Why Return? Allegory of the Good

In Plato’s Republic Socrates presents the most beautiful and famous metaphor in Western philosophy: the allegory of the cave. This metaphor is meant to illustrate the effects of education on the human soul and what might ultimately brings him to the Form of the Good.

In the allegory Socrates describes a dark scene. A group of people have lived in a deep cave since birth, never seeing the light of day. These people are bound so that they cannot look to either side or behind them, but only straight ahead. Behind them is a fire, and behind the fire is a partial wall. On top of the wall are various statues, which are manipulated by another group of people, lying out of sight behind the partial wall. Because of the fire, the statues cast shadows across the wall that the prisoners are facing. The prisoners watch the stories that these shadows play out, and because these shadows are all they ever get to see, they believe them to be the most real things in the world. When they talk to one another about “men,” “women,” “trees,” or “horses,” they are referring to these two dimensional shadows. These prisoners represent the lowest stage on the line—imagination.

A prisoner is freed from his bonds, and is forced to look at the fire and at the statues themselves. After an initial period of pain and confusion because of direct exposure of his eyes to the light of the fire, the prisoner realizes that what he sees now are things more real than the shadows he has always taken to be reality. He grasps how the fire and the statues together cause the shadows, which are copies of these more real things. He accepts the statues and fire as the most real things in the world. This stage in the cave represents belief. He has made contact with real things—the statues—but he is not aware that there are things of greater reality—a world beyond his cave.

Next, this prisoner is dragged out of the cave into the world above. At first, he is so dazzled by the light up there that he can only look at shadows, then at reflections, then finally at the real objects—real trees, flowers, houses and so on. He sees that these are even more real than the statues were, and that those were only copies of these. He has now reached the cognitive stage of thought. He has caught his first glimpse of the most real things, the Forms.

When the prisoner’s eyes have fully adjusted to the brightness, he lifts his sight toward the heavens and looks at the sun. He understands that the sun is the cause of everything he sees around him—the light, his capacity for sight, the existence of flowers, trees, and other objects. The sun represents the Form of the Good, and the former prisoner has reached the stage of understanding.

The might have been the end of the allegory as it is the discovery of the Good, but something drives the enlightened free slave back into the cave to free his fellow slaves. Why does the philosopher return to the cave after seeing the Good?

One answer is that the philosopher returns to the cave to free the cave dwellers out of empathy and pity. Not so long ago he was one of one of them and understands their pain in ways they might not know. Another answer is they he goes back to rule over them. This reason might be for the good or the bad, but the philosopher has a calling to lead. And yet another answer is that he feels some compulsion in that he never really understood how he ended up free. Maybe he has to pay it forward in gratitude for his own experience of freedom. Another version of this answer is this act of freeing the other slaves is an act of resistance against the system that empoisoned him. So this would be less gratitude than vengeance.

I was thinking about this question as to why the philosopher return to the cave after seeing the Good this week when reading Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. There we read the story of Moshe. He was born to slaves. Through was seems like a miraculous story he is unshackled from a grueling life as a slave to be raised in Pharaoh’s house. From there he stands up to the slave masters and must evade them and leaves the cave of Egypt. There he finds shelter and employment with Yitro. One day when working as shepherd for Yitro he goes looking for a lost sheep when he discovers God. Here the Good is not revealed to him as the sun, but the Burning Bush.

And again we are left with the question, why would Moshe return to the cave after seeing the Good? Any of the answers given above for Plato’s philosopher might be accurate. An additional answer given in the Torah is beyond the compulsion of the Good, but the commandment of God.

Sitting to write this post I was listening to Yishai Ribo’s song LaShuv HaBayta and thought of another reason why Moshe and the philospher might have returned. If you have not, listen to this song:

There Ribo sings:

The time has come to wake up

To leave everything- to overcome

To return home

Not to search for any other place.

It is possible that Moshe and the philosopher just wanted to go home. Even if we cannot ultimately stay at home, there is something compelling about homecoming.

In all of these answers to this question there is a profoundness of our individual and collective obligation to serve others in need. At its core this is the foundation of education.


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