Visual Metaphors and the Human Condition in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King”


In this essay, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King are used to explore the use of visual metaphors to conjure their respective perceptions of the human condition. Both texts extensively use metaphors of blindness, sight, and vision to extrapolate truth and knowledge in the context of the role of physical sight, the human condition, and divine wisdom in shaping human behavior. Although both Plato and Sophocles extensively use metaphors of vision as a literary device in their respective texts, each author utilizes this approach uniquely to convey their understanding of human nature.

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Why Do Plato and Sophocles Use Metaphors of Vision in their Texts?

In the play “Oedipus the King”, physical blindness does not indicate a lack of knowledge, just as physical vision does not guarantee the awareness of divine truth. This fact becomes apparent from the beginning of the play when Tieresias, the blind prophet, stumbles across the stage. While his physical sight is impaired, his internal or spiritual vision lets him see into Oedipus’ past and future. On the contrary, Oedipus’ eyesight is perfect, but his spiritual sight is impaired, and he cannot see the things the prophet does. Despite his failure to see, the King is already known for his perceptive knowledge, especially when he successfully solves the Sphinx riddle (Minnema 440). Eventually, the king begins to see the dreadful fate awaiting him and ends up ruining his physical sight in exasperation.

In “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato describes a group of prisoners enchained to a wall in a forward-facing position in a cave. Even though a fire is burning behind them, the wall is the only visible entity to the prisoners (Godowski 51). Between the prisoners and the fire is a low wall and a raised pathway behind which people carry models of humans and other living beings. The prisoners can only see the shadows cast on the wall by the people and assume that the voices of the people talking are the voices of the shadows.

Upon being freed from the cave, one of the prisoners looks behind him and becomes temporarily blinded by the brightness of the fire. Plato supposes that if he was told that the fire was confirmed, the prisoner would not believe him and return to what he thinks makes more sense: watching the shadows cast on the wall. He also theorizes that if this prisoner were to leave the cave and see the real world in the sunlight, he would first have trouble distinguishing reality from illusion. Eventually, he would become accustomed to perceiving and rationalizing between the entities of the real world. However, when he returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, he becomes blinded by the darkness, and the other prisoners would believe that this is one of the dangers posed by the outside world.

Another distinct aspect is that Plato’s vision in “Allegory of the Cave” is an indictment of society’s leadership that often shapes values people abide by. It is a responsibility that has been dramatically misused through puppeteering, such as in political and religious manipulation. In the “Allegory of the Cave”, vision represents enlightenment, a process that should occur gradually if it is to be meaningful. As much as it is acceptable, a sudden push towards a different reality is almost guaranteed to be rejected as it challenges an individual’s or community’s existence and logic. The position illustrates the maintenance of the status quo, especially in politics and leadership, by exploiting people’s preferences.

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How Does Vision or Blindness Operate Differently Between the Two Texts?

Both Plato and Sophocles successfully use visual metaphors, albeit for saliently different objectives. The differences are evident, although, in both narratives, it is clear that the subjects are prisoners of their perceptions. In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato shows that thoughts, prejudices, culture, religion, politics, and other ideologies imprison humanity.

Unsurprisingly, the sudden challenge to the prisoners’ rationale is met with resistance and fear. The response confirms that changing indoctrinated beliefs since childhood is almost insurmountable, especially if the transformation is instantaneously demanded. Disproving individuals’ beliefs should be gradual.

In Sophocles’ play, good eyesight is no match for true spiritual enlightenment that illuminates the past and future and the repercussions of actions and decisions on a larger scale. Regardless of the advantages of such a transformation, the metaphors in Plato’s text are used to demonstrate the reaction of human beings to drastic and profound change. In this approach, Plato explains the best method of introducing any change is by allowing the target to gradually acclimate to small changes rather than be shocked into resistance by the sudden shift.

How Does Vision or Blindness Express Their Author’s Understanding of the Human Condition?

The secrets of the universe are beyond the grasp of humans. Sophocles’ visual metaphors symbolize humanity’s complete ignorance of the world’s mysteries, especially since absolute knowledge is unattainable (Minnema 440). Despite this fact, human beings still feel knowledgeable by their ability to tackle some of life’s difficult tasks, just as Oedipus did when he solved a complex riddle. Plato aptly understands the human condition that is highly resistant to sudden change.

The human condition is inclined to perceive great security in what is known and great trepidation on uncharted paths. The irony of this condition is that it does not matter that the preferred position for its safety and familiarity is detrimental compared to the outcome of change or the process through which it occurs. The implication is that any change involving behavior, perceptions, values, and beliefs should be approached with the awareness that the human psyche is highly resistant to change. Gradual introduction alleviates the shocking factor, making people more receptive and flexible.

Sophocles uses visual devices in “Oedipus the King,” such as light, sight, and blindness, to conjure a different aspect of the human condition. While the prisoners in Plato’s text have their vision manipulated by the puppeteers, physical sight is limited compared to divine vision (Minnema 440). In addition, while the prisoners in “Allegory of the Cave” only need to be gradually introduced to the light to see reality, Sophocles’ Oediphus destroys his physical sight in anguish because it cannot help him see his past or future and cannot bear the sight of the turmoil he has generated through his actions.

Ultimately, both writers creatively use the metaphor of sight to show the different aspects of the human condition. Sophocles introduces the element of a spiritual vision or blindness, while Plato demonstrates the manipulation of vision by those in control such that even those with sight cannot see. A key point to ponder from both texts is whether an individual has been rendered physically or spiritually blind by their circumstances and the possibility to see the world through a proactive search for knowledge and enlightenment.


Works Cited

Godowski, Jeff. P. “Out of the Shadows and into the Light: Liberation through Education.”The Vermont Connection, vol. 36, no. 8, 2015, pp. 50-57.

Minnema, Lourens. “A Cross-Cultural Comparison of the Issue of Self Knowledge in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the Bhagavadgita.”  Philosophy Study, vol. 2, no. 7, 2012, pp. 439-449.

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