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  • Platonic Paideia
  • Jennifer Gurley*

What is education, according to Plato, founder of the Academy? A look into Plato’s cave, that famous introductory figure to Book VII of The Republic, provides a glimpse of an answer. The oft-quoted cave allegory, read usually as the tale of one man’s path to enlightenment, and of Plato’s ultimate deprecation of the world of shadows, that is, of rhetoric, indeed returns the enlightened man to that dark world. A prisoner, freed from his chains and turned toward the sun’s light, turns back to the cave, to his “prison,” and is killed . . . or is he? Readings that consider the allegory a blueprint for one’s philosophico-educational development of necessity appropriate this final return as a symbolic warning not to do so: any such return to darkness would not abide by a linear reading that moves from darkness to light. Indeed, humanistic scholarship, whether in gentle or hostile relation to Plato, knows, at least, where to place him: above. This reading, now so commonplace, we regard as fact. Yet any such understanding of Plato’s short narrative seems itself truth-bound rather than text-bound—it searches only for meaning that can be carried away.

Read otherwise, this final turn—back to the world of shadows—reveals a desire to remain contextualized, that is, embodied: Plato desires to return to the cave, to the world; likewise, his meaning cannot be detached from his text. The final turning back, examined in this light, reveals a literally committed educational philosophy: one that practices educating. Plato focuses not only on the ends of education, knowledge production, but considers the learning itself: how knowledge is reproduced. He no doubt would shiver in the modern American research academy, wherein active teacher (when not writing) presumes to pour knowledge into passive student, and then departs. [End Page 351] Plato is far more interested in drawing in his readers, the polis, and keeping them there, that is, to persuade. He cares little about truth, in a transcendental sense, and is concerned with spreading more worldly truths. And his allegory does, rhetorically, more than it tells—yet it does unto the committed reader alone. Likewise, Plato’s pedagogy seduces rather than explicates; it in fact engages its seductive rhetoric as the search for truth. The question then, what is education?, might be put more aptly: what is done in educating? The search for a Platonic definition of education becomes, as we shall see, a continual questioning after the practice of pedagogy—a quest which itself becomes a seeking after the practice of rhetoric. Education, for Plato, is about practicing rhetoric, but of a more inspired quality than the popular Sophistic type he loathed: Plato’s rhetoric remains a form of persuasion, but of a wholly more personal—and, at the same time, more vibrantly political—kind. A fuller reading of the allegory can illumine Plato’s (more Platonic?) pedagogical gestures.


Plato introduces Book VII of the Republic straightforwardly:

‘Following after this,’ I said, ‘liken our nature to an experience such as follows concerning both education [paideias] and a lack of education [apaideusias].’ (514a1–2) 1

[Meta tauta de eipon apeikason toioutoi pathei ten hemeteran physin paideias te peri kai apaideusias.]

This imperative succeeds a discussion (Book VI) of who shall be educated—those whose natures tend toward philosophy—and precedes what has been understood as Plato’s master articulation of the soul’s path to philosophical enlightenment, described as an individual prisoner’s journey up and away from the pacifying darkness of an underground cave (the world of appearances) to a region of sunlight, freedom, and truth. This journey frees one from the world of seeming, of shadows and rhetoric, and releases one into being, to truth. Socrates unravels his narrative in dialogue with one of his young acolytes, Glaucon, a male (by definition) Athenian citizen. Glaucon listens attentively to his teacher’s words, interjecting only to supply the ordinary segues prompted by Socratic speech: “I see” (514b7), “necessarily” (515b6), “inevitably” (515c3), “most certainly” (517a7). [End Page 352]

To summarize what follows (514a2–517a7): Glaucon is told first to imagine before him a cavernous dwelling equipped with...

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