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Prisoners' Plight in Plato's Cave Allegory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1937 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Through the interactive oral, I learned about the prisoners’ plight in Plato’s cave allegory. In the allegory, there are prisoners, chained, and facing a wall with a fire behind them. Objects are held up, casting shadows on the walls. The prisoners are only able to see the projected shadows; therefore, the prisoners could mistake these shadows for reality. If a prisoner were to be released and leave the cave, they would be blinded by the light and realize their error. A recurring motif in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is sight and blindness and this motif is revealed as the prisoners in the allegory are mirrored by the characters during their journey to enlightenment.

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Firstly, Tiresias, in relation to Plato’s cave allegory, is the individual outside of the cave who is all- knowing, understanding the falsity of what the prisoners perceive. His knowledge of the truth is clear as it is Tiresias who reveals Oedipus’ crimes to him, setting him off on a journey of self- discovery; however, Oedipus’ hubris enables him from realizing the entire truth.

Another character seen as a prisoner in the cave allegory is Jocasta, who experiences life both inside and outside of the cave. When she is inside the cave, she lacks the vision and insight to see Oedipus’ true identity. However, once free, she is no longer blind; therefore, she realizes that she has not thwarted fate, but has fulfilled it by bedding her son, who is also her husband. Upon reflection, it can be seen that for Jocasta, ignorance is bliss; she would rather deceive herself and believe in an illusion, than live with the truth.

The allegory can also apply to Oedipus who, like Jocasta, has spent most of his lifetime inside the cave. Though given a glimpse of reality by Tiresias, his tragic flaw, his pride, prevents him from understanding the entire truth. Ultimately, Oedipus realizes the truth, but his realization leads to his metaphorical demise as he blinds himself. In this way, Oedipus is forced to live in darkness though he knows the truth and is outside the cave.

Considering the interactive oral, my understanding of the characters’ struggle of sight and blindness was further developed as the motif is illustrated through the prisoners in Plato’s cave allegory and depicted by different characters in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

The Inevitability of Truth

Sophocles was an Ancient Greek writer whose works are considered as classics to this day. His tragedies offer insight into the social and political condition of Ancient Greek and often have deep, underlying messages. In one of his best known tragedies, Oedipus the King, Sophocles uses the motif of sight and blindness as a metaphor for insight and knowledge. While the physically blind prophet Tiresias is the only character who has insight, the protagonist, Oedipus, is “blind” to the fact that he has already fallen into his fate. Likewise, Jocasta, the wife of Oedipus, is metaphorically blind to the truth and willing to live in ignorance rather than knowing the truth. Regardless of willingness to accept the truth, Tiresias, Jocasta, and Oedipus ultimately achieve sight which represents knowledge of the truth, paralleling the inevitability of fate.

Though physically blind, Tiresias has far more insight and knowledge than the other characters, even knowing the truth about Oedipus’ identity. When Oedipus arrives in Corinth, Tiresias recognizes him and refuses to reveal the truth, knowing that truth is harsh. Only when Oedipus mocks him, Tiresias suggests that Oedipus himself is Laius’ murderer and the subject of the prophecy.

TIRESIAS: That man, I say, is here: a stranger in our midst, they thought, but in a moment you shall see him openly displayed a Theban born, and shattered by the honor. Blind instead of seeing, beggar instead of rich, he’ll grope his way in foreign parts, tapping out his war with stick in hand. (Sophocles 26)

Despite his blindness, Tiresias is not afraid of Oedipus because he knows the truth. Therefore, he holds an advantage over Oedipus and offers hints about the man he seeks, clearly stating “that man is here”. Though Oedipus has insulted Tiresias, he is unwilling to reveal the harsh reality. Instead, he leaves Oedipus with an ironic riddle in which he refers to Oedipus as a “stranger in our midst” since Oedipus is a “stranger” to himself; he does not know he is the man whom he so desperately seeks. Furthermore, Tiresias claims Oedipus will be able to “see” this stranger, which is also ironic since Oedipus, who can physically see at the moment, is unable to recognize the truth behind Tiresias’ message. Finally, he foreshadows Oedipus’ future as a poor, blind man; in this way, Tiresias directly refers to Oedipus’ peripeteia, the reversal of his situation. Therefore, Tiresias’ metaphorical sight allows him to recognize fate and its working, unlike Oedipus whose pride blinds him to his fate.

Like Oedipus, Jocasta can see physically, but is a victim of metaphorical blindness and is willing to live a life of ignorance rather than live with the truth. Jocasta, too, receives hints of Oedipus’ reality throughout the play, but deliberately attempts to ignore them, choosing ignorance over truth. When Jocasta realizes the truth before Oedipus, she begs him to stop his pursuit in order to prevent future pain.

JOCASTA: Yet be persuaded, please. Do not proceed.

OEDIPUS: Persuaded from the truth? Pursuing it? I must.

JOCASTA: God help you, Oedipus! Hide it from you who you are. (Sophocles 59)

Learning the truth about Oedipus’ identity devastates Jocasta as she begs Oedipus in a frantic and desperate tone. Her despair is further established as she even pleads to “God” to help Oedipus; this is a bitter concession of her belief in the power of the gods over chance. Ironically, prior to Jocasta’s revelation of the truth, she was a strong believer in chance and mocked the gods, clearly rejecting the oracle’s sayings. Once she has achieved metaphorical sight, she has no choice but to acknowledge the power of the gods; however, the truth pains Jocasta and she wishes to revert to her old life of ignorance as seen in her attempt to dissuade Oedipus in his own journey to uncover the truth. She desperately begs Oedipus to “hide” from the reality of his identity. By hiding from his own self and the truth of his identity, Oedipus would be concealed from the knowledge of the bleak and bitter truth that he is the murderer of Laius who wed his own mother; his sight would be concealed and the truth would be prevented from being discovered. Therefore, knowing that the truth is harsh, Jocasta reveals her own wishes to live in ignorance rather than truth. Jocasta’s recognition of the truth points to the power of fate as she tries to prevent the truth from coming into the light, denying the veracity of oracle, which is ultimately all in vain and useless to the power of fate.

Contrary to Tiresias, Oedipus has the ability to see physically; however, his fatal flaw shadows his ability to see the truth, which ultimately leads to his downfall. In his attempt to discover the truth about the murder of Laius, he seeks Tiresias. After being insulted and mocked, Tiresias reveals hints about the truth Oedipus is blind to:

TIRESIAS: I say, the murderer of the man whose murder you pursue is you.

TIRESIAS: I say that you and your most dearly loved are wrapped together in a hideous sin, blind to the horror of it.

OEDIPUS: You think you can go babbling unscathed?

TIRESIAS: Unscathed indeed, if truth is strength.

OEDIPUS: It is. But not for you, you purblind man: in ears and mind and vision. (Sophocles 21)

Despite the hints, Oedipus interprets Tiresias’ words as attacks of retaliation and cannot see past his own pride; he is unable to see the truth even though it is laid in front of him. Though Tiresias declares two truths, directly referring to Oedipus by using the words “I say, you”, Oedipus simply disregards the repetition of Tiresias’ declarations and essentially his pride blinds him from realizing the truth of Tiresias’ words that are so barely laid out in front of him. Furthermore, Oedipus goes on to mock Tiresias’ physical blindness, which is ironic given that it is in fact Oedipus who is blind to the truth despite his ability to see physically. Therefore, Tiresias is Oedipus’ only hope of knowing the truth; however, it is Oedipus’ own pride that prevents him from accepting the hints of truth. Since Oedipus had many opportunities to recognize the truth earlier and avoid his fate, his inability to detect these hints due to his fatal flaw makes his downfall even harsher.

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The skills and strengths that allow Oedipus to achieve status and glory also drive Oedipus to his destruction; therefore, his strengths also play as his weaknesses and lead to both his rise and ultimate downfall. Although many associated with Oedipus, including his parents, attempt to prevent fate, it is Oedipus’ true lack of knowledge caused by his pride, which leads to his downfall. When Oedipus discovers the truth, he gouges out his eyes, physically blinding himself from the reality. After learning about the harsh reality, he exclaims, “How terrible- to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees!” (Sophocles 154).  Through this act, Oedipus makes a transition from metaphorical blindness to insight by physically blinding himself. Now that Oedipus is fully aware he has fulfilled the prophecy he tried so desperately to avoid, he becomes overwhelmed by the physical light in which he was metaphorically blind and seeks refuge in the dark. Since he is unable to handle reality, he chooses to live in physical darkness which allows him to reflect on his actions in an attempt to absolve his guilt. This act can also be seen as a way for Oedipus to punish himself, perhaps reducing his guilt and pain. Now aware of the reality, Oedipus acknowledges that along his journey, there were many truths laid out in front of him, but he was unable to recognize them. In this way, he realizes that the truth is only painful to the one who can see it. Ironically, in the end, Oedipus becomes physically what he has always metaphorically been: blind. Therefore, it is Oedipus’ own fatal flaw that blinds him from the truth and ultimately causes his downfall.

Thus, by the end of the play, Tiresias, Jocasta, and Oedipus are fully aware of the truth, though it is too late to reverse or manipulate any of fate’s doings. Tiresias, who possesses the ability to see the truth, is physically blind and taken lightly by the other characters who fail to heed his warnings and recognize the truth laid barely in front of them. Despite Jocasta’s rejection of the oracle’s message and Oedipus’ decision to ignore the oracle’s words due to metaphorical blindness, the predictions become truth by the end of the play. Therefore, the opportunities to avoid or change fate depend on the ability to understand and see the truth. It is only if these opportunities are taken that fate can be manipulated; otherwise, fate will continue in motion.


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