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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Humanist theory and Platonic legacies in literature


Humanism refers to the idea that we can understand or explain our world through rational enquiry. It rejects explanations based on the supernatural or divine forces. This idea became the basis for the development of science on the Western world.

Humanism inaugurates rational enquiry and rejects the supernatural or the realm of emotions. It was a response to the Dark Ages when people believed in religion unquestioningly. The hold of the Church was so strong that even the king had to bow down to its decisions. Gradually, people started questioning the teachings. Martin Luther King insisted on reading the Bible rather than following the interpretations of the priest. He argued that we must follow religion rationally. Many people started questioning the rigid ritualistic aspects of religion too. Even scientists like Galileo argue that one must read the book of nature.

Such ideas promote the growth of science and reinforce the belief in observation and rational analysis. It is in such a context that humanism emerges. With this, we also see a revival in the study of Classical Greek and Roman texts. We see the emergence of faith in human rather than divine.


Plato's ideas too, are rooted in the belief that reason or rational thought must be employed to make sense of the world. This assumption influences how he looks at art or representation (since the terms 'art' or 'literature' did not exist when Plato formulated his theories). Since, art or literature appeals to the audience's emotions rather than their reason, Plato considered it to be inferior method for understanding the 'truth'.

To understand Plato's view of literature, we must begin with his theory of forms. According to Plato, the world that we perceive around us, in a copy or reproduction of another realm, which is perfect. This is known as the world of the ideal. These forms of the ideal world are stable and unchanging. Plato used the term 'nature' to describe the world that we perceive through our senses. And, since nature is a copy of the Ideal, it is less perfect.

Ideal (Form) / Real

Nature / Physical World (copy)

Representation / Art (copy of the copy, so, twice removed from the original)

Plato further argues that art or the world of representation tries to copy 'nature' and therefore it is twice removed for the Ideal or reality. Art was therefore, a copy of the copy. Plato also argues that no artist has access to the ideal world. He explains this through his famous allegory of the cave.

This allegory describes individuals chained deep within the recesses of a cave. They are bound in such a way that vision is restricted and they can only see their shadows on the wall of the cave. Breaking free, one of the individuals escapes from the cave into the light of day. For the first time, this person sees the real world and returns to the cave with the message that the only things they have seen until now are shadows and appearances and that the real world awaits them if they are willing to struggle free of their bonds. The shadowy environment of the cave symbolizes for Plato the physical world of appearances. Escape into the sun-filled setting outside the cave symbolizes the transition to the real world the world of Forms, which is the proper object of knowledge. Plato further argues that it is only the philosopher who has access to this real world, because of a mind trained in rational enquiry.

Based on such a belief, Plato argues that art is to be banned since it gives a false picture of reality to the people. It can emotionally take control of a person and this makes it difficult to reach the ultimate reality. This idea, that all art has the potential to corrupt the mind, develops in Western philosophy and spreads to the rest of the world with colonialism. This idea further leads to the birth of the concept of censorship.


To understand Aristotle's views, we must begin by looking at how he looks at reality. Aristotle believes that reality resides in the changeable world of sense perceptions or, the physical, material world. He argues that the 'form' of Ideal can only exist in tangible examples of that form. So, it is only through individual examples of table, that we can understand the essence of a table, or 'table-ness'.

In addition, Aristotle believes that art does not imitate nature; rather, it gives an order to nature. This order is given by language, because it is only by naming abstract concepts (such as male and female; or animal and plant) that we can understand them. So, art complements nature.

Thus, while Plato is concerned with content of representation, Aristotle is concerned with the form. Plato's approach lead to the development of moral criticism while Aristotle's approach lead to the birth of genre criticism.

(This post is a compilation of all the lectures on Humanism.)

Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Introduction to Literary Theory. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 11 June - 21 June 2010.


Anil Pinto said...

great work, Marisha. Impressed.

Marisha Vashi said...

thank you, sir :)

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