The Allegory of the Cave Literary Devices
Socratic Dialogue is a method of writing, used mainly by Greek philosophers Plato and Xenophon (both students of Socrates), in which philosophical ideas are propounded through a dialogue between two or more people or characters. It is considered part of the Socratic Method, in which participants act out their own critical thinking by questioning each other and challenging each member’s ideas, in order to collaboratively come to a conclusion.
In this case, the participants are Socrates himself, who falls into the role of teacher, and Glaucon, his student. Despite this apparent hierarchy, Socrates frames many of his assertions as questions, inviting Glaucon in as a participant and allowing him the chance to disagree, should he feel the need to. This format also allows Plato to invite the reader into the discussion as a participant, engaging with the questions on their own so that they can stimulate their own thinking on the subject.
Allegory is a mode of story-telling in which the characters, objects, and actions take on symbolic meaning in order to reveal general truths about life or humanity. As the title of this essay suggests, Plato makes use of allegory by presenting a hypothetical situation which symbolically leads to revelations about “the degrees in which our nature may be enlightened or unenlightened” (paragraph 1, line 1). More than just presenting an allegory, however, Plato moves a step beyond by also providing explications of the allegorical meaning the first half of the essay presents.
In this allegory, he writes, “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,” and the outside world represents enlightenment (paragraph 31, line 2). This means that only half the essay is truly a straightforward allegory. As the character of Socrates says, the symbols of the story offer a one-to-one correlation with elements of humanity and life, an essential aspect of allegory: the cave is the realm of vision or surface-level, outward appearance.
The fire represents the sun by which we can glean this appearance, and the world outside the cave represents the deeper wisdom gained through philosophical training. It is through these symbols that Plato is able to engage with a general truth about how difficult it can be to gain knowledge, the pain that can be involved with the transition from ignorance to knowledge (and vice versa), and the difficulties inherent in trying to disseminate knowledge to the unenlightened.
While the title of the essay is translated as “The Allegory of the Cave,” and clearly there are allegorical elements (as discussed above), the first line is translated as saying, “here is a parable” (paragraph 1, line 1). The world parable is most often associated in Western Culture with the New Testament of the Christian Bible and Jesus’ teachings, though Plato and Socrates pre-date Jesus. Parables consist of an instructive fictional story that serves to illustrate a religious or moral principle (for instance, a famous Biblical parable is that of the “Good Samaritan”).
While allegories serve to illustrate a higher truth, they need not be necessarily instructive or about morality, though there is often overlap. In this essay, we see the two forms working in tandem in order to present a higher truth—the ways in which wisdom and knowledge are like light and what we can learn from that—that also, through the explication in the second half of the essay, lead to a moral principle: rulers should be drawn from the pool of enlightened people who, despite the discomfort, deign to descend from the plane of enlightenment in order to educate the rest of us, thereby being rulers by dint of duty rather than ambition.
It is through the fictitious story of the prisoners in the cave that we get to this moral revelation, giving this essay parable-like elements alongside the allegorical elements.