The transition from ignorance into knowledge in the pursuit of truth is neither a simple nor easy process. Both Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, and Plato’s philosophical dialogue, “The Allegory of the Cave,” use dark and light imagery to explore man’s struggle to leave an illusory life of comfort in search of absolute truth. Although Oedipus and the prisoner parallel in their challenges to seek reality, they differ in their reactions to it. Where Oedipus is unable to handle the harshness of the truth, the prisoner accepts it.
By associating dark with benightedness and falsehood, and light with sight and truth, both narratives depict that man must not only discern illusion and reality in his quest for knowledge but recognize his own ignorance before he can acquire insight of the world around him.
Both Oedipus and the prisoner begin in a state of ignorance, one that is falsely believed to be the reality. Thinking he has avoided fate, Oedipus firmly believes that he is in control of his life, though the reader knows that he is indeed, not. The darkness in his life is represented by his inability to see and understand the truth, as Oedipus’ hubris makes him unaware of the true circumstances of his life. He is a man so self-assured that he is not able to accept the truth when told by Teiresias. Oedipus, blind to the illusion that he is living, ” can not see the evil”(Sophocles, 354) of the crimes he has committed, and cannot view the truth for what it actually is. Teiresias, though blind in both eyes, has true knowledge and understanding of the truth, yet he is mocked by the ignorant king for his lack of sight. In Plato’s Allegory, the prisoner too, lacks knowledge and understanding of the world around him, albeit in a different matter. Where Oedipus is prevented from seeing the truth by his own hamartia, the prisoner is restricted by chains that hold him captive within the cave. Plato theorizes that since the cave setting is all the prisoner knows, he would believe and accept that there are no “realities” other than the “shadows of handmade things” (2). The absence of light in the cave represents the boundaries of the prisoner’s ability to see; he is unable to achieve true knowledge, as doing so would require him to “perceive the forms themselves”(1) instead of illusions cast by an artificial light. Dark symbolism clearly demonstrates the parallels between falsehood and illusion in both works, but to achieve true insight, one must pursue a state of knowledge through a strenuous application of insight and reason.
The journey to leave the shadows to follow the light is not as favorable as one may be, as true knowledge is harsher and more difficult to accept that the comfort of darkness. Oedipus is relentless in his pursuit of truth in order to catch Laios’ murderer and save his city of Thebes from the plague. Still stuck in his life of illusion, he is determined to “bring what is light to dark” (135), unaware that his persistence will only cause more problems. He curses the murderer of Laios in his ignorance, wishing the culprit’s life to be consumed in “evil and wretchedness” (Sophocles, 235). Unbeknownst to him, the sufferings he wishes for do come true, though not in the way he believes. In contrast, The prisoner, having spent his whole life in imprisonment, does not wish to look at what is bright. Too “dazzled” by the light of the fire to see clearly, he has to be dragged out “by force…into the light of the sun” (Plato, 2). He slowly adjusts to his new environment, and once turned to what is more “real,” the prisoner realizes that the shadows in the cave were only images of “foolery,” cast by real objects (2). It is here that the prisoner is seen transitioning from illusion to reality
Absolute truth is harsh, and both Oedipus and the prisoner struggle to accept it. Though he strived to do good by himself and his city, Oedipus, unfortunately, brings about his own tragic end by relentlessly pursuing the truth and ignoring warnings of how “dreadful” (Sophocles, 305) knowledge can be. His quest to find answers does eventually lead him to the absolute truth, but at a heavy cost. Finally realizing the consequences of his actions, and unable to face the evil and horror of his “blind wrongs” (404), Oedipus looks upon the “Light”(1037) one final time before gouging out his eyes. Here, light imagery represents truth and knowledge, and although the truth is what Oedipus has so relentlessly pursued, in the end, it is too harsh and he instead chooses to return to the dark. To him, The prisoner, though initially reluctant to explore reality, ultimately achieves enlightenment, represented by his ability to “ look on the sun… itself” (Plato, 2).
There is a great divide between reality and falsehood. Through the use of contrasting imagery, both Sophocles and Plato illustrate the plights of humanity in the journey to achieve enlightenment and explore the trials man must go through to achieve a similar goal. Through the journeys of Oedipus and the prisoner, the reader understands that however easy one may believe the quest for truth to be, it is often not so, as to achieve absolute truth, man must realize his own unenlightenment before he can perceive things in their true forms.