Plato's Attack on Poetry


In order to understand Plato’s attack on poetry we have to take in consideration the political and social context of Athens at that time. It was the context where Plato devoted all his efforts to uplift the moral condition of the individuals and the well being of the state. The aim of his literary criticism was to educate the youth and form them into good citizens of his ideal state. It was the age of political decline and the moral and educational standard of the citizens were in a poor state.

The epics of Homer were very much rooted in every sphere of the society, and the influence of the poets on the society was too deep. Plato being a philosopher, to prove the superiority of the philosophy, he severely attacked poetry. Apart from poetry he criticized every other form of arts. Plato’s concepts on art were base son his Theory of Ideas. He believed that ideas are the ultimate reality. The ideas of everything are the original pattern and the things are the copies. So he viewed all forms of art as merely copies of copy, twice moved from reality.

Things itself being imperfect and copies of the ideas, their reproduction in art must be more imperfect. He believed that the works of art takes man away from reality rather than leading to it. It neither helped to mould the character nor to promote the well being of the state. These were the basic principles underlined behind Plato’s critics on arts in general. Plato criticizes poetry in several of his dialogues, beginning with Apology, his first work, and ending with Laws, his last. Plato’s critics on poetry are basically concerned of two standards. The first concern was for the good of the individual and the state.

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Based on this standard he finds in poetry more to condemn it than approve. Same like his concepts about the other types of arts, his concepts about poetry also was under severe critic due to its unrealistic nature and its incapacity to be worthy to the society and individual. He severely condemned the incapacity of the art forms to get in to the roots/ reality and being concerned with only the twice removed reality. This was the first standard he used to condemn the poetry and other art forms in general. He attacked poetry on four grounds—moral, emotional, intellectual and utilitarian.

Poetic inspiration:

Poets does not write what he has thought to say, but because he is inspired. It means they do not compose the poem based on some virtue and reason, but based on some impulses and non rational kind coming from supernatural source. A sudden outpouring of the soul based on the sudden impulse of the moment does not be based on reason. Hence their pronouncements are unreliable and uncertain. They are not safe guides and it cannot be followed, it also cannot make the individuals a better citizens and the state a better organization.

There might be some truth in them, for they are divinely inspired, but such partial and imperfect truths must be carefully examined. Such truths cannot use as substitute for knowledge based on reason. As the poems are based on the ‘divinely inspired’ and completely based on inspiration, sometimes the poets themselves cannot explain what they write. Another aspect of poetry which he criticizes is, the imitation or blind reliance on the passionate elements of the soul. He Plato divides the soul into three parts: (1) rational, (2) spirited, (3) appetitive. The imitation of the non rational part of the soul will give grater pleasure.

The poets and the other artists imitates this baser, non rational part of the soul, and it leads them to away from reality and reason and become merely indulged in emotional outburst. The poets will be ashamed in their real life of the emotional over pouring which takes place during their poetic or other artistic performances. He condemns poetry in Republic X, for the poets, “they feed and water the passions instead of drying them up, and let them rule instead of ruling them as they ought to be ruled, with a view to the happiness and virtue of ‘mankind.”

Based on all these ideas he strongly condemned poetry and argued that poetry cannot take the place of philosophy. The emotional appeal of poetry: Plato’s another charge against poetry is its appeal to the emotion. Being a product of inspiration, it effects emotion rather than reason, the heart rather than intellect. Emotions being just impulses like the poetic inspiration it cannot be trusted and act as safe guide as reason. The poetry at the time of Plato was tragic, in which the weeping and wailing were indulged to move the hearts of the spectators. He says in the republic “for f we let our own sense of pity grow strong by feeding upon the griefs of others, it is not easy to restrain it in the case of our own sufferings”. Non moral character. Plato’s another criticism against poetry is its lack of concern with morality. Poetry (and drama) is not conducive to social morality as poets pander to the popular taste and narrate tales of man’s pleasant vices. Poets tell lies about gods. Gods and their representative heroes are represented as corrupt, immoral and dishonest in the epics of the poets (especially of Homer). This pervert public taste and morality.

Children tend to imitate the doings of gods and other heroes as told to them by their mothers, they fashion their own conduct on what they read. It also hurt him to see virtue often coming to grief in the literature esteemed in his days – epics of Homer, narrative verse of Hesiod and tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. He says in republic “they give us to understand that many evil livers are happy and many righteous men unhappy”. Plato attacks poetry on intellectual grounds as well: poets have no knowledge of truth, for they imitate appearances and not the truth of things, illusions instead of reality.

Poets, like painters, imitate the surface of things. Beyond the world of the senses there is another world, the world of ideal reality, where concepts, like truth, virtue, beauty, etc. , exist in an ideal form. Poetry is the product of futile ignorance. The poet who imitates without really knowing what he is imitating is demonstrating both his lack of useful purpose and his lack of knowledge. At last Plato says that “no poetry should be admitted save hymns to the gods and panegyrics on famous men. ” The poets may be honoured, but they must be banished from his ideal state.

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