by Chanchal Chauhan

In Books II and III Plato demonstrated at length the harmful effects of the study of literature on future guardians. Then he returns to the subject of poetry once again in the Book X.

           At the beginning itself we may know that Plato was a philosopher to look after the interests of the masters in the slave society of Greek civilisation. Thus his philosophy, mostly, was idealistic so as to keep the slaves under domination of the masters. One may recall that Plato's earlier attack on literature dealt only with its effects on the moral development of guardian children. He claimed that most literature encouraged the fear of death, disrespect for authority, acceptance of violence, and improper emotional behavior. Since that discussion, Plato has shared his world view on reality (especially in the ‘Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave’) and on psychology (the tripartite soul). Now he can offer a more comprehensive attack on literature and can provide a philosophical basis for criticising these educational materials of the Athenian youth.

            For a critical discourse on Plato, one may keep in mind that there have been two schools of philosophy since classical times, one is known as Idealistic and the other is materialistic. Plato belongs to the Idealistic school of philosophy that holds the opinion that Idea is primary and Matter is the reflection of that Idea, and hence secondary. To the mataerialists, the Matter is primary and Idea is a reflection of Matter, hence secondary. There has been a struggle between these two schools sicne the ancient times and this ideological struggle is still continuing every where. 

            In Book X, Plato's Idealistic world-view comes openly to fore. It is with that angle that he criticeses art and literature also. He doesn't simply criticise the content and the form of literature; he criticises the major author, Homer. He seems to be saying, the Republic needs no Homer, the poet; however, it needs Socrates, the philosopher. Most of the Athenians read and studied Homer, yet many of them mocked and condemned Socrates. Plato wants to defend Socrates and, in so doing, he singles out Homeric poetry as the enemy of Socratic philosophy of dialectic.

            Plato advances two attacks on poetry and the fine arts: (1.) art is merely the imitation of the imitation of reality; and (2) the old poetry corrupts the soul..

             In the Republic, Socrates begins his attack on poetry and the other arts (forms of imitation) with an apology. He says that although, like most Athenians, he has loved and respected Homer since he was a boy, a man must not be honoured above the truth. And unfortunately Homer and other artists do not dwell on or convey truth. They are imitators. But what is wrong with imitation, especially such imitations as beautiful paintings and well-told stories?

First he attempts to define imitation. He employs the concept of a bed as his example. There are, of course, many beds made by craftsmen. But the craftsmen did not make the idea of ‘bed’; they simply build the many beds that the imitation of one idea (form) of a bed, which was first conceived by the Great Craftsman, the creator of all ideas. Thus, the furniture makers are one step away from the reality of a bed. They did not create the eternal Idea of a bed, they imitated only that Idea.

            Now, painters who paint pictures of those imitated bed are twice removed from the reality because they produce no more than a representation (image) of the appearance (physical object) of the idea (reality). In other words, one cannot sit or sleep on that bed created by a painter.  One  learns almost nothing about three-dimensional beds by looking at a painting, and the artist gives you no insight in the one eternal Idea of a bed . Therefore, artistic imagination is on the bottom level of intellectual experience. And so, for Socrates imitation has no educational value because, as one may recall from the ‘Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave’, the things on the bottom level do not have the power to spur intellectual growth and are not conducive to learning.

           Yet artists, at least according to Socrates, have an even worse failing than perpetuating fantasy as poets and dramatists do. Their imitation is far removed from that of a painter. Thus the poetic imitation is thrice removed from reality. Socrates accuses poets and dramatists of being ignorant braggarts. They claim to be, or are reputed to be, knowledgeable about all of the arts and sciences and everything else under the sun. Such claims make them the opponents of philosophy. Poets claim to possess the  knowledge that they do not have. And they are dangerous because they have the ability to seduce people into believing them to be real. They are flatterers, seekers of public approval, and emotional con men.

            Socrates rhetorically speaks to Homer. He asks: ‘What are the benefits of your art? Does your poetry help people to live better lives?’ He then lists, in an ascending order of importance, the functions Homer never performed but that, in his poetic way, he claimed to be able to perform in his imitative writing (that is, in his pretense to be people other than himself): a politician, general, businessman, teacher, and philosopher.. Socrates denounces Homer's pretense and says that ‘all of the poetic tribe, beginning with Homer, are imitators of images of excellence.’ He claims that if artists were able to portray ‘reality,’ they would abandon their games - their form of play that must not be taken seriously - and become involved in such activities as statesmanship and education, areas of the state where character is developed and where intellect rules.

       As one may see here and in earlier discourse, for Plato human excellence is performing the highest function of human capabilities well. Excellence is acting in accordance with reason. Poets to him are playful creatures who serve no significant function but who, nevertheless, are taken quite seriously by the ‘ignorant multitude.’ Their impact on people's emotions and beliefs make them extremely dangerous to the well-being of the state and soul.

         Plato, through Socrates, seems unduly harsh on poetry and poets. His criticism, although interesting and thought-provoking, seems to neglect a look at one of the purposes of art of which even he would approve to inspire a higher vision of life. Moreover, the criticism he leveled at Homer in the last argument that Homer was neither a statesman nor a teacher of mathematics equally applies to his guru Socrates.

          In this second strand of the criticism Plato's vendetta against the poets, Homer in particular, Plato attempts  to prove that no place for poets exists in the perfectly just state. Poets must either leave the state or stop being poets or change the subjects on which they write. Why? Because their works, as they stand, corrupt the souls of the people.

        Socrates begins the second attack by demonstrating that poetry, because it is imitation and illusion, appeals to the part of the soul that is ‘remote from intelligence,’ and so fosters inferior thoughts and emotions. Socrates uses an example of a man grieving over the loss of his son. When he is alone the grieving man vents his feelings in loud, woeful utterances. But in the public view he resists his impulses of despair and maintains the demeanor of a reasonable man. Poets, Socrates says, choose to portray the private moments of life, for instance, the stricken man's wailing and writhing. One reason for this is that the ‘fretful part’ of the soul is the easiest to imitate and is most readily understood by the ‘nondescript mob in the theatre.’ On the other hand, the rational man, leading an orderly and just life, is hard to portray in art and does not seem to entertain an audience. Thus, through art, people are moved by display of emotion that they would be ashamed to reveal publicly.

      Socrates implies that life imitates art: ‘For after feeding fat the emotion of pity there in the theatre, it is not easy to restrain it in our own suffering.’ Nor is pity the only emotion that we are prone to imitate. We see buffoons and play the clown ourselves, with the emotions of anger and lust. He proclaims that poetic imitation ‘waters and fosters these feelings when what we ought to do is to dry them up, and it establishes them as our rulers when they ought to be ruled, to the end that we may be better and happier men instead of worse and more miserable’.

         Therefore, although Homer is the greatest of poets, even his poetry cannot be admitted to the city as according to the Plato’s view. The only acceptable poems are hymns to the gods and the praises of good men. According to him, all other poetry is the enemy of philosophy because it strengthens the emotions that are opposed to reason. Tyrants praise appetite. Poets praise emotion. Philosophers praise reason, so only they can be permitted to educate youth and to influence the masses.

          Although here Socrates banishes poetry from the city, he offers it a return when it can show itself to be a friend of philosophy, that is, when it realises that its function is to subordinate emotion to reason and not, as it now does, to overwhelm reason with emotion.

          We see, how idealism becomes the tool in the hands of masters in a class-society and leads to autocracy. This happens even today when rulers ban a book.