Parables & Allegories

What fine words these are, parables and allegories. I have only ever vaguely understood their definitions. “Stories with greater meanings” is how I thought of them, and that is not far off.

Here are their definitions according to Merriam-Webster:

  • parable — a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle
  • allegory — the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence; an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression; a symbolic representation

My main takeaway from these definitions are that a parable is much more simply defined. Second to that, I suppose I take away that the two words can be differentiated by the realms that they signify. Parables seem to focus on morals and religion while allegories focus more broadly on truths and generalizations about human existence. In that way, it may be that all parables are allegories, but not all allegories are parables, like rectangles and squares.

The difference between parables and allegories came to my mind after discussing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with my friend Harry this weekend and proceeding last night to stumble upon a parable about a beggar in the opening chapter of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, which I have just begun. That last sentence makes the things that I do sound a lot more good, smart, and wholesome than they actually are, but nonetheless, it is fully true.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave came up as Harry and I discussed the future of work in terms of things like millennial impatience (ourselves included) and whether the traditional 9 to 5 would survive. This reminded me of a perspective I really agreed with which I originally read in an interview with Scott Birnbaum, Founder of Red Sea Ventures. Here is what he said about millennials and the emerging generation of workers:

“They’re optimizing for a life experience that aligns with their values and allows them to live the kind of life that they want to live. I think of it as Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave.” It tells the story of people who are born in a cave, chained against a wall, and they see a game of shadows projected against the wall, and they think those shadows are people, their only reality. And then one day they’re unshackled and as they go out of the cave towards the light they realize everything they thought was reality was a lie. We’re in that moment in history. Where this emerging generation of workers are realizing that the game of shadows they saw their parents play into is not really the life they want to live and that there is something else out there. And that light at the end of the tunnel and that unshackling is the internet, which gave them access to information and a view into how other people are living their lives.”

The parable that I read last night in The Power of Now went as follows:

A beggar had been sitting by the side of the road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by. “Spare some change?” mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his old baseball cap. “I have nothing to give you,” said the stranger. Then he asked: “What’s that you are sitting on?” “Nothing,” replied the beggar. “Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.” “Ever looked inside?” asked the stranger. “No,” said the beggar. “What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.” “Have a look inside,” insisted the stranger. The beggar managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.

The author follows to say:

I am that stranger who has nothing to give you and who is telling you to look inside. Not inside any box, as in the parable, but somewhere even closer: inside yourself.

I am not far enough into this book yet to make any sort of assessment but was intrigued by the introduction about how the author came to be “enlightened” as he claims he has been. He talks about how he was dealing with suicidal depression and how on one particularly bad morning as he felt a “deep longing for annihilation, non-existence”, he kept thinking “I cannot live with myself any longer”, before realizing how peculiar of a thought that was. He wondered for the first time if there was one or two of him, concluding based on his thought that he could not live with himself any longer that there must be two, the one who cannot live with himself, and “himself” that the “one” cannot live with. I believe the concept this refers to is important, that of separating awareness from thoughts of the mind, and this seems a solid introduction to that, regardless of what I end up thinking about this book.

Parables and allegories are very literally meaningful things. I am glad to have a better understanding of what they are today than I did yesterday. Hopefully, the same is now true for you too.