Plato’s three main objections to poetry are that poetry is not ethical, philosophical or pragmatic. It is not ethical because it promotes undesirable passions, it is not philosophical because it does not provide true knowledge, and it is not pragmatic because it is inferior to the practical arts and therefore has no educational value. Plato then makes a challenge to poets to defend themselves against his criticisms. Ironically it was Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, who was the first theorist to defend literature and poetry in his writing Poetics.
Throughout the Republic Plato condemns art in all forms including literature or poetry. Despite the fact that he wrote, Plato advocates the spoken word over the written word. He ranks imitation (mimetic representation) on a lower plane than narrative, even though his own works read like scripts (the Republic is written in dialogue form with characters doing all the talking). It appears as though his reasoning is that imitation of reality is not in itself bad, but imitation without understanding and reason is. Plato felt that poetry, like all forms of art, appeals to the inferior part of the soul, the irrational, emotional cowardly part. The reader of poetry is seduced into feeling undesirable emotions. To Plato, an appreciation of poetry is incompatible with an appreciation of reason, justice, and the search for Truth. To him drama is the most dangerous form of literature because the author is imitating things that he/she is not. Plato seemingly feels that no words are strong enough to condemn drama.
Plato felt that all the world’s evils derived from one source: a faulty understanding of reality. Miscommunication, confusion and ignorance were facets of a corrupted comprehension of what Plato always strived for – Truth. Plato is, above all, a moralist. His primary objective in the Republic is to come up with the most righteous, intelligent way to live one’s life and to convince others to live this way. Everything else should conform in order to achieve this perfect State. Plato considers poetry useful only as a means of achieving this State, that is, only useful if it helps one to become a better person, and if it does not, it should be expelled from the community.
Plato’s question in Book X is the intellectual status of literature. He states that, “the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet”(Adams 33). Plato says of imitative poetry and Homer, “A man is not to be reverenced more than the truth” (Adams 31). Plato says this because he believes that Homer speaks of many things of which he has no knowledge, just as the painter who paints a picture of a bed does not necessarily know how to make a bed. His point is that in order to copy or imitate correctly, one must have knowledge of the original. Plato says that imitation is three degrees removed from the truth. Stories that are untrue have no value, as no untrue story should be told in the City. He states that nothing can be learned from imitative poetry.
Plato’s commentary on poetry in Republic is overwhelmingly negative. In books II and III Plato’s main concern about poetry is that children’s minds are too impressionable to be reading false tales and misrepresentations of the truth. As stated in book II, “For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thought” (Adams 19). He is essentially saying that children cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality and this compromises their ability to discern right from wrong. Thus, children should not be exposed to poetry so that later in life they will be able to seek the Truth without having a preconceived, or misrepresented, view of reality. Plato reasons that literature that portrays the gods as behaving in immoral ways should be kept away from children, so that they will not be influenced to act the same way. This view is perhaps the same many people’s views on pornography. Those who disagree with Plato’s views on censorship would not necessarily disagree had Plato been trying to keep pornography or violence away from children. An argument against pornography is that viewing pornography may influence people to commit violent, demeaning or anti-social acts. Another objection is that it is often viewed as portraying either male dominance or female exploitation. People argue that this should not be the way the world works, therefore it is not the Truth. Thus, people want pornography to be kept out of the hands of children. These claims sound much like the claims that Plato is trying to make when he asserts that certain poetry should be kept out of the hands of children. While the power of censorship can be abused, Plato seemed to believe that his stance is justified because he is trying to make children grow to be good, moral individuals.
While Plato has some very negative views on the value of literature, he also states the procedures that he feels are necessary in order to change poetry and literature from something negative to something positive. He does feel that some literature can have redeeming values. Good, truthful literature can educate instead of corrupting children. In the City Plato would only allow only, “hymns to the gods and praises to famous men”. Plato does not want literature to corrupt the mind; he wants it to display images of beauty and grace.
Plato’s views may be deemed narrow-minded by today’s society, but one must remember that Plato lived over 2000 years ago. He probably wrote Republic with the best intentions for the people of his time. While his views on censorship and poetry may even seem outlandish today, Plato’s goal was to state what he judged to be the guidelines for a better human existence. The merit in Plato’s arguments is demonstrated by the fact his philosophies on poetry are still studied by scholars around the world today.
Plato. Republic. Critical Theory Since Plato, Revised Edition. Ed. Hazard Adams. Orlando, Fla: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1992. 18-38.