The Allegory of the Cave is a book from Plato’s The Republic and is presented as a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon. Unsurprisingly Socrates does the heavy lifting here, but without Glaucon bumping and setting we wouldn’t get to enjoy Socrates intellectual spikes. Here’s to you Glaucon.
But First, Some Housekeeping
Before we jump into the quotes there are a couple housekeeping items to take care of.
Generally speaking the text is very accessible to the average reader (though the phrasing takes a second to get used to). But, just in case you aren’t super familiar with ancient nerdenese (guilty), let’s look at a few definitions of a foundational concept to the text, “dialectic”, before getting started.
The art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions.
Discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation.
Dialectic or dialectics (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ; related to dialogue; German: Dialektik), also known as the dialectical method, is at base a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned methods of argumentation. Dialectic resembles debate, but the concept excludes subjective elements such as emotional appeal and the modern pejorative sense of rhetoric.
Bam, now we’ve triangulated in on it’s meaning.
For the sake of consistency when a quote has both Socrates and Glaucon speaking I’ve ended their parts with – S for Socrates and – G for Glaucon. More times than not it’s pretty clear whose speaking but the formatting will serve as a backstop for the times it can get a little unclear.
Now, let’s get on to the quotes!
The Allegory of the Cave Quotes
- And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
- And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities. – S
- Not all in a moment, he said. – G
- He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day? – S
- Certainly. – G
- Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is. – S
- This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, and the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed-whether rightly or wrongly god knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
- Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good.
- Yes, I said; and there is another thing which is likely, or rather a necessary inference from what has preceded, that neither the uneducated and uninformed of the truth, nor yet those who never make an end of their education, will be able to ministers of State; not the former, because they have no single aim of duty which is the rule of all their actions, private as well as public; nor the latter, because they will not act at all except upon compulsion, fancying that they are already dwelling apart in the islands of the blest. – S
- Very true, he replied. – G
- Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all – they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now. – S
- What do you mean? – G
- I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not. – S
- Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the dens, and you will know that the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State, which is also yours, will be a reality, and a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the state in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.
- You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life.
- And those who govern ought not to be lovers of the task? For, if they are, there will be rival lovers, and they will fight. – S
- No question. – G
- Who then are those whom we shall compel to be guardians? Surely they will be the men who are wisest about affairs of State, and by whom the State is best administered, and who at the same time have other honors and another and a better life than that of politics? – S
- And another consideration has just occurred to me: You will remember that our young men are to be warrior athletes? – S
- Yes, that was said. – G
- Can we deny that a warrior should have a knowledge of arithmetic? – S
- Certainly he should, if he is to have the smallest understanding of military tactics, or indeed, I should rather say, if he is to be a man at all. – G
(Glaucon coming in hard off top rope)
Let’s pause for just a moment.
That last series of quotes is absolutely incredible. Our political leaders must be mathematically inclined warrior athletes who are reluctant to govern because they’ve built a better life outside of politics than they could ever hope to have inside it. Needless to say we’re still fighting to reach The Plato Standard of politicians.
Alright, back to the quotes.
- Whereas the thinking mind, intending to light up the chaos, was compelled to reverse the process, and look at small and great as separate and not confused. – S
- Very true. – G
- Was not this the beginning of the inquiry “What is great?” and “What is small?” – S
- Exactly so. – G
- And thus arose the distinction of the visible and the intelligible. – S
- Most true. – G
- This was what I meant when I spoke of impressions which invited the intellect, or the reverse – those which are simultaneous with opposite impressions, invite thought; those which are simultaneous do not. – S
- I understand, he said, and agree with you. – G
- And to which class do unity and number belong? – S
- I do not know, he replied. – G
- Think a little and you will see that what has preceded will supply the answer; for if simple unity could be adequately perceived by the sight or by any other sense, then, as we were saying in the case of the finger, there would be nothing to attract towards being; but when there is some contradiction always present, and one is the reverse of one and involves the conception of plurality, then thought begins to be aroused within us, and the soul perplexed and wanting to arrive at a decision asks “What is absolute unity?” This is the way in which the study of the one has a power of drawing and converting the mind to the contemplation of true being. – S
- And surely, he said, this occurs notably in the case of one; for we see the same thing to be both one and infinite in multitude? – G
- Yes, I said; and this being true of one must be equally true of all number? – S
- Certainly. – G
- And all arithmetic and calculations have to do with number? – S
- Yes. – G
- And they appear to lead the mind towards truth? – S
- Yes, in a very remarkable manner. – G
- Then this is knowledge of the kind for which we are seeking, having a double use, military and philosophical; for the man of war must learn the art of number or he will not know how to array his troops, and the philosopher also, because he has to rise out of the sea of change and lay hold of true being, and therefore he must be an arithmetician. – S
- That is true. – G
- And our guardian is both warrior and philosopher? – S
- Certainly. – G
- Then this is a kind of knowledge which legislation may fitly prescribe; and we must endeavor to persuade those who are to be the principal men of our State to go and learn arithmetic, not as amateurs, but they must carry on the study until they see the nature of numbers with the mind only; nor again, like merchants or retail-traders, with a view to buying or selling, but for the sake of their military use, and of the soul herself; and because this will be the easiest way for her to pass from becoming to truth and being. – S
- That the knowledge at which geometry aims is knowledge of the eternal, and not of aught perishing and transient. – S
- That, he replied, may be readily allowed and true. – G
- Then, my noble friend, geometry will draw the soul towards truth, and create the spirit of philosophy, and raise up that which is now unhappily allowed to fall down. – S
- Nothing will be more likely to have such an effect. – G
- Then nothing should be more sternly laid down than that the inhabitants of your fair city should by all means learn geometry. – S
- You, I replied, have in your mind a truly sublime conception of our knowledge of the things above. And I dare say that if a person were to throw his head back and study the fretted ceiling, you would still think that his mind was the percipient, and not his eyes. And you are very likely right, and I may be a simpleton: but, in my opinion, that knowledge only which is of being and of the unseen can make the soul look upwards, and whether a man gapes at the heavens or blinks on the ground, seeking to learn some particular of sense, I would deny that he can learn, for nothing of that sort is matter of science; his soul is looking downwards, not upwards, whether his way to knowledge is by water or by land, whether he floats or only lies on his back. – S
- I acknowledge, he said, the justice of your rebuke. Still, I should like to ascertain how astronomy can be learned in any manner more conducive to that knowledge of which we are speaking? – G
- I will tell you, I said: The starry heaven which we behold is wrought upon a visible ground, and therefore, although the fairest and most perfect of visible things, must necessarily be deemed inferior far to the true motions of absolute swiftness and absolute slowness, which are relative to each other, and carry with them that which is contained in them, in the true number and in every true figure. Now, these are to be apprehended by reason and intelligence, but not by sight. – S
- And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.
- But the release of the prisoners from chains, and their translation from the shadows to the images and to the light, and the scent from the underground den to the sun, while in his presence they are vainly trying to look on animals and plants and the light of the sun, but are able to perceive even with their weak eyes the images in the water [which are divine], and are the shadows of true existence (not shadows of images cast by a light of fire, which compared with the sun is only an image) – this power of elevating the highest principle in the soul to the contemplation of that which is best in existence, with which we may compare the raising of that faculty which is the very light of the body to the sight of that which is brightest in the material and visible world – this power is given, as I was saying, by all that study and pursuit of the arts which has been described.
- And assuredly no one will argue that there is any other method of comprehending by any regular process all true existence or of ascertaining what each thing is in its own nature; for the arts in general are concerned with the desires or opinions of men, or are cultivated with a view to production and construction, or for the preservation of such productions and constructions; and as to the mathematical sciences which, as we were saying, have some apprehension of true being – geometry and the like – they only dream about being, but never can they behold the waking reality so long as they leave the hypotheses which they use unexamined, and are unable to give an account of them. For when a man knows not his own first principle, and when the conclusion and intermediate steps are also constructed out of he knows not what, how can he imagine that such a fabric of convention can ever become science? – S
- Impossible, he said. – G
- Then dialectic, and dialectic alone, goes directly to the first principle and is the only science which does away with hypotheses in order to make her ground secure; the eye of the soul, which is literally buried in an outlandish slough, is by her gentle aid lifted upwards; and she uses as handmaids and helpers in the work of conversion, the sciences which we have been discussing. Custom terms them sciences, but they out to have some other name, implying greater clearness than opinion and less clearness than science: and this, in our previous sketch, was called understanding. But why should we dispute about names when we have realities of such importance to consider? – S
- As being is to becoming, so is pure intellection to opinion. And as intellect is to opinion, so is science to belief, and understanding to the perception of shadows.
- And surely you would not have the children of your ideal State, whom you are nurturing and educating – if the ideal ever becomes a reality – you would not allow the future rulers to be like posts, having no season in them, and yet to be set in authority over the highest matters? – S
- Certainly not. – G
- Then you will make a law that they shall have such an education as will enable them to attain the greatest skill in asking and answering questions? – S
- Yes, he said, you and I together will make it. – G
- Dialectic, then, as you will agree; is the coping-stone of the sciences, and is set over them; no other science can be placed higher – the nature of knowledge can no further go? – S
- You remember, I said, how the rulers were chosen before? – S
- Certainly, he said. – G
- The same natures must still be chosen, and the preference again given to the surest and the bravest, and, if possible, to the fairest; and, having noble and generous tempers, they should also have the natural gifts which will facilitate their education. – S
- And what are these? – G
- Such gifts as keenness and ready powers of acquisition; for the mind more often faints from the severity of study than from the severity of gymnastics: the toil is more entirely the mind’s own, and is not shared with the body. – S
- Very true, he replied. – G
- Further, he of whom we are in search should have a good memory, and be an unwearied solid man who is a lover of labor in any line; or he will never be able to endure the great amount of bodily exercise and to go through all the intellectual discipline and study which we require of him. – S
- Certainly, he said; he must have natural gifts. – G
- The mistake at present is, that those who study philosophy have no vocation, and this, as I was before saying, is the reason why she has fallen into disrepute: her true sons should take her by the hand and not bas***ds. – S
- What do you mean? – G
- In the first place, her votary should not have a lame or halting industry – I mean, that he should not be half industrious and half idle: as, for example, when a man is a lover of gymnastic and hunting, and all other bodily exercises, but a hater rather than a love of the labor of learning or listening or inquiring. Or the occupation to which he devotes himself may be of an opposite kind, and he may have the other sort of lameness. – G
- All these things, then, will have to be carefully considered by us; and if only those whom we introduce to this vast system of education and training are sound in body and mind, justice herself will have nothing to say against us, and we shall be the saviors of the constitution and of the State; but, if our pupils are men of another stamp, the reverse will happen, and we shall pour a still greater flood of ridicule on philosophy than she has to endure at present.
- And, therefore, calculation and geometry and all the other elements of instruction, which are a preparation for dialectic, should be presented to the mind in childhood; not, however, under any notion of forcing our system of education. – S
- Why not? – G
- Because a freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. – S
- Very true. – G
- Then, my good friend, I said, do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to find out the natural bent. – S
- … the trial of who is first in gymnastic exercises is one of the most important tests to which our youth are subjected.
- These, I said, are the points which you must consider; and those who have most of this comprehension, and who are most steadfast in their learning, and in their military and other appointed duties, when they have arrived at the age of thirty will have to be chosen by you out of the select class, and elevated to higher honor; and you will have to prove them by the help of dialectic, in order to learn which of them is able to give up the use of sight and the other senses, and in company with truth to attain absolute being: and here, my friend, great caution is required.
- There is a danger lest they should taste the dear delight too early; for youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refuse them; like puppy-dogs, they rejoin in pulling and tearing at all who come near them. – S
- Yes, he said, there is nothing which they like better. – G
- And when they have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy and all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world. – S
- Too true, he said. – G
- But when a man begins to get older, he will no longer be guilty of such insanity; he will imitate the dialectician who is seeking for truth, and not the eristic, who is contradicting for the sake of amusement; and the greater moderation of his character will increase instead of diminishing the honor of the pursuit. – S
- Yes, I said, Glaucon, and of our governesses too; for you must not suppose that what I have been saying applies to men only and not to women as far as their natures can go.
And there they are. The Allegory of the Cave is short, sweet, a little tedious to read at times, and 100% worth it. Connecting with the ideas of a titan of philosophy through a text written 1000s of years ago about a topic that we still struggle with today is quite the treat.
I’d recommend reading an online version or checking it out at your local library. But, if you’re more inclined to personal copies, then at the time of this writing there are some available online for a few bucks at amazon or half-priced book stores. However, it’s worth repeating that this is a “book” (more like a brief chapter to us) in a much larger work titled The Republic and quite a few sellers are pricing them in a similar range. Unless you’re only interested in this specific book or shelf space is at a super premium you might as well get The Republic.
Now, I’m off to bone up on my math skills.