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Plato introduces his famous allegory of the cave with the phrase, “like this:” thus establishing that the passage is structured as a metaphor, and therefore must be read both as a figurative description and a symbolic representation of a concrete state of being (VII:514). He also emphasizes that the reader must “imagine,” a command that reinforces the allegorical nature of the work – the reader enters into the text as both a voyeur and an actual conceptualist of the image being imagined (VII: 514). As the passage goes through its multiple spatial and metaphysical levels of creation, the reader experiences the exact procession of which he is reading about in the work, thus creating a replication of the same education that Plato addresses within The Republic as a whole. This experience also clarifies for the reader the role of the philosopher king and the notion of the kallipolis a construct based around this vision of truth and wisdom with its multifaceted synthesis of many topos within the dialogue. Thus the allegory is not only a self-contained vision of “the effects of education on our nature,” but a prolonged metaphor whose figurative language both intrinsically and superficially draws upon the greater themes at play within the work as a whole (VII:514).
After Plato’s beginning introduction of the passage as a metaphor, the author goes on togeographically set up the scene for the reader, choosing images that directly reflect their symbolic purpose. The passage works within a pattern of ideological introductions followed by figurative illustrations, an interplay that creates a series of linked revelations that formulate a complete world of allegorical context. The “underground, cavelike dwelling,” inspires connotations of darkness and suppression within the imagination of the reader, and the detailed spatial layout and human inhabitation only serve to heighten the sense of figurative tension (VII:514). These humans have “been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered,” thus indicating that they have developed fully within the cave, and know nothing but the small plane of vision, shadows reflected upon the cave, offered to them within their shackles (VII:514).
This idea of imprisonment becomes significant as the metaphor continues and the fusion of the figurative with the concrete beings to render itself within the text. Glaucon replies to this scene with, “It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners,” providing the viewpoint of the reader within the allegory, drawing it once again back to the actual as did the command of “imagine” at the beginning of the metaphor (VII:515).
After the monologue of the set up, the passage returns to the traditional exchange of the dialogue, with the startling statement of “they’re like us,” drawing the reader into the world of the allegory even more deeply – the association between the actual and the allegorical now begins to take form as the dialogue progresses, its structure mimicking the actual mental processes of the function of comprehension (VII:515). Plato follows this association with a series of suppositions, invoking Glaucon to conceptualize and legitimate the vision of the cave as Plato ventures deeper into the metaphor. The reader is then asked to consider “what [the prisoners] being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like if something like this came to pass” (VII:515c). The use of ‘naturally’ here is extremely significant, because it not only evokes the theme of nature, but in doing so also reveals the deeper topos of justice – there is a natural order to a just person that is independent of human decision and passion, an idea of “put[ing] himself in order…not concerned with someone’s doing his own externally, but with what his inside him,” that is an analogous image to the enclosed situation of the cave (IV: 443d). So what happens when one of the prisoners is “suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light?” (VII:515c). Coming from such a spatially stagnant narrative, this rapid movement both prepares the reader for change and places the forthcoming image in a prism of significance.
What follows is the basic figurative illustration of Plato’s goal of education, his higher truth or Dialectic. The unshackled prisoner goes into the light and sees “more correctly,” pained and frightened at first, but finally “able to study” and see “in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see” (516c). Thus the intellectual voyage of seeing the truth is illustrated in a spatially governed setting, a scene that is almost theatrical in its technical precision and choreography-based imagery. The ensuing struggle of this enlightened human with his ignorant prisoners both echoes and illustrates Plato’s ideal of the kallipolis with its golden philosophers and silver and bronze populous. The enlightened have to “make the ascent and see the good…[and therefore] must go down to live in the common dwelling place of the others…and will see vastly better than the people there. And because [they’ve] seen the truth about fine, just, and good things, [they’ll] know each image for what it is…[and] the city will be governed…by people who are awake rather than dreaming” (VII:520c-d).
Plato’s constant references to the adjustment of the eyes, the blinding of the sun, and the dimness of the shadows all reflect the dominant metaphor of luminosity. Thus the passage has moved from the spatial to the motional to the visual, indicating the different allegorical stages of his metaphor, and also indicating a metaphysical move from the tangible to the intangible as his allegory and its subject fuse more topically together. Plato even goes so far as to explain the meaning of his whole image, saying “it must be fitted together with what [he] said before. The visible realm should be likened to the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if [we] interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm, [we’ll] grasp what [he hopes] to convey” (VII:517b). Thus Plato both begins and ends his allegory with specific directives, creating a framed vision embedded within an interpretive text that explains as well as draws from its image.
Plato continues this metaphor of sight when analyzing this allegory just presented to us within his interpretive text. “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be…putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes. The power to learn is in everyone’s soul and…the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. Education takes for granted that the sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately (VII:518c-d). This redirection happens when the philosophers “go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, [thus]… spread[ing] happiness throughout the city by bringing the citizens into harmony with each other through persuasion or compulsion and by making them share with each other the benefits that each class can confer on the city” (VII:519e-520). Plato thus illustrates the major tenets of the work, up to and including the nature of justice and the definition of happiness, with the single dominant metaphor of a ‘cave’ in which special, motional, and visual limitations are transcended by the individual and then revealed to the whole.
The allegory of the cave culminates a series of allegories in which Plato illustrates his main points within the Republic. This allegory, as the last in the series, is paradoxically almost the easiest to understand – the culmination of the education of the reader has allowed him to be enlightened in a more profound way than previously, as he has experienced alongside Glaucon a dramatization of the fundamental process of education. The vision of the cave explains some of the most complex points within Plato’s work, but does them in such a metaphorical way it is as if we are not being taught, but are enacting the teaching ourselves. This idea of faked involvement, such a noble falsehood, echoes the philosopher’s noble falsehoods to the populous of the kallipolis, and reveals the narrative structure that guides us throughout the work – we are but voyeurs to Plato’s fabulous constructions.
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