Plato and Us: out of the Cave

On Thursday 13th October, Professor MM McCabe, Emerita Professor at King’s College London and Honorary Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge, delivered an insightful lecture on Plato and his masterpiece: The Republic. Classics Ambassador Caroline J examines the CA Honorary President’s excellent talk.

Having established the structure of the text, Professor McCabe discussed what is, arguably, the most famous section of The Republic: Plato’s Cave. This allegory underpins Plato’s account of the philosopher king, a man who escapes the cave and hence gains an elite level of knowledge through a solitary journey, thenceforth, in Plato’s eyes, making him the best candidate to rule the state because he has accessed a whole different type of understanding. The philosopher later returns to the other prisoners in the cave to explain what he has seen and thereby fulfil his paternalist demand of duty. This is the usual interpretation of the allegory yet it rests on the following assumptions: that we think of philosophy and knowledge as the capacity of a single person; that this image has a moral overtone, and that the moral life of justice that it is supposed to represent must all be viewed in terms of a single ego. Hence, Plato is viewed as an elitist, singular, egoist philosopher. 

More important than determining what Plato actually thought is whether this evaluation is right: is it an acceptable view of the relationship between knowledge and moral character? Karl Popper argued that a society that could be described with such an image was demonstrating the origins of the totalitarian state, displaying some kind of grotesque paternalism. Indeed, far greater time is given to explaining why these philosophers must be kings, not queens, who are dismissed as inferior – a topic much discussed in later feminist theory. Professor McCabe explored how these objections are the consequence of our own assumptions regarding how one should develop a theory, discussing how ancient philosophy does not share our assumptions and hence how one of the great advantages of reading ethical and political theory through the lens of Plato is that we undo the assumptions with which we begin.

The key assumption is in regards to taking a reductive position, made famous by Ockham’s razor and his idea that ‘entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’. Similarly to how assumptions must be limited, so must skyhooks (thinking-tools that hang an explanation on nothing). A skyhook characteristic of Plato is his idea surrounding an intellectual heaven in which there are entities that explain everything in the world. 

Professor McCabe explained that there are three kinds of problems that affect our thoughts on ethics and moral theory. Firstly, it is a highly reductive move to view all ethics as beginning with ego. If everyone’s base nature is egotistical, and altruism must be built on the back of this, it is challenging to explain why we do anything for anybody else. The second problem is that this reductive approach makes it hard to see that there are other minds, a post-(Des)cartesian problem. Finally, there is the dilemma of the reduction of ethical theory to covering individual acts, begging the question of whether moral theory discusses acts alone, or rather the opposite, as Plato’s Cave can help us to see. 

The Republic’s exploration of the tale of Gyges and the magic ring which turns him invisible, leading him to immediately seize kingship, leads to extremely reduced and Ockhamist assumptions about the nature of human moral psychology, as Gyges instantly hunts for power. This account emphasises accumulation, and the challenge is put to Socrates to demonstrate how no matter the quantity of material objects, the best way to live is to be just. We are asked to think not about accumulation but about lives, and considering a life is far more complex than solely considering an act. When contemplating lives, your purview must be broadened and the connection between accumulation and the person living the life more deeply thought about. The question shifts to that of the person who themselves is just. 

Professor McCabe then examined how the majority of The Republic is written as a conversation and repeatedly uses the first person plural. The vernacular ‘we’ as well as ‘we’ when discussing how best to legislate the ideal state set the scene for the central books and exploration of the maxim ‘common among friends’. The discussion of the way the state functions is framed in terms of what ‘we’ do together, describing how in a state where there is proper unity, and everything is ‘common among friends’, the whole state feels each individual member’s pain. The conception of what is common, what is ‘us’, is here understood in terms of a deep commonality, not as a singular man climbing out the cave. The cave itself is in fact not a solitary enterprise as it is repeatedly stressed, but full of people, some of whom the philosopher converses with and hence who aid his intellectual progression. His development of knowledge is not a solitary enterprise but an enterprise that is had in common as he advances via conversation. 

Professor McCabe ended her lecture by discussing how to Plato, the conception of a society, of progress in philosophy and the process of becoming wise, is that you cannot do it alone. Plato offers us this lesson in The Republic, which is one of the most self-conscious of the ancient texts. He allows us to see from the outside the living philosophical process that is being represented in the dialogue itself, suggesting that Plato himself actually believed that we cannot begin with the ego but rather with us.

Thank you Professor McCabe for such a thought-provoking talk!