REPUBLIC: ORDER AND JUSTICE: THE DIVIDED LINE: THE CAVE ALLEGORY
by Gordon L. Ziniewicz
1. The ideal form or structure of the perfect city is like
the ideal form or structure of the good person. We will see
later that this corresponds to the form or structure or order
of the cosmos.
2. The just city is the city in which there is the best
arrangement, where each citizen is doing what he is supposed
to do ("minding his own business," in a sense) and not transgressing
against his neighbors. The just city is the city in which the
wisest citizen(s) is (are) in charge. The wisest citizens are
those who understand justice: how both the city and each citizen
ought to be arranged, put together, with reason at the helm
and zeal and desires subordinated to and guided by reason. Justice
(for the person) means correct arrangement of the parts of a
person's soul (harmony, proportion, symmetry). Just as beauty
means proportion or symmetry in physical appearance, so justice
mean proportion or symmetry in the human soul (beauty of the
soul=virtue). In the just soul, as in the just city, everything
is where it should be -- including the ruler. The just soul,
like the just city, is an organized whole (has integrity) governed
by reason. Like notes in a symphony, the parts of a just soul
or a just city work together harmoniously.
Question: Did Socrates "mind his own business"?
What was his business? Explain.
Question: Would there be conflict in the just
city? Is conflict necessary for life?
3. The ruler is one who understands the ideal standard or blueprint
of a perfect city or soul (as a shipbuilder has in mind the blueprint
of an excellent ship). Like the shipbuilder, the ruler is a craftsman
who can apply this standard, use the ideal blueprint as a go-by.
He can rearrange the parts of the city -- including making laws
and educating citizens. A craftsman, he keeps his eye on the structure
of justice, takes the raw material of people and institutions,
and arranges them so that they fit together harmoniously.
Question: Is raw material always easy to work
with? Does wood sometimes resist the carpenter?
4. Like the physician or coach, who bring about harmony
(health) and strength in the body in the light of a "blueprint"
of health, the ruler (as legislator, judge, or educator) brings
about improved spiritual health in the city.
5. In the best city, the best citizen ought to rule. In
the real Athens, the best citizen was put to death. Citizens,
who were not ordered in themselves or ordered in relation to
one another, put to death one who was internally ordered (just)
and who labored to persuade other citizens to reorder their
priorities. In the best city, the best citizen would not cross-examine
on street-corners (as a social critic); he would teach publicly
as the leader. According to Plato, those who pursue political
greatness to the exclusion of wisdom or wisdom to the exclusion
of political greatness, should stand aside. The true ruler would
be both philosopher and king.
6. A would be ruler (one with a philosophical nature) is
eager to learn. He is a lover of the vision of truth, a lover
of wisdom, as opposed to a lover of opinion (public opinion
or what have you). The lover of wisdom seeks the absolute form
or structure of things, the unchanging definition or arrangement.
He goes beyond beautiful things to a vision of what makes anything
beautiful at all (the essence of beauty). What makes something
beautiful is its order or structure or symmetry or harmony --
its form. The opposite of the beautiful is the ugly, that which
lacks good form, which is formless (to some extent). The fact
that something is relatively beautiful (no existing thing is
absolutely beautiful) is different from the ordering principle
or essence that makes it beautiful. The philosopher studies
Question: Do you agree that what makes a beautiful
thing beautiful is order, symmetry, or harmony? Why or why
7. The lover of wisdom not only goes beyond particular things
to their ideal forms. He also tries to see beyond various forms
to have a vision of not this or that blueprint, but of the Good
itself (to Agathon), which is perfect order and form.
Every inquiry into the meaning of form and order sharpens the
mind's vision of order itself; thus even studying mathematics
or geometry or astronomy can make a person wiser about order
in his own life and in the city. The wise person has a sense
of proportion and limits.
8. We say that a good photograph has "good definition."
In a similar way, when the mind sees a form clearly and with
"definition" (a play on the word "definition"), whether it is
the form of a triangle, the form of a just city, or the form
that defines the relative position of the stars, these definitions
are relevant to individual and social life. The word "definition"
is derived from the Latin word finis which means end,
boundary, or limit (as a fence). Every definition locates a
form. To see a form clearly is to see not only its own structure,
but also its relation to other forms, its place within a system
or hierarchy of forms. The habit of seeing order and orderly
relationships with the mind enables the mind to "order" or arrange
and rule both zeal (the will) and desires. The English word
"ruler" has this double sense of both one who orders and the
standard or measure by means of which one is able to put things
together properly. The knowledge of measure or proportion and
the knowledge of limits enable one to set limits or draw boundaries
(define) in his own life and, if he must rule, in the life of
Question: Plato believes that any study that
reveals order will help the soul to order itself, in other
words that the way to emotional and psychological health is
strengthening the mind. Do you agree? Explain. How would such
a view affect, for example, the education of emotionally disturbed
9. Recall the theme of waking and sleeping. According to
Socrates, the wide-awake soul sees not only particular things,
but general forms or structures. The "dreamer" (sleepwalker)
sees only particular things). The purpose of cross-examination
is to awaken the souls of citizens to the reality of general
forms or structures (universals). In a sense, to examine the
unexamined life is to rouse the soul from thoughtless immediacy
to the contemplation of the forms (especially justice) that
will stir the soul to reorder itself in the light of a vision
of order and seek to bring about social reform in the light
of an ideal community.
10. According to Plato, different "powers" of the mind
correspond to different grades of being. Knowledge (brightly
lit) grasps unchanging being (forms or structures that do not
change). Opinion (dimly lit) grasps changing beings -- existing
things that come to be and pass away. Ignorance, which is no
knowledge at all, corresponds to non-being, which is no being
at all. No one is absolutely ignorant, just as every existing
thing has some (more or less) form or order or structure in
it. The absolutely formless (chaos) is nothing existing. Thus
we have three degrees of "being": form (intelligible structure),
the relatively formed (existing things), and chaos (formlessness).
The model, as we shall see, is the cosmos itself, which exhibits
in its laws and harmonious movements nearly perfect order and
form. In fact kosmos means beautiful world order. From this
view of knowledge and being, we see that we as human beings
begin in twilight, with the relatively confused opinions about
relatively ordered realities. The purpose of philosophy is to
free us from the twilight of confused thinking to arrive at
knowledge (by means of dialectic).
Question: All beings possess some order, or they
would not exist. Does this imply that no human being is completely
bad or unjust? Does this imply that even things like mud have
some beauty? Explain.
11. In the Republic, the character Socrates uses two "images"
to describe the ascent from chaotic opinion to orderly knowledge:
the image of the divided line and the image of the Cave. In
approaching these images, as in trying to understand Plato's
"theory of forms," we must keep in mind that it was Plato's
intention not to contemplate forms in a detached manner, but
to understand order and form so as to order and form his own
life and to reorder and reform the city he lived in. Plato's
purpose remained ethical and political to the end of his life.
He sought to make the city a place where people could strive
for excellence, could inquire freely, could cooperate together
to create an atmosphere that would encourage, not discourage,
a love of wisdom.
12. Plato believes in the existence of absolute truth, goodness,
and beauty. Beyond our fuzzy and confused view of things is
the reality of eternal standards and structures. There are many
(more or less) good things; there is one absolute good. There
are many (more or less) beautiful things; there is one absolute
beauty. There are many (more or less) just persons; there is
one absolute justice (idea or ideal of justice). The attainment
of absolute truth, goodness, and beauty is impossible for humans,
but the belief that they exist and a glimpse of them from time
to time in a rare moment of insight is what motivates us to
think, inquire, deliberate, and strive. The absolute is a "flying
perfect" (as Emerson calls it in "Circles"). It prompts us to
move, yet it stays ahead of us; it eludes us. The little that
we can see and remember is the "fixed star" by which we can
tell where we are and where we are going. This is the ethical
meaning of Plato's "theory of forms." It is also the essence
of every moral idealism. Whatever motives may be attributed
to Plato, there is one thing Plato himself would insist on:
Plato did not invent the forms; he saw them. In this sense,
Plato's dialogues, including the Republic, are not meant to
draw attention to themselves, but, like signs, are meant to
point beyond themselves and to point the reader beyond himself
to see the invisible structures governing all things.
Question: Explain the difference between believing
in the existence of absolutes and believing that one possesses
them. Explain the difference between a dialectical and a dogmatic
approach to absolutes.
13. The highest idea or form -- the form of all forms --
is the idea of the Good itself. According to Plato, this idea
is not an inert structure, but has power. Plato compares the
power of the Good to the power of the sun. The sun illuminates
things and makes them visible to the eye. The absolute good
illuminates the things of the mind (forms) and makes them intelligible.
The good sheds light on ideas. What exactly is the idea of the
good? Plato is reluctant to say. The vision of the idea of the
Good is, according to Plato, too much for human minds. It is
possible that the idea of the Good is the idea of absolute order.
Order is what makes beautiful things beautiful, just persons
or cities just, true speeches true (truth is the order or correct
arrangement of words, putting words together that belong together;
dialectic is the back and forth attempt to arrive at such correct
arrangements of words).
14. The sun is the cause of generation, nourishment, and
growth, as well as of visibility. (Reflect: would there be life
on this planet, would life have evolved from the oceans, if
there were no sun. Moreover, the sun is necessary for maintaining
life; thoughts about nuclear winter have made this clear.) The
Good (is it God?) is the cause of essences, structures, and
forms, as well as of knowledge. The Good as absolute order makes
all intermediate forms or structures possible. The Good is the
principle of order. It is found wherever there is order and
symmetry or organization both in nature and in human affairs.
15. In the Republic, the divided line shows the relation
between opinion and knowledge and the types of objects corresponding
(within the soul)
Forms (Beauty, Justice, Truth, etc.
Lit by the Form of the Good
(based on assumptions)
of Math and Science
Things - Living and Artificial
or Sensible World
Lit by the Sun
Images, Reflections, Copies
16. On the first level of mere conjecture or imagining,
one thinks in terms of vague impressions. One uncritically accepts
everything that enters one's mind, whatever the source: gossip,
hearsay, rhetoric, free-floating opinions, "media." One is unable,
at this level, to distinguish the real from the apparent, the
genuine from the pseudo, the legitimate from the phony. This
is the unexamined life at its worst -- an uncritical jumble
of cliché and illusion. On the second level of belief
or conviction (concrete perception), one perceives concrete
facts; one relies on his senses. At this level, one can tell
the difference between facts and fantasy (images and reflections),
just as one who had met Socrates in person could tell him from
Aristophanes' Socrates on stage (image of Socrates). On this
level, one's opinions or judgments relate solely to particular
things. One uses words that imply a general meaning (presupposed
uncritically), but one does not bother to inquire into these
general meanings. One does not try to "define." One simply takes
some meaning for granted and simply goes on talking about concrete
things as if nothing else existed. This could be identified
with the aesthetic (immediate perception) attitude, although
Plato would consider poets to be on the image-receiving and
Question: Explain the attitude of the "couch
potato" in the light of mere conjecture.
Question: Why is it impossible to talk about
facts without using words that presuppose some general meaning?
Give an example.
17. If one looks beyond particular existing things and asks
about general structures, general meanings, or definitions,
then one has turned his gaze upward toward the sphere of knowledge.
Euthyphro might say with empty self-confidence that it is pious
for him to indict his own father for murder (he takes it for
granted that he knows what piety is as politicians think they
know what justice is). But the philosopher Socrates asks questions
like: What is piety? What is justice? He is like the mathematician
who is not content to draw or look at triangles, but wants to
know their essence, their definition, their intelligible form.
The level of understanding (third level of awareness) is the
level of mathematics and science. According to Plato, the best
introduction to philosophical reasoning is mathematics, which
trains the mind to consider abstract structures that cannot
be duplicated in the concrete world of particular changing things.
Above Plato's Academy was written: "Let no one ignorant of geometry
enter here." Geometry trains the mind to think without images
and to understand exact proportions and relations; e.g., the
idea of equality has no parallel in concrete reality. Mathematics
marks a transition from mere picture-thinking to knowledge of
forms (conceptual thinking). The shipbuilder who knows mathematics
sees the ship (and judges it) differently from the laymen who
sees only colors and shapes (and not mathematical proportions).
When the mind finally ascends beyond the forms of mathematics
and science, it turns its attention toward the forms of justice,
courage, beauty, etc. (the fourth level on the divided line).
These are the higher forms (accessible though dialectic). Plato
contends that the higher forms are the basis or foundation of
all the other forms. The knowledge of the higher forms sheds
light on all the other forms as well as on concrete things.
Definitions clarify opinions about concrete things. If Euthyphro
had paid more attention to finding out what piety really
meant, his very use of the word "pious" would have called to
mind a richer conception of the place of human beings before
God (the right proportion between human beings and god). He
might have then acted differently. The knowledge of forms changes
the way we talk, think, and perceive. Awareness of intelligible
structure gives meaning. One who knows still sees concrete objects,
but he sees them with insight (knowledge of how they stand in
relation to their ideal proportion or form). One who knows still
talks, but he knows better what he is talking about (definition)
and knows how to put words together that belong together (right
proportion in words). One who knows still plays with images
(as Plato did), but manipulates images in order to reveal deeper
truths. The educator uses images to point beyond images to the
forms. According to Plato, knowledge of forms or ideal structures
is the basis of intelligent perception, judgment, practice,
18. Allegory of the Cave: One should not forget that poetic
images are at the bottom of the divided line. Plato's allegory
is a mere copy of the reality of the divided line. One reads
later in the Republic that Plato is hostile to image-making
arts (the make-believe world of poetry and drama). But he is
not opposed to all poetry. Imagery is suspect when it is not
enlightened and "informed" and based on knowledge of the forms.
Poetry based on knowledge of the soul, the city, and the cosmos,
is acceptable poetry. Good poetry (such as Plato's dialogues)
could be the basis of education of young people (as opposed
to their corruption). Images can lead (educate) as well as mislead
(corrupt). Aristophanes' play was misleading (to those who did
not know Socrates). Plato's "plays" are intended to "lead."
Imitation of reality is not bad; what is bad is imitation without
understanding and reason. An analogy compares two well known
objects in such a way as to make clearer the relation between
two lesser known objects. As A is to B, so B is to C. As underground
existence in the dark is to existence above ground in the visible
world, so existence in the visible world is to existence in
the intelligible world of pure forms or ideas.
Question: In a sense, Platonic dialogues are
"works of art." In what sense is Plato vulnerable to his own
critique of poets? In what sense might he escape such criticism?
19. Compare the cave or prison to the confusion of public
opinion in Athens, in particular to the law courts. One might
even compare the puppeteers to the image marketers (politicians
and orators and poets). Think of Socrates' trial and imprisonment
over against the imprisonment of his jurors in the chains of
20. According to Plato, one must have his mind's eye fixed
on the idea of the good in order to act rationally in public
or private life. Furthermore, education is not a process of
putting sight into blind eyes, but of turning the soul (which
has the power to see the forms already) toward the intelligible
light. This means that learning or coming to see the forms and
their true relations with one another is not simply an act of
the mind, but requires the transformation of one's whole character.
That is, love of the good (ethical and moral striving) directs
the soul toward knowledge of the highest things. Reason can
not see through the haze of desires and fears in the unjust
soul. Philosophy, for Plato, is an ethical and intellectual
(simultaneously) movement towards the good. Otherwise, one's
intelligence does not concentrate on justice and other structures,
but deteriorates to mere cleverness and cunning in getting what
one wants. Only the unselfish person, whose soul is fixed on
a vision (however fuzzy) of the good, can make genuine progress
in understanding and reason.
Question: According to Plato, insofar as it grasps
order, the soul is able to order itself; and the soul orders
itself to the extent that it grasps order. Do you agree? Why
or why not?
21. The ascent from opinion to knowledge and the descent
from knowledge to opinion are both painful. The mind, like the
eyes, needs time to adjust to light and darkness. One should
not confuse the apparent blindness (of confusion and wise ignorance)
with the real blindness of being unable to see the ideal forms.
The prisoners (jurors) see how young men become temporarily
"blinded" by Socrates, and they wish to put him to death, for
they have never set eyes on absolute justice etc. and they think
their opinions are absolute. Socrates is put on trial and given
the hemlock for leading citizens out of the cave (education).
Question: Explain, in this light, how Socratic
education was thought by the jurors to be corruption.
22. The pursuit of knowledge requires restraint upon desires
for sensual gratification. The whole soul must be rearranged in
order to see more clearly the essence of order and arrangement,
which in turn makes possible greater self-ordering and virtue.
The intellectual and the ethical are interdependent. Keep in mind
that the truth for Plato and Socrates is, in the highest sense,
truth of how to live one's life and to bring order to the city.
Question: Do you agree that the study of any
subject is hampered by moral disorder? Explain.
23. The ethical requires a twofold movement: movement away
from immersion in concrete affairs to thinking and vision of
unchanging order and structures (such as justice) and then movement
back from dialectic to participation and re-attachment in worldly
affairs. It is a temptation to become an abstract scholar. But
the vision of the good is the vision of what is good for oneself
and the city, the common good. If one does not return to help
his fellow human beings, he becomes selfish and in time will
be less able to see what is good, what is best. An unselfish
devotion to the good requires an unselfish devotion to the realization
of this good in human affairs. Just as the purpose of understanding
order and limits in one's own life is to bring about order and
restraint in one's own character and desires, the understanding
of justice requires application in the public sphere (through
education). A man who forgets the polis is like a man who forgets
he has a body. Plato advocates educating the body and the city
(for one needs both), not turning one's back on them.
Question: Look again at the philosopher-king
quotation in these notes. What does Plato say about "philosophers"
who neglect political affairs? How do you think Plato would
view abstract scholars in present day academic circles?
24. Every ascent to a higher step brings about a greater
illumination and understanding of the lower steps. One who perceives
real objects is able to put images into perspective and to judge
which are true and which are false. One who has ascended to
understanding of math and science is able to understand the
unchanging structures of concrete objects he perceives; he perceives
differently. One who has made it to reason or dialectic of the
most ideal (abstract) forms is able to understand the basis
of math and science better and is able to put into perspective
concrete things and images. Thus, the dialectical seer of pure
forms (definitions and relations) is able, in the end, to write
poetry that he understands. If he speaks an inspiring truth,
it will not be accidental, but intentionally based on knowledge
of what is true (and good). He will write poetry that truly
educates, as opposed to the poetry of Homer and the others that
has mixed value -- that sometimes educates and sometimes corrupts.
25. The one who really understands what justice is all
about will have to be dragged into public service; for it is
painful for one who really sees what is best for people to be
wrestling with popular prejudices, opinions, images, and shadows.
The ethical requires that one roll up his sleeves and, with
an idea of a better world in mind, come face to face with the
nonsense and selfishness of men. True riches are spiritual.
Those who would rule must see that their leadership brings about
spiritual benefits of self-improvement and improvement of social
order. They must not be the types who seek so-called private
advantage rather than the common good.
Question: Discuss the modern day "political process"
in the light of this view.
26. Imitative poetry and Homer: "A man is not to be reverenced
more than the truth." Homer speaks of many things of which he
has no knowledge, just as the painter who paints a picture of
a bed does not necessarily know how to make a bed. The point
is, in order to copy or imitate correctly, one must have knowledge
of the original. But Plato is referring not only to making beds,
but to making cities. Here we can follow the divided line when
it comes to artistic or political craftsmanship. If one makes
an image without experience of perceiving or making concrete
things, he works blindly, in the dark; his images are faulty.
If one perceives or makes concrete things without understanding
their scientific essence or structure, he can make mistakes
(e.g., the engineer, who does not construct haphazardly, but
knows the laws of physics -- stress, etc.). Even the carpenter
or shipbuilder needs mathematical knowledge to make things well.
Finally, one's knowledge and therefore application of math is
faulty unless the hypotheses of math are founded on a sure basis
of the higher more abstract forms. In particular, one cannot
make, do, or poetize effectively unless he bases all of his
activity on a clear-headed vision and love of absolute good
or order. Every higher step in the divided line liberates and
perfects activity on a lower step. The absolute blueprints guiding
the movement of the cosmos and regulating the affairs of men
are the work of God. The best humans can do is to improve their
mental perception of these blueprints so that they can more
effectively live and work together in the city. When one comes
to see the absolute blueprint of justice (right arrangement),
one is able to follow this blueprint in order to make a life
or a city. As God is the craftsman (demiurge) of the universe,
so human beings are the craftsmen of not only artificial products
such as beds and poems about beds, but also of their own lives
and the lives of others. All knowledge is ethical because all
knowledge, perceiving and loving form, is directed to bringing
form out of the formless (recall Michelangelo's sculpture) and
order out of chaos. The same structure pervades nature, doing,
Question: Plato maintains that the same order
pervades all things, that knowledge of astronomy is somehow
applicable to politics, etc. Do you agree? Why or why not?
More Questions for Discussion:
1. Explain the four levels of ascent in the allegory of
the cave. What does the sun represent? Explain.
2. Contrast opinion, knowledge, and ignorance. Indicate
what types of "objects" each is concerned with.
3. Why and how are the poets (such as Homer) criticized
in the Republic? Is there such a thing as acceptable poetry?
4. Explain why a person who has ascended from the cave
must once again descend into the cave. Why is it impossible
for a lover of wisdom to be self-centered?
5. Name the three parts of the soul and how they are arranged
in the just (healthy) soul. Then describe one possible unjust
(unhealthy) arrangement. Do these same structures apply on a
larger scale to the city as a whole? Explain. Compare and contrast
the "psychological" views of Plato with those of some contemporary
psychologist (Freud, Skinner, etc.).
6. According to Plato, is it possible for a person to really
improve himself without improving others? Is it possible for
a person to help others become better without becoming better
himself? Explain your answers.
7. Explain how, in Plato's view, intellectual and moral
growth are inseparable.
8. Discuss the importance of order for Plato.