Plato's attack on poetry


Plato's attack on poetry

a) Poetic inspiration: Poets write by inspiration not by a prolonged thought over the work. The Muse suddenly fills him and makes him sing the poem. He questions can such an idea have any reliability? Poetry says profound truth with no reason. Therefore, it cannot take the place of philosophy says Plato. Plato for this reason removes poets from his Ideal commonwealth which he imagined in his work, Republic.

b) The emotional appeal of poetry: Poetry kindles emotions. Plato considering his age tragedies complaints that the constant intake of others grieve makes people weak to carry out their own sufferings. In order to maintain the happiness and virtue of humankind, poetry should be taken away.

c) It’s Non-moral character: This is an accusation on the lack of character of poetry. Through an analysis of his age literature such as the epics of Homer, the Odes of Pindar and Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides he comes to a conclusion that art transmits a wrong message to people. In the words of Plato from his work Republic, ‘they give us to understand that many evil livers are happy and many righteous men unhappy; and that wrongdoing,’ (they- here means art). The portraits of gods and heroes are equally objectionable because Gods are often unjust and revengeful, or guilty of other vices, and heroes are always with uncontrollable passions like anger, pride, grief, and so on. Plato strongly condemns that such literature is corrupted by both the citizen and the state.

The Function of poetry:

Plato suggests truth as the test of poetry: which is, ‘what contribution it makes to the knowledge of virtue?’ Poetry is a pleasure to read or hear but according to his pleasure at the highest kind is also at low ranks. In a famous passage in Republic, he says, ‘We must look for artists who are able out of the goodness of their own natures to trace the nature of beauty and perfection, that so our young men, like persons who live in a healthy place, maybe perpetually influenced for good.’ Plato wants poetic truth to be the highest truth- ideal forms of justice, goodness beauty and the like.

Plato's attack on poetry

When we think of a philosophical analysis of poetry, something like a treatise on aesthetics comes to mind. At a minimum, we would expect a rigorous examination of the following: the characteristics that define poetry; the differences between kinds of poetry (epic, tragic, lyric, comic, and so forth); and the senses in which poetry is and is not bound to representation, imitation, expression (which are possible meanings of the classical Greek word “mimesis”) and fiction. These complicated terms themselves require careful definition. Equally rigorous and systematic remarks about the differences between poetry and other art forms, such as music and painting, would be in order, as would reflection on the relation between orally delivered poetry (indeed, if we are to include performance, poetry that is in one way or another enacted) and poetry communicated through the written word. Aristotle’s Poetics is an early, and now classic, philosophical exploration of poetry along these sorts of lines.

Plato’s extensive discussions of poetry frustrate these expectations. He did not write a treatise on the subject—indeed, he wrote no treatises, and confined his thought to “dramatic” dialogues that are themselves shaped poetically—and the remarks he offers us both meander unsystematically, even within a single dialogue, and branch off in what seem like strange directions, such as into discussions about the corruption of self to which poetry allegedly exposes its audience. And yet Plato clearly thought that something of enormous importance hangs on his assessment of poetry, something that goes significantly beyond getting the details of the subject pinned down in a philosophically respectable fashion. One of the most famous lines in the culminating sections of one of his most famous dialogues announces that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Rep. 607b5–6), in support of which Plato quotes bits of several obscure but furious polemics—presumably directed by poets against philosophers—such as the accusation that the opponent is a “yelping bitch shrieking at her master” and “great in the empty eloquence of fools”.  Indeed, much of the final book of the Republic is an attack on poetry, and there is no question but that a quarrel between philosophy and poetry is a continuing theme throughout Plato’s corpus.

The scope of the quarrel, especially in the Republic, also indicates that for Plato what is at stake is a clash between what we might call comprehensive world-views; it seems that matters of grave importance in ethics, politics, metaphysics, theology, and epistemology are at stake. He leads up to the famous line about the quarrel by identifying the addressees of his critique as the “praisers of Homer who say that this poet educated Greece, and that in the management and education of human affairs it is worthwhile to take him up for study and for living, by arranging one’s whole life according to this poet” (606e1–5). The praisers of Homer treat him as the font of wisdom. Plato agrees that Homer is indeed the educator of Greece, and immediately adds that Homer is “the most poetic and first of the tragic poets.”  Plato is setting himself against what he takes to be the entire outlook—in contemporary but not Plato’s parlance, the entire “philosophy of life”—he believes Homer and his followers have successfully propagated. And since Homer shaped the popular culture of the times, Plato is setting himself against popular culture as he knew it. Not just that: the quarrel is not simply between philosophy and Homer, but philosophy and poetry. Plato has in his sights all of “poetry,” contending that its influence is pervasive and often harmful, and that its premises about nature and the divine are mistaken. He is addressing not just fans of Homer but fans of the sort of thing that Homer does and conveys. The critique is presented as a trans-historical one. It seems that Plato was the first to articulate the quarrel in so sweeping a fashion.  It is noteworthy that in the Apology (23e), Socrates’ accusers are said to include the poets, whose cause Meletus represents.

It is not easy to understand what Plato means by poetry, why it is an opponent, whether it is dangerous because of its form or content or both, and whether there is much of ongoing interest or relevance in his account. Would his critique apply to, say, Shakespeare’s tragedies? To E. E. Cummings’ or T. S. Eliot’s poetry? These questions are complicated by the fact that Plato was not (or, not primarily) thinking of poetry as a written text read in silence; he had in mind recitations or performances, often experienced in the context of theater. Still further, when Socrates and Plato conducted their inquiries, poetry was far more influential than what Plato calls “philosophy.” Given the resounding success of Plato’s advocacy of “philosophy,” it is very easy to forget that at the time he was advocating a (historically) new project in a context swirling with controversy about the relative value of such projects (and indeed about what “philosophy” means). By contrast, poetry seems relatively marginal in today’s large commercial and liberal societies, in spite of the energetic efforts of figures such as the recent American national Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, whereas media of which Plato knew nothing—such as television, videos, and the cinema, literary forms such as the novel, and information systems such as the World Wide Web—exercise tremendous influence. Television and movie actors enjoy a degree of status and wealth in modern society that transcends anything known in the ancient world. Is Plato’s critique marginalized along with poetry?

In spite of the harshness, and in some ways the bluntness of Plato’s critique of poetry, he not only put his finger on deep issues of ongoing interest, but also leavened his polemic in a number of intriguing and subtle ways—most obviously, by writing philosophy in a way that can, with proper qualifications, itself be called poetic. The “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” is justly famed and pondered: what is it about?

When we turn to the second theme under consideration, viz., rhetoric, we find ourselves even more puzzled initially. What do philosophers have to say about rhetoric?  Generally speaking, very little qua philosophers. Like all reflective people, philosophers dislike rhetoric as it is commonly practiced, bemoan the decline of public speech into mere persuasion and demagoguery, and generally think of themselves as avoiding rhetoric in favor of careful analysis and argument. “Rhetoric” tends to have a very negative connotation, and for the most part means “mere rhetoric.”  As an object of academic study, the subject of rhetoric seems best left to English professors who specialize in the long history of manuals on techniques of persuasion and such. Consequently, philosophers, especially in modernity, have had little to say about rhetoric. By contrast, Aristotle devoted a book to the topic. And Plato struggles with rhetoric—or sophistry as it is sometimes also called, although the two are not necessarily identical—repeatedly. We recall that Socrates was put to death in part because he was suspected of being a sophist, a clever rhetorician who twists words and makes the weaker argument into the stronger and teaches others to do the same.  Plato’s polemic against the sophists was so persuasive that, in conjunction with a well established and ongoing popular hostility towards sophistry (a hostility of which Socrates was, ironically, also the object), we have come to use “sophist” as a term of opprobrium meaning something like “mere rhetorician.” In Plato’s dialogues there is unquestionably an ongoing quarrel between philosophy on the one hand and rhetoric and sophistry on the other, and it too is justly famed and pondered. What is it about?

Once again, the question is surprisingly difficult. It is not easy to understand why the topic is so important to Plato, what the essential issues in the quarrel are, and whether rhetoric is always a bad thing. We do recognize commendable examples of rhetoric—say, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or Churchill’s rousing speeches during World War II. These were rhetorical, but were they merely rhetorical, let alone sophistical? Still further, Plato’s Socrates is not above speaking to his interlocutors rhetorically at times, even sophistically (some of his arguments against Thrasymachus in book I of the Republic have been suspected of falling into the latter category, and Socrates’ interlocutors are occasionally reported as feeling that he has played some kind of verbal trick on them). And are not Plato’s dialogues themselves rhetorical in significant senses of the term?

These remarks prompt yet another question. However interesting the topics of poetry and rhetoric may be, when we read Plato, why group them together? Few people today would imagine that there is any interesting relation between poetry and rhetoric. To think of great poets as “rhetoricians” seems bizarre; and most (popular) rhetoricians do not seem to know the first thing about poetry. Yet Plato himself associates the two very closely: at Gorgias 502c he characterizes poetry as a kind of rhetoric. Thus Plato provides our warrant for investigating the topics together. This linkage between poetry and rhetoric is of course controversial, and will be discussed below.

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