While reading Plato’s Republic recently, I came across his now famous Cave Allegory. I remember this from an old philosophy class I took and after reading it, I found that the philosophy text books and instructor did not do the metaphor justice. There was a lot of contextual information from the entire book, the time period that Plato was in, and the influences on Plato that made reading the metaphor in its original book more informative and interesting to think about.
The essence of the metaphor is that there are prisoners at the bottom of the cave and these prisoners can talk to each other, but cannot see each other. The only things they have to look at all their lives are the shadow reflections of items from higher up in the cave. If someone were to go higher up in the cave, they would find a fire and people who not prisoners carrying these objects that are reflected below for the prisoners to see. Here some information about the objects could be discovered, for example a tree being carried into the cave would be revealed as a tree with green leaves instead of a shadow of a tree with no color. If a prisoner was to go further out of the cave, they would find that trees actually grow in the ground, etc. In this way, the journey of knowledge is a long one and hard to understand how things truly work. In most interpretations, the metaphor is that as regular people in society we are the prisoners. In other words we understand only the shadow of the tree and not the tree itself.
Plato goes on to say that if a prisoner were to make the ascent, they would be ascending the road to knowledge. This person ascending the road would stop by the fire and see the tree, and make their way outside to discover that trees grow in the ground. Plato then goes on to say that such an intelligent person should take their superior philosophical knowledge and play the role of King or Queen and go back into the cave to rule the people. The thinking here is that the people in the cave can only do limited work because they do not have the knowledge, which means the philosopher King or Queen would do a better job at ruling the people.
Here, Plato is trying to explain an ideal society that he has been building up throughout the book. This is his way of describing his true vision of the different roles in his society in a way that comes across as deeply intellectual. He is saying that as ordinary citizens in his ideal society we are like the prisoners. The things that are harder to understand are things that take most of a lifetime to learn, so we need to send someone on a quest to learn those things so they can then make good decisions and generally rule in a better fashion than someone without this knowledge.
I’m not sure I buy this in regards to society – at least not the society that we live in today…
Plato’s society is a relatively small society; he is dealing in the context of Greece’s small city states, groups of hundreds or nearly thousands, which are drastically different than the millions in our cities. From that perspective it is hard to relate what he is talking about directly into what we view today as modern society.
Yes, this is where the management advice comes in!!
One way to view this is through the eyes of a large company as they are usually made up of a group of people the size of a Greek city state and need to go about their business so that each individual is productive in their own way and the more productive the whole group is, the better off everyone is.
Looking at this paradigm through our corporate view, it is easy to see how Plato’s ideal scenarios would and would not work. Viewing corporations where the most knowledgeable people are running the show and compelling their employees to do particular tasks even though they may not understand the big picture has its benefits. Look at Boeing for example; there are hundreds of employees who focus on a limited number of tasks without understanding how to do other tasks or what is involved in the business of building airplanes. These are prisoner type individuals at the bottom of the cave, who only focus on easy to understand things once they’ve been shown the steps – things like screwing in a few bolts in, installing an engine, etc. Due to their lack of knowledge and lack of ambition to know everything about the business of airplanes, they are able to make a decent living for themselves, be extremely productive, and make a great profit for the company. On the other hand, the philosopher king (McNerney) has an understanding of how everything gets put together. This is obviously a successful model, Boeing and many manufacturers have been using this model for hundreds of years.
Viewing a similar example, but this time with a technology company, it is easy to see where this quickly falls apart. Take any small tech company or startup, in these cases, there are people who play the part of focus and specialization; however, they also understand the business they are in and how the role they play fits together with every other piece of the puzzle. In other words they are not Plato’s prisoners; they are more like Plato’s philosophers who have chosen upon return to the cave to go back to the task that they loved so much before they knew how the world worked. Because of this passion and insight they are extremely more capable at their task and are able to innovate better than a peer who is not as insightful as they are. In other words the programmers truly enjoy the code they are writing, the testers truly enjoy the testing, and so on. The ruler or philosopher king in these companies may not be the most knowledgeable – they just like orchestrating and so they focus on that task that they love so much.
While Plato’s Cave Allegory is immensely popular, it is not applicable and omnipresent in all instances of society and groups that we see operating today. Despite this, it is insightful to show what value there is in working to achieve greater knowledge. Looking at it from an individualistic perspective it is easy to decide for oneself what level of knowledge is truly desirable for oneself. Is doing the simple tasks with no knowledge of why things are the way they are satisfactory for you as a person? Perhaps just seeing that the tree is green is enough to be happy with your life. Perhaps none of the lower levels of the cave are satisfactory and getting to the outside is all that will quench your ambitions. It is easy to see how much help and sacrifice may be required along the way for each level of knowledge and thus plan your life accordingly.
Yes it may be a stretch for the metaphor – but if you think about it… are you in a business where everyone needs to have the mental capacity to run the company even if they choose not to – or – are you in a business where one or few require this mental capacity? It’s something you should certainly know as you hire and develop an internal culture.
I may have some more thoughts on the topic in upcoming posts… On to check out Aristotle!!