PLATO: The Republic [Book X]

In Book X of Plato’s Republic, Socrates banishes all artists from his ideal State. He argues that the creations of art are farthest removed from truth; and therefore, art turns the mind of the spectator away from truth and toward the realm of becoming. For example, there are several instances of tables in the world, but only one idea of a table. A table-maker can make a table, but he cannot make the idea of a table. Even farther removed from the true idea of a table than the table of a table-maker is the painting of a table. “Tables, then, are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them: God, the maker of the table, and the painter.”

In addition to artists, Socrates intends to banish poets, too. Like artists, poets only imitate imitations of the truth. They are twice removed from the realm of being, and they corrupt all those who read and listen to their works. A poet, such as Homer, might present the courage of Achilles, but Homer does not know Courage itself. In other words, he does not know how to be courageous or how to teach others to be courageous. “If Homer had really been able to educate and improve mankind — if he had possessed knowledge and not been a mere imitator — he would be interested in realities and not in imitations; and, instead of being the author of encomiums, he would prefer to be the theme of them.”

I disagree with Socrates in regards to Homer’s ability to educate and improve mankind. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan War and of Odysseus’ return home has inspired many generations. Men have admired the warrior virtues of Achilles and sought to emulate him on the battlefield. Women have revered Odysseus’ wife Penelope as the epitome of marital fidelity. Socrates’ assertion that Homer did not teach virtue is nonsense. Modern academics name the virtues of the heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey after Homer. The virtues of power, strength, bravery, and cleverness are “Homeric virtues.”

Despite this slight objection, Socrates makes a compelling argument that “poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled if mankind is ever to increase in happiness and virtue.” For example, when we watch a troop of actors perform a tragedy on the stage, “we delight in giving way to sympathy.” The more we cry over the miseries of the actors, the more we enjoy the performance. Yet, when any tragedy befalls us, we take pride in the very opposite response. “We would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and the other, which delighted us in the tragic performance, is now deemed to be the part of a woman.”

Thus, Socrates argues that watching tragedy renders us unable to deal with misfortune when it befalls us because tragedy trains us to become excessively emotional. This argument is interesting because it directly contradicts Aristotle’s argument in the Poetics that tragedy purges the audience of fear and pity rather than strengthens these emotions. I agree with Aristotle – the more one experiences and observes tragedy, the more one becomes desensitized to it.

After banishing the artists and poets from his ideal State, Socrates moves the conversation to the topic of the afterlife. He argues that the soul is immortal because neither good nor evil can destroy it. To elaborate, there are good things and evil things in the world. Good things save and improve, bad things corrupt and destroy. Moderate consumption of food and water is good in relation to the body because it preserves and improves the body, disease and injury are evil in relation to the body because it corrupts and destroys the body. In relation to the soul, virtue is good, and vice is evil. But no soul has ever died from vice; and therefore, Socrates concludes that the soul is immortal.

If the soul is immortal, where does it go after the death of the body? Socrates answers this question by telling a story about a man who died, traveled to the underworld, and returned to life. The story is very similar to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The man in the story sees a judge condemning wicked souls to a hell-like underworld and permitting just souls to enter a heavenly paradise. After spending 1,000 years in either Heaven or Hell, the souls choose another earthly body to inhabit. Some unwisely choose the lives of tyrants, others choose the lives of animals because they experienced much misery at the hands of their fellow men and now they detest human nature. But the wisest souls choose lives of moderation that are free from cares, luxuries, and wickedness.

Thus, Socrates always returns to the consideration of how one ought to live. His discussions regarding forms of government, art, poetry, music, etc. serve to illuminate the best way of life. At the end of Plato’s Republic, he concludes that the just life is the best life. “This must be our notion of the just man, that even when he is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death: for the gods have a care of any one whose desire is to become just and to be like God by the pursuit of virtue.” This concludes our presentation of Plato’s Republic.

2 thoughts on “PLATO: The Republic [Book X]”

  1. The wonderful thing about Plato is that his dialogues can create more dialogue, even if only in the minds of readers engaged with his texts (in spite of what Plato says about the written word in Phaedrus).

    I understand Plato’s logic as to why in The Republic, he sees art as an even more inferior copy of an already inferior copy of the ideal. But I’ve often felt this was all due to a desire to be logically consistent with his theory of forms without taking a look at the ways in which art can, in certain instances, be used as a ‘window’ to the ideal that becomes more of a help than a hindrance.

    But first– what is the main engine by which drives almost all art (all up until the 20th century that is)? Broadly speaking, it is metaphor. Objects of the world are often presented in a poem, a painting, or a play which symbolise or carry a strong symbolic suggestiveness (music is often a different animal). How the poet handles the medium to make it pregnant with meaning is an important criterion in determining the value of the poet’s ability as an poet. But the tools of the poet in involve all kinds of methods– simile, hyperbole, irony, various figures of speech– many of which are used in our everyday discourse with one another — and also, which are used throughout all of Plato’s dialogues: the creation myth in Timaeus, the allegory of souls as charioteers of winged horses in Phaedrus, and, in The Republic, the allegory of the cave, etc.

    The only difference between our everyday prose and poetry in this context is that poetry frames and arranges the various figures of speech in a way that the ordinary world is elevated, where people and objects have a greater significance via highly compressed metaphor. Of course, Plato would likely say that this ‘significance’ is entirely unreal — this is the ‘copy of a copy’ which he opposed (despite of Plato’s own use of analogy, allegory, myth, irony, etc.).

    But I would say that art in general has an important place in the examined life — not ALL art, to be sure, but certainly there is some art which I’d say is indispensable in the education of a human being. Of course, you have also mentioned the value of Homer as an inspiration presenting models of virtue (though in Homer there are plenty of examples NOT to emulate too!).

    I would say, in addition — that good art can help us able to exercise our emotions in a reasonable and beneficial way. Rather than desensitise us to tragedy, I think it can make one much more understanding of the human condition. Certainly there is gratuitous violence which does indeed merely desensitise viewers, but I did say ‘good’ art. We’re stuck with our emotions, like them or not– the question is what to do with them. If we do not gain practise with our emotions in the safe arena of art, then we won’t be well prepared for the world itself.

    By analogy, soldiers receive their training in various *simulated* environments in order to hone their skills in a *real* war environment. Without such simulations, soldiers would be far less effective on the battlefield. I think the same case can be made for the use of emotions in relation to art.

    In fact– there have been studies showing an increase in the ability to empathise with others with people who read literary fiction:

    I would say, just as the soldier-in-training camp learns his skills in the training camp, so the individual can learn to become more skillful in handling emotions, and become more empathetic toward others in the ‘training camp’ of art. After all, without empathy, how can any Republic truly aim for the common good?

    Great post, great food for thought!

    1. Excellent comments!

      Plato denounces poets and dramatists, but employs their techniques. I love the irony. Nietzsche said something about this. He argued that the Greeks constantly strove to surpass one another. “We do not understand this attack on the national hero of poetry in all its strength, if we do not imagine the root of this attack to be the ardent desire to step into the place of the overthrown poet and to inherit his fame.”

      Thanks for sharing the article. I agree that literature provides us with a better understanding of the individual’s relationship to mankind; and therefore, it renders us more empathetic.

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