The Platonic vocabulary is often skeptical and even antagonistic toward the uses of images. This denigration is attributed to the mutability of images, so that we could really apply this criticism to anything that changes, which would apply to all of the visible world. Among many other places in the Republic, Socrates makes the distinction clear by explaining how what we think about determines the very certainty of that thought:
Well then, consider that the truth of the soul is thus: Whenever truth and what is shine upon something, the mind attaches to this, it intellects and knows and appears to have intelligence. But whenever it attaches to that which is mixed with obscurity, that which comes to be and passes away, it has opinions and sees dimly, changing opinions here and there, and seems not to have intelligence (Republic 508d3-8). (1)
These two sides of opinion and knowledge, perishability and persistence, are, as Socrates will shortly explain, the sensible and intelligible realms. Socrates says there are two kinds of objects of the sensible realm, shadows, appearances and reflections, but then also those things of which these are the shadows, appearances and reflections. It is obvious that these mere reflections are inferior to the objects which they represent: animals, people, etc. It goes without saying, moreover, that everything in the sensible realm is inferior to anything in the intelligible realm.
Now here is the part I take particular interest in. Socrates says that all of the shadows, appearances and reflections in the sensible realm are images (τὰς εἰκόνας) of other things in the sensible realm. Because of this, they obviously have the least substantive mode of existence, and along with this, the lowest level of cognitive certainty. Yet image-language is precisely what Socrates employs, and is his own self-characterization of what he does, in the allegory of the cave. He tells us at the beginning of Book VII, as he is about to explain the cave allegory, “make an image [ἀπείκασον] of our nature in such a condition concerning education and lack of education” (514a1-2). (2) (3)
The question arises then, why are we using an image to describe a program of education the goal of which is to lead one away from images? This is especially curious because it comes right before Socrates exposition of philosophical education, beginning with arithmetic. Perhaps the allegory of the cave is a necessary propaedeutic before one begins— not to undertake such an education— but to even understand its purport and goal. Or perhaps because the uninitiated reader has not yet taken the first step to a philosophical education, he must be accommodated where he is at, in this case at the lowly level of understanding mere images, so that he can be taken where he needs to go.
(1) οὕτω τοίνυν καὶ τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς ὧδε νόει· ὅταν μὲν οὗ καταλάμπει ἀλήθειά τε καὶ τὸ ὄν, εἰς τοῦτο ἀπερείσηται, ἐνόησέν τε καὶ ἔγνω αὐτὸ καὶ νοῦν ἔχειν φαίνεται· ὅταν δὲ εἰς τὸ τῷ σκότῳ κεκραμένον, τὸ γιγνόμενόν τε καὶ ἀπολλύμενον, δοξάζει τε καὶ ἀμβλυώττει ἄνω καὶ κάτω τὰς δόξας μεταβάλλον, καὶ ἔοικεν αὖ νοῦν οὐκ ἔχοντι.
(2) ἀπείκασον τοιούτῳ πάθει τὴν ἡμετέραν φύσιν παιδείας τε πέρι καὶ ἀπαιδευσίας.
(3) Similarly in Book VI Socrates explicitly states that the ship of state metaphor, wherein the pilot is the true philosopher, gazing outside of the ship to guide the craft, is an image [εἰκών] (487e5).