Oh, Divine Poetry Essay, Research Paper
Oh, Divine Poetry In his Republic, Plato seems to condemn art, especially written art, as evil and does not allow its presence in his ideal polis. Plato writes that art has the power to corrupt and teach its audience ignoble ways. He writes that it can only ever be an imitation of reality and thus is far from the true and the ‘Good’. Interestingly, however, in his Phaedrus, Plato seems to speak opposite this view of art as evil. In fact, he proclaims inspiration by the Muses divine – actually closer to God and closer to the ‘Good’. Keeping this seeming contradiction in mind while rereading the Republic, one might develop a different interpretation of Plato’s philosophy towards art, and specifically, to the written art of poetry. Plato seems to decry the misreading of art, not the art itself. Plato’s objections towards art seem to spring from his belief that most people are unable to read art deeply enough or to understand it fully. His rejection of art in a perfect polis comes from this belief and not from a sincere condemnation of art. One of the main difficulties in accepting Plato’s antagonistic view towards the written art is his own aptitude for it. Of course one need not cherish all one is good at but then there is the problematic sprinkling of Homeric quotes throughout the work – Plato using them as evidence of his arguments or rhetoric to illustrate his points. Plato confesses his own weakness for the written word but is quick to point out that pleasure and beauty are less important than the truth. [T]he love and respect I’ve always had from a boy for Homer makes me hesitate -for I think he’s the original master and guide of all the great tragic poets. But one must not respect an individual more than the truth. (X, 595c) Having mentioned truth, perhaps we ought to first consider Plato’s views on truth. As a moralist, Plato’s primary goal as a philosopher was to discover the best way to live. Therefore, whatever role art may play in Plato’s philosophy, it is considered only as far as it will add to or detract from the best way to live. Plato felt that if everyone lived life in search of truth, otherwise known as the ‘Good’, then everyone would be living the best possible life. Within Plato’s philosophy of forms, reality itself is merely a poor imitation of the ‘Good’. Therefore, art, being an imitation of what is already only imitation, must only draw one further from the ‘Good’. “[T]he dramatic poet . . . . encourag[es] the unreasoning part of [the mind of the individual] . . . . by creating images far removed from the truth” (X, 605c). Really, however, to strive towards the ‘Good’ is to try to understand the world and then transcend it, level by level, until the ultimate ‘Good’ is reached. Once the ‘Good’ is reached, one sees that it is simple and pure, but the slow, blind climb of one seeking the ‘Good’ is arduous and complicated. In the cave allegory, for instance, there are different levels of comprehension inside the cave and then a separate level occupied by the very few who have enough understanding to emerge, rubbing their eyes, into the real and the good. To emerge from the cave, however, is a difficult end to reach. Plato prescribes understanding all in the world around us as the way towards understanding the ‘Good’. Mere ignorance of evil is not the ‘Good’. Understanding all, both the pure and the sullied, is the way to the ‘Good’. [It is not] until we can recognize the qualities of discipline, courage, generosity, greatness of mind, and others akin to them, as well as their opposites, in all their many manifestations . . . . [w]e must be able to perceive both the qualities themselves wherever they occur and representations of them. (III, 402d) [italics mine] Art can, in fact, help one to understand the world; it can help lead one out of the cave. Plato himself employs art to try and guide others towards the ‘Good’. He, himself, wrote art, in the form of dialogues, for others to discover through it a clearer understanding of the world and how best to live. There is, however, a difference between good art and bad art. Bad art can only lead to bad ways while good art, if comprehended correctly, might lead to good ways. Bad art is primarily the art of ignorance. “[A] good poet must, if he’s to write well, know all about his subject, otherwise he can’t write about it” (X, 598e). The danger of bad art, or even the misinterpretation of good art, which I will address later on, is its poor influence on its audience. Art carries with it a certain air of authority, possibly acquired through the masterful manipulation of artists. “[A] stick will look bent if you put it in water, straight when you take it out . . . our minds are clearly liable to all sorts of confusions of this kind. It is this natural weakness of ours that [artists] exploit with magical effect” (X, 602d). As a result, people often relate whole-heartedly with characters or dogmas expressed in art. It can therefore be dangerous to portray wrong- doing in artwork because people might emulate these actions or thus excuse their own behavior. “[T]hose who hear [that gods do wicked things] will be lenient towards their own shortcomings” (III, 391e). There are moments, however, when Plato outrightly praises good art, and it is these praises that call for a different interpretation of Plato’s views on a whole. It is doubtful that as thorough or as deep a thinker as Plato did not have a consistent and thorough theory regarding art. For instance, Plato touts the use of stories to teach children. It cannot be disputed that Plato believed education a very important, if not the foremost, aspect in the creation of a just society. Therefore it might seem incongruous that he advocate the use of something he denounces in the education of children. And yet he does. “We begin [the education of children] by telling [them] stories” (II, 377a). It only seems incongruous, however, if we take Plato’s words at face value and think that he believes art evil through and through. If we instead interpret his words to mean art is dangerous when not supervised rather than bad at its heart, many pieces fall into place.
[O]ur first business is to supervise the production of stories, and choose only thosewe think suitable, and reject the rest. We shall persuade mothers and nurses totell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mold their mindsand characters. (II, 377b-c) Plato acknowledges the usefulness of art in the upbringing of children as well as in building the character of men – as long as the art is good art and as long as it is carefully censored. “The only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men” (X, 607a), and “[w]hen a poet tells, or a dramatist presents tales of endurance against odds by famous men, then we must give him an audience” (III, 390d). Why does Plato altogether cast art out of his perfect state, then? Plato fears the misinterpretation of art. He fears that men and women who read books without proper understanding, even the greatest of books, might fall victim to wrongful ideas or beliefs. After all, as Plato points out, a book cannot answer questions nor explain more clearly if its reader does not understand. [O]f written words[:] you might suppose that you understand what they aresaying, but if you ask what they mean by anything they simply return the sameanswer over and over again. Besides, once a thing is committed to writing itcirculates equally among those who understand the subject and those who haveno business with it; a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitablereaders. And if it’s ill-treated or unfairly abused … it is quite incapable ofdefending or helping itself (Phaedrus 275d-e). If good writing were read properly, it would lead to an exercise of the intellect; it would bring one to a better understanding and therefore bring one closer to the ‘Good’. Plato of course advocates the study of anything that would bring one closer to the ‘Good’. He advocates all that “force[s] the mind of the ordinary man to ask further questions” (VII, 523d), those things that “force the mind into a quandary in which it must stir itself to think” (VII, 524e). Good art does just this. It is not a truth unto itself but can lead one towards it. When read improperly, however, without the right philosophical guidance, art might lead to bad things.[P]oetry has [a poor effect] on us when it represents . . . . the other desires and feelings of pleasure which accompany all our actions. It waters them when they ought to be left to wither, and makes them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them. (X, 606d) This is especially true in the case of children. Children have yet to develop the capacity for understanding the depths of art and are therefore prone to misreading texts and thus forming wrongful ideas. “Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change” (II, 378d). Not only this, but the better the art, the more dangerous it is for children. The better the art the more conducive it is to deep intellectual thought and therefore, for those still incapable of deep understanding, the more harmful it might be. “[T]he better [passages] are as poetry the more unstable they are for the ears of children” (III, 387b). The reason Plato casts art out of his perfect state, then, is because he believes most people incapable of understanding on this deep and philosophical level. He believes people highly influenceable and easily led astray. This is suggested in his theory of the myth of the metals. There are those that are born better able to understand but the vast majority cannot. There is a last, interesting idea of Plato’s that seems to contradict his apparent abhorrence of art, yet is resolved if we view his rejection of art as a rejection of the misreading of art and not of the intrinsic goodness of art itself. This idea is his belief of madness as divine. Madness, the opposite of reason and deliberation, is defined by Plato as:[t]he channel by which we receive the greatest blessings . . . . [It is] a nobler thing than sober sense . . . . [for] madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human . . . . the third type of possession and madness is possession by the Muses. When this seizes upon a gentle and virgin soul it rouses it to inspired expression in lyric and other sorts of poetry. (Phaedrus 244a-245a) Plato seems to imply here that a person can attain the highest sort of understanding only through inspiration by the Muses. He seems to believe that poetry is divine and, in and of itself, closer to the ‘Good’ as such. Therefore, it is only the misapprehension of poetry and not poetry itself that he denounces. Plato views art as beautiful and divine and, perhaps because of this, dangerous. Plato’s philosophical search for the best way to live is a search for all people. Therefore, in the interest of all, Plato may give up art, but all this is in spite of his admiration and respect for its truest form, for its being one possible path to the ‘Good’, or even, in fact, for its divine nature.