From Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book by Angie Hobbs

This is an excerpt from Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book reproduced by kind permission of the author, Prof. Angie Hobbs, and her publisher, Penguin.

GIVEAWAY: We’re currently giving away five copies of Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book. To enter the giveaway just register for our forthcoming virtual conference before 1st May 2022, and Tweet @platoacademycen to let us know you’re coming!

Philosophers, sophists, and alternative facts

Plato's Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book

Why is Plato so committed to the existence of knowledge? Why is he not prepared to countenance the possibility that humans might have to withhold judgement?

The answer partly lies in his distrust and dislike of the sophists, the professional teachers of skills in public speaking and debate (such as Thrasymachus). Throughout his work, Plato is particularly opposed to those who teach their students how to make the weaker argument appear the stronger, peddling tricks in argumentation for argument’s sake rather than making an honest and collaborative effort to search for the truth. He is also alarmed by the claim of one of the most famous sophists, Protagoras, that there is no such thing as objective truth and that each human simply creates his own subjective version of what is and what is not – that each ‘human is the measure’ of all things. Questioning and examining purported ‘facts’ is fine and good and what a philosopher should do, but doing away with any possibility of agreed reality is, Plato believes, both wrong and dangerous.

In his view such sophists give philosophy a bad name, and philosophy and sophistry need to be clearly distinguished. Commitment to the objective – indeed absolute – truth of the Forms and to knowledge of the Forms is the way to do this. […]

Plato's Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book
The philosopher seeking truth beyond the world of flux.

The Simile of the Cave

The contrast between the mortal world of shifting phenomena and the intelligible and divine realm of perfect and unchanging Forms is illustrated by the powerful Simile of the Cave. We are bound by the legs and neck in a dark cave, facing a wall; behind us is a fire and between the fire and our backs runs a curtain-wall above which puppets are mysteriously moved.

Although at first we will be dazzled, we will in time adjust to the true objects there and eventually be able to gaze at the sun itself…

Angie Hobbs

All we can see on the wall in front of us are the shadows of puppets, which we mistake for real objects, both animate and inanimate. But if we are painfully released from our shackles and forced up a tunnel into the bright world above, although at first we will be dazzled, we will in time adjust to the true objects there and eventually be able to gaze at the sun itself, and realize that before we were prisoners in a world of deceptive shadows. And those few who do get to look upon the sun are compelled to return to the cave and use their knowledge to improve the lives of those who dwell there. […]

The implications of the simile for education are profound. The task of the teacher is to turn the mind’s eye of the pupil in the direction of the light; the acquisition of knowledge has to be an active and internal process which the pupil undertakes for her- or himself.

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One Reply to “From Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book by Angie Hobbs”

  1. Thank you for this introduction…

    I do wonder however whether it is actually possible to gaze directly at the sun and apprehend absolute truth? Is this analogy in a way self-defeating? We know from our real lives that we can’t stare directly at that sun without pain, at least not for more than a moment of two. It can even be damaging to our eyes, to our ability to perceive physical forms.

    So I wonder if Plato’s noble love and pursuit of absolute knowledge is actually a futile task? Much knowledge might be gained on the way to the ‘world above’, lit up by the true sun… but can perfect knowledge ever be attained by a human being? Or is that a hubristic attitude that in our reality is actually impossible, potentially even dangerous?

    We are taught in the story of the Garden and the Tree of Knowledge that the pursuit of absolute knowledge is a temptation by the serpent — by the All of Nature, which includes both light and dark, good and evil. The Abrahamic tradition sees this temptation as satanic.

    I wonder: how many evils have been committed by men and women who were sure they had absolute knowledge? How many atrocities were committed by intellectual geniuses in the name of some truth? And can we say that these tyrants had no truth? No, I don’t believe so. I think it is fully possible (and happens all the time) that humans who are sincerely motivated by some element of truth commit atrocious deeds. The world contains reasons for all things, both beautiful and terrible… the butterfly is just as justified by the facts and reasons of the world as is the hurricane or the forest fire. Truth in the universe is not an absolute good. Truth includes all things, good and bad both… creative and destructive, both.

    Is this perhaps a mistake of the philosophers, great and noble though they are? I love Plato and the philosophers of history. But they are far from innocent in their pursuits of truth. How many wars have followed in the wake of the philosophizing and theorizing of geniuses? Think Marx and Nietzsche — both heralds of the storms of the 20th century. Both were geniuses. Both had (some element of) truth. And yet look at what they inspired and brought into the world… goods and evils, both of them, just as the ancient tale of the Garden warned us about.

    Purity of knowledge is impossible for humans to attain, and a dangerous pursuit at that.

    Look at the dear master Plato himself, and some of his suggestions in The Republic. Did his pursuit of truth lead to pure good? I would argue not. Though I love reading his mysterious works and pondering over them — they are truly great — it is impossible to ignore some of the suggestions he makes in The Republic, especially around families and breeding in his ideal state. Did Plato slip from goodness in his pursuit of knowledge, like the rest of us? I would say yes. And there is no shame in that — we are ALL the same (though none of us are as genius or profoundly initiated as Plato was…)

    Please excuse me for the challenge and for the rant. I just felt compelled to take to task the ideal of the philosophers in the pursuit of absolute knowledge. As much as I love them all, I think we should recognize that they were mere humans like the rest of us, susceptible to light, to dark, to knowledge and to ignorance. No humans can escape that fallen fate. And I’m not sure that what humanity needs is more people who believe that they can discover the full truth through the power of their own individual reasoning, or even through the power of dialectic or trialectic, etc etc. We can only ever walk the imperfect path here, we never actually arrived at the final destination. Let us always remember that as we ponder out loud about what we believe to be true and good in the world… remember the impossibility and danger of believing that we can ever fully know.

    And PS… I completely acknowledge that much the same can be said of Christian and otherwise Abrahamic peoples who have tried to impose their own version of absolute truth on the world. They are not free of the serpent’s temptations either, and have also in many serious cases helped to bring darkness to the world.

    I wish you a wonderful Saturday, and thank you for your work in teaching about our great philosophic tradition.

    All the best to you.

What do you think?

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