1. The Metaphor of the Sun

1. Just as it is by the light of the sun that the visible is made apparent to the eye, so it is by the light of truth and being – in contrast to the twilight of becoming and perishing – that the nature of reality is made apprehensible to the soul. 2. Just as light and sight may be said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so science and truth may be said to be like the Good, and yet not to be the Good; it is by the sun that there is light and sight, and it is by the Good that there is science and truth. 3. Just as the sun is the author of nourishment and generation, so the Good is the author of being and essence. Thus, the Good is beyond being, and the cause of all existence.

2. The Metaphor of the Line

A line is cut into two unequal parts, and each of them is divided again in the same proportion. The two main divisions correspond to the intelligible world and to the visible world. One section in the visible division consists of images, that is,
shadows and reflections, and is accessed through imagination. The other, higher section in the visible division consists of sensible particulars and is accessed through belief. One section in the intelligible division consists of Forms and is accessed through thought, but via sensible particulars and hypotheses, as when geometers use a picture of a triangle to help reason about triangularity, or make appeal to axioms to prove theorems. The other, higher section in the intelligible division also consists of Forms but is accessed by understanding, a purely abstract science which requires neither sensible particulars nor hypotheses, but only an unhypothetical first principle, namely, the Form of the Good. The purpose of education is to move the philosopher through the various sections of the line until he reaches the Form of the Good.

3. The Metaphor or Allegory of the Cave

Human beings have spent all their lives in an underground cave or den which has a mouth open towards the light. They have their legs and their necks chained so that they cannot move, and can see only in front of them, towards the back of the cave. Above and behind them a fire is blazing, and between them and the fire there is a raised way along which there is a low wall. Men pass along the wall carrying all sorts of statues, and the fire throws the shadows of these statues onto the back of the cave. All the prisoners ever see are the shadows, and so they suppose that the shadows are the objects themselves.

Picture credit: Dr Tom Stockmann/Dr Neel Burton

If a prisoner is unshackled and turned towards the light, he suffers sharp pains, but in time he begins to see the statues and moves from the cognitive stage of imagination to that of belief. The prisoner is then dragged out of the cave, where the light is so bright that he can only look at the shadows, and then at the reflections, and then finally at the objects themselves: not statues this time, but real objects. In time, he looks up at the sun, and understands that the sun is the cause of everything that he sees around him, of light, of vision, and of the objects of vision. In so doing, he passes from the cognitive stage of thought to that of understanding.

The purpose of education is to drag the prisoner as far out of the cave as possible; not to instil knowledge into his soul, but to turn his whole soul towards the sun, which is the Form of the Good. Once out of the cave, the prisoner is reluctant to descend back into the cave and get involved in human affairs. When he does, his vision is no longer accustomed to the dark, and he appears ridiculous to his fellow men. However, he must be made to descend back into the cave and partake of human labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not. This is because the State aims not at the happiness of a single person or single class, but at the happiness of all its citizens. In any case, the prisoner has a duty to give service to the State, since it is by the State that he was educated to see the light of the sun.

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 the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

Picture by Dr Tom Stockmann

In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes delivers his speech in the form of a myth.

Once upon a time, there were three kinds of human beings: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and androgynous, with both male and female elements, descended from the moon. Each human being was completely round, with four arms and fours legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets.

As they were powerful and unruly and threatening to scale the heavens, Zeus devised to cut them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling,’ and even threatened to cut them into two again, so that they might hop on one leg. Apollo then turned their heads to make them face towards their wound, pulled their skin around to cover up the wound, and tied it together at the navel like a purse. He made sure to leave a few wrinkles on what became known as the abdomen so that they might be reminded of their punishment.

After that, human beings longed for their other half so much that they searched for it all over. When they found it, they wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go. As a result, they started dying from hunger and self-neglect. Zeus took pity on the poor creatures, and moved their genitals to the front so that those who were previously androgynous could procreate, and those who were previously male could obtain satisfaction and move on to higher things.

This is the origin of our desire for other human beings. Those of us who desire members of the opposite sex were previously androgynous, whereas men who desire men and women who desire women were previously male or female. When we find our other half, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple appetite for sex, but rather by a desire to be whole again, and restored to our original nature. Our greatest wish, if we could have it, would then be for Hephaestus to meld us into one another so that our souls could be at one, and share once more in a common fate.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic was a contemporary of Socrates’ pupil Plato, whom Plato described as ‘a Socrates gone mad’. Like Socrates and, to a lesser extent, Plato, Diogenes favoured direct verbal interaction over the written account. When a man called Hegesias asked to be lent one of his writing tablets, he replied, ‘You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.’ After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. He proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The terms ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for a human being to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that a human being should live in accord with nature. Accordingly, he taught that, if an act is not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public either. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly’. Upon being asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’. Although Diogenes privileged reason, he despised the sort of abstract philosophy that was being practiced elsewhere and in particular at Plato’s Academy. When, to great acclaim, Plato defined a human being as an animal, biped, and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy with the words, ‘Behold! I have brought you Plato’s man.’ Plato consequently revised his definition, adding to it ‘with broad nails’.

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon), but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’ Diogenes used to stroll about in broad daylight with a lamp. Whenever curious people asked him what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’ Much to his chagrin, all he ever found were rascals and scoundrels. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble. Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure.