Republic By Plato Summary and Analysis Book X: Section I

Summary

Earlier in the dialogue, Socrates suggested that certain kinds of music and poetry should not be permitted in the curriculum of study for the future rulers of the State because some art did not seem to be morally uplifting, hence perhaps bad for children. Here, Socrates considerably broadens his attack on the visual and dramatic arts.

Socrates begins by seeking an agreement on definition; he posits the idea that artists are said to create things; hence, it is commonly held that they are creative artists. Thus, Socrates argues, it follows logically that we might argue an example of something an artist produces; we may argue the example of, say, a bed. But when a painter paints a picture of a bed, we agree that it is not a real bed: The artist has probably seen a bed that some craftsman built and copied his picture of a bed. But we have all agreed that a bed upon which people repose is not even a real bed. The truly real bed is the Form of Bed, just as something perceived as being beautiful partakes of the Form of Beauty. Only the Forms are real; the bed is a copy of the Form of Bed and the painting is a copy of a copy, an image of an image.

What is true of painters is true also of poets and dramatists; we agree that they paint pictures in words, "creating" what we call images. So when they pretend to be authorities on morality, religion, nature and all sorts of truths, that is all, simply put, pretense.

Philosophers, we are reminded, know the Forms and Goodness itself. Artists do not know the Truth. Take the example of the painter and extend it: Suppose the painter wants to paint a picture of a bridle. He has to copy a bridle made by some craftsman, a bridle-maker. The bridle-maker knows more about the bridle than the painter knows. And the bridle-maker made the bridle for some horseman, who knows how he wants the bridle made. And the real bridle is the Form of Bridle. Ergo, the knowledge the painter possesses is thrice removed from reality.

Socrates at this point tries to establish the attractiveness of the visual and dramatic arts, for which argument he adopts a kind of critical process analysis of painting and drama. Socrates points out that we are in everyday existence surrounded by spurious information and illusory experience which only our exercise in reason can correct, and that is precisely what is wrong with the arts: They deal in things illusory, depending upon illusion to accomplish their end. Painters, for example, create the illusion of depth in their works, and they can use line and proportion in the service of the illusion they are trying to accomplish. Any illusion is spurious, contradictory to man's best virtue, reason.

Socrates says that the same fault may be discerned in poets and dramatists, in that they employ language to create unstable tragic and comic characters of men and women who seem to be driven by their emotions and desires, people who lack reason. It is true that some drama and poetry is exciting, but the excitement it provokes is irrational.

Socrates concludes that the arts have a morally corrupting impact on men in that dramatic presentations, for example, provoke us to become enraged, or to burst into tears, or to laugh uproariously; they make men act like women or buffoons. We are deluded into sympathizing with the artifice of the stage, and that is simply bad for our characters.

Socrates closes his discussion of the arts and their place in the Ideal State by saying that there is no place for them. Perhaps we may allow some hymns to the gods and some poems in praise of famous good men, but the most of poetry and drama, including Homer, must be banned from the state.

Analysis

Plato's pronouncements on the arts in Book X have engaged a spirited scholarly debate that continues to the present day. Many societies have from time to time adopted Plato's ideas in order to advocate and practice censorship of the arts on the grounds that they manifest themes that are morally corruptive, that they "send the wrong message" to citizens whose reasoning power is weak at best. A totally opposite point of view is adopted by artists, scholars, and various schools of criticism who maintain that art is apolitical and essentially amoral, and that it should not be placed under the purview of any censorship whatever.

Of course a frequent criticism of Plato's pronouncements herein is that Plato presumes to advance aesthetic criticism, that he is arguing generalities, and that Plato seems to be revealed as a curmudgeon who would prefer to strip away any form of entertainment from the state. But it should be plain to us that Plato is not advancing aesthetic judgments here; he is objecting to the claim, popular in his day and in ours, that poets are good moral teachers. Given Plato's system of thought and practically everything else he has written, we can see why he would be adamantly opposed to such a claim for the poets.

At the same time, we must not ignore the fact that the Republic and several of Plato's other dialogues are permeated with humorous and occasionally malicious references to poets, Dionysiacs, and various kinds of "stage business," as when Socrates says that Aeschylus' portrayal of Agamemnon, conqueror of Troy, is that of a general who apparently could not count his own two feet. And we cannot discount the plain fact that Socrates regards habitual theatergoers (Dionysiacs) with distrust and a certain degree of contempt.

Still, there is no doubt that Plato's fellows saw Homer and his fellow-poets as a source of moral guidance; the Greeks quoted the Iliad and Odyssey as frequently and with as much fervor as some Christians quote the Bible.

Few thinkers since Plato's day agree with his theory of the dramatic arts. Plato's own pupil, Aristotle, advanced a much more detailed analysis of poetry and drama than Plato's. But had Plato lived to read Aristotle's Poetics, he certainly might have disagreed with its theory on much the same bases as he approached the arts and artists he dismisses from the Ideal State.

Glossary

Lycurgus a real or legendary Spartan lawgiver of about the ninth century B.C.

Thales a Greek philosopher (c. 624-546 b.c.) who established the first philosophical school.

Protagoras (481?-411? b.c.) a Greek philosopher of the fifth century B.C., the best known of the Sophists.

Prodicus another Sophist.

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