Images in Plato’s Republic

The moment is 487 e. The place is “The Republic”. Socrates has just established the numerous qualities that a philosopher has: “a rememberer, a good learner, magnificent, charming, and a friend and kinsman of truth, justice, courage, and moderation” (487a). Yet, when he tries to conclude that they are the ones who should rule a city, Ademaintus interrupts and raises the problem that in practice, most philosophers are vicious persons, and the rare ones that turn out to be perfectly decent are considered useless to the cities (487 a-d).

In this paper, I give three reasons for why an image is needed at this point in the text and why it is much more useful than a simple direct answer. I then use each of these three reasons as a starting point to analyze the issue of images in “The Republic”.

First of all, images are the most fundamental type of understanding, of which we are all capable of (509 e, 510 a, 511 d). Even if an image is only a remote likeness of the original object, it still alerts us to its existence, and starts us on the path to knowledge. Thus, images are the first part of the divided line, serving as a building block for reaching the more advanced levels of understanding (trust, thought, intellection) [511d]. Therefore, images can be used to introduce advanced and unfamiliar concepts to a wide audience. In this case, it ensures than most people, regardless if they have a philosophic nature or not, have a better chance of grasping the main ideas of the answer.

Because of this, Socrates also uses images to introduce two of the most complex ideas in “The Republic”: for his metaphysical and epistemological model of the world he uses the divided line, and to introduce the Form of the Good he uses the metaphor of the Sun.

The second reason for using an image is that when you want to introduce an idea that is directly opposed to somebody’s current beliefs, just plainly stating it will usually result in outright rejection. A more deft approach would be to show an instantiation of what you are trying to tell (a thought experiment), and leave to the listener to discover the pattern behind it and understand why he was initially wrong. Thus, if Socrates wants to show his contemporaries that they do not know what kind of ruler they truly need, just plainly stating it will not have the desired effect. Instead, by showing them a third party, a hypothetical ship on which the crewman do not know their own interests, and on which they ignore the true pilot, he softens the blow and makes them realize indirectly at first how they are wrong. Later, he makes the situation very clear: “You’ll make no mistake in imaging the statesman now ruling to be the sailors we were just now speaking of, and those who are said by them to be useless and gossipers about what’s above to be the true pilots”. (489 c)

It is easier for a human to reject a purely abstract idea instinctively, whereas an image (here taken as a representation) can appeal to his senses, and rooted from there slowly grow into new ideas, while removing the old. Thus, the most controversial idea in Socrates’ view, that of choosing a philosopher-king as ruler (473 c, d, e), is supported by using two images: the ship of state allegory (showing that people do not actually know what is best for them) and the allegory of the cave (showing the horrendous educational state of the general population as regards to reality, the possibility of some escaping it, and the journey of a hypothetical philosopher-king).

Third, since images are a metaphorical representation of reality, which is incredibly complex and nuanced, they can contain much more subtle information than the plain statement of an idea. Using an example implies choosing different objects for your image. Each object in itself has dozens if not hundreds of attributes (such as name, color, shape etc.), some of which the speaker might choose intentionally as symbols, others which are just there because of the nature of the object, but which might be interpreted by others to mean something. Thus, the stupefied owner of the ship in the Ship of State metaphor can be regarded as the people in a democracy, the rich in an oligarchy, the ruling class in an aristocracy, or whoever else has the power to elect the leader. The stargazer himself is a very important choice of an image, since it could be interpreted that the stars that he knows about are the Forms.

By this very attempt to understand and interpret the image, an interlocutor can engage with the philosophical ideas contained, and build upon them depending on his own thoughts.  Thus, by using images, at a meta-level, Plato enables us to bring ourselves into the text, to try to understand it using our patterns of thoughts, and maybe to take it further then he originally could. It is not accidental that the most famous thoughts of Plato that survive in our popular cultures are images such as the metaphor of the cave or that of the ship. When treating philosophy as a social endeavor, as dialectic, using images can prove to be much more fruitful and stimulating than abstractly stating your framework of ideas.

At the same time, images themselves can be a hidden danger. As an oratorical device, for all their benefits, they might actually serve to distract the interlocutor, and without offering a clearly stated answer, to convince him of something that is untrue. Thus, their elegance or beauty might start to distract us from their initial purpose, and even worse, we might become so accustomed and attached to them that we do not want to let them go. Plato himself tells us of the dangers that images entail, using an image (the metaphor of the cave) to show us how an image (the shadows on the wall) can manipulate us.

This again shows us the educational nature of “The Republic” as a whole. “The Republic” is itself an image of the philosophical inquiry, and thus serves as a stepping stone in one’s search for the truth. Plato is using the richness and full potential of imagery, of its positive and of its negative aspects, not only because of the points made above, but also to educate the reader about imagery itself.

Thus images can serve both for showing the truth (by having a universal audience, avoiding instinctive negative reactions), and hiding it by distracting and offering the illusion of an answer. They can be the foundation that will start somebody on the path to the Forms (the divided line), or a prison of ignorance and complacency (the cave). They can be the birth of philosophy or the death of it.


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