In this essay, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King are used to explore the authors’ use of visual metaphors to conjure up their respective understanding of the human condition. Both texts extensively use metaphors of blindness, sight, and vision to extrapolate on truth and knowledge in the context of the role of physical sight, human conditioning, and Devine knowledge in shaping human behavior. Although both Plato and Sophocles extensively rely on metaphors of vision as literary devices in their respective texts, each author utilizes this approach in a unique style to represent their understanding of the human condition.
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 divine knowledge of the truth. This fact becomes apparent from the beginning of the play when Teiresas the blind prophet stumbles across the stage. While his physical sight is impaired, his internal or spiritual vision enables him to see into Oedipus’ past and future. On the contrary, Oedipus’ eyesight is perfect but his spiritual sight is impaired and cannot see the things that the prophet does. This is despite the fact that the King is already known for his deep perceptive knowledge such as when he successfully solved the Sphinx riddle (Minnema 440). Eventually, the King can see the dreadful fate awaiting him and ends up destroying his physical sight in exasperation.
In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes a group of prisoners since childhood, whose body movements are restrained in one spot in a forward facing position. The wall is the only visible object to the prisoner as well as fire behind them (Godowski 51). In between the prisoners and the fire is a low wall from which puppeteers cast shadows. . The prisoners can only see the shadows cast on the wall by puppeteers (Godowski 51). In addition, the only sounds they can hear are the echoes bouncing off the two walls.
Upon being freed from this gloomy existence, each prisoner perceives the light and other objects but experiences pain from the sudden brightness. They have trouble distinguishing the real from the unreal and run back to the darkness in the cave where they feel more secure. A slower introduction would be more successful by allowing the prisoner’s eyes to gradually adopt to the light, make out the different forms, and ultimately become visually aware of the more nuanced distinctiveness of each object.
Another distinct aspect is that Plato’s vision in the “Allegory of the Cave” is also an indictment of society’s leadership that often shapes values that people abide, a responsibility that has been greatly misused through puppeteering, such as in political and religious manipulation. In the Allegory, vision represents enlightenment, a process that should occur gradually if it is to be meaningful. As much as it is a good thing, a sudden shove towards a different reality is almost guaranteed to be rejected as it challenges individuals’ or communities’ existence. This illustrates the maintenance of the status quo especially in politics and leadership by exploiting people’s preference for the familiar.
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 despite the fact that in both narratives, it is clear that the subjects are prisoners of their own perceptions. In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato shows that humanity is imprisoned by thoughts, prejudices, culture, religion, and politics, and other ideologies.
Unsurprisingly, in the sudden challenge to the prisoners’ visual knowledge and beliefs is met with resistance and fear. This response confirms that changing indoctrinated beliefs since childhood is an almost insurmountable task, especially if the transformation is demanded instantaneously. Explaining to individuals that something they have believed to be true is not factual should be approached cautiously.
In Sophocles’ play, good physically eyesight is no match for true spiritual enlightenment that not only illuminates the past and future, but also the repercussions of actions and decisions on a larger scale. In Plato’s text, the metaphors are used to demonstrate the reaction of human beings to drastic and profound change, regardless of the advantage of such transformation. In this approach, Plato demonstrates the best approach for introducing any form of change 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?
Sophocles visual metaphors symbolize the way humanity exists in complete ignorance of the secrets of the universe, 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 such that there is great security in what is known and great trepidation on uncharted paths. The irony of this condition is that it matters not that the position that is preferred for its security and familiarity is detrimental compared to the outcome of change or the process through which it occurs. The implication is that any change involving the 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.
In Oedipus the King, Sophocles also uses visual devices, such as light, sight, and blindness to conjure up a different aspect of the human condition. While people in Plato’s text have their vision manipulated by the puppeteers, physical sight is represented as limited compared to divine vision (Minnema 440). In addition, while the people in the Allegory of the Cave only need to be gradually introduced to the light to see reality, Sophocles’ King destroys his own physical sight in anguish because it could not help him see his past or the future and he cannot bear the sight of the turmoil he has generated through his actions.
Ultimately, both writers creatively use the sight metaphor to show 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 is rendered physically or spiritually blind by their own circumstances, and the possibility to see the world through a proactive search for knowledge and enlightenment.
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Minnema, Lourens. “A cross Cultural Comparison of the Issue of Self Knowledge in
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Bhagavadgita.”
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