Admirers of Plato are usually lovers of literary art, for Plato wrote dramatic dialogues rather than didactic volumes and did so with rare literary skill. You would expect such a philosopher to place a high value on literary art, but Plato actually attacked it, along with other forms of what he called mimesis, and argued that most of it should be banned from the ideal society that he described in the Republic. What objections did Plato have with mimesis? Do those objections apply to the sort of art we value today? Are they well-founded? With Plato entering the scene, for the first time poetry is the subject of a sustained philosophical critique, which raises fundamental and enduring questions about the nature of literature and its justification. Plato did not go out of his way to write treatises devoted specifically to poetry, yet his engagement with poetry was intense, as we can see from the explicit discussion on poetry throughout his dialogues. Certainly he writes about poetry like no other philosopher, before or since; for he is deeply imbued with poetry, and deeply attracted to it, (he admits to being a great admirer of works by Homer etc.) yet determined to resist its spell. Hence the paradox that such an ardent admirer of poetry banished it from his ideal state.
Plato’s notorious hostility to poetry strikes the modern reader as very odd: in the Republic he is concerned not merely with censoring poetry, but with removing it altogether and his target is the entire heritage of Greek literature. Though hymns to the gods and encomia to good men will be permitted in the ideal state, there will be no place for the epics of Homer, or the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, long since canonized as high art.
Why is Plato so afraid of poetry that he has to abolish even its greatest masterworks?
One factor that we need to remember when considering this question is that poetry in Plato’s day was not simply a minority interest indulged in by the leisured few, but a central feature in the life of the community. Greek education was centered round poetry (together with its accompanying elements of music, song and dance), and it was through the medium of poetry that the values of society were transmitted. Poetry played a central role not only in the education of the young but also in the lives of adult citizens through their participation (as performers or as the audience) in the various public festivals in which drama, lyric and epic were performed.
The fervor of his attack can thus be as a sort of reaction against the moral authority and cultural prestige of poetry. For his project is none other than to replace poetry by philosophy as the central educational discourse in Athenian society.
Plato was the first thinker to formulate major questions about the function and role of art in society. The several dozen dialogues attributed to Plato engage almost every issue that interests philosophers. Although he did not set out to write systematic literary theory – unlike his student Aristotle, who produced a treatise on poetics – his consideration of philosophical issues in several of the dialogues leads him to reflect on poetry, and those reflections have set the terms of the questions which we still debate today.
What is poetry, and indeed art in general, and how does it operate?
What is and should be the function of imaginative literature in society?
Is it dangerous in that it encourages emotions and feelings which ought to be kept in check, or is it therapeutic in that it allows us to give vent to our emotions in a harmless way?
Should there be censorship?
Is literature (which now, of course, includes television and film) a form of escapism or does it deepen our insight into the nature of people and the world around us?
How can literature justify itself?
These questions might seem to us somewhat academic when confined to poetry, but if we ask them in relation to popular entertainment and the mass media, the closest modern analogue to poetry in classical Athens, the force of Plato’s critique is immediately apparent.
Like all the poets before him, Plato is acutely aware of the pleasure that poetry affords its listeners; but for him that is the source of poetry’s greatest danger. He was highly dubious about the doubtlessly emotive power of poetry. In the Republic, one of the central arguments against poetry is that it is psychologically damaging, for it appeals to an inferior element in the soul, and encourages us to indulge in emotions which ought to be kept firmly in check by the control of reason (606d). It draws us into an emotional identification with the characters it portrays in a way that threatens the health of one’s mind. And the worst of it is that poetry has the power to corrupt even the best of men in this way, since surrendering to our emotions is so intensely pleasurable (605c-d). Hence, the only defense against poetry is to banish it altogether.
What binds together Plato’s various arguments and theories regarding poetry is a distrust of mimesis (representation or imitation). It becomes apparent on reading his dialogues that his objections to mimesis in literature, especially poetry, take on not only a metaphysical and epistemological dimension, but also a strong ethical dimension. However, it is helpful when reading Plato to remember that his dialogues don’t always present a straightforward argument or arrive at a single unambiguous conclusion, but what is going to be helpful is always keeping in mind the context in which the dialogues were written.
(Mimesis will be continued in detail in my next post)
[References: Mr. Pinto’s class notes; The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch; Classical Literary Criticism, Penguin Classics.]