Plato's Allegory Of The Cave
Dante's use of allegory in the "Inferno" greatly varies
from Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" in purpose, symbolism,
characters and mentors, and in attitude toward the world.
An analysis of each of these elements in both allegories
will provide an interesting comparison.
Dante uses allegory to relate the sinner's punishment to
his sin, while Plato uses allegory to discuss ignorance and
knowledge. Dante's Inferno describes the descent through
Hell from the upper level of the opportunists to the most
evil, the treacherous, on the lowest level. His allegorical
poem describes a hierarchy of evil. Conversely, Plato's
"Allegory of the Cave" describes the ascent from ignorance
to knowledge, as one prisoner is freed to make his way up
towards the opening of the cave and experiences sunlight,
the unavoidable truth.
Symbolism is an essential element of both works. In Plato's
allegory symbols are used to represent truth, ignorance,
society and the fear of change. Truth is represented by the
sun, while ignorance is represented by the cave, its
limited vision and darkness within. The prisoners represent
ignorant members of society who are content to believe that
what they see is all that exists. Fear of change is
represented by the prisoners angry reaction towards the
freed, enlightened prisoner. Dante's Inferno is a detailed
description of sin and its relationship to degrees of
punishment. As stated in the text, "...for the face was
reversed on the neck, and they came on backwards, staring
backwards at their loins for to look before them was
forbidden." (Ciardi, pg. 175) This quote describes the
punishment for fortune tellers. In life the fortune tellers
foresaw the future. In death they are doomed to exist with
their heads on backwards and their eyes overflowing with
tears so that not only could they not see what was
happening in front of them, but they could not see at all
due to these copious amounts of tears. Similarly, each sin
had its own logical punishment, and each group of sinners
received the same punishment, with only a few exceptions.
Such an exception can be found in Canto XXlll when Caiaphas
lies crucified on the floor while the other hypocrites walk
around him in circles. He is set apart because he counseled
a Roman to crucify Jesus. While the sinners represent man's
imperfections, Virgil symbolizes human reason. Throughout
the poem, Virgil uses logic and reason to convince the
monsters to allow him to gain passage to the various
circles of Hell.
The use of characters and mentors is distinct in each
piece. "The Allegory of the Cave" presents few characters,
and except for the one prisoner who ascends from the cave,
none are distinguished from the others. The one freed
prisoner attempts to become a mentor to the others but
fails. As he tries to enlighten the remaining prisoners he
is received with anger and threats. Nothing is learned
about the characters as individuals. They remain nameless,
faceless images. In contrast, there are numerous characters
in the Inferno. The sinners are arranged in a hierarchy. In
each group of sinners, Dante distinguishes a few
characters. Virgil acts as Dante's mentor and guide,
leading him through the intricate levels of Hell. Although
Virgil is Dante's mentor, Dante, himself, acts as a mentor
for some of the souls in Hell. He informs them as to what
is happening in the land of the living. The sinners also
function as mentors by telling Dante about themselves,
their sins and about Hell. In the following passage Dante
asks Farinata to tell him about Tegghiacio: "... still let
me urge you on to speak a little further and instruct me:
Farinata and Tegghiacio, men of good blood..."(Ciardi pg.
68). While the cave dwellers in the "Allegory of the Cave"
have no interest beyond what they see, the sinners have
experienced life outside of Hell, and are curious about it.
Plato and Dante criticize the world from different
perspectives. Plato criticizes the world from a
sociological point of view, while Dante criticizes it from
a religious perspective. Plato implies that members of
society are myopic in their views. They do not want what
they have come to know and believe, to be proven false.
They believe that what they see is all that there is to
reality. They hold on to their beliefs, as if with chains,
and react with anger if their belief system is threatened.
This concept is demonstrated in the "Allegory of the Cave"
someone told him that what he had formerly seen was
meaningless illusion" (Plato, pg. 51). In Dante's Inferno,
Dante specifically criticizes believers of Judaism and
Islam. Dante criticizes these religions because of his
loyalty to Christianity. An example of his contempt towards
Islam is when Dante meets Mohammed and gruesomely describes
him: "Between his legs all of his red guts hung with the
heart, the lungs, the liver, the gall bladder, and the
shriveled sac that passes shit to the bung. (Ciardi, pg.
In essence, while each author uses allegory to deliver his
message, the elements of purpose, descent/ascent,
characters and mentors, and views of the world are separate
and distinct in each piece. Plato's purpose is to discuss
human ignorance, while Dante is exploring human sins.
Plato's characters are nameless and faceless, while Dante's
are individually described. Finally, Plato's perspective is
sociological, while Dante's is religious.
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