Plato had a very different attitude towards representation than Aristotle
(one of Plato's students). Plato's
texts are written as dialogues, often between Socrates (Plato's teacher) and
other characters. Plato's
"Socrates" resembles the real Socrates (whom we know only through the
writings of Plato and two other contemporaries), but Plato's Socrates is most
clearly a spokesperson for Plato's ideas, particularly in the Republic.
Plato's ideal person is the philosopher, like Socrates and himself, who
is "capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging."
The philosopher is "keen of sight," rather than "blind,",
to knowledge of the eternal. He is
thus the "most competent to guard the laws and pursuits of society."
The philosopher is the ideal guardian or leader of Plato's ideal
The philosopher's "sight" does not act through the senses, as
it does in Aristotle and Descartes. It
does not seek knowledge in the outside world as a painter or poet might perceive
and represent the objects of their senses.
Rather the philosopher's sight is "in-sight" into the eternal,
unchangeable ideal forms that exist within each person's "soul."
Plato thus uses the words "sight" and "blindness" figuratively, rather
than literally. True
"sight" for Plato is a metaphor for the power of rational thought to disclose,
through dialectical thinking, the eternal forms that exist only within memory.
Within the soul, the philosopher "sees" (i.e. thinks) the ideal.
As guardian of the republic, he uses the knowledge he finds in his soul
either to "establish in this world . . . the laws of the beautiful, the
just, and the good" or to preserve those laws when they are already
established. The philosopher is the
most just and gentle leader, but only when he has sufficient experience and
virtue and when he has a "philosophical nature."
A philosophical nature is "enamored of" knowledge of the
eternal, seeks it in its entirety, loves the truth and hates falsehood, learns
quickly, has a good memory, and is characterized by harmony, seemliness,
measure, proportion, graciousness, bravery, sobriety.
When such a philosophical nature is "perfected by education and
maturity of age," the resulting philosopher learns to disclose, through the
dialectic, the knowledge of "all things human and divine":
knowledge of "the ideal reality in all things."
This knowledge makes him whole and helps him make society whole.
Philosophers are thus lovers of knowledge, which they can find only
within themselves. Their desire for
knowledge is so great that their physical desires for the external objects of
their body's senses or their desire for the wealth that would enable them to
satisfy their bodily desires are substantially diminished.
As a result, they do not fear the death of the body.
For them, external reality is mere "appearance," since internal
"reality" resides wholly within.
Plato illustrates the philosopher's ascent towards knowledge through
dialectics by means of a now-famous description of life in an imaginary cave. From its opening, the cave descends steeply.
Part way down, there is a fire. Just
below the fire, there is a road, then a wall the height of a man.
Even lower are men, their legs and necks shackled so that they cannot
move at all and can look only towards the back of the cave.
They can see neither entrance, fire, road, wall, nor each other.
Other men, some silently, some speaking, walk on the road behind the wall
and in front of the fire carrying human images, cut-out shapes of animals, and
implements. Given that the shackled men are looking away from these things
towards the back wall of the cave, all that they can see are the shadows of the
moving human images, animal shapes, and implements: shadows that are thrown onto the wall
by the fire.
If the shackled men spend their life this way, according to Socrates,
they will assume that the shadows on the cave's wall are reality, since the
shadows are all that they ever see. In
naming the shadows, they will imagine that they are naming real things.
If one of the shackled men should speak, the others would assume, because
of the echo, that one of the shadows had spoken.
The literal representation of life in Plato's cave represents
figuratively, according to Socrates, the situation of human beings in the real
world. All our physical eyes see
are shadows of true reality, not reality itself.
Most of us confuse these shadows with reality.
The prisoner with a philosophical nature is like a prisoner who has been
unshackled and allowed to look around. At
first, the direct light of the fire and of the indirect light of the sun blind
him. He is so used to thinking that
the shadows are reality that he continues to believe that the shadows are
reality, and would not believe someone who told him that the shadows were in
fact" a cheat and an illusion."
If someone were to drag the unshackled prisoner up the difficult ascent
of the cave to its mouth, then into the direct light of the sun, he would at
first be blinded. When he began to
see real objects, he would not believe that they were real.
Eventually, however, he would get used to them.
He would come to see the things themselves and realize that what he had
once thought to be reality was a deception.
He would then pity those who remain shackled to their error in the cave
and he would cease to respect the awards that they give each other for quickly
and correctly identifying the shadows that they confuse with reality.
If he returned to the cave and told the prisoners that were seeing only
shadows of reality, they would laugh at him when he tried to tell them the
But Plato does not interpret his story of the unshackled prisoner's ascent out of the cave literally, as a rejection of signs ("shadows") of perceived things in the outer word. Remember, he believes that perception blinds us to what is really true. Rather he interprets his story allegorically. The shadows are metaphors for the deceptive reality that we see with our eye, and the sun is a metaphor for the "light" of inner rational thought, reason, which discloses the ideal, remembered forms of the true, the good, and the beautiful, within the mind.
The philosopher's ultimate goal is to mentally ascend, through reason, to
the world of the universal,
inner sun, then teach others to throw off the shackles of their senses and
ascend to the same inner sun within them: to the memory of the eternal essences
that this inner sun illuminates. By going
beyond knowledge to the act of teaching others, the philosopher becomes a
Although truth, justice, and beauty are universal for Socrates, this
universal truth can be found only within each individual person. As a
philosopher/leader cannot simply give others knowledge.
He must teach others to find knowledge within themselves.
Socrates thus compares himself to a midwife.
He helps others actively give birth to the truth that resides within
them. This method of teacher others to find truth within themselves is the
Socratic method, "maieutics." It takes the form of question and
answer in Plato's dialogues. The Socratic method is used in Harvard Law
school and you can see examples in the movie, "The Paper Chase."
By contrast with the philosopher, the poet for Socrates (such as the
tragic playwright like Sophocles or the epic poet like Homer) and the painter
depend upon the outer sun and their perceptions. They try
to "imitate" the outer world that their senses represent.
The resulting poetic and pictorial imitations of reality deceive others
and corrupt their minds, which is why they should be banned from the
Paintings and poems represent mere "appearances," not (inner)
reality and truth. Anyone can do
what the poet and painter do by simply carrying a mirror around with them as
they walk and by looking in the mirror. The
poet and painter, Socrates argues, are in fact three times removed from
the real. If they imitate
(represent) a bed, they imitate an object that has been produced by a
craftsman. The craftsman has in turn imitated the bed that his eyes
have seen. But the visible be he
has seen are themselves only imitations of the ideal form of the bed which
was created by God and which resides in each man’s memory.
Poets and painters (and "mimetic" art in general) thus create
appearances, mere "shadows" of the real.
They deceive and manipulate.
Poets and painters (and we might add photographers and filmmakers) are
victims of the error of their bodily senses, which can make them see contrary
visions of reality: "And the
same things appear bent and straight to those who view them in water and out, or
concave and convex, owing to similar errors of vision about colors, and there is
obviously every confusion of this sort in our souls."
Reason in Plato (which is "male" for him) is threatened, not
only by the senses, but by the emotions (which are "female"), since
emotions can make us feel contradictory things just as the senses can make us
see contradictory things. Poetry
(tragic plays) dramatizes characters who abandon themselves to their emotions
and they encourage the audience to react emotionally to the fallen hero's
plight. They make us feel contrary emotions, such as hope (that the hero
will succeed) and despair (that he will not). Poetry, like sensory representation, is thus
irrational. Similarly, comic plays
can make us laugh at both sides of an argument (as the narrator does in Roger
and Me). The mimetic
(imitative) arts thus present us not only with contradictory representations
based on our senses, but also with contradictory emotions, thus preventing our
reason from distinguishing the true from the false. This is why poets and
painters must be excluded from the philosopher’s ideal republic.
Philosophy for Plato must thus "dry up" the emotions as well as turn us inward away from our perceptions. By means of dialectical thinking, philosophy thinks through the false contraries produced by the senses and the emotions and it gives us access to the ideal: the beautiful, the just, and the good.
Plato's theory of representation is substantially different from
Aristotle's, for whom some sensations are objective. Reason for Aristotle
need only distinguish between accurate and inaccurate sensory images in order to
gain access to the real outside world. For Plato no sensory evidence is
objective. Reality is only within the inner, ideal, remembered world.
*1. Summarize and interpret Plato's theory of representing reality and show how Plato's allegory of the cave illustrates this theory.
Contrast Plato's, Aristotle's, Descartes, and Pascal's theories of the relation
between the rational mind, sensation, and external objects.
3. Compare the different ways in which Plato's philosopher and modern science according to Zola seek knowledge and use this knowledge to exercize the political and social power to guide society.