Hegel and Plato

The Divided Line and the Cave

Prof. Eric Steinhart (C) 1998

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The Platonic Levels of Being and Knowing

According to Plato, there are 4 different levels of Being and 4 corresponding levels of Knowing. The progress of the soul is the ascent from lower to higher levels of Knowing, so that the soul also rises from lower to higher levels of Being. Plato describes these levels of Being and Knowing in his image of the Divided Line, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Plato's image of the Divided Line.


The Platonic Ascent of the Soul

In the Myth of the Cave, Plato describes the progress of the soul as an educational journey: the soul is initially a prisonner trapped at the lowest level of Knowing and Being -- the hellish world of sheer illusion; the soul-prisonner is then freed, and begins the long ascent up the steep and rugged road out of the cave. This ascent is not easy: it is painful and the soul is filled with dread. But eventually, the soul emerges into the daylight of the heavenly intelligible world.

Figure 2. The Soul imprisoned in the Cave.


The Hegelian Evolution of Consciousness

The Platonic notion of the ascent of the soul through levels of being is the model for the Hegelian concept of the progress of consciousness. While Plato conceives of the soul as rising through a timeless series of levels of being, Hegel conceives of consciousness rising through a historical series of levels. For Hegel, the Platonic ascent of the soul becomes a historical evolution of the consciousness of humanity as a whole. This is the Myth of the Cave: the whole human races is being led out of the Cave. In Figure 3, Plato's Divided Line is in RED, Hegel's in BLUE.

Figure 3. Comparison of Plato's Divided Line with Hegel's Phenomenology

The phenomenologist is the one who guides consciousness on its ascent out of the cave into the daylight, the one who compells consciousness to make the ascent.

William Paterson University Philosophy Department