Having recently completed a discussion of Plato’s Republic with a terrific group of college students, I am once again reminded of its beauty and depth. When teaching the Republic, I am always struck by the seemingly innocent back and forth of the dialogue that inevitably entices us straight into discussing life’s deepest issues. I am convinced that the genius of Plato is that we, in a way, cannot help but become a participant in his dialogue.
The influence and importance of the Republic as a single work is hard to match. It finds its way onto every self-respecting list of the most influential books, often ranking in the top five. Alfred North Whitehead famously said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Many philosophical topics that are live discussions today are traceable to Plato’s Republic. In short, the Republic is really, really good and worth our time.
One of my favorite discussions to have with students in reading the Republic is Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the dialogue, the main character, Socrates, tells a story according to which people are held captive within a cave and are bound such that they are only able to see the shadows on the wall of the cave. They have been there their whole lives, and so they think the shadows are all there is. It is possible to escape, but it is exceedingly difficult and no one really wants to because they are not sure there is anything beyond the shadows. The way of escape is an arduous journey, and, if one is successful, one encounters blinding light. It is so bright it’s painful. It takes some time for one’s eyes to adjust, but once they do, one sees the true world—the world as it really is.
The allegory is intended to illustrate how philosophy can free us from a fixation on the world of sensation. We are, in a way, bound by the shifting and ever-changing material world—the shadowlands, to use C.S. Lewis’ turn of phrase. For Plato, the material world is not necessarily evil, but it is a world in a constant state of flux and change. Thus, one cannot have genuine knowledge or even say true things, because before one finishes one’s inquiry, the world has already changed. The true world—what Plato calls the world of the forms—is the world of eternal and fixed ideas. This is a world discoverable not by empirical inquiry, but by philosophy.
In the shifting material world, one experiences things that have beauty to some degree. Or one may experience things that are somewhat good. But these are, at best, the mere shadows of beauty and goodness as they really are in themselves. In the world of the forms, one experiences beauty and goodness themselves along with the rest of the forms. And by knowing beauty and goodness themselves (as well as the rest of the forms), we are able to live well—at least, better—in the material world since there will be less confusion about what is beautiful, good, etc.
At this point in our discussion of the Republic, I always try to show how profound this is. What motivation to do philosophy! You can gaze on beauty and goodness themselves in doing philosophy! But here’s the thing. As good as that is, there’s something better still. For the Christian philosopher, there’s something (or someone!) that stands behind the forms.
I’m definitely interested in philosophy for its own sake. That is, I think the philosophical pursuit has intrinsic value and is a good. But, if I’m honest, my interest in philosophy sometimes waxes and wanes. What remains is a deep longing in my soul for something that makes sense of it all. Plato’s view, though interesting, strikes me as ultimately unsatisfying. For him, the forms, like beauty and goodness, just exist without any further explanation. They just eternally are. But why? Is this really all there is?
In a Christian view, we can gaze on beauty and goodness, and, given their value, we should do so. But we should not forget what stands behind it all. We can look further and gaze on God Himself as the ultimate foundation. This strikes me as far more satisfying in that this God created you and me to know Him. The ultimate metaphysic of reality loves you.
So here’s the vision. I do philosophy as a Christian because, for any philosophical question I may pursue, it seems to me that God stands behind that question as the ultimately satisfying answer. When I get out of the cave, as it were, I find God. It all leads to God, and this truly satisfies.
This is not, of course, to say that deep philosophical reflection is necessary for knowing God. We can certainly meet God in the mundane. It is to say, however, that philosophy done Christianly may be motivated by deep devotion and the desire to know God more fully. Moreover, philosophy done Christianly results in worship. The knowledge of God and philosophy are certainly not at odds. We should, as Christians, be interested in philosophical reflection precisely because it leads us to the God who is the foundation of all.
 Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979]