Plato’s Republic approaches questions about the nature of goodness, how it affects the actions of men, the nature of truth, what motivates us, and the nature of justice. Plato does so with an eye to exploring the socio-political and individual ramifications of these topics, as well as explaining his theories on how they are inextricably intertwined.
The Republic’s sixth and seventh books comprise some of the most influential literature in Western philosophy. Is this philosophical and political treatise, written during the 4th century, still relevant to modern society? Like any literature, The Republic is only as important as the influence of those who read it. To effect improvement in a society, we must look beyond the pipe dreams of philosopher-kings and epistemological meanderings; we must apply truth in a practical sense, and endeavor to appeal to the desires and dreams of our fellow man. Philosophy for pleasure is all well and good, but philosophy for living is another thing entirely. If taken in this light, the Republic could be perceived as a call to action.
What, then, would Plato’s cave allegory call us to do to improve our own lives in respect to justice, goodness and truth?
Idea #1: Think for yourself.
There’s a at least a hint of this sentiment in all of Plato’s themes discussed in the Republic. A strong heart of this assertion exists especially in his Divided Line, in that belief and faith are denounced as weak suppositions, and rational thought is held as being the highest standard for evaluation and interpretation of ideas. Likewise, Plato’s Cave Allegory makes this point a central theme, extolling the virtues of leaving the cave of ignorance where others remain, and finding the light of wisdom on your own. Only when you leave this dark and ignorant place can you begin to awaken to the light, the shadows it casts, then the objects of the world themselves, the stars, and finally, the sun. While those persons left behind are busily conferring ridiculous honors to one another in the erroneous wisdom of the cave, once a man has seen the light, he has no desire for these honors. Plato asserts that the wisdom of Homer speaks of a higher truth: It is better to be the poor servant of a poor master and to endure anything, rather than think as they do.
Idea #2: Be humbled by truth.
This goes along the lines of Socrates’ paradoxical “scio me nihil scire” (I know that I know nothing). Fortunately, Plato’s Realm of Forms aids us in giving shape to the undiscovered and unknown. Plato tells us that we dream, impossibly, of things we have never seen. This is made possible due to the existence of truth and the realm of forms, in which perfection is modeled and all less perfect things are styled after. Although we cannot ever hope to attain perfect wisdom or understanding, we can, through the aid of mathematics and science, come closer to the perfect truth if we allow ourselves to accept new ideas. In a sense, Plato says that we should not anticipate what we expect to find in our search for truth, but that we should instead be receptive to things we had not anticipated and humble ourselves to the truth. This imperative, by nature, supersedes any notions of faith or belief, and places it trust solely in logical thinking, rather than mere sensory perception.
Idea #3: Expect resistance to teaching the truth (and then do it anyway).
Plato’s mentor, Socrates, was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for disrupting the social order. He was, apparently, more interested in truth than self-preservation. His execution is a perfect example of the violence that Plato attempts to caution us about. Like the former cave-dweller who returns to the cave to offer enlightenment to his former companions, anyone who attempts to share wisdom and truth with the masses exposes himself to ridicule and violent rejection. This didn’t stop Socrates, and it shouldn’t stop us, either. Not everyone is in a frame of mind to accept their dogmas being challenged, but those who are must be found. Perhaps this is why Plato preferred the company of educated men, who had already chosen to open their minds to a new way of thinking in the interest of gaining some insight as to the true nature of existence.
As detailed in Plato’s divided line analogy, there are those who seek a higher wisdom, and those who are content to adopt religion and the beliefs put forward by others. He places faith on the opposite end of the spectrum from intellect, which would seem to cast a shadow over the plausibility of any religious belief system. Plato would have likely espoused an agnostic spiritual view, in which he admits to being ignorant of the nature of the original cause for existence, and places his trust squarely in the hands of philosophical and scientific reason. As Plato’s divided line theory and sunlight analogy demonstrate, perfection cannot be attained by man, but understanding of goodness and justice can be achieved through the light of intellect.
To all of these ends, Plato wished to inspire us. He dares us to be bold; he dares us to find our own truth. Anyone who seeks enlightenment is sure to find it. With enough honesty and humility, true wisdom is possible. It is much more difficult, however, to sustain the courage and tenacity that the truth requires.