The myth of the cave in The Republic is a story about some people who were brought up in the dark. They were confined to one space and were unable to even move their heads. The only thing they could see was shadows which were made by people who were outside of the cave. One of the people in the cave somehow manages to get out and learns the truth about life. There are several different interpretations of the myth of the cave.
One interpretation is that the myth has a religious theme. The people are in the dark and finally one is brought out into the light. Another interpretation is that the person who got out of the cave symbolizes a person who is looking for something different and has the courage to seek the unknown. The last interpretation is that the myth symbolizes the journey of scientific discovery. While these interpretations are interesting I feel like they’re lacking something. None of them really seem in place with what the rest of The Republic is about. The Republic is primarily a political text, but none of the interpretations really have anything to do with politics.
In my interpretation, the myth is directly related to politics. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he writes a section about political science. He writes that political science is not a suitable field for a young person because they are too emotional and politics require action (1095a1-10). I think that the enslaved people in the myth are young people. "He would need to grow accustomed to the light before he could see things in the upper world outside the cave (516a)". A person needs to gain some life experience before they can get into politics and become a capable leader. They have to grow up and watch other people working to gain experience in order to go into politics. The one who gets out is the one who is most suitable to lead. He does not just sit around waiting for something, he goes and does. Politics requires action and that’s just what this character did. Plato writes, “The intellectuals will take no practical action of their own accord (519b)”. The other people who were in the cave did nothing but learn from these shadows, while the other person got up and acted.
Earlier in the text Socrates had said that he felt that a leader leads like a parent. They are looking out for the greater good and not just what is best for themselves. In the myth, the liberated person does not go back into the cave. This person, who in my interpretation is the leader, is looking out for what’s best for the other people in the cave. When a caterpillar builds itself a cocoon and grows into a butterfly, someone could very easily open up the cocoon for him so that he doesn’t have to open it himself. But that would do him no good. The butterfly needs to strengthen his wings in order to fly. Just like here. The liberated “leader” could have gone back and told the rest of the slaves what he had learned, but it would have done them no good. They need to find that out on their own. A parent looks out for the greater good of his or her children and this leader is looking out for the greater good of his former peers.
At the end of the myth Plato writes, “You must therefore each descend in turn and live with your fellows in the cave and get used to seeing in the dark; once you get used to it you will see a thousand times better and they do (520c)”. Plato is letting it be known that it doesn’t just take a person of action and a person looking out for the greater good of his people to be a good leader. In order to be a good leader the person must be grounded as well. He must understand his people and what they have to deal with. In order to make well-informed decisions a leader needs to experience certain things.
The myth brings the text full circle. The text began with Socrates’ opinions on what a leader is. Now the text is explaining what a good leader is.
All quotes from Plato's The Republic
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