Plato's Republic, Book X


In Book X of the Republic Socrates returns to the issue of censorship.  Earlier, in Books II and III, he had argued that only certain sorts of poetry and music should be allowed in the model city, and even went so far as to banish the most gifted poets on the grounds that the great emotional power of their work makes them dangerous–they threaten the moral stability of the city.   He now develops this charge further, claiming that poets appeal to the inferior parts of the soul.

  These parts ought to be ruled by Reason (as Socrates argues in Book IX), but poetry arouses them and  inflames them to the point where they become ruling passions.

Another reason not to trust poetry

Socrates also puts forward a new criticism of poetry: poets and other artists, he says, offer only imitations of things, not realities.

This argument links up to the allegory of the cave.  There, Socrates contrasts the poor prisoners in the cave who are fascinated by the shadows of puppets–the puppets being themselves mere imitations of real things in the outside world–with the enlightened philosopher who contemplates real things in broad daylight. 

 For Plato, ultimate reality–true Being– does not consist in the things that exist in space and time and that we know by using our five senses.  These things are, in some sense, imitations of their ideal Forms.  Any circle we draw and see with our eyes is only an imperfect representation of a perfect circle which we understand with our mind, and something similar may be said of other things too.

  Every physical chair is what it is because it stands in some relation to the Form of a chair; and a description of this Form captures the essence of what it is to be a chair.

So when artists, whether working with paints or words, represent things ion the material world, they are actually creating representations of representations, imitations of imitations.

  Works of art are just two steps away from true Being.  This is apparent from the fact that poets typically lack any real expertise regarding the things they write about.

The quarrel between philosophy and poetry

According to Socrates there is an ancient and profound quarrel between philosophy and poetry.  The former is primarily concerned with reason and truth, the latter with emotion and giving pleasure to an audience.  This is a famous and interesting claim.  But what makes it especially interesting is the fact that Plato, as well as being a great philosopher, was also a great artist.  His dialogs are marvelous works of literature.  And he had a gift for coming up with memorable analogies, allegories, and metaphors to illustrate his meaning.  This is nowhere more evident than in the Republic.  So the quarrel between philosophy and poetry seems to have been one that was raging within Plato himself.

The myth of Er

As if to underline this point, the Republic concludes with one of Plato’s “likely stories” about what happens to the soul after death.  The “myth of Er” tells the story of a soldier, Er, who is thought to be dead and descends to the underworld, but when he revives he is sent back to tell humanity what awaits them in the afterlife.

  His account is similar to the speculation Socrates offers in the Phaedo:  in the afterlife, justice will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished.  Here, though, he throws in the idea that souls will be reborn into a new body and a new life, and the new life they choose will reflect how they have lived in their previous life and the state of their soul at death.

Related links

Plato's Republic

Life of Plato