On the Philosophic Ascent in Plato’s Republic

An updated version is usually over in the philosophy section of the menu above.

[In progress]

   The following is the reworking of an old class paper for an exam question. It attempts to find the study of the soul and man in what is called the “allegorical line,” a reading of the line as an image of the objects considered not in math and all speech, but especially in politics and psychology, or what might if the name were not taken, be called the study of man or “Anthropology.”



It is not only now that these things must be heard,

but they must all be returned to many times in the future

                                                                                  -Glaucon, 532 d 3-4


Bring me to the test, and I the matter will reword…

Hamlet, III, iv, 143-5


[The plates are over on Twitter, but we have not been able to transfwer them yet.]

Plate 1:Image

Plate 2:Image

Photos by Marti Blackwood

    Philosophy and politics are inseparable in Plato’s Republic. The central idea of the work is that Philosophy and kingship must coincide if the the regime described in speech is ever to “come forth from nature insofar as possible and see the light of the sun” (473 c10-e5). It is the idea of the good, or the good itself that is to be used as a pattern for ordering men and cities (484 c1-d4; 500c-501b: 517 a7-c6; 540 a6-b1; 592 b2-5). The best rulers by nature, the philosopher kings, are to rule by virtue of their knowledge of the idea of the good or the good itself. This contemplative sight of the eye of the soul results in or allows access to a “divine pattern,” “in the soul,” (484 c3) or “in heaven perhaps” (592 b2,) by which the painters of the regime “produce the image of man, taking hints from exactly that phenomenon in human beings which Homer too called god-like and the image of god” (501 b3-7). [Note 1] It may be for the sake of this pattern that the dialogue of the Republic is undertaken (472 c4). Of the idea of the good, it is said that the man who is going to act prudently in public or private must see it (517 c5-6. The practical wisdom of politics or kingship thus said to be dependent upon this contemplative sight.

    But after the center of the book announcing that philosophers must rule as kings, Socrates delivers an account of the philosophic education which, as Benardete comments, appears “alien from its own setting” [Note 2] within the political study of the of the regime which led up to it. It is not clear how the things described: the mathematical beings of geometry and arithmetic; the physical things, things drawn, and visible reflections- are to facilitate and ascent to the contemplative sight on which all rule depends. Stated directly, the question is quite obvious: just when do the philosopher kings study politics? The account of the philosophic education appears to have little to do with the pursuit of self knowledge or the study of the human things, and it is not clear how to place the famous account of the Socratic turn from pre-Socratic philosophy within the the outline of the study. Hence, it is unclear why Plato apparently presents the account of the highest things in a work titled “the Regime,” more accurately translating Politea, in which Socrates is shown founding political philosophy by the construction in speech of the best regime. The account of the education of the philosophers appears to have little to do with the study of the regime, the nature of man, nor is it clear how self knowledge would be especially involved in the ascent. Theoretical and practical wisdom appear to be as distinct as are the theoretical studies of a Thales, Democritus or Anaxagoras from the practice of a Perikles [Note 3], so that we must wonder when Socrates says of the end of this ascent that the one who is to be prudent in public or private must see it, and that without this contemplative ascent there is no practical wisdom. We must wonder, then, how we are to understand how the section of the Republic on the education of the philosopher kings, and how this section fits within the whole.

   The account of the education of the philosophers is presented through three images: The Child of the good, the divided line and the allegory of the cave. These three are presented in explanation of an earlier famous image, the parable of the ship. The three images are explicitly intended to be drawn together (Plate 1). First, the divided line is drawn directly from the division of the visible and intelligible in the child of the good, and as a further explanation of the analogy (509d 4-6; Brann, Music, p. 15). Then Socrates states that that the allegory of the cave “must be connected with what was said before” regarding the visible and intelligible in the child of the good (517 a9-c4). The two fundamental levels or kinds of beings, and the four levels of beings and their reflections, ought then, correspond to one another throughout the three images. But the instructions for drawing the images raises difficulties regarding the discernment of the forms or levels described along the way of the ascent, especially going from the line to the cave. While it is obvious that the things inside the cave are to be read allegorically, the divided line appears to be literally about the objects of sense and mathematics. While this literal line is genuinely present, and quite revealing, we will suggest that the diligent attempt to see the images together reveals something like an allegorical line, and going back and forth proves most helpful. The levels of the soul and being presented in accounting for the education of the philosophers is in turn an image, and one which at first sight seems to have no place in the the divided line, except as a visible and mathematical object. It is not clear where the philosophers of the beautiful city ever study epistemology or ascend through such images as the allegory of the cave. But that is the question and the account which the present essay will attempt to follow out.

The Fraudulent Account of the Offspring of the Good

   [from p. 9] Right from the start, Socrates cautions Glaucon to beware that he does not in some way unwillingly deceive him in the account of the Child of the Good. The offspring and not the parent is presented because the account of the father is beyond their reach. The warning is repeated again before the account of the divided line. Our argument here asserts that the unwilling deception of Glaucon by the fraudulent offspring of the good does occur, and that it involves the replacement of the opinable things, “visible not by the eye of the body but only by imagination and belief, with the literally visible things- the physical objects. The undoing of this deception is the starting point of the a double or allegorical reading of the offspring of the good and the divided line, by which we hope to avoid a literal reading of the allegory of the cave. And so let us go back to this discussion distinguishing the opinable and the knowable, in an attempt to find the true particulars involved in the bondage of humans regarding education and the philosophic ascent.]

   The question of the good arises when Socrates undertakes to to reconsider what concerns the rulers “from the beginning” (502 c).  He reminds Adeimantus of their earlier discussion of what concerns the rulers, and then recalls the separating out of the three forms in the soul by which they figured out what justice, moderation, courage and wisdom each is,” based upon the corresponding parts and virtues found in the city (in book IV). Socrates recalls that there he had said that the method by which they were proceeding was inadequate, and that in order to get a precise grasp of the forms in the soul, “another longer and further road” would have to be taken (435 c10). But then Socrates was stopped and compelled to take this road (Book V), through the account of the three “waves,” , which culminate in the introduction of the philosopher-kings. Once philosophy and the philosophic nature is introduced,  the account of virtue is to be taken up from a new principle. Glaucon and Adeimantus are here told of a study greater than justice and the virtues previously sketched: the study of the idea of the good (505a).

   The Ethics of Aristotle follows the same pattern as Plato’s Republic in this regard. After describing the justice which preserves the political community as “the practice of complete virtue” and the whole of virtue practiced in relation to others (V,i, 1129 12- 1130 a), there is a new beginning in the discussion of intellectual virtue (VI.3; 1139 b13), and then a new beginning in the discussion of virtue and vice (VII.1, 1145 a15). The philosophic life shows the nature of man, the principle in light of which vulgar virtue is crafted (Republic, 500 d7). The philosophic education addressed in this section of the Republic corresponds to the Aristotelian treatment of intellectual virtue, while the Platonic “vulgar virtue” (518 d)  corresponds to the Aristotelian ethical virtue, according to the same division. [Appendice A].  

   The question of what the good is first appears as the question of what, among the goods pursued, is the good for man. Socrates says that in the opinion of the many, the good is pleasure, although the more refined think it to be prudence (phronesis, as is taken up again in Plato’s Philebus). But these definitions are inadequate. There are bad pleasures, and if one asks the refined few  what sort of prudence, they must finally say, “about the good, as though we knew what was meant when the name of the good is uttered. Socrates notes that while men are content to appear just or fair, no one is satisfied with things merely opined  to be good, but here, everyone “seeks the things that are,” and “despises opinion.” Even the unjust man in Book II seeks his real advantage while using the appearance of justice. The good is what every soul pursues, [Note 4], yet while the soul divines that it is something, the soul is at a loss and unable to grasp just what it is, or even able to attain a “stable trust” about it as is had about “the rest.” But, Socrates divines, “no one will adequately know the just and the fair things until it is known in what way these are good. The just and noble things won’t have a guardian worth much before these things are known, while it will be perfectly ordered if one who knows this oversees. Glaucon and Adeimantus learn, then, of a study greater than justice, the greatest and most fitting study, of the idea of the good (505 a).

   The action which stands as the portico to the presentation of the image of the good is a good example of the importance of the dramatic context in reading the dialogues. Socrates delivers his account not of the good but of the child of the good, as a compromise. He refuses to give an account of the good itself, but when Glaucon persists, saying it doesn’t appear just for Socrates to tell the opinions of others and not his own. Socrates hesitates, answering that it is not just to speak of what one does not know as if one knew. Adeimantus agrees, but says that one ought be willing to state what one supposes (hoimai) as one’s supposition.” Socrates remains hesitant, responding by asking Adeimantus if he has not noticed that all opinions without knowledge are ugly, and at best blind Nearing this peak, he speaks out of opinion, asking Adeimantus if men who opine something true without intelligence seem to him any different from blind men who travel the right road. Glaucon intervenes, saying he is not about to withdraw when they have arrived “as it were at the end,” But Socrates remains unchanged, saying that he fears suffering the penalty of ridicule for “cutting a graceless figure” in his eagerness. The image called a child of the good is a result of a compromise between this insistent pursuit and the hesitance of Socrates. As Socrates enters into the display of the analogy between the sun and the idea of the good, he tells Glaucon:

…lets leave aside for the time being what the good itself is- for it looks to me as though it’s out of the range of our present thrust to attain the opinions I now hold about it. But I am willing to tell what looks like a child of the good and most similar to it (506 e).

Glaucon accepts, saying “another time you’ll pay us what is due on the father’s narrative.” Socrates, taking up the pun in the language of debt, tells Glaucon:

“I could wish …that I were able to pay, and you were able to receive it itself, and not just the interest (or offspring, tokos). Anyhow receive this interest and child of the good itself (ton tokon te kai ekgonon). But be careful that I don’t in some way unwillingly deceive you in rendering the account of the interest (tokos [Note 4] fraudulent.

  We will argue that this unwilling deception does occur, and that, and includes the replacement of the opinable with the visible, and so opinion with vision.  Before entering the account of the divided line, too, Socrates says that he supposes he will leave quite a bit out, but says he will not leave anything out “willingly” (509c; 382 a7-8), so that the warning is repeated again before drawing the divided line.

   Soon this offspring of the good is identified with the visible sun, which the good is said to have begotten in proportion with itself using this image, Socrates gives an analogical account of the good according to which the good is to intelligence and things intellected (vooumena) as the the sun is to the eye and things seen.

   Before beginning the account of the offspring, Socrates reminds Glaucon of an earlier distinction between (471d-480a) between the many things- as the noble, the good- and the one idea of each kind of things, as the noble itself and the good itself (507b). It is on the basis of this earlier distinction between the many things and the singular ideas- the visible and the intelligible- that the child of the good and the divided line are based. The ideas are what “really is,” (or what is in “being”), and are intellected, while the many things are seen but not intellected. In book V, these two are called the “knowable” and the “opinable, but throughout the account of the child of the good, Socrates neglects to remind Glaucon of these names, and what was said about them. He allows the opinable to be equated with the physical, literally visible things and this appears to be the unwilling deception of Glaucon and those hearing. But the deception can be done in reading the account veiled in the images of the philosophic ascent.

   The distinction between the knowable and opinable arose just after the assertion that if the best regime is ever to  to come forth from nature,” and “see the light of the sun,” philosophers must rule as kings. There Socrates attempted to defend himself by distinguishing “whom we mean when we dare to assert that philosophers must rule as kings.” The philosophers are identified as those who desire all of wisdom, loving every kind of learning, rather than those who desire one part and not another. The philosophers,, as the “lovers of the sight of the truth,” who delight in what each thing is itself are distinguished for Glaucon from the “lovers of sights” and the lovers of “hearing (475d),” or the “lovers of sights, the arts and the practical men.” (476a). Here Glaucon uses the terms of the bodily senses of sight and hearing to refer to opinable particulars which cannot really be seen with the literal bodily senses. No explicit example of the lovers of sights is given in the recapitulation, but Glaucon identifies the lovers of hearing as those who “run around to every chorus at the Dionysia, missing none in the cities or villages” (475 d). Allan Bloom notes that the Dionysia was a festival held in honor of the god Dionysus each spring at Athens and the villages around Attica [Note  ]. Three days of the festival were devoted to the presentation of comedies and tragedies, and it is to the lovers of the hearing of these choruses that Glaucon refers. The lovers of learning  and sights, Socrates says, “delight in fair sounds and colors and all that craft makes from such things, but their thought is unable to see and delight in the nature of the fair (Kalon) itself. These are not connoisseurs of the literally visible objects of bodily sense, nor do men go to see dramas literally for the sounds and colors Rather, these lovers of sounds are the lovers of the imitations crafted by the dramatic poet. If the lovers of sights, too, are to be distinguished from the lovers of hearing, their identity is not here disclosed. But of these, Socrates says that they can in no way endure it if anyone asserts that that the fair is one, the just is one and so on with the rest (479 a). Those who held that there are many noble/beautiful things, but not that there is the kalon itself, and are unable to follow one who would lead them to the knowledge of it are said to be dreaming, believing the likeness of something to be not a likeness but the thing itself which it is like,. Meanwhile those seeing both beauty itself and what participates in it are agreed to be awake (476 d). Along these lines, of those dreaming and those awake, Socrates distinguishes those whose thought (dianoian) is knowledge and those whose is opinion (476 d) Opinion is to be located between knowledge and ignorance, and so the opinable doxaston [Note 6] is sought between what is and what is not, as something which participates in both “to be and not to be.” The opinable is exemplified by the various manys (oi polloi) 476c). or the many fair things, the many just things, etc. (479 a)Socrates says, ” Then we have found, as it seems, that the many beliefs (nomidzma) of the many  about what’s fair and about the other things roll around somewhere between not being (me on) and being purely and simply (479 d). Bloom notes that nomidzma, derived from nomos, usually means “the customary or lawful” (Note 41 to book V 479). Filling out the opinable, the lovers of sights, corresponding to the lovers of hearing as the lovers of dramatic poetry, those who are dreaming and not awake and who cannot endure anyone asserting that the fair itself is one and the just is one and so on are likely to be those attached not to the artifacts of the dramatic poet, but to the beliefs and images that make up the various customs or nomoi to which the peoples are attached. The association with craftsmen suggests politicians, too. In distinguishing the “opinable,” Socrates speaks not of the  singular ideas of every kind of thing, but only of the fair itself, the just itself, etc, ie, especially the parts of virtue and the human things. The opinable, then, looks like it includes the things made by man, the images and the laws made by the poets and legislators, as distinct from what is not made. It probably also includes the things done, the actions, and so the virtues of the practical man. (476 a9) These opinable manys are spoken of before the Child of the Good as visible only playfully.

   Similarly, there is no place in either the telling of the child of the good or the divided line for  imagination and belief as distinct from the sight and hearing of physical objects and their reflections. Rather, it looks like Socrates, while presenting a true analogy regarding the sun and sight with the sight of the intellect for the divided line, veils the brightness of the account of the philosophic ascent by replacing, in his fraudulent account of the offspring, the things made by the poets and legislators and the particulars of all the human things with the visible physical things and artifacts. What will not be endured from the philosopher is not that there is a square itself or a diagonal itself, but, nor worse yet, a rock, a car or tree, but that the many beliefs and images to which the peoples are attached, about the most important things, which make up their cosmos, that these are not knowledge or the truth itself. It is for this that Socrates himself was tried and put to death by the Athenians for impiety.

   There are certain perplexities resulting from the account of the opinable and knowable which might be kept in mind: One is the apparent implication, felt by many readers, that the particulars are unknowable, while what is would be un-opinable For it seems to us that the many things are more immediate and in our experience, and this acquaintance seems to be a kind of knowledge, if only an acquaintance, as we say such a person is “known” to us, while we do not seem to have knowledge of what man in general is. It seems too that we can be mistaken or correct, as when we say that if I drop this ball it will fall, though we might on occasion be surprised, as by helium. Aristotle begins his Physics with reference to this difference between what is first simply and first for us when we set out to inquire into nature. At the same time, it seems that what we have opinion and not knowledge about is especially the eternal or divine and natural things., or specifically regarding “what is” that we have opinion and not knowledge. The Republic itself has proceeded through various opinions of what justice itself is., each partly right though at a point deficient. And as Eva Brann points out, “About the greatest studies, …Socrates himself has, as he repeatedly says, only opinion (506 c4; e2; 509c3; 517 b7, 533 a4; e8; Phaedrus 278d). Not knowing fully what is just or good, it seems we have opinion not only of the many things opined to be just or beautiful in light of the suppositions, but also of what justice is and what the good is.

   Aristotle apparently, identifies the faculty of opinion with logistikon, the calculative faculty by which we apprehend the “things that can be other than they are.” The virtue of this faculty is not  sophia or theoretical wisdom, but practical wisdom (phronesis) Practical wisdom is the virtue of the part of the rational element of the soul that forms opinions, for opinion as well as practical wisdom deals with things that can be other than they are.” (Ethics, VI.7; 1140 b 27-29).

   Aristotle also uses the word for perception (aesthesis) not only in reference to the five senses, but also in reference to an activity of the intellect (nous) in practical wisdom (1143 b5). Perhaps echoing the Socratic account of the opinable of which there is not knowledge, (gnosis), Aristotle (Ostwald Tr.) states that practical wisdom has as its object the “ultimate (final) particular fact,” of which there is perception but no scientific knowledge” (episteme):

This is not the kind of perception with which each of the five senses apprehends its proper object, but the kind with which we perceive that in mathematics the triangle is the ultimate figure for in this direction, we shall have to reach a stop.

   In this way, the right thing to be done, the sight of the one right thing to be done, which is the end of practical wisdom at which deliberation too stops, is also called a kind of perception.

A second consideration from Aristotle is the possibility that the “faculty that forms opinion” has a double meaning, referring also to the faculty involved in legislation, forming the opinions of the citizens, selecting the best images and opinions to be cultivated in having the best customs for a particular people.It is the work of practical wisdom to give “a true conviction of the end or what is conducive to the end of action.” Book VI opens with another summary in which Socrates asks Glaucon, “Is it a blind or a sharp-sighted guardian who ought to keep watch over anything?” (484c).

   On the assumption that knowledge and opinion are two different powers, Socrates and Glaucon agree that the opinable and the knowable are different objects of these powers. Opinion is located as lying between knowledge and ignorance, and the opinable is sought between what is and what is not. Strangely, the opinable was called the “wanderer between, seized by the power between” (479 d7)…. The imagination too is sometimes represented as as a sea navigable to another shore, and the soul itself in some sense might be the opinable, in the sense of a collective unconscious between the seeker and knowledge. Socrates notes that unlike hearing, sight and the objects seen are in need of a third thing, light, in order to be yoked together in vision. The sun is called an “offspring of the good, begot in proportion with itself. Among the visible things, the sun is to sight and the things seen as the good is to intelligence and the things intellected. Just as the eye sees when light illuminates the colors of visible objects,, but appears nearly blind when in darkness, so the soul, Socrates teaches, “intellects, knows, and appears to possess intelligence when it is turned toward that which is “illuminated by truth and that which is,” but focusing on coming into being and passing away, or on what is mixed with darkness, it opines and is dimmed. As the sun isa visible, but neither is it vision nor the objects it illuminates, So the good, as the cause of knowledge and truth, can be understood to be a thing known, though it is yet something different than knowledge and truth. And as the sun provides what is seen with generation, growth and nourishment, so also existence and being are in the things known as a result of the good, although the good isn’t being but is still beyond being, exceeding it in dignity. As it is beyond the things that are, it is no wonder that Socrates is hesitant to say what it is.


Note 1: The word is theo-eides te kai theo eikelov, “divine of form” and “god-like.” Most sun formed is halio-eidestatoi, at 508b. The reference is apparently to the Homeric epithet as this is used for example of Achilles by Agamemnon (Iliad, I, 131) and of Odysseus Thrasymedes and Telemachos Odyssey,  III, 398, 414, 416). In Homer, the word is unlikely to have the significance of the image of God in man by which the legislator produces the the image of man. The legislator (at 500c-501b) uses the image of god in man as the philosopher-kings are later said to use the good itself (540 a9-b1) as a pattern in ruling all that that they rule.

Note 2: Benardete, Seth “Sun, Line and Cave,” p. 327. Benardete continues that the account in the Republic “appears to be prior to and is posterior to the discovery of political philosophy.”

Note 3: Aristotle, Ethics VI, 12140 b8 and 1141 b4. Aristotle’s examples of natural philosophers and non-philosophic politicians leads one to wonder about the distinction of Socratic wisdom from these kinds of theoretical and practical wisdom.

Note 4: Tokos means both interest and offspring Usury, lending at interest- is considered suspect because unlike profit from the natural reproduction a herd of sheep or cattle, interest is the “unnatural breed of barren metal.” (Yet lending capital might itself generate value.)

Note 5: Allan Bloom, Interpretive Essay,   .

Note 6: Jacob Klein notes that there is an “ironic ambiguity” in the term doxaston, because in addition to the opinable” it can also mean “what is held in honor,” as at 511 a8 dedoxamenois). See also Aristotle’s Ethics I.12. The Glory” in scripture is similarly the Doxan,” and an illumination around the Presence.



Bloom, Alan. Plato’s Republic. Interpretive Essay

Brann, Eva. The Music of the Republic

Strauss, Leo. The City and Man.



Thoughts While Reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and Physics

These thoughts occurred on Twitter:
   Aristotle might be wrong, if he says that Plato and not Socrates made the forms separately existing causes (Metaphysics I.6). Aristophanes in the Clouds is already making fun of Socrates and the floating causes of rain.
Clouds, 250-344. “Dialectic” too. Aristotle did not know Socrates. And likely wrote the Metaphysics after Plato was gone.
   Aristophanes is amazing for how much he knows about the theory of the ideas and the Socratic turn through the human things. You’ld think he hung out at Symposia. Wonder is he did not burn his comedies, as Plato did his Tragedies, to follow Socrates around. Good thing, though, eh?
   In the same way, we say that when things get better it Comes from the fullness. We Call Him the Good One. As Geometry is to objects So x is to living things, y to Self moving things, And z to the image of God in man. Life, self motion and man have a cause that is superior. “The genius of Shakespeare is not caused by Shakespeare,” as Leo Strauss writes. As objects have an eternal ground revealed in the eternal characteristic of the mathemata of number, shape and motion, and as nature has an articulation in part eternally true- as shown in logic- so, we say, do life, motion and reason have an eternal ground that is beyond a what, and beyond the attributes of living moving and reasoning things. For to know in what sense man is the image is what is difficult. If thought thinking itself is the highest way to describe this, (rather than the “Good One,” for example) an image might be the divine wedding wedding in the scripture, if, in knowing, the whole through man- the one part out of the harmony of the whole– the whole can be said to know itself. For if God and the Creation are two different things, as we say, the whole cannot yet be one, yet if these belong together, it is already one, even in a sense different from that in which what will be Is.
…and measure. What is intelligible geometry to objects? What the articulation of things to the words? What the intelligible source of life? Of self motion? and of choosing not only our courses, but our ways?
I thought most people on Twitter were just now wondering that. Most Germans, at least.
   We have been attempting to translate I.5, after the sentence on Socrates and the opening paragraph. We noted the use of the word agape for delight or love, as well as the word (Phos), light, which seems to disappear from the text following the opening paragraph. By chance, the thought occurred, while speaking to a friend, that one difference between the “Metaphysics” of Aristotle and the thought found in the Republic is the presence of light.
   We will be musing too on the 4 causes in Aristotle as these appear in the dialogues, because his division of formal and final cause to include the dimension of time as well as space in the image is of course a great advance. Formal and final cause are to space as final and efficient causes are to time. Earth, air, water and fire are what we call solid, liquid gas, or the three states of matter, and energy. There is said, too, to be another condition, called “plasma,” though we do not find this about our world. We have these as the kinds of matter that appear on the periodic chart (Aristotle would have loved this discovery of Mendeleev and the modern study of the kinds of matter), into which materials as concrete are resolved, and even wood, though this is made by life. If energy and matter are inter-convertible- energy being released from the bonds of the elements even as fire is from the compounds- we have yet found a new kind of energy. But for our purposes, it may be sufficient to note that there are “kinds” of energy as well as kinds of matter, and these are never found without some modicum of form.
   The intelligibility of things is the great, or greater mystery. Take an artificial being, the classic table or chair. The chair is made of wood, but what is even the shape of the chair made of? Smash the chair, and one still has all the wood, but no longer any chair. Set this as a simple equation: shape or chair/ wood: x/ wood: The difference is the form, and this not made of wood.
   Artificial things may be the easiest to see, as in these, we have a lame imitation of the unity of living beings. Volcanoes, sunsets and rivers are in a sense beings, and yet in another- compared to the smallest microbe- somehow less unities than stuff lying about as it falls. Even rocks seem more accidentally beings than a tree, where there is quite clear demarcation between what in the world is this tree and not this tree, or “subject” and “object,” as is said.