The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 3(b). Wherein something unpresented is at work and nothing takes place

Socrates proposes to Glaucon that there are men living deep underground in a cave. From the surface runs a long passage down to where these men, from childhood, have been bound hand and foot facing a wall of the cave. Behind and above them burns a fire. Between the prisoners and the fire is a parapet as at a puppet show, Plato says. Other men, using various ‘things of stone and wood’, project shadows onto the wall in front of the prisoners. The bound prisoners cannot turn around and so all they have ever seen are these ‘shadows’. We can expect, Plato adds that any conversation they may have between them is about these shadows. Further, the wall carries the echo of the other men’s voices and so, to the prisoners it is as if the shadows speak. This is their whole and only reality. ‘It’s a strange image’ Glaucon says, ‘and strange prisoners you’re telling of. They are like us,’ Socrates replies (R. 515a).

We are then to imagine a prisoner is somehow freed from his bonds. He is walked toward the firelight. Every movement is painful and his eyes, accustomed to shadow, cannot properly make out the things of stone and wood exposed by the fire. Someone tells him that all he was used to seeing is merely illusion. Now, they say, he has a chance to come closer to the truth. Plato says that at first the ‘escapee’ would be perplexed and would wonder if the things of stone and wood were actually less real than the shadows. The light from the fire would hurt his eyes and he would prefer the comfort of the shadows and his old certainties. But before he could return to his bonds someone forces him up the long passageway on the arduous journey out into the sunlight. On arriving outside the cave he would see nothing at first – the radiance would be too blinding. He would need to grow accustomed to the new conditions; shadows first, then reflections in water and finally the things themselves. Then he would see the heavens at night and lastly the sun itself as the source of all light and the movements of life itself.  He would then recognise that what he took for wisdom in the cave was nothing of the sort and would feel sorry for his comrades. These cave dwellers, Plato says, had their own practice of honouring those amongst them with a good memory for the order in which, and the association by which, the shadows appeared. The escapee, he says, would be unlikely to covet these prizes now. Feeling this way, the escapee goes back down to his former comrades hoping in turn to liberate and compel them to know their ignorance of what there is to know. They find him imposing and ridiculous; they laugh at him, tell him his sight is ruined, and finally, Plato says, they kill him (R. 514-517a).

Sophistry constitutes the normality of Plato’s Athens. Sophistry is the sole and ubiquitous figure of education. This name ‘education’ – despite it belonging to the sophists’ discourse – marks a permanent and disavowed ambiguity there. The trial of Socrates shows both that education must not take any other form than that of sophistry but also that this very act signifies a certain anxiety the state has in regard to its own knowledge.

Thus education in the Athens of the dialogues should be understood as the place of the divergence of Socrates and Socrates.  In this context the Socratic figure is seen to mark a real point of distinction between the sophistic educational apparatus and the disavowed ‘Socratic’ form.

So the question now is what animates this Socratic form, the very one seen to in-exist for sophistry and whose inexistence is so marked.

What makes it rise and ground all enquiry? Or, that is, what makes a non-sophistic education – an education ‘for all’ – have any purchase in and for its situation? It is that something must happen which establishes the trial of its impossibility.

It’s clear that the entirety of the dialogues is structured by the encounter between Socrates, nominally speaking, and the sophistic state.

We know that every such encounter of the Athens of the dialogues takes place over education. In other words, it is on the basis of this encounter that education in its non-sophistic form becomes the central concern of the dialogues. For Plato’s Socrates, without education the individual and the state fail to realise their true capacity and are corrupt.

This encounter  - which Plato calls ‘the sudden’ needs to be thought as both Idea and instance because each dialogue stages its own specific encounter, and this partakes of the Ideal encounter which forms the structural basis of the corpus.

This encounter between the invariant Socratic figure and the variety of figures of sophistry has a foundational status for the corpus. The Apology shows this and the Republic both confirms this and draws its consequences

I can’t address each dialogue in turn but it is clear that each plays out the same rivalry, from the point of the chance encounter particular to it. Whether it is a dialogue on love, politics, etymology, virtue, speechmaking or justice, the same structural positions ensue:  Socrates, the exemplary figure of thought, versus the sophists, the exemplary figures of interest.  It is certainly curious and highly suggestive that Plato feels the need to structure each dialogue in relation to an encounter.

So first: the Idea of the encounter denotes this foundational encounter, which underpins each distinct dialogic instance or manifestation.

However, not every dialogue stages what we might call an explicit staging of an encounter. Rather there is a typology.  

As such, we can identify three general types:

– Where the encounter is implied.

– Where a ‘minor’ encounter involving characters who may or may not reappear, precedes the encounter itself and, as such, signifies what is implied.

– Where Socrates encounters someone in the street, be it his central interlocutor or someone else. This one can itself be divided into implied and minor.

The dialogues wherein the Idea of the encounter is implied rather than explicit include Apology, Crito, Philebus, Laches, Euthydemus, Meno, and Laws.

For example: in the Philebus we enter into the middle of a conversation at the point where Philebus (pleasure seeker) is leaving and Protarchus (son of Callias) is to take over; in the Apology we enter the dialogues as Socrates is beginning his reply to his accusers. The encounter has taken place. Its taking place is, as we enter, being established precisely on the basis of what has implicitly taken place; in the Meno, Meno without preliminary launches straight into a question on the teaching of virtue: a question Socrates recognises later as premised on ‘a debater’s paradox’ (Men. 80e). As a student of Gorgias, a guest of Anytus, and a figure whose unscrupulous military career would have been known to the Athenian readers of the dialogue,1 the structural disjunction between the two positions is already clearly implied in the opening question. 

In these dialogues the stakes of encounter are quickly made clear. The general subject matter, the interlocutors, and the latter’s subjective positions soon become apparent. In these dialogues Plato doesn’t stage an encounter but presupposes it to us.

The minor type are those in which Plato stages a sort of pre-encounter. Certain characters chance upon each other. They then proceed to discuss the circumstances surrounding ‘the encounter’. Plato enumerates the parameters and form of the conversation to come in these preliminary discussions.

That is, these minor pre-encounters contain the generic marks of their fuller elaboration, the real substance of the dialogue, such that if one re-reads these minor conversations again, after the philosophical elaboration which they prefigure, the affinities become apparent and are profound in themselves.

This staging of a pre-encounter signifies in itself the significance of the encounter to the unfolding of the dialogue. These stagings cannot be considered purely in terms of theatrics but must be understood as a matter of formalisation. They establish and prefigure the form of the break which is to be pursued across the dialogue as it is across the corpus.

Examples include: Phaedo, Theatetus, Sophist, Statesmen (these last two ‘carry on’ from the Theatetus and as such the encounter is renewed), Parmenides, and Symposium.

The Symposium is unique among these in that it stages a series of encounters.

The third type are those where it is Socrates himself who encounters someone by chance. These are: Cratylus, Phaedrus, Lysis, Gorgias, Greater Hippias, Ion, Menexenus,Timaeus, Charmides, Protagoras and Republic.

I won’t go into the establishing encounter that opens the Republic here but in essence what happens specifically at the Piraeus – the encounter, the Idea, the torch relay, the long detour etc. – is what the dialogue unfolds as universal consequence. But let me just sum the sequence for refernce:

The Republic concerns itself with the question and place of Justice. For example, it argues that what is just in man is what is just in the city. At first, various efforts are made to define justice. Each fails in some way. From the knowledge of what justice is not they try to think the appropriate city. Having done so, they chart the circumstances of its decline. In this way they identify what the good city must ‘lack’. One of the things discovered in this manner of thinking through what is not is that in the good state there will be no room for any un-reconciled forms of poetry or demagoguery. These, it is shown, will have been displaced in the act of inventing the form of the good.

Instead of deliberating the staged encounter with or as its formalisation,2 I am going to concentrate on the idea of the Sudden as it functions in the story of the Cave. Call it a model encounter.

So as I have said: The break with the sophistic state is localised by Plato for each and every dialogue at the same specific point: education. Every encounter opens the dialogue to the ‘corruptive’ force of what is nothing to it – a ‘Socratic education’ – one whose elements remain otherwise foreclosed.

The encounter introduces the possible pass of these elements as the encounter itself halts the steady progress of the sophist, often literally, in teaching the youth to make their way in the state.  The attempt to draw the consequences of the encounter between the sophist and non-sophist over education then forms the underlying struggle of each dialogue.

It is fairly uncontroversial to say that the story of the cave is a metaphor for the entire procedure that the Platonic corpus enacts: the movement from the determinative regime of opinion to the subjective and thus educative production of truths. (Refer to the he outline of the story above.)

Now, what is of primary interest is simply the point at which the prisoner is ‘turned’.  F.M. Cornford’s translation says, ‘Suppose one of them is set free and forced suddenly to stand up [and] turn his head’. Lee says, ‘suppose one of them was let loose and suddenly compelled to stand up and turn his head...’ Grube/Reeve say, ‘ of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up and turn...’Jowett says, ‘ first when any of them is liberated and compelled to stand up and turn his neck...’ and the English translation of Heidegger’s own translation says ‘whenever any of them was unchained and forced to standup suddenly, to turn around...’ (R.515c).  This is the Sudden!

The turning is conditioned by an apparent contradiction: compulsion and freedom. The logic at work here is this: To be freed is to be compelled to turn. This is certainly the proto-type for Rousseau’s famous claim that the ‘general will’ forces us to be free.

The centrality of this event to this story of education is clear and this is what makes this compulsion to turn non-trivial. This event or this ‘of a sudden’ is not a necessity in terms of its occurring – nothing of the cave site can determine that it necessarily takes place.

Plato certainly gives no indication either way. It is certain however, that without this turn of a sudden the prisoners would have persisted in their reality. The sudden is a necessary contingency. As an author, Plato has to necessitate a contingency which in turn necessitates an enquiry. But this is to affirm the point in regard to this ‘of a sudden’. It is what establishes a beginning on the basis of chance.

Yet it is firmly of its Athenian situation and attached to its educational site. It draws on what the situation does not present and this alone is what makes it unknown or incalculable for the sophistic state.

 So, that the event/ encounter/sudden happens is necessary to the re-collection of terms which the prisoner will undertake, yet there is simply nothing which can compel an event to be an event – of a sudden is of a sudden – otherwise it’s not. Simple!

The prisoner is freed by the force of chance alone. Why him? Why now? Why at all? In normal circumstances people can organise, rise up, revolt etc; an artist can invent an unheard of work. But to be unique, strange, aleatory, unheard of and so on in terms of the situation is not enough to ensure that what happened becomes an encounter in the way I have described.

For the prisoners, reality consists entirely of the sounds and images coming from the wall. This constituted the sum of their knowledge. The notion ‘to be freed’ did not exist to them. Liberation, in the sense that it refers to a place other than that present to their knowledge, was nothing to the prisoners. The site of this liberation/compulsion is knowledge or education. It is this that ‘the turn’, in turn refers to; the void buried in the excess of the prisoner’s knowledge of their world.

As Plato unfolds the story we of course come to see that what was nothing to this cave situation was that its truth was other than what appeared as reality to the prisoners.

The event of the liberation/compulsion exposes this void; that there was something which was non-apparent. The turn, which the event compels, is the first movement toward drawing the consequences of there being a ‘hole’ in this reality, in the knowledge determinative of the prisoner’s situation.

We should stress, with Plato, that the cave-dwellers revel in their knowledge or memories. They accord honours to those who excel in this. For the cave-dwellers their knowledge accounts for what there is to account for.

What we can say is that the conditions of the cave are such that the insistent lack of truth presented there, at some point in its history, will have forced itself to the surface. If the insistence of this void is to be marked it requires its encounter. This is what the encounter is, the conditional imposition of its existence at a site. The encounter of a sudden marks out this insistent void of a true education. What happens must assert itself as that which happened.

Plato simply could not tell his tale without the founding event at its centre. As we saw, every ‘prisoner’ partakes, staring at the wall, of the lack of a non-sophistic education and, as such, the event at this cave-site addresses itself to anyone at all.  Certainly, not every prisoner will submit to the demands of the turn.

The event of the cave is the essential move in the subject’s being ‘unbound’ from the cave. The act of liberation, Plato reminds us, is only the beginning. The chains are removed but their reality is still compelling. Faced with what has happened he is perplexed, undecided. No knowledge supports his predicament. Plato suggests the prisoner is overwhelmed by what he doesn’t know and would seek to go back to the state of not knowing that he didn’t know. Even though to do so given what he now ‘knows’ is strictly speaking impossible at risk of severe pathology.

Essentially, the prisoner now knows nothing (he knows he knows nothing): Nothing in regard to what happened – to be freed is an unheard of thing – and nothing in regard to what this event means given that it has happened, and most importantly, that what he did know was all the time conditioned by this ‘nothing’. It is the latter which will supply the subject with the discipline to go on and to address what else he does not know.

Plato says that the prisoner must be dragged out of the cave itself into the light. This is to say the event forces upon the subject the pursuit of its consequences. He must investigate the logic of the turn. For this becoming subject, compelled to be so by the chance of an event, the consequences lead up and out of the reality of the cave and ultimately back down again. Plato’s pessimism, won by his experience with Socrates, intervenes here and he imagines the prisoner killed in his attempt to illuminate the connection between his comrades and the event of the turn toward freedom. But this doesn’t preclude an analysis of the return.

The return is a necessary part of the same enquiry predicated by the turn. The prisoner’s return is a metaphor for the necessity the subject has of working for the event/encounter through the sophistic/state. The subject cannot retreat to the mountain top but like Zarathustra must go down again. The difference is that where Zarathustra sought his equals – and of course could not find them – the prisoner is an example of the insistence of equality itself.

As we said, nothing in the cave story distinguishes this prisoner from any other. As an encounter is available to all insofar as it happens, then the attempt by the prisoner to free his comrades is an aspect of the universalism inherent to the event insofar as it convokes the nothing of the situation – which is a part of all. Every prisoner shares the lack of ‘liberation’ which the event exposed with regard to the first prisoner.

Justice demands that the universal address inherent to the event be the condition of the pursuit of its consequences. Education is therefore ‘not what it is said to be by some, who profess to put knowledge into a soul which does not possess it, as if they could put sight into blind eyes’ (R. 518bc). Rather the education of the first prisoner – occurring to him only by chance – is the education of all – as ‘all men possess the power of learning the truth and the organ to see it with’ – or it is not an education at all (R. 518c). We can see that this is axiomatic for Plato.

The subject and the state stake out their rivalry over this. For the former, even death is no event in the life of the truth it stakes out. While the latter, ‘having no single mark before their eye at which they must aim’ confuse truth with its place of annunciation and are compelled thereby to reproduce its place at whatever cost (R. 519bc).

The name Socrates designates that what is void to the sophistic state is a non-sophistic education. This is to say, what every element of the sophistic state shares is the ‘lack of a non-sophistic education’. The encounter with the sophistic figure of the state institutes the existence of this lack. In essence, the event is the irruptive insistence of this lack. This lack, named by the event is in anticipation of what is to come.

In the trial the Socratic figure insisted that he was not a sophist. The sophistic state insisted that in being the only one who was not, he therefore did not educate.  In putting this figure on trial the state necessarily invoked its own limit. It recognised that there was ‘something unpresented at work’ – a stranger, a terrorist or a perverse professor – an orator ‘not after their pattern’ (Ap. 17a).

In sentencing him to death, necessarily as Anytus noted, it sought to codify this limit as external to it. Socrates was not of the state and so he must not be and more particularly Socrates as the name of the event, the name of the figure which encountered sophistry at its limit, must not be thought. What the sophistic state sees in the death of Socrates is the death of his being thought – which is to say, the death of his thought being practiced.

Plato stages a great reversal here of the Parmenidean maxim, as Socrates is literally that being which ‘must not be thought’.


He and Xenephon were enemies and both served in the mercenary expedition for the Persian Cyrus who hoped to overthrow his rival and brother Artaxerses, which Xenephon relates in the wonderful tale Anabasis. Xenephon says that unlike the other generals, Meno was not put to death straight away but tortured for a year and then tortured to death. Debra Nails says that Xenephon suggests he deserved his fate. Meno is not treated well by Xenephon in Anabasis. He depicts him as enormously eager for wealth, self-interested, lacking affection for anyone, and says he made use of those who were ‘pious and practiced truth’ for his own material benefit (2.6.21-7). See Debra Nails, The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and other Socratics, pp. 204-5.


if interested see 104-107 of Badiou and Plato: An education by truths