A Paper Featured in Cultivating Aesthetic Sensibilities by O.G. Rose, Inspired by Thomas Jockin
How Does Anyone Leave Plato’s Cave?
A hanging question that individualistic mythology conceals and that comparing three different translations of The Republic can help us understand if not escape.
Memory is a funny thing, and we all know it’s prone to change with time. Details fade, episodes arise which never happened, and huge gaps can appear in our knowledge wholesale. We never remember everything (we’d go crazy if we did), but we like to think we remember what matters, and most of the time we do, or at least we maintain enough of “the general picture” to “get the gist.” For everyday life, this is just fine, but something funny happens with books, especially great books. In complex texts like Plato, forgetting a single detail can transform the meaning and impression of entire sections, and if memory is shaped by the “zeitgeist” or “spirit of our age,” details we tend to forget or remember will likely be relative to and reflect that zeitgeist. When it comes to Plato’s most famous allegory, I think something like that has happened.
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is likely his most influential work, and it has inspired countless movies and stories. The Matrix comes to mind as an example, in which the protagonist Neo discovers he is inside a computer simulation and works to break free and defeat the robots controlling humanity. The key detail I want to focus on is how Neo freely chooses to learn the truth about his world, the difference between “the shadows” and “the actual sun,” per se, by choosing the red pill (a famous meme now). Yes, Neo was given the opportunity by his guide Morpheus, but ultimately Neo chooses the pill himself. Personally, I’d wager this is generally how most of us remember Plato’s Allegory: a prisoner somehow escapes his chains and chooses to ascend to the “true world.” Maybe the prisoner is freed by a guard or teacher and told the truth about the shadows of the Cave, but ultimately the choice to “learn the truth” is thanks to the prisoner. A “rugged individual,” brave and independent, the prisoner suffers the pain of his eyes adjusting to the sun and pushes through, heroic. Zarathustra, John Galt — countless images of “supermen” come to mind.
I spoke with the wonderful Thomas Jockin recently, and the Cave came up in the discussion, and both of us tried to remember how exactly the prisoner was first “nudged” to leave “the world of shadows” and ascend into “the world of forms.” I fumbled around, noting that the Allegory seemed to suggest that the prisoner was just somehow mysteriously released, but also that I thought there was a hypothetical situation in which the prisoner was forced out of the cave. We both agreed that Plato didn’t adequately address this question, because even if the prisoner was freed and forced out somehow, how did that person get freed (or the very first prisoner)? A “first mover” problem was lurking here, and this got us into the subject of beauty and its primacy in being a “first mover” in the realization of the trinitarian and necessary “good, true, and beautiful.” Still, I left the conversation with an open loop in my head: What exactly did Plato say about “how” the prisoner escaped the cave? Why was my memory blurring together a scenario in which the prisoner “mysteriously” found himself freed and a scenario in which he was “forced” out of the cave? I went to the text to find out.
There’s nothing like going back to a primary text to make you realize how bad you are at reading. Returning to Plato, countless details I forgot appeared salient, and every word seemed to carry a new weight that I didn’t recall in my last reading. I’ve read The Republic at least four times in my life, which clearly wasn’t enough (I’ve had a similar feeling recently in returning to Augustine and Cormac McCarthy). Books are like people: there’s always more to them.
I checked three translations of The Republic — one by G.M.A. Grube, another by Benjamin Jowett, and lastly Allan Bloom (not that these are necessarily the best translations or something: they were just what I had available) — and the verdict seemed clear: the prisoner did not act alone. Nowhere did the prisoner free himself or choose to ascend out of the Cave without prompting, so why in the world then did I recall the story as a narrative of individual enlightenment and self-ascent? Sure, I knew the Allegory involved education and learning the truth, but the imagery and “movie in my head” of the Allegory was one of chosen and autonomous “ascent” — I didn’t recall the prisoner being “dragged out” as the explanation for how he escaped. I recalled that in the discussion with Jockin as a “possibility,” a hypothetical, not as what happened. What was going on?
Well, to start, it’s clear I’ve been influenced by my culture to forget the details that didn’t fit into Western thinking emphasizing the individual, but I also discovered that different translations create radically different impressions. Yes, all of them incorporate the prisoner being “forced out” of the cave, but the presentation shifts in profound ways. Again, I checked different translations, and started to understand why I had been remembering the Allegory wrong.
Moving forward, I’m going to discuss “The Free Interpretation” versus “The Dragged Interpretation,” with the first referring to an understanding of the prisoner leaving on his or her own, while the second is the reading of the prisoner as forced to leave the cave. I’ll refer to these as FI and DI for short. (Also, as a grammar note, direct quotations will be in single apostrophes while my takes will be in double apostrophes. All bolding in the quotations will be added by me.)
I’ve always liked Orson Welles, and I have to give his reading of Plato credit, which is easily found on YouTube: it clearly displays “The Dragged Interpretation” (and yet I forgot it did until I watched the video again — how crazy the brain can act).
This TedTalk version by Alex Gendler is okay, but the “dragged” detail is raced over quickly, and visually it’s more like the prisoner just “appears outside” with the narrator mentioning how the prisoner was ‘freed and brought outside.’ To be more precise, Gendler says, ‘Suddenly, one prisoner is freed and brought outside for the first time,’ which is fine when we’re focusing on the “forced” detail, but that wording could easily suggest the prisoner possibly “freed himself” and then was escorted to the surface and/or “brought himself outside,” and we likely will hear the sentence as suggesting such if that’s what we want to hear or have been taught to think.
There are countless more versions of the Allegory, and I will note that in many of them which mention “dragging,” the “dragging” is presented like a hypothetical situation, which is to say that we’re supposed to consider “what if the prisoner was dragged out,” not that this actually happened. The impression that we’re given “space” to let ourselves entertain is that really the prisoner escaped autonomously (and, based on the translation, I think it’s easy to read the rest of the Allegory that way, as the “escaped prisoner” embarking on his own journey of education and recognition that he needs to return to the Cave to help the remaining prisoners, even though they may kill him). In truth, Plato isn’t so generous: for him it seems, without force, we stay ignorant.
I have to give YouTube credit though: based on the translation, how we understand the part of the Cave involving force varies radically, for sometimes it seems like a hypothetical situation, while other times it seems concrete, and of course it all depends on who we read. And ultimately it seems like Plato wants to “play both sides,” but more on that later.
The Allegory appears at start of Book VII in The Republic. Here is the opening according to the three different translations:
‘Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: 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.’ (Grube, 186)
In Grube’s translation, the fact the Allegory is about education is front and center. The phrase ‘the effect of education’ leans in the direction of schooling and instruction (though not necessarily, I admittedly note, especially if the FI is strongly lodged in our minds). But now let’s turn to the Jowett interpretation:
‘And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den […]’ (Jowett, 224)
This could easily have nothing to do with school or external educators: this easily falls into thinking regarding autonomy and “self-found enlightenment.” In Jowett, the Allegory which follows isn’t clearly “framed” within an educational framework involving help from teachers or other people: the Allegory is left open to be understood as favoring autonomous individuals. Bloom is similar:
‘Next, then, […] make an image of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cavelike dwelling [….]’ (Bloom, 193)
I think this translation is a tossup. The phrase ‘our nature in its education’ is not clearly suggesting we need to “be educated by someone”: the word “education” here could be taken as “enlightenment,” which feeds an autonomous take on the individual.
Out of the three translations, in my view, it is the Grube translation that best frames the Allegory as being about school and instructions. I think the Grube translation is fairly clear in this way (though I understand debate is still possible), while the other two are not so clear. Yes, the Bloom and Jowett interpretations will make up for this impression later on in different ways, but first impressions are important and “set the stage.”
Moving on, in Grube’s translation, the first main image of a released prisoner we get is:
‘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 pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential […] ?’ (Grube, 187)
A prisoner ‘was freed’ and ‘compelled’ — this sounds like someone was involved in helping the prisoner escape. But maybe not: influenced by FI, the language of ‘was freed’ could be taken as meaning “freed ourselves,” and the word ‘compelled’ could be taken as “inspired.” A ‘we’ is introduced in the next sentence, but the ‘we’ doesn’t necessarily have to be taken as a “teacher” or “prison guard”: in fact, the language of ‘we’ sounds like “What if we were there in the Cave and told the prisoner the truth?” Thus, though Grube’s interpretation opens with the best framing, this image of release isn’t “clearly” in line with a vision of external instruction.
Alright, let’s turn to Jowett (which do note is the Barnes & Noble translation, which means it might be widely distributed and read):
‘At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look toward 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 […]’ (Jowett, 225)
Everything I said about Grube applies here but more so: the Jowett interpretation is extremely autonomous sounding and favors FI over DI. Yes, the phrase ‘when one of them is liberated’ could be taken to mean “when someone releases them,” but that’s not clearly the case, and the prisoner easily could “liberate his or her self.” Again, the language of ‘compelled’ also sounds “self-motivated.” Finally, we move to Bloom:
‘Take a man who is released and suddenly compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light; and who, moreover, in doing all this in pain, and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before. What do you suppose he’d say if someone were to tell him that before he saw silly nothings […]’ (Bloom, 194)
Despite Bloom’s original unclear framing, this I think is mostly likely to favor DI over FI. The phrase ‘is released’ sounds like a guard frees the prisoner and then makes him stand up and ‘look up toward the light.’ The term ‘someone’ then easily points back to that guard, who could also be a teacher, which makes the instruction about ‘silly nothings’ seem more concrete versus hypothetical (as does the word “we”).
Alright, we’re now at the main section for our investigation. Let’s start with Grube and Bloom this time, for their translations are identical:
‘And if someone dragged him away from there by force […]’ (Grube, 188)
‘And if […] someone dragged him away from there by force […]’ (Bloom, 194)
Both of them entail a pesky ‘if,’ which leans us in a direction of considering the use of force as hypothetical, but this leaning is also notably influenced by what we read before. This line in the context of Bloom’s translation can favor DI, but Grube has primed us with language of ‘we’ (hypothetical sounding) and the unclear ‘was freed,’ neither of which clearly favor DI over FI. Considering this, neither translations will prove “strong enough” to shatter any preconceived ideas we bring to the text from our Western culture: FI will likely prevail.
Funny enough, it’s here actually that the Jowett interpretation favors DI over FI:
‘And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent […]’ (Jowett, 225)
Unfortunately, by the time we arrive here, Jowett has so much primed us to think in terms of FI that it’s unlikely we’ll interpret DI in what he offers us. Additionally, ‘suppose once more’ can sound hypothetical (like the mentioned ‘we’), but I think in the context of Socrates speaking to Glaucon, the phrase ‘suppose once more’ sounds more like “Glaucon, keep following me here.” ‘And suppose once more’ actually comes off as less hypothetical sounding compared to ‘And if’ used in the other two translations, but that might just be my opinion.
So far, I hope it’s starting to become clear why and how the FI developed in the first place. The translations all make different impressions in different ways. Additionally, if we consider “the dragging” as a “hypothetical dragging,” then it’s easy for us to imagine the prisoner as actually leaving on his or her own, which is to say there is “space” for FI. Culturally conditioned, that’s exactly where I think our minds can go.
(Please note that, as discussed in “The Blank Canvas” by O.G. Rose, regardless how the prisoner escapes, action is involved, not “pure thinking,” whether that be the act of being forced out or walking out. This hints at the complex relationship between truth and rationality, explored elsewhere throughout O.G. Rose.)
Now, I would like to clarify that I am not entirely against considering the FI, because I think Plato does ultimately leave hanging a question — “The First Prisoner Problem” and/or “The Prisoner Nobody Comes For” — but that will be discussed later on. Considering this, in framing the Jowett interpretation as most in favor of FI, I don’t mean to necessarily suggest that Jowett is therefore the worst translation: for all I know, Jowett might be translating Plato the most accurately. All I mean to say that is, in my own personal assessment, Jowett is easiest to read in line with FI, for good and for bad
I would like to investigate another reason why the FI interpretation is so easy to fall into, a reason involving the attitude of the other prisoners. Those who don’t leave the Cave are described as being people who would murder someone who tried to release them. Well, if that’s the case, even if the prisoner who ascended was released by someone else, the fact the released prisoner didn’t murder the guard or teacher who released him means the released prisoner must be different somehow. On the passage in question (according to the three translations):
‘And, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?’(Grube, 189)
‘Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.’ (Jowett, 227)
‘And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?’ (Bloom, 196)
Plato describes the prisoners as seeking to kill those who try to release them, which suggests that the prisoner who was willing to ascend was somehow different before he was released, an understanding which favors FI. Even if the freed prisoner “resists” leaving to some degree, he doesn’t resist so much that he can’t be brought out of the Cave, suggesting he it still somehow special. Now, that considered, the counter to this point is that the remaining prisoners only want to kill the prisoner who escaped because he is unable to see clearly in the dark, creating the impression that “going up” is a bad and foolish act. Hence, now the remaining prisoners will kill anyone who tries to release them, but not necessarily before they received this false impression about “the upper world.”
I think this is a fair point and counter, but I would first note that the “plausibility” of this understanding is dependent on the translation. Here, Jowett’s interpretation actually seems to favor the proposed counter, for by the clauses being divided by semicolons, they ideas seem to be linked together. In Bloom and Grube, however, the accusations of the remaining prisoners that the released prisoner “got stupider” by ascending is more easily separated from the idea that the remaining prisoner would kill anyone who tried to release them. However, Jowett has already established an impression favoring FI, and it is unlikely this section of the Allegory will change that impression this far into the narrative. Bloom and Grube, which can be read more in line with DI, ostensibly offer evidence here favoring FI, evidence we in the West are likely biased to overemphasize.
Anyway, if we as readers remember the remaining prisoners in the Allegory as so bent on staying in the Cave that they are willing to kill anyone who tries to free them, it’s hard not to remember the escaping prisoner as somehow different and more “willing to learn the truth” than those who stay underground. Even if the escaping prisoner was somehow helped, the very fact he was willing to ascend makes him somehow different. This feeds FI over DI, and it’s easy for us to read the rest of Book VII as describing an education program that “the philosophers” are willing to receive, versus an education program that “drags them out of the Cave,” per se. Under DI, it’s clear that Plato’s education program is how prisoners are “dragged out,” but under FI, we can read the program as that which “special students” submit themselves to following. This is key: under FI, we see philosophers as choosing to be educated and “open” to education: we do not see the education as “a form of dragging.” Thus, FI is supported and maintained.
After the Allegory, the majority of Book VII is an elaboration on how philosophers should be educated to in fact become “Philosopher Kings,” and though this might seem to obviously favor DI, I would submit that this is not so obvious if we are reading from an orientation of FI. While Plato is easily sketching out the education which leads people out of the Cave, we can actually interpret the educational program as what philosophers choose to be led by, giving credit to the philosophers themselves. Plato’s program becomes something that philosophers “choose to submit themselves to,” and thus they act to some degree autonomously (after all, under FI, they were willing to be released from the Cave, while the others would murder whoever tried to liberate them).
Plato describes education not as self-driven but as far more imposed on the self, but it is easy, under FI, to read the program Plato describes after the Allegory as the product of a “self-driven” education. In other words, we can think of Plato describing the education philosophers go through who are already unique before they are released. We carry the impression that the released prisoner was different in being “willing to go outside” even if helped, and so we envision the student/teacher relationship in school similarly. Somehow, in our minds, we make sure to think of the philosophical student as “innately special,” not merely made such by an instructor like the DI would have us conclude.
Whichever waywe go about making FI “fit,” we assume “the best students” are not only “the best students” thanks to instructions: we cling to some fragment of “intrinsic specialness” that Plato may not grant us. Yes, he believes “everyone has the capacity to learn,” but that’s about it. To see how Plato puts it:
‘But our present discussion, on the other hand, shows that the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and that the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body […] Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately.’ (Grube, 190)
‘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.’ (Jowett, 228)
‘But the present argument, on the other hand […] indicates that the power is in the soul of each, and that the instrument with which each learns — just as an eye is not able to turn toward the light from the dark without the whole body — must be turned around from that which is coming into being together with the whole soul until it is able to endure looking at that which is and the brightest part of that which is. And we affirm that this is the good, don’t we?’ (Bloom, 197)
Please note that this section suggests prisoners have “innate capacities” to learn, which we, according to FI, can interpret as meaning “innate motivation,” but really Plato seems to be suggesting that everyone can be dragged out of the Cave (following DI). “Everyone can be educated” is not the same as arguing “everyone is capable of intrinsic motivation,” though those who escape the Cave may like to think this way, for it means they had no “innate and/or unfair advantages” (a Western bias, perhaps).
If everyone could leave the Cave, then those who don’t “are responsible” for not leaving, which actually suggests the prisoners who escape are justified not to return to the Cave and try to set the remaining prisoners free. While Plato suggests “the founders” are justified to force philosophers back into the Cave (especially under DI), with a strong FI, the reverse is the case: prisoners are justified to stay above ground. That’s not to say FI claims prisoners should stay above ground, but it certainly frames any kind of “return” as an act of sacrifice (which, personally, I think is a good framing, for DI can lend itself in favor of totalitarianism).
In my view, Plato himself may contribute to the confusion about FI versus DI, for he seems to be playing “both sides of the fence.” He seems to be saying that we are “forced” out of the Cave, but then other times suggests we “bring ourselves out” (perhaps because Plato himself doesn’t have an answer to the question he leaves hanging regarding “The First Prisoner” — I am not sure — he may also want to ignore that dilemma because of how it may threaten the “justification” of State action, as will be described).
Now, I want to stress the word seems when I say “Plato seems to be playing both sides of the fence,” because I think it’s basically clear that Plato himself thinks “the founders” are responsible for the education of the Philosopher Kings, and thus the Philosophers Kings aren’t self-taught, meaning “the founders” are justified to make them “return into the Cave.” The “seeming-ness” noted above varies based on the translations, but in my opinion our “Western zeitgeist” makes it relatively easy to interpret many and maybe even most translations in favor of the FI over the DI. Now, once the difference between FI and DI is pointed out, it becomes more obvious certain passages are saying the prisoners aren’t “intrinsically motivated,” but I submit to you that such is not obvious when reading the passages from within our “Western bias” (without at least any stress on DI). Reading through Book VII, I can’t think of any sections that struck me as easily disproving the FI in favor of the DI for those who were already biased in favor of FI, helping explain why DI was so easily forsaken. Please don’t mistake this as a criticism of anyone, for I myself am one of those Westerners: I myself have not been getting it right.
To return to the issue of how Plato may “play both sides”: Plato says when explaining the meaning of his Allegory:
‘The visible realm should be likened to the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm […] (Grube, 189)
‘[…] 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 world […]’ (Jowett, 227)
‘Liken the domain revealed through sight to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the sun’s power; and, in applying the going up and the seeing of what’s above to the soul’s journey up to the intelligible place […]’ (Bloom, 196)
There was no “journey,” no “ascent’ or “going up,” in Plato’s Allegory: the prisoner was dragged. All versions of what Plato says here favor FI over DI, and frankly can contribute to us “reading back into” the Allegory a take on the described force and “dragging” which is hypothetical in nature. If the Allegory was about an ‘ascent of the soul,’ as Plato tells us, then we can wonder if perhaps the supposed teacher or guard who freed us was really “someone inside of us” who stirred us awake. Maybe the teacher or guard in the Cave just represents some “voice of truth” inside our own hearts and minds who helps us “see the light?” None of this necessarily follows, and certainly the language of “journey” and “ascent” can be overlaid with imagery of “dragging” (even if that overlay isn’t very clean and neat), but please note how easily such interpretations align with FI over DI. Talking this way, Plato contributes to our confusion.
In Plato describing the Cave as an “ascent of the soul” or “journey,” Plato absolutely makes it sound like we “walk out” of the Cave. In this way, Plato himself is part of the problem contributing to the emergence of FI (which, I stress, I’m not totally against), going even further in that direction later on when he claims:
‘…we won’t be doing an injustice to those who’ve become philosophers in our city […] And what grows of its own accord and owes no debt for its upbringing has justice on its side when it isn’t keen to pay anyone for that upbringing […]’ (Grube, 192)
‘…there will be no injustice in compelling our philosopher to have a care and providence of other […] Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a culture which they have never received […]’ (Jowett, 230)
‘…consider that we won’t be doing injustice to the philosophers who come to be among us […] For they grow up spontaneously against the will of the regime in each; and a nature that grows by itself and doesn’t owes its rearing to anyone […] (Bloom, 198)
All of this is language of self-motivation and autonomy — Plato is now talking “as if” philosophers are a product of their own making, that the FI is right and the DI wrong. Now, the counter here might be that Plato is talking about the need to force philosophers to participate in civil life, so it’s not as FI-supporting as it seems. A fair point, and if we look to the larger context, we can see Plato is not necessarily saying that prisoners escaped “on their own,” but that impression depends strongly on the translation. In fact, Plato can be saying that the prisoners aren’t intrinsically motivated at all, and that thus they escaped thanks to “the founders,” and thus “the founders” are justified to force them back into the Cave. To review our three translations (starting with Grube):
‘And what grows of its own accord and owes no debt for its upbringing has justice on its side when it isn’t keen to pay anyone for that upbringing. But we’ve made you kings in our city and leaders of the swarm, as it were, both for yourselves and for the rest of the city. You’re better and more completely educated than the others and are better able to share in both types of life.’ (Grube, 192)
Once our focus is drawn to the detail that we are “dragged” out of the Cave, it’s clear that the phrase ‘But we’ve made you kings in our city […]’ means “We brought you out of the Cave,” as it’s also easy to understand the sentence, ‘You’re better and more completely educated […]’ as meaning “We founders better and more completely educated you.” But I would argue that this section, which clearly can be understood as favoring DI, doesn’t force us to accept DI if we are “captured” strongly by FI (which I would argue you most of us are, especially in the West). Habituated to FI, the phrase, ‘But we’ve made you kings,’ can just mean, “The philosophers who came out of the Cave on their own were made kings, and because they were made kings, they owe the society.” The phrase ‘You’re better and more completely educated’ can mean to us, “You better and more completely educated yourselves.” None of the translation here forces us to accept DI: we can read in FI (as I would argue you is the case with all of Book VII).
Does the Jowett or Bloom interpretation do much better? Let investigate them both:
‘Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a culture which they have never received. But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, king of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty.’ (Jowett, 230)
‘For they grow up spontaneously against the will of the regime in each; and a nature that grows by itself and doesn’t owe its rearing to anyone has justice on its side when it is not eager to pay off the price of rearing to anyone. ‘But you we have begotten for yourselves and for the rest of the city like leaders and kings in hives; you have been better and more perfectly educated and are more able to participate in both lives.’ (Bloom, 198–199)
I don’t think either of these fair much better than Grube’s, and likewise “fit” into either the DI or FI, based on what we’ve been motivated to focus on. Unlike normally, I actually think Jowett’s interpretation sounds the most like “the founders” are responsible for the philosophers escaping the Cave, with the phrase, ‘But we have brough into this world […].’ However, all three translations could easily be taken to be saying that “a self-taught individual has been brought into a Republic, received benefits from that Republic, and now must do their duty.” An FI of the Allegory need not be deconstructed.
Regardless the translation or section, notice how easily we can interpret the “forcing of prisoners back into the Cave” as coming after “the autonomous journey of the soul” out of the Cave, and that’s frankly how I think most people think about it. Generally, favoring FI, we think prisoners escape the Cave on their own and then are forced in Plato to return to the Cave: we don’t tend to think the prisoners are forced out and forced back down (which is partly why Plato feels like it’s not an injustice to force the philosophers back into the Cave: “We got them out, so we can force them back in,” basically). This actually makes the prisoner who escapes “more like Jesus” (which we in the West are biased toward), for the prisoner did the great and noble work of self-enlightenment, only to sacrifice his or her self for others who didn’t do that great and noble work. Not that it’s all wrong, but our Christian inheritance is indeed a contributor to FI over DI.
Plato refers to the prisoners as ‘our pupils’ (Jowett, 230), suggesting the prisoners only escape thanks to educators, but this is not within the Allegory itself, and we as readers can simply imagine the Allegory as suggesting that the freed prisoner chooses to submit his or her self to schooling, not that schooling is entirely responsible for everything “enlightened” about the prisoner (including the desire to learn at all). This is easily an incorrect interpretation, but it should be noted yet again that Plato himself doesn’t always make his belief in DI clear. Toward the end of Book VII, he claims:
‘Therefore, calculation, geometry, and all the preliminary education required for dialectic must be offered to the future rulers in childhood, and not in the shape of compulsory learning either […] no free person should learn anything like a slave. Forced bodily labor does no harm to the body, but nothing taught by force stays in the soul […] use play instead. That way you’ll also see better what each of them is naturally fitted for.’ (Grube, 208)
‘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 […] 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 […] [L]et early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to find out the natural bent.’ (Jowett, 250–251)
‘Well then, the study of calculation and geometry and the preparatory education required for dialectic must be put before them as children, and the instruction must not be given the aspect of a compulsion to learn […] the free man ought not to learn any study slavishly. Forced labors performed by the body don’t make the body any worse, but no forced study abides in a soul […] [D]on’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can also better discern what each is naturally directed toward.’ (Bloom, 215–216)
This exchange suggests that “children shouldn’t be ‘dragged out of the Cave,’ per se,” that FI is indeed the case, and it is easy to read this section and retrospectively interpret the Allegory in terms of FI over DI. Yes, this section can indeed be “fitted” into DI, for children could be “forced” to play, but Plato’s remarkable claim here — ‘nothing taught by force stays in the soul’ (Grube) — flies in the face of DI. Perhaps Plato is saying that children shouldn’t be forced to learn, but a stricter hand can be put upon adults? This is suggested most clearly in the Jowett interpretation — ‘[L]et early education be a sort of amusement’ — but it’s not clear if this means only early education or early and late education (and FI will easily have us assume the later). And if force hurts education in younger children, why should we assume teenagers and adults would be any different? Plato has here given FI strong evidence for its case, even if the quoted sections can be “worked” into DI. Plato is, again, seemingly playing both sides.
If children shouldn’t be “forced” to learn, Plato is suggesting “a theory of intrinsic motivation” that is brought out in “play,” and Plato is indeed suggesting that there is something “intrinsically different” about the released prisoner who ascends compared to the others down in the Cave (thus the emphasis on “nature” in the last sentence of the quoted section). This leaves us with “a hanging question” to which we will return, but for now the point is that, thanks to what Plato has claimed here, we can easily imagine released prisoners are taught the truth by teachers, but thanks to a natural disposition, they ultimately “motivate themselves” to listen and leave the Cave. I think this is another popular angle that avoids DI but doesn’t fall into a “hard FI” (which still manages to hide “the hanging problem” of “The First Prisoner”): we come to believe that we escape the Cave thanks to us taking our education to motivate ourselves to seek the truth. But this doesn’t seem to be what happens in the Allegory: again, we are dragged.
The section just mentioned being an exception, in sections after the Allegory of the Cave, we begin to receive a clearer and more uninformed understanding about the meaning of the Cave. However, these sections are rarely included in accounts of the Cave, hence allowing our minds to “freely” favor FI over DI. Additionally, the following can still be read as saying that some prisoners “escape on their own” and then that “the founders” have to force them back.
‘It is our task as founders, then, to compel the best natures to reach the study we said before is the most important, namely, to make the ascent and see the good. But when they’ve made it and looked sufficiently, we mustn’t allow them to do what they’re allowed to do today […] To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less worth or of greater.’ (Grube, 191)
‘Then […] the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain the 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 […] remain in the upper world […] they must be made to descend again among the prisoners of the den, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not.’ (Jowett, 229–230)
‘Then our job as founders […] is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up the ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted […] To remain there […] and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious.’ (Bloom, 198)
Plato, who positions himself with Socrates, is a founder of the Republic who is “justified” to force the best in the Republic to “see the truth” and then force them to return into the city. Since the truth is good and wonderful, and since “the best minds” wouldn’t have encountered the true without Plato, Plato is then morally justified to force them to leave it behind for “the greater good.” The Allegory is entirely in Plato’s favor, but it begs the question:
“Who let Plato out of the Cave?”
“The Allegory of the Cave” describes a prisoner being dragged into the light, not walking up into it according to bold and independent choice. This leaves open a glaring question: “Even if most prisoners are forced out, how did the first prisoner escape?” Someone must have escaped the Cave on their own at some point, yes? Otherwise, no one could have come down into the Cave and forced any prisoners out.
“The First Prisoner” scenario opens the door on a big question: the role of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Plato alluded to the possibility of “intrinsic motivation” when discussing “self-growth,” but he mostly shut that possibility down and declared “founders” as justified to force philosophers back down into the Cave (perhaps suggesting that Plato doesn’t want to consider the existence of “intrinsic motivation,” because that would significantly complexify his project). To his defense, Plato does at one point finally ask the big question, and regarding the existence of “Philosopher Kings,” he asks:
‘Do you want us to consider now how such people will come to be in our city and how — just as some are said to have up from Hades to the gods — we’ll lead them up to the light?’ (Grube, 193)
‘And now shall we consider in what ways such guardians will be produced, and how they are to be brought from darkness to light — as some are said to have ascended form the world below to the gods?’ (Jowett, 232)
‘Do you want us now to consider in what way such men will come into being and how one will lead them up to the light, just as some men are said to have gone from Hades up to the gods?’ (Bloom, 200)
Grube here again aligns best with DI, followed by Bloom and Jowett, though again I would argue none of these lines are strong enough to overturn an FI bias. After this question, Plato proceeds to simply lay out his program for education, which doesn’t address the problem of “The First Prisoner” (and, again, I think the program can easily be “read into” FI, which avoids “The First Prisoner Problem” by making the problem seem addressed). However, if we focus on this question, we can see DI in it, and Plato is arguably clear: no one escapes the Cave on their own, but in fact are escorted out by someone else. Of course though, even if we follow the DI reading in this way, the question still hangs: “How did Plato escape the Cave?” (If this is addressed somewhere in his great collection of works, I fear I don’t recall it.)
Well, it could be argued that the first prisoner would have had to put himself in prison, which makes no sense: people must have been “born” in the upper world, and for some reason some people were forced to have children underground, in the Cave, where the children were forced to stay and be raised. This would solve “The First Prisoner Problem,” per se (a phrase I intend to be associated with “The First Mover”), but this solution seems very similar to the Christian Eden where humanity was born in paradise but ended up in sin and fallen. Perhaps that is indeed what occurred, and perhaps the person who sets prisoners free is ultimately God by his grace and grace alone (the Allegory easily fits into Christian metaphysics).
Alright, fine, that would solve “The First Prisoner Problem,” but then we simply reframe the dilemma as “The Prisoner Nobody Comes For,” which is to ask, “What happens to a trapped prisoner to who no teacher comes down to release or explain the upper world?” Is this prisoner doomed? Is there no way for this prisoner to escape, either because the chains are too tight to break out of and/or because motivation to escape never arises? Plato might think that way, but what about us?
“The Prisoner Nobody Comes For” is a critical thought experiment, and though it’s not what happens in Plato’s Allegory, it is still logically a very fair scenario to consider, one that I think brings into focus the extreme importance of “intrinsic motivation,” a topic stressed throughout O.G. Rose, which leads us into the question of if its possible “to cultivate aesthetic capacities.”
“The Prisoner Nobody Comes For” is “the hanging question” we are left with from Plato’s famous Allegory, a hanging question that American mythology around the Allegory seems to help us forget and avoid. Remembering the text as we please, we are simply allowed to imagine that “we just do” escape the Cave on our own, that we don’t need any help from anyone. But if we take seriously that we cannot free ourselves without some kind of “nudge,” then the question cannot be avoided: “How can we ‘nudge’ ourselves?” The answer doesn’t seem like it can be entirely reduced to ourselves, but it also doesn’t seem like it can be entirely explained communally. Neither hard individualism nor hard belief in external forces will do. Well, what will?
In conclusion, why do I refer to all this as suggesting a “hanging question” in Plato? For Plato, “how” the prisoner escapes the cave isn’t “hanging” at all: the prisoner is forced out by an instructor. Yes, but we are logically permitted to wonder, “How did that instructor escape?” If we are meant to understand the Allegory of the Cave as the movement from being uneducated to being educated, or from being ignorant to being enlightenment, then the Allegory describes a process everyone must go through, and that would include the instructor, and his instructor, and his instructor — on and on. “The Allegory of the Cave” presents us with a “first mover” problem, for eventually we must work our way back to a version of the Cave involving “the first man” in which nobody comes down to free a prisoner or force the prisoner out. Regarding this “first man,” the question is fair: “How does he escape?” It must be on his own, right? I mean, nobody can come to his aid.
Considering this “first mover”-problem, I want to stress again that I’m actually not entirely against versions of Plato’s Cave in which the prisoner somehow “frees himself” and no one drags him out (FI), for this consideration is justified in either “The First Prisoner Problem” or “The Prisoner Nobody Came For Problem” (which are practically identical). I’ve certainly recalled the Allegory this way, and that is how it is often discussed, and it is a fair and valid thought experiment. No, it’s not technically what is found in Plato, but it is logically a version of the Allegory we need to consider. It applies “practically” just as well to anyone who lacks a teacher, who exists in a world where the quality of education has collapsed, and who doesn’t have access to anyone who can help them achieve “the love of wisdom.” I think there are lots of people like this, and perhaps the widespread understanding of the Cave, devoid of force and “dragging,” is evidence that this is the case. The world is perhaps full of people who must somehow “intrinsically motivate” themselves to leave the Cave. Can they rise to the occasion? How? Can “intrinsic motivation” be taught, and if not, can we give it to ourselves?
This is the question to which the following book will be devoted. It is the question on which The True Isn’t the Rational, The Fate of Beauty, and Belonging Again hinge. The book will try to imagine a prisoner who is attracted out of the Cave by beauty versus forced out of the Cave by a teacher. The prisoner will have the capacity to be so attracted because the prisoner has somehow developed the capacity to be “intrinsically motivated,” which is deeply connected to the experience of seeing beauty easily and regularly. I have written many papers on Hegel, and I’m always asking, “How is x ‘for’ consciousness gaining self-consciousness?” So the question arises, “How is the DI ‘for’ consciousness?” versus “How is the FI ‘for’ consciousness?” Both eventually lead us to a “Prisoner Nobody Comes For”-problem, and so I think both are “for” consciousness in similar ways. Perhaps our misreading of Plato in favor of FI suggests consciousness is seeking intrinsic motivation and beauty; perhaps we are gaining “the self-consciousness” that beauty and aesthetic capacity are critical and paramount?
The “confusing both-ness” of Plato’s Cave, where it simultaneously suggests FI and DI (a tension we have perhaps created with our translations wanting the confusion so that we could lean toward FI freely), has perhaps been a tension which has strongly shaped Western society, and following Hegel, perhaps consciousness is now reaching a new stage of possible self-understanding in light of that tension? Plato presents us with a tension between the individual and society, where if the prisoner frees his or her self, the society seems unjustified to control that prisoner, but if the prisoner is only freed thanks to the society, the society has a greater claim on the prisoner. Which is the case? The debate rages on, and so the West emerges. Now though, we are perhaps entering a new phase of Western development, a phase deeply connected to “the fate of beauty.” If so, then indeed, everything comes down to the nature of intrinsic motivation.
The greater the allegory, the greater the chance it takes on a life of its own beyond its original text and context. Few allegories or sections achieve this “life of their own,” with the most pressing other example which comes to mind being “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” located in the center of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The section is included in many “existential readers,” separated from the rest of the novel, and as a result many of the subtleties and “clarifying details” are lost and forgotten. Something similar has happened with Plato’s Allegory, I believe, and I think it’s especially the case that the FI easily eclipses the DI when readers only take on the Allegory (with the ease of this eclipse being dependent on the particular translation). If a reader takes on the whole Republic though, evidence for the DI becomes more apparent, but even then, I can’t find any sections in Plato’s work that makes it undeniably clear that the DI is the only meaning of the Allegory (though, again, it varies based on the translation).
Yes, Plato may address the problem of “intrinsic motivation” somewhere else in his corpus that I don’t know about, and it indeed becomes clear that the DI plays a role the more we read beyond Plato’s Allegory. But that all said, I hope this work has made it clear how the FI grew, developed, and spread, and why the DI has been forgotten and muddled. Furthermore, I hope the case has been made for why the topic of “intrinsic motivation” deserves attention and unpacking: if it’s impossible for us to incubate it, as Plato argues, the State is easily “just” to force us as it sees best for realizing “the good.” Is this what Plato wanted to be the case? Did he ignore the question of “intrinsic motivation” in fear that might undermine the claims of the State over the individual? I don’t know, but clearly the stakes are high in determining the role and possibility of “intrinsic motivation.” If there is no hope of us achieving it, then what wrong can the State commit to compel us for “what’s best?”
The Republic. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis, Indiana. Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.
The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004.
Bloom, Allan. The Republic of Plato (Second Edition). Basic Books, 1968.
Please see the channel of Johannes A. Niederhauser and sign up for his upcoming discussion on Plato! (December 18th and 19th, 5–8pm GMT)