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The Republic by Plato - Barron's Booknotes
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BOOK X

POETRY AND IMMORTALITY

This final book of The Republic serves as a kind of epilogue. Here Plato connects his criticism of poetry with his metaphysical Theory of Forms and with his psychology of the soul. He also demonstrates that the rewards of justice transcend the scope of this life and stretch on for eternity; the soul, he says, is immortal. These two topics seem to be unrelated. Yet Plato artistically brings criticism and immortality together through a comparison of Homeric poetry and Socratic poetry.

Book X begins with a somewhat surprising return to an earlier attack on old poetry and ends with an example of what new poetry must be. The book has two major sections: 1. poetry as the enemy of philosophy, and 2. the eternal rewards of justice.

POETRY AS THE ENEMY OF PHILOSOPHY (595a- 608b)

In Books II and III Plato demonstrated at length the harmful effects of the study of literature on future guardians. Why does he return to the subject of poetry now?

NOTE: Recall that Plato's earlier attack on literature dealt only with its effects on the moral development of guardian children. He claimed that most literature encouraged the fear of death, disrespect for authority, acceptance of violence, and improper emotional behavior. Since that discussion, Plato has shared his world views on reality (especially in the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave) and on psychology (the tripartite soul). Now he can offer a more comprehensive attack on literature and can provide a philosophical basis for criticizing these educational materials of the Athenian youth.



In this section Plato doesn't simply criticize the content and the form of literature; he criticizes the major author, Homer. He seems to be saying, Out with Homer, in with Socrates. Most of the Athenians read and studied Homer, yet many of them mocked and condemned Socrates. Plato wants to defend Socrates and, in so doing, he singles out Homeric poetry as the enemy of Socratic philosophy, of dialectic.

Plato advances two attacks on poetry and the fine arts: 1. art is merely the imitation of the imitation of reality (595a-602b); and 2. the old poetry corrupts the soul (602c-608b).

Socrates begins his attack on poetry and the other arts (forms of imitation) with an apology. He says that although, like most Athenians, he has loved and respected Homer since he was a boy, a man must not be honored above the truth. And unfortunately Homer and other artists do not dwell on or convey truth. They are imitators. But what is wrong with imitation, especially such imitations as beautiful paintings and well-told stories? Socrates explains.

First he attempts to define imitation. He employs the concept 2f a couch as his example. There are, of course, many couches made by craftsmen. But the craftsmen did not make the idea of "couch"; they simply build the many couches that participate in the one idea (form) of couch, which was first conceived by the Great Craftsman, the creator of all ideas. Thus, the furniture makers are twice removed from the reality of couch. They neither created the idea nor are they the physical couch itself.

Now, artists who paint pictures of couches are three times removed from the reality of couch because they produce no more than a representation (image) of the appearance (physical object) of the idea (reality). In other words, you cannot sit on the couch in a painting, you learn almost nothing about three- dimensional couches by looking at a painting, and the artist gives you no insight on the one idea of couch. Therefore, artistic imagination is on the bottom level of intellectual experience. And so, for Socrates imitation has no educational value because, as you will recall from the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave, the things on the bottom level do not have the power to spur intellectual growth and are not conducive to learning.

Yet artists, at least according to Socrates, have an even worse failing than perpetuating fantasy. Socrates accuses them of being ignorant braggarts. Artists claim to be, or are reputed to be, knowledgeable about all of the arts and sciences and everything else under the sun. Such claims make artists the opponents of philosophy. Artists claim to have knowledge that they do not have. And they are dangerous because they have the ability to seduce people into believing them. They are flatterers, seekers of public approval, and emotional con men.

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