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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Figure of the Cave
By Plato (429–347 B.C.)
 
From the ‘Republic’: Translation of Benjamin Jowett

AFTER this, I said, imagine the enlightenment or ignorance of our nature in a figure: Behold! human beings living in a sort of underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light, and reaching all across the den; they have been here from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them; for the chains are arranged in such a manner as to prevent them from turning their heads around. At a distance above and behind them the light of a fire is blazing, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have before them, over which they show the puppets.  1
  I see, he said.  2
  And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying vessels, which appear over the wall; also figures of men and animals, made of wood and stone and various materials; and some of the passengers, as you would expect, are talking, and some of them are silent?  3
  That is a strange image, he said, and they are strange prisoners.  4
  Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?  5
  True, he said: how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?  6
  And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?  7
  Yes, he said.  8
  And if they were able to talk with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?  9
  Very true.  10
  And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy that the voice which they heard was that of a passing shadow?  11
  No question, he replied.  12
  There can be no question, I said, that the truth would be to them just nothing but the shadows of the images.  13
  That is certain.  14
  And now look again, and see how they are released and cured of their folly. At first, when any one of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to go up and turn his neck round and walk and look at 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 imagine some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now he is approaching real Being, and has a truer sight and vision of more real things,—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 in difficulty? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?  15
  Far truer.  16
  And if he is compelled to look at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes, which will make him turn away to take refuge in the object of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?  17
  True, he said.  18
  And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast and forced into the presence of the sun himself, do you not think that he will be pained and irritated, and when he approaches the light he will have his eyes dazzled, and will not be able to see any of the realities which are now affirmed to be the truth?  19
  Not all in a moment, he said.  20
  He will require to get 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; next he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars; and he will see the sky and the stars by night, better than the sun, or the light of the sun, by day?  21
  Certainly.  22
  And at last he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him as he is in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate his nature?  23
  Certainly.  24
  And after this he will reason that the sun is he who gives the seasons and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?  25
  Clearly, he said, he would come to the other first and to this afterwards.  26
  And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?  27
  Certainly he would.  28
  And if they were in the habit of conferring honors on those who were quickest to observe and remember and foretell which of the shadows went before, and which followed after, and which were together, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,—
  “Better be a poor man, and have a poor master,”
and endure anything, rather than to think and live after their manner?
  29
  Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than live after their manner.  30
  Imagine once more, I said, that such a one, coming suddenly out of the sun, were to be replaced in his old situation: is he not certain to have his eyes full of darkness?  31
  Very true, he said.  32
  And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who have never moved out of the den, during the time that his sight is weak, and before his eyes are steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he comes without his eyes; and that there was no use in even thinking of ascending: and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender in the act, and they would put him to death.  33
  No question, he said.  34
  This allegory, I said, you may now append to the previous argument: the prison is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, the ascent and vision of the things above you may truly regard as the upward progress of the soul into the intellectual world; that is my poor belief, to which, at your desire, I have given expression. Whether I am right or not, God only 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 the lord of light in this world, and the source of truth and reason in the other: this is the first great cause, which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must behold.  35
  I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.  36
  I should like to have your agreement in another matter, I said. For I would not have you marvel that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; but their souls are ever hastening into the upper world in which they desire to dwell: and this is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted.  37
  Certainly, that is quite natural.  38
  And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to human things, misbelieving himself in a ridiculous manner; if while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the darkness visible, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen the absolute justice?  39
  There is nothing surprising in that, he replied.  40
  Any one who has common-sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes,—either from coming out of the light or from going into the light; which is true of the mind’s eye quite as much as of the bodily eye: and he who remembers this when he sees the soul of any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And then he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets the other from the den.  41
  That, he said, is a very just remark.  42
  But if this is true, then certain professors of education must be mistaken in saying that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like giving eyes to the blind.  43
  Yes, that is what they say, he replied.  44
  Whereas, I said, our argument shows that the power is already in the soul; and that as the eye cannot turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too, when the eye of the soul is turned round, the whole soul must be turned from the world of generation into that of Being, and become able to endure the sight of Being and of the brightest and best of Being,—that is to say, of the good.  45
  Very true.  46
  And this is conversion: and the art will be how to accomplish this as easily and completely as possible; not implanting eyes, for they exist already, but giving them a right direction, which they have not.  47
  Yes, he said, that may be assumed.  48
  And hence while the other qualities seem to be akin to the body, being infused by habit and exercise and not originally innate, the virtue of wisdom is part of a divine essence, and has a power which is everlasting; and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable, and is also capable of becoming hurtful and useless.  49
 
 
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