Plato and the Poets

“Beauty is a manifestation of Nature’s secret laws, which would otherwise remain forever hidden.”

—J. W. von Goethe [1]

Plato notoriously argued for the expulsion of the poets from the Res publica on several occasions in his well known work. His decision might seem to suggest that art is of little value in the quest for spiritual attainment. Indeed, for Plato, Philosophy was more than a day-job for academicians and it was also more than a hand-maiden of science, “Or do you suppose there is any way in which someone can consort with what he admires without becoming like it? … Then the philosopher, consorting with what is divine and orderly, becomes as orderly and divine as is possible for a man.” [2] Thus, Plato’s verdict that artists should have no place in the ideal city is meant to be taken very seriously; more seriously even than a surface-reading of this statement might suggest. For let it be noted that Republic is not, in fact, foremost a prescription for the architectonics of a city at all, but rather an exploration into the proper order of the soul: “For it is no ordinary matter that we are discussing, but the right conduct of life.” [3] What does it mean, then, to “expel the poets from the ideal city” and what light can this question shed on the value of art in the soul’s evolution? 

I will begin my attempt to take up these questions by examining in slightly more detail Plato’s reasons for advocating against the presence of artists in the ideal city. Plato leverages three different arguments for his position. The first argument proceeds from an inquiry into the nature of art as such and is therefore substantiated on a metaphysical basis. The second and third arguments proceed from an inquiry into the effect that art has upon people and are therefore substantiated on a consequentialist basis. I will briefly explain each of these arguments in turn. 

In the first instance, Plato characterises art as imitation or mimesis. The carpenter constructs a bed and the artist paints what the carpenter constructed. But because the carpenter did not also construct the idea of the bed, he is already imitating an ideal archetype whenever he plies his trade. Because this ideal archetype must preëxist the carpenter’s construction, and because it will also outlast this construction, and because it appears in every instance of a bed but is confined to none of them, the idea of the bed can be perceived to possess greater reality than any particular bed. This recognition of the reality of ideas, indeed, characterises the essential outlook of Platonism. When the carpenter sets out to construct a bed, he must, as it were, consult this idea in order to model the proportions of his own construction upon it. In this way, his bed is an imitation of the paradigmatic bed in the mind of God. The painter, in turn, models his own work upon the work of the carpenter. According to Plato, in this way, the artist is twice removed from the bed’s reality and his bed it the third of three iterations: 

Well then, here are three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God, as I think that we may say—for no one else can be the maker? There is another which is the work of the carpenter? And the work of the painter is a third? Beds, then, are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them: God, the maker of the bed, and the painter? [4] 

Plato sees poetry and all other forms of art as fundamentally the same as painting—differing in medium and not in essence. Thus, artwork is an imitation of an imitation. Whether Plato’s equation of poetry and painting possess sufficient strength to support his argument is debatable but it will not be addressed here. Instead I will grant him the benefit of a charitable interpretation and I ask the reader;s patience in doing the same.

Plato’s second argument concerns the manner in which the artist’s approach distances him from true being. The artist creates appearances and because appearance is distinguished from reality, the artist peddles in untruth. One is reminded of René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which depicts a pipe together with the admonition: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” When questioned about the painting, Magritte commented: “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” In Plato’s conception, the ideal state ought to orient itself towards true being and not towards representations of true being. Because engaging in art conditions a person to concern himself with appearances and because appearances stand in contrast with true being, Plato concludes that art risks exerting a deleterious influence on the citizens. 

Plato’s third argument for the expulsion of artists from the ideal city also departs from a concern over the deleterious influence that art may exert upon citizens, but whereas the second argument concerned the effect of art upon perception, the third argument concerns the effect of art upon conduct. Plato observes that Homer portrays the gods engaging in all manner of vicious and unseemly deeds and concludes that an ideal city would not hold up such figures as objects worthy of imitation. 

Having arrayed these arguments for the expulsion of artists from the ideal city, it is important to note several caveats. First, Plato actually does not recommend that artists be banished outright. Instead, he imagines poetry being permitted to defend herself, and acknowledges that he himself will be disappointed if her defence is unsuccessful:

Notwithstanding this, let us assure our sweet friend and the sister arts of imitation, that if she will only prove her title to exist in a well-ordered State we shall be delighted to receive her—we are very conscious of her charms; but we may not on that account betray the truth. I dare say, Glaucon, that you are as much charmed by her as I am, especially when she appears in Homer? Shall I propose, then, that she be allowed to return from exile, but upon this condition only—that she make a defence of herself in lyrical or some other metre? And we may further grant to those of her defenders who are lovers of poetry and yet not poets the permission to speak in prose on her behalf: let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight? 

If her defence fails, then, my dear friend, like other persons who are enamoured of something, but put restraint upon themselves when they think their desires are opposed to their interests, so too must we after the manner of lovers give her up, though not without a struggle. [5] 

Thus it can be seen that, far from enjoining anything like a peremptory expulsion of the poets, Plato is rather applying to them the same standard as he does to all other citizens which is to say, the rational evaluation of whether their art may contribute to the common good or the bonum commune hominis et communitatis. This, of course, is a reformulation basic prompt for the dialogue as such: to wit, what is justice? Contrary to the pervasive view that Plato’s position smacks of fanaticism and totalitarian tendencies, Plato demonstrates that in truth, his conclusion is the provisional result of a sequence of reasoning which is subject to change in light of new evidence. In this way, the true fanatic is the one who would have arrived at the conclusion that poets should remain before having won through to that same conclusion through thinking about it. In his regard for poets, Plato is merely assuming the same fundamental posture of critical thinking or “Socratic irony” which does not assume it already knows the answer to a question it has not yet posed and investigated as such. 

Perhaps more crucial even than discover the true basis of Plato’s statement is to recall that Republic dialogue is not foremost a dialogue about a republic at all, but rather it is an inquiry into the harmonious order of the human soul: 

Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. [6] 

The state, therefore, is employed as a representation of the soul, magnified and schematized  for the purpose of more easily discovering the nature of justice. In his decision to evict the poets, Plato models his basic thesis about the proper order of the soul by putting it to work: he allows his intelligence to guide his passions and does not put the cart before the horse, as it were. Were he to first affirm that poets should be defended on the basis of his partiality to Homer, then his stand would have been taken on the grounds of rationalization and not reason. 

Briefly, in Book IV, Plato had outlined a tripartite theory of the soul, consisting in the reasoning faculty (λογιστικόν), the spirited faculty (θυμοειδές), and the appetitive or desiring faculty (ἐπιθυμητικόν). [7] Justice, for Plato, was the outcome of an order in which the reasoning faculty of the soul was capable of ruling the others. Put another way, the properly ordered soul is able to act for reasons and not merely on desires or emotional whims. Alternatively, justice may be understood as the state in which the soul is able to evaluate its own desires and not merely act upon them. In the political analogue, this means that whenever the desire of the citizens conflicts with their welfare, the latter is given preference above the former. To accomplish this discrimination, it is necessary that a class of citizens be capable of freeing itself from compulsion to desire. It is on this basis that Plato postulates the notorious “Philosopher-kings” who will legislate over the polis but who will be exempted from any material benefit that may follow from any of their legislations for the sake of ensuring their impartiality. In writing this, I have paused to appreciate how far this vision is from the ordinary political arrangements of today and wondered whether, when we dismiss Plato’s Republic as a prescription for tyranny, that the boot is on the other leg and we only fail to notice our own injustice because we think we have identified it in a vision that appears so different than ours. In any case, Plato’s recommendation that the state expel the poets is primarily an expression of his own internal principle of justice in which reason holds the reins of preference and fantasy and truth is exalted above desire and representation alike. Thus he is able to weigh the value of poetry on the scales of his reason and not merely on those of his preference.

Having now offered something of an apologia for Plato, I wish to question the basic premises of each of his three arguments against the presence of poetry in the ideal city. In a way, what follows will be something of the defence that poetry may have given to appeal her expulsion. Let it be borne in mind that the question of poetry’s expulsion from the ideal state is an allegorical proxy for a question about the ideal soul. 

One grievance that Plato airs against poetry is its proclivity to condition human conduct to vice. We are educated by all that we experience, including what we experience through the poet’s verse. By immortalizing ignoble deeds, the poet may be charged with inciting depravity in his hearers. On the surface of things, it is hard to cast Saturn’s castration of his father Uranus in the light of virtue. To this indictment of poetry, however, it may be countered that a mythic figure can just as well encourage departure of conduct as emulation. Examples can educate negatively as well as positively. It could be argued that to hear of the debauchery of the gods might make one less inclined, and not more inclined, to emulate them in real life. 

A second grievance that Plato brought forth against poetry was its tendency to incline the artist away from true being and towards the world of appearance. This concern has taken on renewed urgency in the digital age when virtual reality threatens everywhere to opiate free human beings and reduce them to self-complacent lotus-eaters. Still, art, no less than virtual reality, can serve to augment our perception of reality instead of obscuring it. Art can serve to awaken the viewer to aspects of an object to which he was originally blind. No one has looked at a landscape in the same way after seeing Turner or reading Wordsworth. 

A third grievance that Plato levied against poetry is that, as appearance or representation, it stands in contrast with presence or true being. And yet this opposition may just as well be conceived as a complementarity. Provided that true being is understood as spirit or essence or meaning and not merely as physical objects, it can be seen that true being appears differently according to the medium in which it appears. There is no reason that the same essence can not appear at one time in matter and in another time in verse and a third time in the mind of the hearer. That the artist’s works are imitations of the original work of gods does not, ipso facto, imply that perception of the former need detract from perception of the latter. On the contrary, as I suggested in the last paragraph, it may even serve to supplement it. Someone who attempts to sketch a flower will immediately discover that the creative endeavour of representing the flower has infinitely sharpened his senses towards the perception of its physical appearance and attuned his mind  towards the perception of its true being. It may even be said that no one can truly see the flower who has not first tried a thousand times to recreate it out of himself, at which point he may see it even without the help of his eyes. This would follow if he had succeeded in contemplating with his insight the idea from which the flowers that presented themselves to his outer sight had first gone forth. His artwork might then take its origin in that selfsame source. The artist, therefore, may also be a philosopher.

"The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.jpg
Raphael’s Scuola di Atene, (1509-1511)

[1] Goethe, “Sprüche in Prosa”, in: Goethes Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, ed. Rudolf Steiner, reprint Dornach 1975, vol. V, p. 495.

[2] Republic, 500c.

[3] Republic, 352d.

[4] Republic, 597b.

[5] Republic, 607c-608a.

[6] Republic, 368e.

[7] Elsewhere (Book IX), Plato represents these elements as human, lion, and hydra. 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Charles says:

    Good Writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.


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