Although there are several important connections made between knowledge and justice and how the two operate together within both society and the individual soul, the most memorable and complex aspect of Books V-VI of The Republic (click here for a summary and analysis of The Republic) concerns story of the race of people who lived their lives in darkness until they are gradually exposed to the truth of their existence slowly and painfully until it becomes clear that all of the systems, functions, and awards they used to govern their society were based on false notions of knowledge.
What the people thought they knew were just shadows of a much larger truth, but one that was difficult to see and could only be recognized through a difficult process. Through the observations of one member of allegorical race of people—the one who turned his head to face the source of the light, “in every way then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects" (225). Plato is suggesting (through Socrates) that we are all prisoners to a fiction because it is difficult and painful to see the truth and that we have create false structures that are inadvertently hiding these deep truths.
Through this train of thought the reader is introduced to his concept of the “Forms" which dictate our understanding of essential notions such as goodness and knowledge and which are almost impossible to know without seeing beyond what life presents on the surface. As stated in The Republic, “In the world of knowledge, the last thing to be perceived and only with great difficulty is the essential Form of Goodness. Once it is perceived, the conclusion must follow that, for all things, this is the cause of whatever is right and good… Without having had a vision of this Form no one can act with wisdom, either in his own life or in matters of the state" (226).
Before moving on to discuss the focus of this analysis, which is the analogy of the race of people who lived in the darkness of the cave, there are some key points that should be established to place the work in context. In Plato’s Republic, the notion of justice and what defines it is the main issue and Socrates attempts to offer a working definition of justice that accounts for the various ways it is mishandled and acts as a tool of oppression as well as the ways in which it is beneficial. The only way that Socrates is able to provide his view of justice and its value is by describing an ideal republic which is idealized as being one in which every citizen specializes in some critical function in society and does not, due to a complex tradition based on lore, try to change his or her function or role in life, thus creating a stable class system. In Books V-VII these concepts are explored in the sense of where people fit into this paradigm of an idealized city designed to highlight the function of justice. Instead of using this society alone to point out his ideas, he breaks the idea down further and suggests that a person’s soul is much like all of the qualities of the citizens in a society, saying, , “if we are to be justified in attributing those same virtues to the individual, we shall expect to find that the individual soul contains the three elements and that they are affected in the same way as are the corresponding types of society" (198).
With these separate elements in place—the soul as a microcosm of the perfect society (and vice versa, actually) as well as the Forms as presented through his parable about the cave dwellers and their perception of truth, knowledge, and reality, Plato (through Socrates, of course) lays out an incredibly complex way to think about justice and a just society by showing how so many of us are flawed and are like the race of people in the cave. Although there are some who understand the Forms and see them for what they are, this poses a difficult problem as the majority of people, without “seeing" these higher truths themselves, will not be able to comprehend the higher modes of knowledge and justice. Only with those whose destiny it is to be philosophers—those schooled in the Forms—can we progress and understand what justice is through being ruled (or guided, more accurately) by those who recognize the Forms. What he is saying and what makes sense, even in modern times, is that we are a society comprised of specialists. We are made up of those who protect, who produce, and who consume, but we have little way of regulating that variance in ideals and desires. However, if there are those among who specialize in recognizing the higher truths (the forms he speaks of) we can live in harmony through the very act of being specialized as this is akin to balance.