Plato’s Republic is most famously understood, and most commonly discussed, as a dialogue about the problem of justice. But it also looks closely at education, religion, the military, and, of course, governance.
It’s also a play within a play … and both of those plays make prominent use of the theme of ascent and descent to make a point about justice and the most choice-worthy life. Indeed, the very first word of the Republic is Κατέβην (katebēn), which is best translated as “I went down” or “Down I went.”
Thus, Plato begins his dialogue by sending Socrates down from Athens to Piraeus for a religious festival. And — spoiler alert! — the Republic concludes with a mythic tale about the ascent of another character, Ur, from Hades back to the world of the living. In this way, Plato bookends his dialogue on justice with images of descent and ascent. And, in the middle, while Socrates is talking about justice and the ideal city, further use is made of this theme of going up and coming down.
On Thursday — the first substantive day of “Justice and the Good Life” — we’ll discuss what I take to be the most famous of the various ascents and descents described in the Republic, as students will have just read The Allegory of the Cave from the beginning of Book VII.
After carefully explaining the allegory so that his young interlocutors understand who’s in the cave, who’s able to leave the cave, what’s happening in the cave, what’s happening outside the cave, and what the stakes are for returning to the cave, Socrates tells Glaucon:
“Then our job as founders … is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”
“To remain there … and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious” (519c).
The Allegory of the Cave raises a whole host of interesting questions, but one to consider is why the founders of Socrates’ ideal city in speech must compel those with the best natures to descend into the cave from which they’ve so recently been freed so that they might attempt to free their fellow prisoners who still languish there.
After having been so recently imprisoned, and now having been made aware of the dire situation in which the others remain by a glimpse of the truth about the place of the cave in relation to the world at large, why don’t the former captives want to return to assist the others?
If they truly have the best natures, wouldn’t they descend of their own accord (even if the task is difficult and dangerous)? Is there anything choice-worthy or heroic about the life of someone who must be compelled to assist those who are in captivity?
I hope you’ll consider following along with the students this semester and I really hope, if you’re reading what they write on their blogs, that you’ll consider engaging them on the topics they address. It’ll make the class even more fun.