2 Chapter 2: Classic Philosophy: Plato

This chapter introduces students to the educational philosophy of Plato who was a student of Socrates. The Republic serves as one of Plato’s central works wherein he highlights the importance of Socratic thinking and dialogue, the importance of philosophy and philosophic contemplation, and the value of education. Plato’s most important focus in the Republic is the idea of justice, the question of which emerged in part as a response to the moral crisis exemplified by Socrates’s trial and death. Like Socrates, Plato believed that the pursuit of material gain and power were pedestrian and useless and he prioritized thinking and contemplation. In the Republic, the interlocutors who participate in the dialogue, various meanings of justice are discussed and debated. What emerges from the discussions is a rejection of belief based on custom, habit, and religious views and a new appreciation for natural explanations. This conclusion is interesting when juxtaposing it with Plato’s theory of the Forms, which will be discussed below. What is highlighted in this chapter for the purposes of introducing Plato’s education philosophy includes his theory of the Forms and his theory of learning and categorized forms of education for various classes in an ideal republic.

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand Plato’s philosophy as a response to the moral crisis he witnessed with Socrates’s trial and death.
  • Explain Plato’s functionalist plan for state education.
  • Articulate the different positions offered in the Republic by relativists (Sophists) and absolutists (Plato).
  • Understand Plato’s allegory of the cave and its relation to knowledge.
  • Articulate criticisms of Plato’s philosophy.
  • Compare Plato’s philosophical framework to Socrates’.

Part 1, Chapter 2 Preface to Readings

The Cave, Graphical Representation

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Jan Saenredam, 1604

First, there are two groups that are represented in the Republic, described as relativists and absolutists. As suggested in their name, relativists argue that no truth is certain; that truth is relative to cultural habits and customs and hence varies among communities. Truth is therefore subjective or intersubjective, that is, determined individually, but more often by the group. An objective truth, the idea that there is a truth outside human experience that can be certain and confirmed, is itself rejected. Truth shifts and adjusts over time. One might say that an individual has no firm philosophical ground to stand upon other than truth defined by the group. Relativists rely heavily on sense experience in understanding the natural world and since the natural world is constantly in flux, truth continually alters accordingly. Under this view, it is certainly compatible for different communities to accept different truths, different forms of government, different philosophies, and different ideas about justice, beauty, and morality. Moreover, some may refer to this relativism as a form of realism. Although he wrote about these issues centuries later, Machiavelli again comes to mind as an example. Rather than prioritizing metaphysical contemplation and philosophical ideas, relativists (including Machiavelli) conclude that power, wealth, and prestige are realistically taken into consideration in our understanding of societies. The meaning of justice, therefore, is molded by these practical variables, and relativists believe that it is a waste of time to philosophically contemplate ideal forms of justice, republics, or other ideas and institutions that are unachievable beyond human experience.

Plato, like Socrates, believed that ultimate truth and an ideal notion of justice could be discovered through philosophical contemplation and dialogue with others who share a devotion to metaphysical thought. Universal truths can be gleaned, or perhaps filtered, through dialectic thinking and Socratic dialogue. In various parts of the dialogue, Socrates attempts to undermine the Sophists’ relativism. For Plato and the absolutists there are ideal truths that transcend cultures and can serve as objectives or goals and these can be discovered though metaphysical contemplation. How does Plato attempt to prove the absolutist position?

While accepting the obvious fact that nature changes, Plato relies on the idea that there is a constant and unchangeable reality that we cannot see. In other words, what we do see empirically in the natural world are objects that imperfectly represent ideal Forms that we cannot see. These eternal Forms, according to Plato, exist independently of the empirical world. Therefore, they can only become knowable though metaphysical contemplation. Only the intellect is capable of understanding the ideal Form of any object or human being. Plato did not dispute the fact that the empirical world changes, which is exactly why Plato considers it unreliable in helping us understand truth. Plato seeks a pure form of knowledge that he believes cannot be realized though empirical methods. The empirical world is made up of imperfect representations of the ideal Forms. According to Plato, only philosophers can know the ideal Forms because they spend their lives contemplating the truth thereby transcending ordinary customs and beliefs. It should be obvious that Plato gives greater weight to rational thought over empirical experiences. It is not that the latter is useless; rather, we must use our senses to make sense of our lived experiences, but the empirical is incomplete, imperfect, and unreliable.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” he describes four levels or stages of knowledge, beginning with the least reliable at the first level or stage, which includes images. The highest form or stage of knowledge, according to Plato, he refers to as reality or knowledge of the Forms. The figure below represents the four levels or states of knowledge described by Plato in the Republic.

The Cave, Graphical Representation

Figure 1. The Cave

Since Plato believes in the existence of an ideal Form of justice and an ideal individual, for example, he attempts to develop an ideal Form of the state that will in turn open possibilities to develop human character and virtue toward this ideal. An ideal state will seek to develop ideal citizens.

Plato’s Allegory illustrates the stages of knowledge represented in the figure above. The cave represents democracy wherein base appetites and public opinion predominate. Residents’ knowledge consists of images (reflected shadows on the cave wall that are imperfect representations of reality) and their beliefs and opinions form from this incomplete and often inaccurate information.

The philosopher, on the other hand, is a person who walks outside the cave and into the full sunlight, reaching the highest level of knowledge –abstraction and reality. The philosopher’s cognitive state has reached its highest potential and he understands reality through knowledge of the Forms.

Upon returning to the cave, the philosopher is scorned just as Socrates had been treated during his trial, because the residents of the cave rely on pseudo-knowledge and public opinion, which is further emboldened by their majority status. Plato argues that the philosopher must reason with and educate the democratic majority through Socratic dialogue in order to release them from their ignorance. An ideal state can exist when philosophers, who are themselves governed only by reason and knowledge of the Forms, serve as kings. Plato concludes that philosopher-kings and philosopher-queens should rule because of their superior knowledge, their lack of ambition and power seeking for its own sake, and because their rule will serve the republic’s best interests.

Class Function
Guardians Rulers
(Philosopher Kings and Queens)
-Enjoys absolute power in the republic due to their education, rational abilities, and selflessness.
-Rulers represent individuals with the highest level of virtue
(Bureaucracy and Defense)
-Trained to love honor and are obedient. Serve in the military and provide law enforcement
-Serve as a barrier between the rulers and the workers
(Nuclear families with private property)
-Represent the largest class and have access to limited education and training.
-Agriculture, crafts, and artisans provide for the republic.

Figure 2. The republic includes three classes with well-defined functions.

What does Plato’s ideal republic look like? Plato believed that human beings are social animals and that they can only realize their potential in association with others. He does recognize individuality and he concludes that individuals are inherently unique and it is this uniqueness that should serve as his or her focal dedication to the republic. It is here that Plato’s theory may be labeled both communitarian and functionalist. That is, he views each citizen devoting his or her unique abilities for the service of the public or state. Based on unique abilities, some citizens will serve as rulers while others will labor. This creates harmony in Plato’s theory of the just state. Each individual can specialize in what she or he does best; enjoy their work, while performing specializations that are mutually beneficial to the state. Specialization fulfills individual needs for self-fulfillment and actualization while maintaining the functionality of the state. Greed, competition and self-interest, on the other hand, ultimately undermine an ideal state and are discouraged.

Furthermore, the rulers and auxiliaries, collectively referred to by Plato as guardians, do not have nuclear families. Rather, husbands, wives, and children of these two groups are shared communally in order to prevent private and self-interest from interfering with the duties and responsibilities of these two groups. All children born from these two groups were to receive a state education and based on their academic abilities, they were to be placed in one of the three respective classes. Moreover, the guardians do not own property and they enjoy no luxuries. Rather, they live under a system of communism wherein all their needs are provided. This system of communism, according to Plato, contributes the guardians’ focus on service and justice to the republic and prevents their focusing on wealth, family, power, and ambition.

Since they are the most knowledgeable, Plato’s philosopher kings and queens serve as the educators of the republic. All children receive a state education, and they are subsequently sorted into respective classes based on their academic abilities and intellectual capacities. Viewed as a meritocracy of sorts, this educational system filters students into the three respective classes. Only a few, however, will rise to the level of academic attainment necessary for the guardian class. The philosopher kings and queens have absolute authority over education curricula and censorship for the good of the republic, particularly since Plato viewed republics to be fragile states.

Questions to Consider

  1. Articulate a position favoring either the relativist (empiricists) or the absolutist (rationalist) positions.
  2. Why does a person’s assent from the “cave” justify his or her authority, either as an educator (philosopher) or as a ruler (philosopher king or queen)?
  3. How is the model of education in the cave different from the model of education outside the cave? Which is better?
  4. Why is the person’s assent from the cave uncomfortable and perplexing?
  5. How is Plato’s philosophy different from Socrates’s philosophy? How is it similar?
  6. Can you think of problems with Plato’s education plan to sort children into different classes based on their academic achievement?
  7. Plato viewed the natural world as an imperfect reflection of true Forms. If true, how might we conceive of justice, beauty, truth, wisdom, and virtue?
  8. Is Plato’s vision democratic, elitist?
  9. Why do you think Plato developed his theory of the Forms? Why did he see theoretical ideas and geometric shapes as the ideal rather than appearances? Why did he conclude that there is something “behind phenomena” that can be discovered through reason and rational discussion?
  10. Can Plato’s Allegory of the Cave offer us contemporary parallels?
  11. Would Plato be able to convince Socrates that his republic is ideal?
  12. What are the aims and purposes of education in Plato’s republic?


Plato. (1992). Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.


Part 2, Chapter 2 Activity Ideas

Have students discuss/debate their views of relativism and absolutism with regard to knowledge.

Pertaining to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, divide students into groups and ask each group to choose a political or social issue and describe how the public’s view of the issue parallels the Allegory.

Have groups of students work together to discuss their ideal society. Many students will likely fall back on their preconceived preferences for representative government, so as them to think ideally and to provide justifications for their conclusions. Questions they should consider include, but are not limited to the following:

    1. who should rule and the qualifications, if any, for ruling;
    2. how are resources in the state to be distributed or redistributed;
    3. what kind of school system will exist in the ideal state, if at all, and qualifications for becoming teachers;
    4. whether there should be distinct classes of people based on education, wealth, heredity, or some other status;
    5. how to institutionalize and balance competing interests in the state;
    6. their ideal economic system;
    7. whether the state should include a nationalized religion or some other framework for religious interests; and
    8. qualifications for citizens, if any

Have students discuss the political, social, and economic difficulties and potential consequences of developing a predefined society or state.

External Readings & Resources

Supplemental Materials

Plato’s Ethics and Politics in The Republic (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

In Dialogue: the Life and Works of Plato (History of Philosophy without any gaps)

Soul and the City: Plato’s Political Philosophy (History of Philosophy without any gaps)

Ain’t No Sunshine: The Cave Allegory of Plato’s Republic (History of Philosophy without any gaps)

Plato. (2005). The Essential Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics.

Plato. (2005). The Laws. New York: Penguin Classics.

Plato. (1992). Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Plato. (1976). Meno. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.