The Allegory of the Cave Themes
From the first line of the essay (“Next, said I, here is a parable to illustrate the degrees in which our nature may be enlightened or unenlightened” [paragraph 1, line 1]), we see that enlightenment, or the gaining of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom on a subject, is an essential thematic component of “The allegory of the Cave. ” Through the allegory itself, enlightenment is literalized as physical light and the ability to see.
The prisoners are trapped in literal darkness in the cave, which represents their ignorance of the true form of things. Instead, all they see are shadows. It is only by turning to the light—first the fire, then the outside world—that they can come to the knowledge of the true forms of things. The Platonic Socrates makes note, however, that enlightenment is neither easy nor always comfortable, saying, “In the world of knowledge, the last thing to be perceived and only with great difficulty is the essential Form of Goodness” (paragraph 31, line 9).
This difficulty is also represented in the metaphor through the pain the prisoner experiences, who has only known darkness, when he is at last shone the light. Not only is enlightenment difficult and painful, Socrates also suggests that it comes with responsibility. The dialogue of this section ends with Socrates’ assertion that philosophers are the only suitable rulers, and the purpose of enlightenment is “not that each should be left to go his own way, but that they should be instrumental in binding the community into one” (paragraph 47, line 6).
The Essential Form of Goodness
In the second half of the essay, Socrates explains in detail what the preceding allegory means, including the line, “In the world of knowledge, the last thing to be perceived and only with great difficulty is the essential Form of Goodness” (paragraph 31, line 9). More than just revealing a truth about the nature of enlightenment, this essay further proposes to offer an element of morality, toughing on “goodness” here.
Socrates goes on to say that the “Form of Goodness” must be “the cause of whatever is right and good” (paragraph 31, line 12), and “Without having has a vision of this Form no one can act with wisdom, either in his own life or in matters of state” (paragraph 31, line 15). Knowledge and wisdom lead to the ability to act in a wise and moral manner, and this link of enlightenment to action is one of the essential revelations at the heart of this essay, and it is the “Essential Form of Goodness” that forges this link between wisdom and action.
Though it doesn’t come up until later in this particular section of The Republic, the book itself often deals with what an ideal leader should be, eventually coming to the idea of the “philosopher king. ” In “The Allegory of the Cave,” however, we can still see the overarching theme of leadership through Socrates’ explication of the allegory in the second half of the essay.
As noted in the “Essential Form of Goodness” entry above, a good leader, according to the Platonic Socrates, must come from a place of wisdom. Leadership also appears thematically in the discussions of the prioritizing the good of the commonwealth over that of the individual leader him- or herself. This essay ends on the note of the ideal leader as well, stating that “access to power must be confined to men who are not in love with it” (paragraph 53, line 10).