Don LaVange (donlavange) wrote,
Don LaVange

Plato's Treatment of the Arts and the Artist in the Just Society

Plato describes in books 3 and 10 of his work “The Republic”, the nature and status of what he calls the mimetic arts, including those who produce or enjoy such works, in an imagined city of justice. Engaging himself in an ironically artistic portrayal of philosophers discussing such a city, with the dead Socrates posing as a questioning conduit for the ideals Plato wishes to shed light on, Socrates and a group of friends engage in an imagined conversation where the just city is described with respect to these things. This paper will describe briefly how Plato viewed artistic production as being 3rd from the truth, mimicry of the copy of the eternal form it tries to represent, and how this informed the normative evaluation of art within the envisioned perfect state. It will further describe how such a view misunderstands art’s value as a channel for perceiving truth and the usefulness art has in society.

The perfect city, Socrates[1] is made to inform us, would not allow artists, poets, playwrights, or musicians, to remain in its boundaries (398[2]). Such persons have little value being mimics of the truth, who sit at a distance of 3 from the form they might attempt to portray. The eternal form is itself the sole example of the truth. It is that which the philosopher-guardians of the city seek in maintaining a perfect and free city. Those craftsman and providers that make the chairs and beds and tables and other items in the city have created a second, useful, but limited copy of that form they seek to portray. The third from the form is mimicry of the copy of the form (596-598). This is all that art is, and it is “not to be taken seriously” (602b). Any value it has might be limited to a role for very small children in educating them toward becoming mindful of God, or brave in battle (395d). But it is certainly not suited to anything beyond that, as even when depicting brave men in battle or devout obedience to God (in plays or poetry) such invigorates emotions better left to the private expressions good and decorous men might experience, rather than in public. In fact, Plato finds poetry, tragedy and all the arts ultimately dangerous to the soul (606d).

While Plato has these ideas being accepted graciously by Socrates’ friends, he takes more careful aim on Homer. Admitting Homers esteemed role in Greek education, he questions if Homer is somehow only second from the truth (as Philosophers are) rather than third from the truth as he has established is the case for those who practice mimetics. He dismisses the poet because if Homer had been knowledgeable of generalships, of cities governments, and of the leading of men and so forth, what battle did he win? What city kept him and honored him as the Spartans did Lycurgus or the Athenians Solon? There being none, Plato describes him as a mere artist, a mimicking third from the truth, and hence of no value (600-602).

For Plato, everything in the just city must contribute to the well-being of the city. As such, all art must be evaluated in terms of its ability to contribute toward that goal. But Plato dismisses art as setting up “bad government in the soul of every private person by gratifying the mindless part” which can “corrupt good men” (605 c). The government of the just city will be undermined if men are exposed to the emotion stirring examples of mimicry, far from the truth. It is bad for the appetites of the providers, bad for the will and spirit of the auxiliaries, and distracting from the forms that the guardians have been bred to pursue (605c).

There are several reasons why I think that Plato’s argument about art is unsatisfactory. The first concern I have is tied up with my rejection of the notion that there is anything that exists like the eternal forms he describes. The maker of a chair is making not a crude copy of an eternal form of a chair, but rather an instantiation of a rather fluid cultural notion of something that is linguistically described as a chair. The notion of a chair variously conceived by makers is not evidence that makers were trying in vain to get at the original form. Rather they were engaging in a process of both mimicry and creativity, mimicking chairs the makers had experienced in the past, and creatively embellishing the chair in either artistic or functional ways, often improving the chair. I would claim that the chair’s creation by the series of individual makers, and the observation of and use of chairs is where the notion of “chair” comes from, rather than the other way around as Plato claims.

My second objection is to Plato’s charge of mimicry and his claim that such mimicry is to be evaluated based on its ability to coherently describe the thing being represented. To be sure, a painter, poet, musician or writer must be skilled at being able to represent in symbolic ways both the natural world and the world of ideas (not to a world of ideas that somehow magically exists independently of thinking humans, but one that is instantiated in the body of objects humans create that demonstrate such ideas). This may involve at some level of skill, exact mimicry of objects or it may involve more abstract representation of objects and especially ideas. Art may, however, be using such representations as a vehicle for communication of truths such as insight into what it means to be human, to be alive, to be mortal and to demonstrate some insight into the nature of the world around us. The artist isn’t attempting to dupe the childish or foolish, but rather to signify something to the insightful.

Plato also claims that the welling of emotion that such artistic works can produce is dangerous. The aesthetic experience of watching a play, however, isn’t lessened by public display of emotion, the emotion that might be evoked contributes to the aesthetic experience in ways that humans find gratifying. Aristotle, who also disagrees with Plato on this point, claims that there is cathartic value in experiencing such emotions and that this has value in itself. But the aesthetic experience is not limited to emotional involvement, and I believe it sheds light on something very much like truth, though attempting to describe how this is so is beyond the scope of this paper.

Plato’s dismissal of the role of Homer and other great and celebrated poets of Greece betrays an inconsistency in his argument that is pointed out by Pierre LaMarche (Aesthetics class notes: January, 14, 2003). In book 5, Plato responds to the criticism that Athens is in such a sorry state despite the teaching of the philosophers, and he claims that it isn’t the fault of the philosophers that the various cities like Athens refuse to adopt their spouted wisdom. But he uses the same argument that he attempts to deflect in Chapter 10 when he wants Homer to have had recognition in his day in such ways that he was either made a city leader, or that he was forced to stay in some city and advise rather than traveling around in the bardic tradition. Why didn’t Socrates himself win the acclaim of the people? Instead, he was executed for leading the youth of the city astray and for teaching against the gods. Plato dismissed Homer with a double-standard.

Finally, I dismiss Plato’s ideas about artists because I disagree about what might make a “just” city. Perhaps such a city is not attainable, but Plato’s vision would create a dull and drab city where there was no human vision in the form of the arts, no insight into the human condition not straight forwardly rational. The horrific notions of being led by the oligarchic philosopher kings ruling with absolute power and enforced by the auxiliary might of that state holds an image of a repressive, repetitive life, where early determinations doomed humans to a drab and artless life. I maintain that art enhances life, pleasure is good, and society is improved by it.

Plato’s notions of Eternal Forms, the role that art plays as mimicking the produced copies of those forms (3rd from the truth) and the debasing quality that comes from the release of emotion attendant to such mimicry is interesting but imagined. The forms don’t exist. Art is more than mimicry. The claim that poets should be judged according to how society reacts to them falls flat because of Plato’s own claims of blamelessness for the ignored philosophers of the past. His vision of the perfect and just city describes a world where humans have a worse life, not a better one.


[1] For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to what Socrates is made to say as being the voice of Plato, who is merely mimicking Socrates to establish his points.

[2] These page numbers refer to “marginal page numbers” taken from “The Republic”, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1974
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