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The Republic | Book 7 | Summary

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Summary

This book begins as a seamless continuation of Book 6. To discover how enlightened or unenlightened human beings are, Socrates asks his listeners to imagine a group of people imprisoned in an underground cave. Starting with childhood, they have their necks and legs chained so they cannot turn their heads around. Behind them, a blazing fire throws shadowy images on the opposite wall of the cave. Thus the inhabitants of the cave see only shadows, which in their ignorance they assume to be the sole reality of their existence.

Socrates then takes this thought experiment further by asking the group to predict what might happen if some of the cave-dwelling prisoners were freed and permitted to leave the cave for the light of day. After their initial distress and perplexity in the upper world, according to Socrates, they would discover the true nature of reality. However, if they should then return to the cave, their account of reality would strike their fellow human beings as so bizarre they would be branded as ridiculous, and perhaps even condemned to death.

Socrates then offers an explanation for the entire allegory, telling Glaucon the upward journey to the light of day is a figure of speech for the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world. The ultimate goal of this ascent is the Idea of the Good, which "appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort." The return to the cave of those who have been freed and allowed access to the upper world is also profoundly significant. The former prisoners who return with newly gained enlightenment represent the philosopher who shoulders the burden of educating and enlightening others. There is nothing unjust in compelling such a return to the darkness, since—as Socrates reminds Glaucon—the legislator of the ideal state must be concerned with the happiness of the entire population, as opposed to just one part.

In the rest of the sections of Book 7 Socrates returns to the education of the guardians, focusing this time on the study of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. An ideal curriculum is laid out, culminating in the study of philosophy for five years, from age 30 to 35. From 35 to 50 the best and most highly trained citizens of the state will hold office. Afterward they will make philosophy their chief pursuit and contemplate the Idea of Goodness.

Socrates also devotes considerable attention to the role of dialectic in philosophy. By dialectic Socrates means reasoned discussion between two or more people who hold different views on a matter but who want to reach the truth. Through dialectic, according to Socrates, a person may discover the absolute "by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense." Socrates praises dialectic as "the coping-stone of the sciences, [which] is set over them." In order to practice dialectic a person must attain the greatest skill in asking and answering questions. Also in Book 7 Socrates remarks "the comprehensive mind is always the dialectical." However, Socrates is careful to note dialectic may be misused, as when youngsters argue for amusement, contradicting and refuting others for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

Toward the end of Book 7 Socrates supplements his analogy of the Divided Line by asserting there are four divisions of the mind: two for intellect and two for opinion. The intellectual divisions may be classified, he says, as science and understanding; the parts pertaining to opinion may be called belief and the perception of shadows.

Analysis

For some scholars and commentators Book 7 is the heart of the Republic. The renowned Allegory of the Cave eloquently complements the two previous analogies in Book 6: those of the Sun and the Divided Line. The cave narrative, however, is far more dramatic in its portrayal of several distinct stages. These range from pitiable ignorance to sudden liberation, painful adjustment to reality, a return to the prison house, and the uphill struggle to enlighten others, undertaken at the risk of hostility and persecution. Whereas the analogies of the Sun and the Divided Line may be suggestive, the Allegory of the Cave is full-blown, dramatic paradigm of the education, enlightenment, and self-sacrifice of the true philosopher.

The images of ascent and subsequent descent are prominent in the Allegory of the Cave. Scholar David K. O'Connor points out the Greek word Plato uses for "descent," katabasis, also identifies the journey of the Homeric hero Odysseus to the land of the dead, a territory that, somewhat like the cave, is populated by shades or shadows. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the very word used by Socrates in the first sentence of the Republic when he casually informs the reader, "I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess" (emphasis added).

Within the overall context of Plato's work Socrates's remarks on dialectic are highly significant. Dialectic, it is clear, is nothing more or less than what is now called the "Socratic method." Plainly, as readers learn in the Republic itself, such a technique of question and answer could lead to embarrassment, ridicule, and even hostility, as with the menacing reactions and accusations of Thrasymachus in Book 1 of the dialogue. Notably Socrates moderates his praise for dialectic by cautioning the technique may be abused. He points out questioning and refutation may be practiced purely for the sake of contradiction.

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