The Allegory of the Cave Analysis
“The allegory of the Cave” is an essay in the form of a dramatic dialogue, in whicheverything contained in the essay is spoken by one of its two speakers or characters. This gives the lofty ideas being presented a more conversational tone that allows readers to approach them in an easier-to-understand manner. Plato begins with the allegory itself, an in-depth description of the cave in which people are held captive.
Using the symbols of light and darkness, he leads Glaucon (and thereby also the reader), through an exploration of vision, and how it relates to reality, anchoring this first part of the essay in the concrete world of sensation, especially the sense of sight. By starting first with experiences that are rooted in the physical body, Plato is allowing his audience to anchor themselves in the familiar. Anyone with vision has had experiences with light and darkness and so can easily relate to the material, even if the scenario of being trapped, immobilized, in a cave since birth is necessarily foreign.
It is only after an in-depth discussion of these physical sensations and what they might mean to the hypothetical prisoner that Plato then turns the essay toward the true subject already given in the opening line: enlightenment. Structurally, then, this essay follows the form the character of Socrates advocates. About halfway through the first section of the essay, Socrates says, “[The prisoner] would need, then, to grow accustomed before he could see things in that upper world.
At first it would be easiest to make out shadows, and then the images of men and things reflected in water, and later on the things themselves” (paragraph 21, line 1). This gradual acclimation to stimuli in order to go from darkness and shadows to light and knowledge is what Plato himself enacts through the essay, beginning with an easier-to-understand anecdote rooted in physical experiences and then gradually moving into the more abstract realm of what those elements might symbolize: The prison dwelling corresponds to the region revealed to us through the sense of sight, and the fire-light within it to the power of the Sun.
The ascent to see the things in the upper world you may take as standing for the upward journey of the soul into the region of the intelligible (paragraph 31, line 2). By giving us this explanation, Plato is beginning the process of leading us from the concrete and into the realm of philosophy, and this explanation could be seen as the “images […] reflected in water” stage of the essay. Finally, Plato gets into the abstract notions of what makes for a good leader: wisdom and sacrifice and lack of ambition toward leadership.
Throughout the essay, Plato makes use of rhetorical questions (although here they are not purely rhetorical, since Glaucon often answers them with an affirmation; nonetheless, because Glaucon’s responses do not really add much, these become functionally-rhetorical questions). This is another means of making the ideas more accessible to his audience. By having Socrates present his ideas in question form, they come across more as invitations, rather than decrees passed by a person of knowledge to an ignorant audience.
Part of Socrates’ and Plato’s goals by presenting these ideas in the form of a dialogue is to engage the reader, prompting them to think more deeply about the subject, to agree or disagree, but at least to not simply passively receive information. Ultimately, this approach is meant to make the audience more receptive to the ideas and thus to be more persuasive in convincing them. Finally, while much is explained in detail in this essay, Plato also leaves room for the audience to further their own thinking on the subject by presenting some ideas cursorily without going into exhaustive explanations or details.
One such place is when discussing the negative side of knowledge, bringing up “dishonest men with a reputation for sagacity” but not really expounding on this beyond saying that left to their own devices, people can wander astray. Within the context of The Republic as a whole, this serves to pique the reader’s curiosity so that they will want to read on, but also within the context of this single essay, it allows the reader to perform their own deeper thinking on the matter in order to come to their own conclusions, thus further leading them, like the prisoner of the allegory, into a higher plane of wisdom.