Plato's Objection to Poetry

He was the first systemic critic who inquired into the nature of imaginative literature and put forward theories which are both illuminating and provocative. He was himself a great poet and his dialogues are full of his gifted dramatic quality. His Dialogues are the classic works of the world literature having dramatic, lyrical and fictional elements. According to him all arts are imitative or mimetic in nature. He wrote in The Republic that ‘ideas are the ultimate reality’. Things are conceived as ideas before they take practical shapes.

So, idea is original and the thing is copy of that idea. Carpenter’s chair is the result of the idea of chair in his mind. Thus chair is once removed from reality. But painter’s chair is imitation of carpenter’s chair. So it is twice removed form reality.

Thus artist/poet takes man away from reality rather than towards it. Thus artist deals in illusion. 1. Plato’s objection to Poetry from the point of view of Education: a.

In ‘The Republic’ Book II – He condemns poetry as fostering evil habits and vices in children. Homer’s epics were part of studies. Heroes of epics were not examples of sound or ideal morality. They were lusty, cunning, and cruel – war mongers. Even Gods were no better. (Troy-Achilles beheding Apollo’s statue, oracles molested… insults of Gods, Gods fight among themselves, they punish instead of forgiveness…Ahaliya-Indra, Kunti’s children, Narad’s obsession to marry, Hercules son of Zeus and Alcmene, Hera’s jealousy-snakes-fenzy to kill children…)

b. Plato writes: “if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarreling among themselves as of all things the basest, no word should be said to them of the wars in the heaven, or of the plots and fighting of the gods against one another, for they are not true…. If they would only believe as we would tell them that quarreling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarreling between citizens…… these tales (of epics) must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have allegorical meaning or not.” c. Thus he objected on the ground that poetry does not cultivate good habits among children. 2. Objection from Philosophical point of view:

a. In ‘The Republic’ Book X: Poetry does not lead to, but drives us away form the realization of the ultimate reality – the Truth. b. Philosophy is better than poetry because Philosophy deals with idea and poetry is twice removed from original idea. c. Plato says: “The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearance only …. The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior and has inferior offspring.”(Dorothea’s ideal in Middlemarch shattered, Kshtriya dharma – not to hit enemy without weapon, Tess’s providence, evil wins & God is silent, unrewarded virtue…) 3. Objection form the Moral point of view:

a. In the same book in ‘The Republic’: Soul of man has higher principles of reason (which is the essence of its being) as well as lower constituted of baser impulses and emotions. Whatever encourages and strengthens the rational principle is good, and emotional is bad. b. Poetry waters and nourishes the baser impulses of men – emotional, sentimental and sorrowful. c. Plato says: “Then the imitative poet who aims at being popular is not by nature made, nor is his art intended, to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul; but he will prefer the passionate and fitful temper, which is easily limited …. And therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered state, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthen the feelings and impairs the reason … Poetry feeds and waters the passion instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue

Plato’s Objection to poetry

Plato was the disciple of Socrates, a great poet, a mystic and a philosopher. He was not a professed critic but his objections are found in forms of speech and dialogues in The Ion, the Symposium & the Republic and the Laws. Plato’s three main objections to poetry are that poetry is not ethical, philosophical and pragmatic. (i) His Objection From Educational Point of View :- In ‘The Republic’ Plato condemns poetry (art) as cultivating evil habits and vices in children. As he thought that the description in the poetry is “Twice removed from Reality” and it is not dealing with real, practical world. So, he does not want his ‘future guardians’ to learn all such things that are mere imitation of imitation. (ii) Feedback to Educational Point of View :- Plato objected poetry on the basis of education, by saying that it cultivates evil habits and not practical. But it is not so about all the poems or all the arts.

As at that time Homer’s epics were the part of studies and in them heroes were lusty, cunning and cruel dealing only with war and other things. Even the portrayal of Gods & Goddesses was imperfect as they were also depicted quarreling and fighting. So Plato objected arts (poetry). But he did not understand that poetry also has literal, allegorical or connoted meaning. (iii) Plato’s Disagreement on Philosophical Point of View :- Plato states that, “Philosophy deals with idea and poetry are twice removed from the original idea. So, Philosophy is better than poetry”. As it nurtures the rational impulses of human being and not the emotional, this is better than later one. He even says that, “The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearance only… The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior and has inferior offspring.” In his Theory of Mimesis.

(iv) Response to Philosophical Point of View :- Plato stated that poetry is away from reality and it is imitation only, but this imitation is not a slavish copy like a photocopy work, but a creative one. In response to Plato, R.A.Scott quotes that, “But though the poet creates something less than reality, he also creates something more.” This ‘more’ is intuition and perception which is essential to lead towards reality.

(v) Plato’s claim of poetry against Morality :- In “The Republic” Plato said that, soul of man has higher rational and lower emotional impulses. Poetry waters and nourishes the lower impulses instead of drying them up. He calls it as “needless lamentation and ecstasies at the imaginary events of sorrow and happiness”. Plato being a moralist even objected male dominance and female exploitation. (vi) Reaction to Moral Point of View :-

AS a moralist Plato says that poetry does not teach morality, but teaching is not the function of art or poetry. It is to deal with aesthetic pleasure only. Even by description of male dominance or female exploitation the poet has a good intention of provoking people against it and not to promote it. So, Plato opposed art in general and poetry in particular, but his most famous disciple, critic, scholar logician and practical philosopher- Aristotle and other critics and poets like R.A. Scott, David Daiches, etc. defended them on various other angles.

Plato’s Objection to poetry

Plato’s theory of Mimesis: The arts deal with illusion or they are imitation of an imitation. Twice removed from reality.  As a moralist Plato disapproves of poetry because it is immoral, as a philosopher he disapproves of it because it is based in falsehood.  Philosophy is better than poetry because philosopher deals with idea/truth, whereas poet deals with what appears to him/illusion.  He believed that truth of Philosophy was more important than pleasure of poetry.  Plato was the most distinguished disciple of Socrates. The 4th century of BC to which he belonged was can age of inquiry and as such Plato’s chief interest was Philosophical investigations which form the subject of his great works in form of Dialogues. He was not a professed critic of literature and his critical observations are not found in any single book. They lie scattered in seven of his dialogues more particularly in The Ion, The Republic and The Laws.

He was the first systemic critic who inquired into the nature of imaginative literature and put forward theories which are both illuminating and provocative. He was himself a great poet and his dialogues are full of his gifted dramatic quality. His dialogues are the classic works of the world literature having dramatic, lyrical and fictional elements. According to him all arts are imitative or mimetic in nature. He wrote in The Republic that ‘ideas are the ultimate reality.’ Things are conceived as ideas before they take practical shapes. So, idea is original and the thing is copy of that idea. Carpenter’s chair is the result of the idea of chair in his mind. Thus chair is once removed from reality. But painter’s chair is imitation of carpenter’s chair. So, it is twice removed from reality. Thus, artist/ poet take man away from reality rather than towards it. Thus, artist deals in illusion. Plato’s three main objections to poetry are that poetry is not ethical, Philosophical and pragmatic, in other words, he objected to poetry from the point of view of Education, from Philosophical point of view and moral point of view.

It is not ethical because it promotes undesirable passions, it is not philosophical because it does not provide true knowledge, and 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 on a lower plan than narrative, even though his own works read like dramatic scripts. (The Republic is written in dialogues 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, and 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. In the Ion, he suggests that poetry causes needless lamentation and ecstasies at the imaginary events of sorrow and happiness. It numbs the faculty of reason for the time being. Paralyses the balanced thought and encourages the weaker part of soul constituted of the baser impulses. Hence poetry has no healthy functions and it cannot be called good. To him drama is the most dangerous form of literature because the author is imitating things that he/she does not understand. Plato seemingly feels that no condemn drama from one source: a faculty 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 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 10 is the intellectual status of literature. He states that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject and he who do not have this knowledge can never be a poet, Plato says of imitative poetry and Homer, a man is not to be reverenced more than the truth. 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 chair does not necessarily know how to make a chair. His point is that in order to copy or imitate correctly, one must have knowledge of the original. Plato says that imitation is twice 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 The Republic is overwhelmingly negative. In Books 2 and 3 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 2, 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. 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 scene way. 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. 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 allow only hymns to the gods and praises to famous men. Plato does not want literature to corrupt the mind; he wants it do display images of beauty and grace. Plato’s view may be deemed narrow minded by today’s society, but one must remember that Plato lived over 2000 years ago. He probably wrote The Republic with the best intentions for the people of his time. While his views on censorship and poetry may even seem outland today, Plato’s goal was to state what he judged to be the guidelines for a better human existence.

1) Plato’s Objection to poetry from the point of view of Education: a) In the Republic Book 2- He condemns poetry as festering evil habits were in children. Homer’s epics were part of studies. Heroes of epics were not examples of sound or ideal morality. They were lusty, cunning, and cruel war mongers. Even Gods were no better (Troy- Achilles beheading Apollo’s statue, oracles molested… insults of Gods, Gods fight among themselves, they punish instead of forgiveness…Ahalya- Indra, Kunti’s children, narad’s obsession to marry, Hercules son of Zeus and Almene, Hera’s jealousy- shakes-Frenzy to kill children…)

b) Plato writes:” if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarreling among themselves as of all things the bests, no word should be said to them of the wars in the heaven or of the plots and fighting of the gods against one another, for they are not true …If they would only believe as we would tell them that quarreling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarreling between citizen….These tales (of epics) must not be admitted into our state, whether they are supposed to have allegorical meaning or not.” c) Thus, he objected on the ground that poetry does not cultivate good habits among children.

2) Objection from Philosophical point of view:

a) In “The Republic” Book 10: poetry does not lead to, but derives us away from the realization of the ultimate reality- the Truth. b) Philosophy is better than poetry because Philosophy deals with idea and poetry is twice removed from original. c) Plato says:” The imitator or maker of the images knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearance only… The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior has inferior offspring.”[Dorothea’s ideal in Middle march shattered, Kshtriya drama-not to hit enemy without weapon, Tess’s providence, evil wins and God is silent, unrewarded virtue…]

3) Objection from the Moral point of view:

a) In the same book in “The Republic”: soul of man has higher principles of reason. (Which is the essence of its being) as well as lower constituted of baser impulses and strengthens the rational principle is good and emotional is bad. b) Poetry waters and nourishes the baser impulses of men emotional sentimental and sorrowful. c) Plato says: “Then the imitative poet who aims at being popular is not by nature made, nor is his art intended, to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul; but he will prefer the passionate and fitful temper, which is easily limited. And therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered state, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthen the feelings and impairs the reason…poetry feeds and waters the passion instead of drying them us; she lets them rule, although, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. There are Plato’s principle charges on poetry and objection to it.

Before we pass on any judgment, we should not forget to keep in view the time in which he lived. During his time: 1) Plato says that art being the imitation of the actual is removed from truth. It only gives the likeness of a thing in concrete and the likeness is always less than real. But Plato fails to understand that art also give something more which is absent in the actual. The artist does not simply reflect the real in the manner of a mirror. Art is not slavish imitation of reality. Literature is not the photographic reproduction of life in all its totality. It is the representation of selected events and characters necessary in a coherent action for the realization of artist’s purpose (Namesake: Jhumpa Lahiri and Mira Nair). He even exalts idealizes and imaginatively recreates a world which has its own meaning and beauty. These elements, present in art are absent in the raw and rough real. R.A Scott-James rightly observes:”but though he creates something less than that reality. He also creates something more. He puts an idea into it. He gives his intuition of certain distinctive and essential qualities. This ‘more’ this intuition and perception is the aim of the artist. Artistic creation cannot be fairly criticized on the ground that it is not the creation in concrete terms of things and beings. Thus, considered it does not take us away from the Truth but leads us to the essential reality of life.

2) Plato again says that art is bad because it does not inspire virtue, does not teach morality. But it teaching the function of the art? Is it the aim of the artist? The function of art is to provide aesthetic, express emotions and life. It should never be confused with the function of ethics which is simply. If he fails in doing so, he is a bad artist. There is no other criterion to judge his worth. R.A Scott-James observes: “Morality teaches art does not attempt to teach. It merely asserts it is thus or thus that life is perceived to be. That is my bit of reality, says the artist. Take it or leave it- drew any lessons you like from it- that is my account of things as they are- if it has any value to you as evidence or teaching, use it, but that is not my business: I have given you my rendering, my account, my vision, my dream, my illusion- call it what you will. If yours is any lesson in it, it is yours to draw, not mine to preach.” Similarly Plato’s charge that needless lamentations and ecstasies at the imaginary events of sorrow and happiness encourage weaker part of soul and numbs faculty of reason.

This charge is defended by Aristotle in his Theory of Catharsis. David Daiches summarizes Aristotle’s views in reply to Plato’s charges in brief: “Tragedy gives new knowledge, yields aesthetic satisfaction and produces a better state of mind. 3) Plato judges poetry now from the educational standpoint, now from the philosophical one and then from the ethical one. But he does not care to consider it from its own unique standpoint. He does not define its aims. He forgets that everything should be judged in terms of its own aims and objective its own criteria of merit and demerits. We cannot fairly maintain that music is bad because it does not paint, or that painting is bad because it does not sing. Similarly, we can not say that poetry is bad because it does not teach philosophy of ethics. If poetry, philosophy and ethics had identical function, how could they be different subject? To denounce poetry because it is not philosophy or ideal is clearly absurd.

1) Plato’s Valuable Contribution to Literary Criticism: In spite of Plato’s prejudices against poetry and art in general he remains the first great philosopher of arts. His findings about the nature of imaginative literature and representational fine arts remain valid even today. He has laid the first foundation brick of systematic literary criticism. His valuable contributions are following: 1) According to Wimsalt and Brooks: In Ion, Plato has drawn our attention to two principles (1) being able to compose poetry is not the same as to give rational of it; (2) Poetry is not concerned with making scenic statements.

2) He is the first critic to point that literature represents in a refined version the raw material supplied by life itself. Poetry may be called imitation of recreation. But the basic fact is that it derives its subject from life itself and from the world. It cannot invent anything that is never observed. R.A Scott-James is quite right when he says: “To him we owe the first statement of the mimetic or imitation character of art.” 3) Plato also right in saying that the only aim of the poet is to please the people, though his disapproved and denounce of the poet on this account is not fair. 4) It was Plato’s insight that discovered for the first time that all the fine arts have common aims although they employ different media. Scott-James observes: “Having got thus far, we observe that he has discovered a real community between all the fine arts. A poet who makes a poem and a painter who points a picture are engaged in the same sort of activity. They do not use4 the same medium, but otherwise they are engaged on the same task.” Thus, as a moralist, he made some errors but he gave some important starting points to judge literary art.

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Plato's Objection to Poetry. (2017, Jan 04). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/platos-objection-to-poetry-essay

Plato's Objection to Poetry
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