The influence of Plato in the European tradition of thoughts and ideas has been so enormous that the 20th-century intellectual A. N. Whitehead had famously declared that the whole of the European philosophical tradition was little more than a series of footnotes added to the writings of Plato. It is, therefore, only fitting that we start our discussion of literary theory by looking back at the writings of Plato. However, interestingly enough Plato is usually remembered in the discussions of literary studies for the way in which he famously or some might even say infamously banished the poets and exiled them from his conception of an ideal republic. Why is then Plato still important for a discussion of literary studies? Also, why would someone who is known for his wisdom seek to banish poets from an ideal city? Hasn’t literature been an expression of human culture and civilizational attainment throughout its existence? And, has not ancient Greece, being one of the most brilliant sites of literary productions; starting from Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, down to Aeschylus, Socrates and Euripides.
Plato was born somewhere in the second half of the 5th century BCE. One of the probable years of his birth is 427 BCE. Today we think of Plato as an eminent Greek philosopher, but back in the 5th century BCE, we would not have come across any notion of Greece as a single national cum political entity. Rather, Greece at that point in time represented a cultural sphere. And it represented a cultural sphere that spread across not only what we know today as modern-day Greece, but also it spread across southern Italy, some parts of northern Africa, and also some regions of modern-day Turkey. This vast cultural sphere was dotted by independent city-states. And it was with reference to these city-states that the Greeks of the 5th century BCE primarily defined their identity. And the city-state with which Plato was associated was Athens. And it was here that he had his training under one of the most remarkable intellectuals of all times, Socrates. After the execution of Socrates in about 399 BCE, Plato left Athens, and he went to southern Italy. But later on in his life, he came back to his native city-state. And he established there his famous school known as Academy. And it is here in Academy that he trained one of the most notable philosophers of the European tradition, whose name is Aristotle. Plato died somewhere around the middle of the 4th century BCE. The years through which Plato lived were remarkably eventful. The first 30 years of Plato’s life was spent under the shadow of the second Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. And this war saw thorough destruction of the Athenian form of government which had sustained its golden era in the 5th century BCE. Plato’s career, therefore, in a way marks both the high point of the achievements of the classical Athenian civilization. And also it bears witness to the beginning of the end of that civilization. And ironically, some of Plato’s own relatives were responsible for siding with the rival power of Sparta and bringing down the earlier form of Athenian government that ultimately led to the downfall of the Athenian civilization as a whole.
But even more significant in this regard is Plato’s direct association, with Socrates, that mercurial figure who was greatly responsible for questioning and for undermining some of the very foundational beliefs that held the Athenian way of life together. In fact, Socrates was executed in around 399 BCE, by the Athenian state for not recognizing the god of the city and this was a charge brought against Socrates, he did not recognize the god of the city and he was said to corrupt the minds of the young men of Athens, through his novel ideas, through his system of questioning some of the foundational beliefs. But what was this Athenian world order this old Athenian world order that Plato saw crumbling during his own lifetime? This world order can perhaps be summed up by using a single word. And that single word is democracy. The road to democracy for Athens began early in the 6th century when a Greek statesman named
Solon reformed the existing model of Athenian governance. Under Solon, governmental power which was previously held by a group of 9 Athenians of noble birth passed on to a council of 400 Athenian citizens who now formed the government of the city-state. About 100 years later, this inclusive expansion of the political structure was furthered even more significantly by a man named Cleisthenes.
Cleisthenes also like Solon was a statesman who severed the connection between political power and the wealthy nobles of Athens. Because Cleisthenes gave every free male citizen of Athens the power to vote and it was through this voting process, that the government of the city now came to be elected. Thus in 507 BCE, the democratic form of government was born in Athens. Though most of us are now accustomed to living under democratic regimes all over the world. In 507 BCE democracy was a revolutionary idea, where small tradesmen, wealthy citizens, aristocrats, all became equal partners in the Athenian government. But we have to remember that this sense of equality and political agency was shared only by the free male citizens and though this, of course, represented a major increase from the days before so long when only 9 aristocrats ruled Athens, it was still only about 20 per cent of the total people living in Athens who had the right to vote. So, the free male citizens of Athens actually consisted not more than 20 per cent of it is the entire population. Women, slaves, and foreigners were still excluded from the political scene in democratic Athens and they did not have the right to vote.
Plato in his treatise The Republic tried to look into the possible forms of governance that might prove best for the running of an ideal city-state. Now the very fact that literature is conceived as part of this broader social-political framework and not as an isolated practice is something to be noted. Because if we understand this, then we will not be taken aback when we see contemporary theorists trying to read literature by placing it within a broader interdisciplinary context, because this is precisely what has been happening with all theorization of literature since at least 360 BCE when Plato wrote the public.
These writings are mostly in the form of dialogues. With perhaps only a major exception being the work titled “Apology”. In these Platonic dialogues, we usually see the figure of Socrates occupying the centre stage. And we see various other people engaging in disputation, engaging in conversation with the philosopher Socrates. It is this conversational style that Socrates uses to expound his theories, and also to demolish received ideas presented by his interlocutors; this means, firstly, that Plato’s dialogues themselves reflect the kind of literature for which classical Athens was most famous for, which is the literary form of drama. Secondly, this means that in Plato’s dialogues like The Republic for instance; we do not directly hear the voice of Plato himself. What we hear primarily is the voice of Socrates. But this opens a number of questions of course because is Socrates his voice that we hear in a text like The Republic, is it representative in a transparent way the voice of Plato, or is Socrates’ voice a reflection of what the historical Socrates had to say on the matters around which these dialogues are constructed? Or a Socrates figure likes a character in a play, whose words though they are written by the playwright, does not necessarily reflect the playwright’s opinions or even the exact sayings of the historical figure on whom the dramatic character might be modelled?
The main problem that Socrates of The Republic appears to have with poetry, is that it is imitative in nature. That is how Socrates defines poetry in The Republic. The Greek word that refers to imitation is mimesis; in book 10 of The Republic which is the last chapter of this dialogue, Socrates mentions that the kind of poetry that he thinks should be banned from the ideal city-state, is characterized by imitation or mimesis of “the actions of men whether voluntary or involuntary on which a good or bad result has ensued, and they rejoice or sorrow accordingly”. In other words, Socrates has a problem with poetry that imitates men and their actions, and show how these actions produce good or bad results, thereby creating joy or sorrow for an individual. In the same chapter Socrates also states, the reason why he has a problem with such kind of imitative poetry, and according to “The imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but things the same thing at one time great and at another small. He is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth”. For Socrates imitative poetry is problematic because of 2 reasons. Firstly, he argues that imitative poetry has a corrupting effect upon its audience. It “implants an evil constitution”. And secondly, Socrates argues that imitative poetry manufactures images that are far removed from the truth.
Socrates argues that if impressionable young children are exposed to such imitative poetry, the unsavoury characters and their actions depicted in them might have a corrupting influence on their minds; thereby making them incapable of developing into good and upright citizens of the ideal city-state. By way of an example, Socrates refers to the story of the Greek God Uranus and the strife that he had with his son Cronus. And this story is depicted famously by Hesiod. According to Socrates, such stories of quarrels between a father and a son who are also on top of that divine figures said a very bad example to the children who are to become the future guardians of the ideal city-state. This is because: “The young man should not be told that in committing the worst of crimes he is far from doing anything outrageous; and that even if it just chastises his father when does wrong in whatever manner, he will only follow the example of the first and the greatest among the gods”. In the light of this argument the moral objection that Socrates voices in book 10 can be elaborated in a very simple manner. Some imitative poetry should be shunned because by portraying immoral men and their dubious actions they set bad examples in front of the impressionable children and young men.
Because by the time we reach book 10 we find that Socrates is condemning imitative poetry in general. So, in book 10 he does not make a distinction between imitative poetry representing bad characters and immoral actions and imitative poetry representing good characters and their noble actions. In light of this fact, the source of Socrates is objection, therefore, needs to be located not in the morally good or morally bad content of the poetry. Rather it needs to be located in imitative poetries essence as a product of mimesis. Socrates seems to think that imitation itself is ethically corrupting. Irrespective of whether what is being imitated is morally good or bad. But this leads to the question why is mimesis, including mimesis of good men and their noble actions, morally corrupting? What is it in the very idea of imitation that is problematic?
And it is to this question that we now turn. According to the character of Socrates in Plato’s The Republic mimesis is corrupting because of two distinct, but interconnected reasons. The first reason has to do with the nature of reality or the nature of truth. And this is associated with Plato’s theory of forms. To understand this theory of form, let us look at the example of a bed that Plato mentions in book 10 of The Republic. Now, what do we understand when we try to think of a real bed or a true bed? According to Plato’s theory of forms, the true and original bed is and I quote: “one, existing in nature which is made by god”. Now, this might sound slightly counterintuitive given the fact that when we think about a bed we usually think of an object that is made by a carpenter. However, according to the theory of forms what the carpenter makes is in fact, a copy of the original form of the bed that already exists in nature. And this original bed is unconnected which specific instances of beds that we might come across in material reality. According to the Platonic theory of forms, even then, even with all the material beds gone, we will still retain the idea of the bed; because the idea is universal, and that idea is not dependent on the existence of specific individual beds. So, in this theory the original and the true bed is the ideal form; that is universal and non-material. The material bed is only an imitation of this non-material ideal form. But what happens in the case of mimesis or mimetic art which imitates from the world of material reality? Well in those cases we move even further from the true and original form. Thus, for instance, the painting of a bed is an imitation of a material bed that is manufactured by a carpenter which in itself is an imitation of the original and universal idea of the bed. Socrates in Plato’s The Republic builds his critique of mimesis in general and mimetic poetry in particular on this sense of distance from the original and true form of a thing. And according to this theory of forms, mimetic art is problematic because the painting of a bed for instance is situated at a third remove from the true and original bed.
Now, there is a problem here which is, that even if we assume that the process of mimesis as depicted by the act of painting a bed is situated at a third remove from the truth from the reality of the ideal form, why should it be considered as something which has the power of corrupting, something which is deceiving, something which is morally not right? The sense of becoming further and further removed from the truth as we pass through different levels of mimesis is even further augmented if we consider that the faculty of human perception is notoriously prone to folly.
Socrates in the republic considers mimesis to be corrupting is because he thinks that it confuses our sense of distinction between knowledge and ignorance. To begin with: “A painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter or any other artist though he knows nothing of their arts. And if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance. And they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter”. Socrates is referring to here is the painter’s ability to make us believe that he is so knowledgeable in the art of carpentry that the man he has painted as a carpenter. He is precisely what an ideal carpenter looks like in real life. Similarly, he can also make us believe that he knows the art of cobbling shoes so well that his portrayal on the canvas is a true representation of how a cobbler looks and behaves in real life. In other words, a painter who represents through his paintings different kinds of men engaged in different kinds of professions might fool people into believing that his portraits are realistic, because he personally knows all about these professions and these crafts that he is portraying on the canvas. Therefore, the painter poses to the people as an all-knowing person. But of course, this is problematic and is in fact, a deception in itself as Socrates points out: “Whenever someone tells us that he has met a person who knows all the crafts as well as the other things that anyone else knows, and that his knowledge of any subject is more exact than any of theirs is, we must assume that we are talking to a simple-minded fellow, who has apparently encountered some sort of magician or imitator and been deceived into thinking him omniscient and that the reason he has been deceived is that he himself cannot distinguish between knowledge, ignorance and imitation.”
Socrates asks if we are to consider a flute, then who is the most knowledgeable person in that matter. Of course, the answer is the person who plays the flutes will be the most knowledgeable because he is the one who has genuine knowledge about whether a flute is good or bad. The user or practitioner of something is a person who is really knowledgeable about that thing. In the words of Socrates, the beauty and correctness of each manufactured item, living creature and action is related to nothing but the use for which each is made or naturally adapted. So, the person who makes the flute or the cricket bat or any other such instrument of craft is, therefore, not as knowledgeable as the user of that instrument or the practitioner of the craft. “Flute-player will tell the flute-maker which of his flutes is satisfactory to the performer; he will tell him how he ought to make them and the other we will attend to his instructions”. Therefore, as we pass from the user to the maker, we already shift from real knowledge to a lesser form of knowledge.
But the maker is still aware of the true value of the items that he manufactures because he is guided by the user. However, when we come to a painter who imitates on his canvas the material flute produced by a flute maker, this connection which true knowledge is absolutely lost; it is completely severed. Or rather knowledge about the value of the flute actually becomes irrelevant to the painter. A painted flute might appear to be good without really being good. The painter who imitates the flutes need not know anything about flute playing to create realistic images of flutes. However, the very realism of his painting might trick children and simple-minded people to assume that the painter knows all about flutes because his painting of the flute is so nice.
It is very easy to explain the opposition to poets and poetry that imitate morally reprobate characters and their degenerate actions. What is difficult to explain is how this opposition might equally apply to poets imitating noblemen and virtuous actions. Socrates points out that a virtue like the virtue of justice for instance does not have anything to do with the outward nature of a man. Rather it has to do with the harmonious condition of his inner life which and “is the true self and concernment of man”. But a poet who wants to represent the virtues of a just man can only imitate the outward appearance of such a man. And not his inner self, which is after all the true source of his virtue. The true seat of virtue like justice for instance is a soul or the inner self of a man, his outwards action are particular manifestations of that original virtue and are at a second remove from the soul. The poetic mimesis of virtuous men is only an imitation of this outward appearance of virtue and is, therefore, situated at a third remove from what originally constitutes virtue. But, however, does not explain why poetry that imitates virtuous men can be morally Corrupting. Poets like Homer, for instance, in spite of being ignorant about virtue can appear to know all about it because his poetic representation of virtuous men might be appealing.
Virtue according to Socrates of the Platonic dialogue is a matter of the inner self it is a matter related to the soul rather than the outward man. And one of the key features of virtue is a harmoniously organized inner self. The most identifiable sign of a man possessed with the harmonious inner self is his quiet and controlled nature. Indeed, this very calmness this very unchanged ability of a character under varied circumstances is what marks him as virtuous in Socrates scheme of things. A virtuous character is difficult to portray through imitative poetry. And this is because a poet depends on imitating the outward actions and emotional expressions of a man to portray his characters. So, they cannot portray a virtuous character if there is no great outward manifestation of that virtuousness. What the poets, therefore, end up representing as virtuous characters are characters, which act in an exaggerated manner and try and express the inner nobility of their character through those exaggerated actions. Yet according to Socrates’s worldview, this exaggerated outward manifestation of the inner life represents not a virtuous soul at all, but rather it is opposite, it represents a soul, which has not achieved the inner harmony that is essential for virtue.
It was a common practice in the Greek world to make young children read the poetry of poets like Homer or Hesiod. So, that they are able to learn the nuances of a virtuous character, and they learn how to be virtuous themselves. But Socrates identifies a problem here. Just because a poet like Homer portrays virtuous characters, we assume that he will know a great deal about how to be virtuous. Similar to painting a flute on a canvas irrespective of the amount of knowledge a painter might have about the art of flute playing, Homer might not know anything about how to be virtuous in spite of his ability to portray characters who appear to be virtuous.
For Socrates to develop into a virtuous individual one should be guided by reason. According to Socrates, when confronted by calamities a rational individual would try to keep calm rather than get swayed by it. He would use his reason to keep in check the desire for weeping and wailing and showing exaggerated manifestation of his grief. So, poetry rather than enhancing the faculty of reason according to Socrates appeals to the baser passionate nature of an individual. In his own words, “poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up poetry let us they rule although them ought to be controlled if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue”.
It must be noted that even while criticizing mimetic art, Plato’s the republic resembles the form of a drama which was the mimetic art per excellence in ancient Athens. Can we, therefore, critique the content of Plato’s The Republic by referring to it is form? Strong criticism of Plato’s portrayal of mimesis as evil and as corrupting was indeed launched soon after his death. And it was launched by none other than his own celebrated disciple, Aristotle.