The Allegory of the Cave Character Analysis
Socrates is the first-person narrator of The Republic, written by his student and mentee, Plato. Little is known of him as a historical figure except through the representations of him that survive via his disciples, especially Plato. The Socrates who narrates The Republic is sometimes called the “Platonic Socrates,” and scholars have questioned whether this representation is truly accurate, or whether he may be a veiled version of Plato himself.
These narratorial ambiguities aside, the Socrates represented in “The allegory of the Cave” (and throughout The Republic), is a wise teacher who, through a series of dialogues, reveals his philosophies on the nature of ethics, society, and the ideal government. In this section, Socrates does the vast majority of the talking, formulating a hypothetical scenario (the allegory itself) in order to illustrate to his audience, Glaucon, his theory of wisdom, how it can and should be attained, and the responsibilities of those who attain it.
Throughout the Allegory, Socrates frames his ideas in the form of questions (“…would they not suppose that their words referred only to those passing shadows which they saw? ” [paragraph 9, line 1]), which allows him to come off not so much as a pedant, talking down to Glaucon, but rather as a fellow investigator, trying to make sense of the world. Nevertheless, in the one moment where Glaucon provides an alternate perspective (paragraph 46), Socrates very quickly sets him straight: “You have forgotten again, my friend…” (paragraph 47, line 1).
In this section of The Republic, Glaucon functions mainly as audience and sounding board for Socrates to propound his theories on wisdom. Interestingly, the historical figure of Glaucon is the author, Plato’s, older brother, and fellow student of Socrates. Like Socrates, little is known of him as an historical figure, beyond what survives in Plato’s writings. In “The Allegory of the Cave,” Glaucon, while present, often remains in the background, providing succinct positive reinforcement for Socrates’ ideas (several of his lines in the first two pages being, “I see” [paragraph 2], “Of course” [paragraph 8], and “No doubt” [paragraph 12]).
This has the rhetorical effect of making Socrates’ arguments seem all the more convincing, since he is clearly convincing this concrete audience member. While most of his responses are so much echo-chamber white noise, Glaucon does provide an important perspective late in the essay, after Socrates has claimed 7 wise philosopher, once having achieved enlightenment, has a moral responsibility to leave that enlightened plane and return to the world of ignorance in order to enlighten and guide others.
Glaucon responds, “Shall we not be doing them an injustice, if we force on them a worse life than they might have? ” (paragraph 46), which allows Socrates to get to an aspect of wisdom and leadership that otherwise may have remained hidden.
The author himself, Plato, also plays a role, albeit a hidden one. As was mentioned in Socrates’ section, it is through the writings of Plato and his other disciples that we know about Socrates at all, since Socrates did not leave behind writing of his own (none that survived at least).
Thus, in The Republic, we see Socrates’ ideas presented through Plato’s interpretation of those ideas. It is hard to tell for the casual reader whether or not these are true transcriptions of dialogues Socrates had, with Plato as faithful stenographer, or whether Socrates serves as a convenient figurehead for Plato’s own ideas, though certainly, as a student of Socrates, these ideas would be formed around Socrates’ teachings. This ambiguity is one of the many interesting aspects of Plato’s works.