The Allegory of the Cave

But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better [520c] and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another [520d] about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst. —Plato, as translated by Jowett.

The Allegory of the Cave (Plato’s Republic/University of Evansville)

In this excerpt from Plato’s Republic, education is presented as the means to creating noble leaders. Socrates (the character in Plato’s dialogue) notes a double-dichotomy; those who are most fit to rule do not hunger after power, while those who hunger most after power are the likeliest to rule, though their rule is not best for the State. While the general populace sits chained in a metaphorical cave, watching faint shadows of puppet shows on the wall and doing their best to sort out what they see, the true philosopher has left the cave and seen more of the world through the natural light of the sun.

But — and here’s the part I don’t remember “getting” when I first came across this selection as an undergraduate — it is not enough for the individual philosopher to escape the shadows; those of truly noble character will be moved to pity the multitudes still chained in the dark, and will voluntarily return to the world of shadows. At first, having grown accustomed to the sunlight of reason, they will have difficulty adjusting to the shadow world, but eventually they will be able to teach the masses about the reality of the objects they perceive only via shadows.

I found this site via the Plato FAQ website.