the soul.
To see what I am calling a deeper connection between the film and the
allegory of the Cave, I begin in Part II by recounting the context in
which the Cave appears and the philosophical positions it figuratively
In Part III I compare and contrast the film and the allegory, focusing
attention on the difficulty in sorting out deceptive sensory information.
Finally, in Part IV I examine the warnings and concessions Plato places
in the dramatic spaces of Republic. The allegory of the Cave
is a strange image, as one of Socrates’ friends says (515a4), while
Socrates himself confesses that the Cave is not exact (504b5; cf. 435c9-d2).5
Rereading the Cave after a recent viewing of the film shows that these
are not throwaway remarks. The Matrix likewise privileges the
work that strangeness and calculated vagueness do; Morpheus, after all,
cannot show Neo what he most needs to see, but must get him to see for
himself something that is difficult to recognize. In this way, The
Matrix and Plato’s Cave are faithful to a central tenet in
Socrates’ philosophical examinations: that proper teaching only
occurs when students are prepared to make discoveries for themselves.
Furthermore, the discovery that is most crucial is the discovery of oneself.
Readiness for self-examination is, after all, what makes “care of
the soul” possible.
II. Plato’s Cave
If Plato’s Republic
has a single unifying theme, it is to show that the life of the just
person is intrinsically preferable to any other life. In order to prove
this, Socrates is made to investigate the concept of “justice.”
After an elaborate effort that spans three of the ten books of the Republic,
Socrates and his two interlocutors discover what justice is. Justice
is shown to be a property of a soul in which its three parts do their
proper work and refrain from doing the job of another part. Specifically,
reason must rule the other parts of the soul. Only under the rule of
reason is the soul’s harmonious arrangement secured and preserved.
Plato glosses this idea memorably by calling such a soul healthy. Just
persons have psychic health; their personality is integrated in the
At the end of Book Four, there is one main gap in the argument: what is
the precise role of reason, the “best part of the soul” mentioned
in the passage above? There is little to go on at this stage. We know
only that the soul in which reason does its job well is called wise, and
wisdom is a special kind of knowledge: knowledge of the good. How are
we to arrive at this knowledge? What is it like to possess it? What sort
of thing is the good? The allegory of the Cave speaks to these questions.6
In order to impress upon us the importance of these questions, Book Seven
of the Republic begins with a startling image of our ignorance.
It is the allegory of the Cave:
Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling,
with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and
as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood,
fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able
to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from
turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far
above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there
is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along
this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers
above which they show their puppets . . . Then also imagine that there
are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project
above it—statues of people and other animals, made out of stone,
wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the
carriers are talking, and some are silent. (514a1-515a3)
Many contemporary readers recoil at the awful
politics of the Cave. Who, after all, are the “puppeteers”?
Why do they deceive their fellow cave-dwellers? Plato has so little
to say about them that readers quickly imagine their own worst fears;
a totalitarian government or the mass media struck mid- and late-20th
Century readers as an obvious parallel to the prisoners who move freely
within the cave. But this gets the aim of the cave wrong, I believe,
since it deflects attention away from the prisoners bound to the posts.
“They are us,” Socrates says, and this is what is truly
sinister: an imprisonment that we do not recognize because we are our
own prison-keepers. Let us turn to examine these prisoners and their
imprisonment, specifically by examining the philosophical stakes of
their ignorance. Only then will we see exactly why ignorance is likened
to imprisonment and alienation.
In the cave, the prisoners can distinguish the different shadows and
sounds (516c8-9, cf. e8-9), apply names to the shadows depicting things
(cf. 515b4-5), and even discern the patterns in their presentation
(516c9-10). To this extent they have some true beliefs. But insofar
as they believe that this two-dimensional, monochromatic play of images—and
the echoes reverberating in the cave—is the whole of reality
(515c1-2), they are mistaken. Moreover, the opinions they have do
not explain why the shapes they see are as they are. They do not know
the source of the shadows, nor do they know that the sounds are not
produced by the shadows but rather by the unseen people moving the
The possession of a few, small-scale, true beliefs characterizes the
condition of all of us, Plato believes. We can distinguish different
things, but we lack a systematic, causal explanation of them. To put
it loosely, we have, at best, assorted true beliefs about the what
of things, but a mistaken hold (if any) on the why of things.
Socrates’ search for the definition of justice here, like his
search for definitions in other Platonic dialogues, looks like an effort
to get at these explanations, to grasp why things are the way they are
and, perhaps further, what underlying relationship they have to one
another. His questions are part of a search for the essence of things,
or what he calls their “form.”7
For Plato, when we possess knowledge of the form of a thing, we can
give a comprehensive account of its essence. Without grasp of the form,
we can have at best only true beliefs.
A simple example should show what difference it makes to have knowledge
Suppose someone in the cave carries a chair in front of the fire. The
bound prisoners see the chair’s shadow on the cave wall, and some
of them remark, “There is a chair.” They are partially correct.
If they broke their bonds, they could turn to see the actual chair.
In this case their cognitive grip on the chair would be more complete.
They would be able to recognize that the shadow was less real than the
chair and that the chair is the cause of the shadow.
Ultimately, the physically-real chair is explained in terms of its representation
of the form of chair. After all, to have genuine knowledge of a thing
it is necessary for our intellects to grasp its form. One might think
of the difference this way. A shadow is better grasped when the object
casting it is seen. Plato would wish us to see that, in a sense, ordinary
objects are like mere shadows of forms. Thus, to grasp objects as fully
as possible, one must attain a grasp of its form.
There is a curious complication on the horizon that I shall point
out here. It turns out that knowing the form of a thing is not sufficient
for gaining a final understanding of that thing. Even to know fully
the form of chair, Plato holds, one must know the form of the good.
This does not make sense at first. Recall, the form of the good is what
reason ought, ideally, to know, for in knowing it you become wise. Furthermore,
knowing the form of the good contributes to your being a just person,
since one part of you, reason, is doing its job (and this is what it means
for you to be just). Now Plato suggests that grasping the form of the
good or the good-itself (the terms are interchangeable; see note 7) is
necessary for attaining the best intellectual grasp of anything
that our intellects can know. The distinctive importance of the form of
the good is indicated by two images that immediately precede the Cave:
the Sun and the Line, and I will consider them now.
The Sun analogy (507a ff.) reveals the special epistemological role played
by the good-itself. Just as the natural world depends upon the sun (for
warmth and light), so too the intelligible world depends on the good-itself
This is the force of the light metaphor. The sun, as Plato puts it, gives
the power to see to seers, while the form of the good gives the power
to know to knowers (508e1-3).
In our example of the chair, it is only in virtue of the light produced
by the fire above and behind the prisoners that the chair and its
shadow are visible. The fire, then, is a condition for our acquiring
a more complete true belief about the shadow. But the fire is nothing
more than a “source of light that is itself a shadow in relation
to the sun” (532c2-3). Out of the cave the sun represents the
good-itself. The good-itself illuminates the true, intelligible world
of ultimate reality, and in this way, the form of chair relies on
the form of the good for its intelligibility. The good-itself is the
most preeminent item in the universe. It is both an object of knowledge
and the condition of fully knowing other objects of knowledge.
Plato is not finished with his specification of the role played by
the form of the good. He goes on to suggest that the good-itself nourishes
the being of intelligible things in a way analogous to the sun nourishing
organic life. For this unusual idea we have some help from the Line
image (509d ff), the most obscure of the three images. Imagine a vertical
line dividing two realms—physical reality and intelligible reality—into
unequal spaces. Each realm is then subdivided in the same uneven proportion
as that which separates the physical and intelligible world. To take
only the smaller, bottom portion of the line, we find the physical
realm divided between actual, physically-existing items and their
ephemeral copies (e.g., reflections in water, shadows, and artistic
depictions). In the Cave, this is the distinction made between the
chair and its shadow. And so too the Line presses us to think that
the physically real objects perceived by our senses are, in effect,
shadows—pale, diminished or distorted copies of something more
The Line offers a ranked order of Plato’s ontology according
to which the degrees of reality and being of a particular class of
things increases as you go up the line. The higher up the scale, the
more real the items become; and since the form of the good is the
most real item in all of reality, it is located at the very top of
the Line, just above the forms. Things lower on the line are derivative
and owe whatever reality or being that they have to the things above
them. Physical objects are, metaphorically, nourished by their corresponding
forms. They depend for their very reality, not just their knowability,
on the perfect, eternal Forms existing in the intelligible realm.
One clear implication of the Line is the metaphor of ascent. The Cave
exploits it as well: the upward escape from the cave represents the
difficulty of gaining ever more abstract knowledge while not relying
on information gathered by the senses. By connecting the three images
together we discover that the human condition is abject: we see only
the most downgraded forms of reality (image, shadows) and are as far
from the sun (the good-itself) as we can be. This is what it is to
be ignorant of the truth.
But to see why our alienation from what is genuinely good makes a difference
in our lives, there is one more feature of the good-itself that deserves
attention. Whatever exactly the form of the good is, it serves as a paradigm
or model, and it has a remarkable effect on those who grasp it. As Socrates
says of fully-educated philosophers near the end of Book Seven, “once
they’ve seen the good-itself, they must each in turn put the city,
its citizens, and themselves in order, using it as their model (paradeigmati)”
(540a8-b1). This was anticipated in a longer passage in which the philosopher,
by means of studying the “things that are” (500b9), acts as
a craftsman (cf. 500d6), or a “painter using a divine model (paradeigmati)”
(500e3-4). Not only do physical things take on the qualities they have
through a process of copying, reflecting or imitating the forms, so too
we can take on goodness through intellectual contact with the good-itself.10
By coming to understand the good-itself, we become like it. In short,
we become good.
We can see now why being just depends on knowing the form of the good.
Reason’s rule affords the soul the opportunity to study and therein
to become like the good-itself, that is, properly proportioned, well ordered,
healthy. Finally, once this knowledge is acquired, and the self is transformed,
one becomes productive.11
Those who gain knowledge of the good-itself are capable of crafting virtues
in their souls and in the souls of others, and they can paint divine constitutions
for cities. This is what enables Plato to put words into Socrates’
mouth that, were he on Aristophanes’ stage, would have returned
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings
and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until
political power and philosophy entirely coincide . . . cities will
have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race.
[ Top ]
III. Plato’s Cave
and The Matrix
There are no forms in The Matrix,
and thus our epistemic and metaphysical circumstances in Plato’s
Republic look very different from those in the film. The world
inside the cave is a diminished one, a shadow or reflection of the real,
but broadly continuous with the true world. Even though there is a marked
difference between the sensible and intelligible realms viz. method, epistemic
certainty, and metaphysical reality, on Plato’s view the sensible
is somehow derived from the intelligible. Thus, for Plato, our speaking
and thinking in the cave is not meaningless, and some of our opinions
are true, in spite of our ignorance of the deeper causes of things.
In The Matrix, by contrast, the two worlds are far less continuous
with one another. The real world is profoundly dystopian, and the substance
of lives inside the Matrix is supplied in mental states almost entirely
cut off from this reality. (Ironically, the real world in The Matrix
is very like the world inside the cave.) In spite of its realism, the
world inside the Matrix is not a copy of the real world but is a simulation.
Nevertheless, there is at least one continuity between the real world
and the computer-simulated world: your body. Owing to an unexplained principle,
called “residual body memory,” your body looks the same to
you and to others in both worlds. And you are able to retain your memories
of one world when you are in the other and when you return back to the
first. (This means that Cypher will have to have his memories of the time
spent outside the Matrix removed if he is to return to the illusion of
reality inside the Matrix.)
Since the real world and the simulated world are worlds in which the senses
receive information, the practical problem is not that they are discontinuous,
but that they are indiscernible. This is part of the initial difficulty
for Neo since he cannot determine which sensory information is genuine
and which false. Although he (and the viewer) settles this question soon
enough, a skeptical worry remains in the wake: how can he ever be sure
his sensory information is truthful if there is no certificate of authenticity
on his experiences?
Suppose Agent Smith creates a program that launches right when Neo picks
up a phone within the Matrix. Instead of being whisked back aboard the
ship, Neo’s consciousness is supplied with a computer-generated
experience of the interior of the Nebuchadnezzar, and of course he believes
he has successfully exited the Matrix. Such a trick might enable Agent
Smith to obtain compromising information about the Nebuchadnezzar and
its crew or, worse, the passwords for Zion.
It is hard to imagine how Neo might see past Agent Smith’s ruse,
especially if he only had a few moments to figure things out. Would Plato’s
freed prisoner fair better? Recall, Plato urges us to regard the sensible
world as unreliable, no matter the source of our information about it.12
We must adopt a different method for apprehending the truth of things.
This is, of course, not nearly as simple as it sounds, nor is it obviously
helpful; after all, what we are to grasp is the intelligible world from
which our ordinary, sensible world is copied, not the sensible world itself.
The reward is that once you grasp the forms in the intelligible world,
you would be an expert in discriminating items in the sensible world (cf.
520c1-6). This doesn’t mean you’d never be mistaken, however;
rather, you would simply be the best sensible world discriminator there
could be. Therefore, in the case where Agent Smith launches his deceptive
program, the only advantage the freed prisoner might have is slight: a
general unease about all sensory information. Since the ordinary world
is too murky and ever-changing to permit genuine knowledge of it, our
awareness of this mutability should assist us in determining which of
our beliefs were relatively more reliable.
It seems that the metaphysical differences between Plato and The Matrix
do not prevent them from telling a roughly similar story about the epistemological
unreliability of the senses and the need to abstract from the senses in
order to gain genuine knowledge. In fact, we find Neo at the end of the
film doing more than simply bending the laws of physics with the Matrix.
He has, it seems, stepped almost entirely out of that very world itself.
He does not, however, appear in two places at once, but his destruction
of one of the Agents, and his ability to fly, suggest that the laws of
physics are more than merely bent.
Where Plato’s dialogue and The
Matrix agree most is in drawing out the enormous psychological difficulty
in calling the world into question and the ethical dimensions of failing
to do so. Neo and Plato’s freed prisoner must accept truths about
themselves (namely, that their lives have been unreal) before they can
acquire deeper knowledge about fundamental truths. To achieve this, both
Neo and the freed prisoner need the shocking demonstration that the senses
are inadequate and that they can be systematically deceived. Both then
undertake an introspective turn to discover the truth, and must take steps
to disregard knowledge derived from the senses.
[ Top ]
This is the point to ask, finally, what knowledge Neo attains that operates
in him like the knowledge of the Platonic form of the good. What does
Neo know only after great difficulty but whose truth is fundamental?
What object is grasped by Neo’s intellect that he understands
to be the condition of his knowing anything else? What knowledge enables
him to be productive, to be a savior of himself and others? It is nothing
more than proper self-understanding. In both The Matrix and
in the Cave, there is a single item the knowledge of which makes the
knower more integrated and more powerful, and for Neo it is self-knowledge.
Ought we to see Neo as adhering to the letter of Socratic self-examination
and care of the soul? Only at high-altitude will a perfect connection
be visible. For Neo’s enlightenment is ultimately about his own
specific path and role. Socratic care of the soul involves self-knowledge,
but the parts of yourself that are peculiar to you, that make up your
individuality, are not relevant.13
Since the prisoners in the cave have only dim self-awareness (they see
only the shadows of themselves [515a5-8]), it might seem that release
involves getting the right beliefs about oneself. But the very abstractness
of the knowledge that Plato prizes, which is very unlike the specificity
of the knowledge that Neo eventually gets (namely, that he is the One),
suggests that the self-knowledge the prisoners need is neither the end
of their search nor even the proper beginning.
In other dialogues Socrates was made to endorse the idea that knowledge
was in you, that a kind of introspection aided by proper questioning could
elicit true beliefs. But these are not truths that are about
you, rather they are truths that are in you. Neo’s case
is different. The truths he must grasp are both in him and about him.
The film reveals furthermore how he must demonstrate and experience his
capabilities before he is able to believe entirely that he possesses them.
And when he believes in himself at last, his capabilities are further
enhanced. This result is produced neither by the method nor the
aim of Socratic care of the soul.
Most fundamentally, the film and the allegory share a pedagogical conceit.
Both hold that in teaching the most basic truths, there is an important
role for a strategic strangeness and the confusion it produces. The allegory
of the Cave puzzles Socrates’ audience, yet as it hooks them, the
Cave provides only the outline for solving the puzzle. Might Morpheus
be doing the same? Might Morpheus, like the allegory, act as a kind of
Socratic teacher, urging Neo toward self-understanding and care for his
IV. Socratic Education
in the Cave and The Matrix
To see to what extent this is so, I
want now to return to a remark by Socrates’ friend, Glaucon, that
the cave and its prisoners are “strange” (atopon . . .
atopous, [515a4]). The remark is important because it indicates that
the image is operating on its audience in a particular way, one that Plato
elsewhere gives us reason to believe is significant. Prompting someone
to recognize strangeness, something being out of place (atopia),
is how the Socratic method achieves one of its aims. This can occur when
Socrates asks one of his deceptively simple questions. But it can also
occur when he professes ignorance, or when he is silent. Similarly, Plato’s
allegory of the Cave describes what our ignorance is like in stark images
and what it would be like to become educated; it says nothing about what
starts the process of becoming educated.14
Of course, the imprisonment is metaphorical, as is the release. Pressing
for specific details is to demand too much of the image. By refusing to
say precisely how this prisoner is freed, Plato retains the openness
of his allegory.15
What are we to say about The Matrix? On the surface, it appears
the The Matrix departs from the allegory. First of all, it gives
answers to the question above, for it is Morpheus who frees Neo, and Morpheus
chooses to free him because there is something particular about Neo that
recommends his release. Yet, on closer inspection, Neo’s early encounters
with Morpheus produce the same kind of confusion that Socrates produces
in his interlocutors. Neo receives strange communications via computer
(“wake up, Neo,”16)
to follow the white rabbit he soon sees on a tattooed shoulder. These
odd messages disrupt Neo’s expectations of the world, especially
his need for control over his life and his facility with computers. Another
disruption comes when Neo swallows the red pill. This drug quickly begins
to alter his perception of the stability of the world inside the Matrix.17
Taken together, the computer messages uncannily anticipate what is about
to happen, while the pill calls into question his grasp of what is now
happening. This surely prepares Neo to accept the truth that everything
that has already happened is an illusion.
If we suppose that Morpheus asks the right questions, and supplies the
right drugs, it is still the case that Neo has to recognize the questions
and accept the drugs. Neo proves to be a particularly apt pupil. Indeed,
there are features of Neo’s life that might explain how he begins
to see the falsity of the world inside the Matrix. Neo is an accomplished
hacker who would have the best chance of anyone to discover that the
whole of his experience is itself nothing more than highly-sophisticated
computer code. He is also living a double life. He works as a software
engineer perhaps to maintain a steady income, perhaps as cover for his
underground activities. Maybe playing the role of an office worker affords
him a sense of the absurd that makes it easier to believe that his life
is hollow. Insomnia might work for this purpose as well. Besides, who
hasn’t had the gut feeling Neo has that “there is something
wrong with the world”?
Of course, one of the themes of the film is Neo’s struggle to accept
his role as the One, the savior of humanity. He is the subject of a number
of prophecies made by the Oracle.18
In fact, he is the only person whose prophecy does not refer to someone
other than himself. He only accepts his true nature well after the series
of strange clues Morpheus presents to him and the confusion this produces
in him. Ultimately, he must experience first-hand his fitness for the
special role that the others urge him to perform.
In this way, Morpheus can be seen as a Socratic gadfly, stinging Neo to
take the first steps he needs in order to discover the truth on his own.
Similarly, Plato’s sketch of the role played by the form of the
good only points the way to the complete answer that Plato would have
us seek out. In this way, Plato draws the reader to think for him or herself
in the same way that Socrates wished his interlocutors to feel the sting
of the realization of their ignorance as a motivation to join him in inquiry
and care of the soul.
The allegory of the Cave issues a pointed challenge: in what way are we
living lives of diminished prospect, resting content with our knowledge,
failing even to ask the right questions? These are precisely the questions
Morpheus puts to Neo. And like Morpheus, Plato’s pessimism about
the human condition gives way to an optimistic view of the power of education
to liberate anyone:
Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting
knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes
. . . Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t
turned the right way or where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect
it appropriately. (518b7-c2, d5-7)
[ Top ]
and Philosophy: A Conversation with Bryan Magee” in Existentialists
and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Penguin,
1998), 8. Originally published in Magee, Men of Ideas (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1978).
[ Top ]
2. Plato, Theaetetus
3. Plato, Republic
532b6-8, c3-6. What I have dubbed “education” in the brackets
is specifically the study of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and harmony.
When properly pursued, each discipline involves abstraction from the
senses, and is “really fitted in every way to draw one towards
being” (523a2-3). These disciplines prepare our minds for the
most important discipline, dialectic, Plato’s term for the right
kind of philosophical examination.
Hereafter I include citations to the “Stephanus pages” of
the Republic in the text. Stephanus pages may be found along
the vertical margins of most translations of the Republic. For example,
“527d6-e3” refers to a passage beginning on Stephanus page
527, section d, on line 6 of the Oxford Classical Text. The translation
I cite here is by Grube/Reeve (1992), which is also found in Cooper
4. I shall refer to the philosophical
positions advocated by the character Socrates as Plato’s, though
this scholarly convention is under attack in some quarters. Plato never
appears in the Republic or any other dialogue (save for the Apology,
and he does not speak there). Thus some scholars find it presumptuous
to fob off the character Socrates’ views onto Plato; would we
automatically assume that Ian Fleming took his martini shaken, not stirred,
in the manner of his fictional agent? Of course, more is at stake in
the first case than getting a drink order wrong, but this is true largely
because other assumptions normally accompany the identification of Socrates’
utterances with Plato’s considered philosophical views. One worry
is that this identification narrows the range of answers we might give
to the question why Plato wrote dialogues. Another worry is that it
may distort our understanding of what Plato took an adequate philosophical
theory to be.
5. Contemporary readers
generally agree with Socrates. Some refer to “the treacherous
analogies and parables” (Cooper , 143) as “over-ambitious”
and “overloaded” (Annas , 265; 252, 256). Much ink
has been spilled in the effort to provide a consistent, plausible philosophical
interpretation of the images in the Republic.
6. I say “speaks
to” because the Cave is only part of a generally sketchy account
of the nature of the good. Socrates disclaims precision, warning us
that his talk about the good is schematic (504d6-8) and fuzzy (cf. 504d8-e3);
a shortcut to the truth of things (cf. 504b1-4; 435d2). Given his lack
of knowledge about the good (505a4-6, 506c2-3, d6-8), the most Socrates
can do is provide stories, not reasoned accounts. This, at least, is
the stated rationale for why he gives “the child and offspring
of the good” (507a3-4) rather than a fully articulated, rationally
Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge does not mean that he is completely
ignorant. Most obviously, he knows enough to know that he does not know.
He also knows that knowledge of the good is important to have (505a6-b4),
and what method must be used to get it: dialectic (532a1-d1). Moreover,
he provides a formal account of the good, saying it is the chief or
ultimate end to all our actions (cf.: “Every soul pursues the
good and does whatever it does for its sake” 505d11-e1). And with
this premise, he rules out rival attempts to spell out the formal account,
arguing against pleasure and knowledge as candidates for a substantive
account of goodness itself (505b5-d1). Finally, he seems capable of
saying more than he says here, though we cannot be sure that he takes
himself to be able to give something more secure than images and other
“offspring” (cf. 506e1-3).
7. See 507b5-7. The
essence of good things is called, variously, the good-itself (506d8-e1,
507b5) or form of the good (505a2, 508e2-3). This item is really what
reason is attempting to grasp; not what is good for me, nor what is
‘a good x’, but something that is good in and of itself.
8. It is notoriously
difficult to count the population of forms, and we cannot be certain
that Plato thought there was a form of chair. Reeve’s comment
(on whether there is a form in the intelligible world for every group
of things in the sensible world to which a single name applies) is useful
for the general question of how many or what sort of forms there are.
“Assumptions are one thing; truths are another. Thus forms are
assumed with ontological abandon, but the only ones there really are
are those needed by dialectical-thought for its explanatory and reconstructive
purposes. Ordinary language is the first word here, but it is not by
any means the last word” (1988, 294). Will there be a last word?
According to one commentator writing at the beginning of the last century,
even what Plato meant by the forms “is a question which has been,
and in my opinion will always be, much debated” (Adam ,
9. The intelligible
world is Plato’s way of referring to the class of things that
can be known by the mind alone and that are imperceptible to the senses.
A list would include mathematical or logical truths and geometrical
items, as well as the vaunted forms. (The types of study that yield
knowledge of items in or aspects of the intelligible world are mentioned
in note 3 above.)
10. “Instead, as
he looks at and studies things that are organized and always the same,
that neither do injustice to one another nor suffer it, being all in
rational order, he imitates them and tries to become as like them as
he can. Or do you think that someone can consort with things he admires
without imitating them? . . . Then the philosopher, by consorting with
what is ordered and divine . . . himself becomes as divine and ordered
as a human being can” (500c2-7, c9-d2).
On some ears, this kind of talk encourages mysticism, or the view that
the good-itself has occult qualities. But we do well to remind ourselves
that dialectic is the only route to grasping the good-itself, and that
dialectic is studied only after ten years of mathematics, geometry,
astronomy, and the like (537b-c). Indeed, Cooper has argued that we
think of the good-itself “somehow or other as a perfect example
of rational order, conceived in explicitly mathematical terms”
(, 144; see also Kraut ). Again, it is intellectual grasp—not
oneness with or absorption into the good—that we are striving
Symposium famously stresses the fertility of the philosopher
who has grasped the forms (212a-b).
12. For this reason,
Plato might appreciate the irony of Morpheus stressing, again and again,
that Neo must see for himself in order to understand. Plato would regard
Neo’s transformed conception of reality partial at best since
Neo is not called upon to regard all sense impressions as false or diminished,
only those that have the wrong source.
13. Annas (1981),
257-59, makes this point when she compares Plato’s allegory to
Bertolucci’s 1970 film, The Conformist.
14. In the allegory,
the prisoner’s chains are removed but Socrates is silent on who
or what removes them. Here are his words: “Consider, then, what
being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally
be like. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand
up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be
pain and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d
seen before” (515c4-d1). The Cave depicts an astonishingly thorough
imprisonment. Throughout, Plato remarks on the difficulties that the
freed prisoner meets with on the way out of the cave. Given this detail,
it is not unreasonable to expect an account of precisely what sort of
prisoner it is who begins to question whether the cave contains the
whole of reality, or precisely what circumstance prompts his inquiry.
Does the prisoner find the play of shadows internally inconsistent?
Or does one or more of the unbound prisoners decide to remove the bonds?
We are not told.
the freed prisoner is referred to generically by the indefinite pronoun
“someone” (tis); if we wish for specifics, we miss
the generality that Plato intends, for his point surely is that anyone
could escape the bonds of ignorance.
16. The film surely
intends us to read the figurative sense of this expression alongside
the literal one, and it may be Morpheus’ hope that Neo reflects
on the figurative meaning as well. After all, one of the other messages
that appears on his screen—“knock, knock, Neo”—is
consciously riddling. It invites the question, “who’s there?”
the aim of the pill is to assist in locating Neo’s body, the suggestion
of a psychoactive effect on him is unmistakable.
18. The Oracle
eventually tells Neo “what he needed to hear,” namely that
he is not the One. This inverts the account of Socrates’ oracle
as Plato portrays it in the Apology. First, Socrates does not
hear the oracle directly but relies on Chaerephon’s report that
“no one is wiser than Socrates.” Second, Neo’s reluctance
to believe that he is not in control of his actions requires that the
Oracle tell him something false. This Neo is happy to hear, and thus
he has no motive for questioning it; it is eminently believable that
he is not their long-awaited savior. By contrast, Socrates’ oracle
tells him something true but whose unlikely implications must be carefully
interpreted through testing and questioning.
Works Cited / Suggestions for Further Reading
Adam, James. The Republic of Plato. 1902. 2nd Ed. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1963.
Annas, Julia. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic. Oxford:
Clarendon Press 1981.
Cooper, John M. “The Psychology of Justice in Plato.” American
Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1977): 151-57.
Cooper, John M, ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, Indiana:
Hackett Publishing Co., 1997.
Grube, G.M.E, trans. Plato: Republic. 2nd Ed. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve.
Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992.
Kraut, Richard. “The Defense of Justice in Plato’s Republic.”
In The Cambridge Companion to Plato, edited by Richard Kraut.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 311-37.
Kraut, Richard, ed. Plato’s Republic: Critical Essays.
Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.
Reeve, C.D.C. Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato’s Republic.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.