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Table of Contents
Socrates rhetorically speaks to Homer. He asks: What are the benefits of your art? Does your poetry help people to live better lives? He then lists, in an ascending order of importance, the functions Homer never performed but that, in his poetic way, he claimed to be able to perform in his imitative writing (that is, in his pretense to be people other than himself): a politician, general, businessman, teacher, and philosopher. Socrates denounces Homer's pretense and says that "all of the poetic tribe, beginning with Homer, are imitators of images of excellence." He claims that if artists were able to portray "reality," they would abandon their games-their form of play that must not be taken seriously-and become involved in such activities as statesmanship and education, areas of the state where character is developed and where intellect rules.
NOTE: As you see here and as you've seen before, for Plato human excellence is performing the highest function of human capabilities well. Excellence is acting in accordance with reason. Artists to him are playful creatures who serve no significant function but who, nevertheless, are taken quite seriously by the "ignorant multitude." Their impact on people's emotions and beliefs make them extremely dangerous to the well-being of the state and soul.
Plato's criticism of the arts raises many significant questions about the purpose and place of art in society. For example: What is "art"? What are the values of aesthetic experience? Are artists frauds who pretend to have wisdom? Can literature and the visual arts influence youth to pursue the life of reason? Should literature and the fine arts be excluded from educational programs? Does, as Plato suggests in the next section, life imitate art?
Plato seems unduly harsh on poetry and poets. His criticism, although interesting and thought-provoking, seems to neglect a look at one of the purposes of art of which even he would approve-to inspire a higher vision of life. Moreover, the criticism he leveled at Homer in the last argument-that Homer was neither a statesman nor a teacher of mathematics-equally applies to Socrates.
In this second strand of the criticism Plato's vendetta against the poets, Homer in particular, has Plato attempting to prove that no place for poets exists in the perfectly just state. Poets must either leave the state or stop being poets or change the subjects on which they write. Why? Because their works, as they stand, corrupt the souls of the populace.
Socrates begins the second attack by demonstrating that poetry, because it is imitation and illusion, appeals to the part of the soul that is "remote from intelligence," and so fosters inferior thoughts and emotions. Socrates uses an example of a man grieving over the loss of his son. When he is alone the grieving man vents his feelings in loud, woeful utterances. But in the public view he resists his impulses toward uncontrolled despair and maintains the demeanor of a reasonable man. Poets, Socrates says, choose to portray the private moments of life, for instance, the stricken man's wailing and writhing. One reason for this is that the "fretful part" of the soul is the easiest to imitate and is most readily understood by the "nondescript mob in the theater." On the other hand, the rational man, leading an orderly and just life, is hard to portray in art and does not seem to interest an audience. Thus, through art, people are moved by displays of emotion that they would be ashamed to reveal publicly.
Socrates implies that life imitates art: "For after feeding fat the emotion of pity there [in the theater], it is not easy to restrain it in our own suffering." Nor is pity the only emotion that we are prone to imitate. We see buffoons and play the clown ourselves, with the emotions of anger and lust. He proclaims that poetic imitation
waters and fosters these feelings when what we ought to do is to dry them up, and it establishes them as our rulers when they ought to be ruled, to the end that we may be better and happier men instead of worse and more miserable. (606d)
Therefore, although Homer is the greatest of poets, even his poems cannot be admitted to the city. The only acceptable poems are hymns to the gods and the praises of good men. All other poetry is the enemy of philosophy because it strengthens the emotions that war with reason. Tyrants praise appetite. Poets praise emotion. Philosophers praise reason, so only they can be permitted to educate youth and to influence the masses.
Although here Socrates banishes poetry from the city, he offers it a return when it can show itself to be a friend of philosophy, that is, when it realizes that its function is to subordinate emotion to reason and not, as it now does, to overwhelm reason with emotion.