The Allegory of the Cave Symbols And Motifs
Throughout “The allegory of the Cave,” light is shown to be a literal manifestation of enlightenment or wisdom. It is only through access to some kind of light, albeit dimly reflected off a cavern wall, that the prisoners in the allegory can know anything at all of the shape of things (mention is also made of reflected sound, though Socrates does not dwell on this, preferring instead to speak in terms of the visual).
Once one gains access to light more fully and by degrees, one can come to fuller knowledge and wisdom. However, the Platonic Socrates also notes that transitions from dark to light and from light to dark can be painful and disorienting, which helps him further illustrate the nature of wisdom, and its difficulties and discomforts. Light serves as an apt metaphor, providing a jumping off point for the deeper analysis that is Plato’s goal through the text.
As mentioned in the previous section, while light symbolized enlightenment and wisdom, darkness symbolizes ignorance. The prisoners trapped in the cage only know darkness, and, because of this, they cannot know that the shadows they see are not the true forms themselves, but simply representations of them. Throughout the essay, the difficulty of the journey from ignorance to enlightenment is highlighted through the visual medium of moving from darkness to light, and the reverse.
The disorientation and even pain that is associated with this physical transition helps Plato explore the more abstract discomfort of gaining wisdom. Moreover, despite the general danger inherent in darkness as a symbol throughout literature, here Plato explores the ways in which darkness can be comforting if it is what one knows best, describing the hostility the other prisoners would feel if the freed prisoner were to threaten that comfort, saying that they may even wish to kill the person that attempts to free them by force.
As the character of Socrates notes, “The prison dwelling [cave] corresponds to the region revealed to us through the sense of sight” (paragraph 31, line 2). This means it represents a surface level knowledge of things, without any deeper understanding. As a symbol, the cave is fascinating, in its multilayered meanings and associations. Evolutionarily, caves could represent a safe harbor or shelter from nightly dangers, as early humans sought shelter from predators and the elements. However, they also represent darkness, which adds its own element of danger.
Moreover, caves, even extensive ones, represent some element of restriction or enclosure, whereas the world outside the cave represents expansiveness and freedom. This rich ambiguity serves Plato’s purpose throughout this essay, since ignorance, while generally seen as a bad thing, and represented as such here, can also have its own comfort (the saying “ignorance is bliss,” for instance. This symbolism enhances the danger and difficulty of moving beyond ignorance into the expansive realm of enlightenment.