Plato’s (427-347 BC) View of Aesthetics from the Republic. • Plato is considered to be the father of & fiercest critic of aesthetics. • He is mainly concerned with the application of aesthetics, not offering a systematic understanding of it in a well-ordered society. • Like Xenophanes, Heraclitus, & Socrates, in Plato’s earliest dialogues: • He distrusts art, poetry, and theatre; • Yet Plato a strong fascination with it, esp. poetry because of its power to arouse emotions.
Plato’s View of Aesthetics fromthe Republic • If poets are not able to clearly justify “inspiration, not knowing how or what they create, they are to be suspect because poetry evokes powerful emotions (cf. Lysias 214a1-2). • Yet, when it comes to the pleasure of art, Plato is able to allow for “internal” aesthetic principles, such as those of form, organization, and coherence (Phaedrus 268-9; Republic 4.420c-d),esp. if it will contribute to a well-ordered society.
Plato’s View of Aesthetics from the Republic • A turning point occurs in Cratylus whereby he focuses his questions about are on the concept of “mimesis” (whose Greek senses include imitation, representation, and dramatic enactment). • In essence, poetry, visual arts, & music can be treated as analogous in their representational relation to the world. This finds further discussion in the Republic, books 2-3, and 10.
Books 2-4: • Books 2-4 presents a critique of false & harmful views which poets, especially Homer and other tragedians express, then invites an insidious act of psychological identification on the part of actor, hearer, or reader, esp. in view of education of the young. • But in doing so he constructed an aesthetic scheme and challenge which judges art by a 3-fold criteria: • Truthfulness (he does not exclude fiction); • Ethical quality of content; • Psychological benefit. The point: the underlying justification of art in life, both individually and collectively as a (and for) well-ordered society or city-state.
Books 2-4: Plato refuses to allow the pursuit of art to be self-sufficient because of its power to “enter the soul” and its ability to influence culture; the risk is too great to the city-state. Consider the following quotes:
Books 2-4: “Moreover, these stories [Greek myths & heroes, demons, Hades] are harmful to people who hear them, for everyone will be ready to excuse himself when he’s bad… For that reason, we must put a stop to such stories, lest they produce in the youth a strong inclination to do bad things.” 3.391-392.
Books 2-4: Then what’s left is how to deal with stories about human beings, isn’t it?... Because I think we’ll say that what poets and prose-writers tell us about the most important matters concerning human beings is bad. They say that many unjust people are happy and many just ones are wretched, that injustice is profitable if it escapes detection, and that justice is another’s good but one’s own loss. I think we’ll prohibit these stories and order the poets to compose the opposite kind of poetry and tell the opposite kind of tales. Don’t you think so?...
Books 2-4: Then we’ll agree about what stories should be told about human beings only when we’ve discovered what sort of thing justice is and how by nature it profits the one who has it, whether he is believed to be just or not. …We should now, I think, investigate their style, for we’ll then have fully investigated both what should be said and how it should be said. 3.392a-c.
Books 2-4: “Above all, they must guard as carefully as they can against any innovation in music and poetry or in physical training that is counter to the established order. And they should dread to hear anyone say: “People care most for the song That is newest from the singer’s lips.” Someone might praise such a saying, thinking that the poet meant not new songs but new ways of singing. Such a thing shouldn’t be praised, and the poet shouldn’t be taken to have meant it, for the guardians must beware of changing to a new form of music, since it threatens the whole system. As Damon says, and I am convinced, the musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws.” 4.424b-c.
Books 2-4: “Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeates the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t it been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of the its kinship with himself.” 3.401-402.
Consider this commentary on this section of Plato’s Republic: “The modes and rhythms of music, and the guardians’ physical training, all aim at producing tough soldiers, experienced enough in intellectual culture not to treat the unarmed citizens savagely, but not so softened by sweet food and music as to become incapable of fighting the city’s enemies. Education unites their aesthetic taste with their conscience….For Plato, education begins with the inculcation of good habits…He may insist that drama corrupts the city by multiplying citizens’ tasks, but he seemed more moved by the claim that mimicry [imitation] establishes ‘habits and nature’ in the mimic.
Consider this commentary on this section of Plato’s Republic: Plato’s reader must not neglect this side of the pedagogical theory, for it underwrites an important aspect of his moral psychology. Perfect virtue might work from the inside out, with intellectual understanding of the good coordinating one’s actions in service to the good, but virtue also works from the outside in, which is to say that copying fine habits helps to produce fine natures.
Consider this commentary on this section of Plato’s Republic: Painting, furniture-making, architecture, and the other crafts can issue an either graceful or malformed productions (401a). The beautiful productions dispose a soul toward virtue-reason and the virtues themselves being beautiful-before that soul even has the capacity to follow.” ~ Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Republic, 2nd edition by Nicholas Pappas (London: Routledge, 1995), 72.
Book 10: • But then in Republic 10, Plato impugns aesthetics with the problem of “mirror making” or “art qua mimesis”, the creation of mere appearances that fall short of even sensible reality, thus “twice removed” from transcendent truth (the plane of the forms). Poetry, once again, has bewitching power to arouse emotions that are contrary to virtue. Therefore, aesthetics must be placed under “political control.”
Book 10: Like a painter, he [poet] produces works that is inferior with respect to truth and that appeals to a part of the soul that is similarly inferior rather than to the best part. So we were right not to admit him into a city that is to be well-governed, for he arouses, nourishes, and strengthens this part of the soul and so destroys the rational one, in just the way that someone destroys the better sort of citizens when he strengthens the vicious ones and surrenders the city to them. Similarly, we’ll say that an imitative poet puts a bad constitution in the soul of each individual by making images that are far removed from the truth and by gratifying the irrational part, which cannot distinguish the large and the small but believes that the same things are large at one time and small at another…
Book 10: However, we haven’t yet brought about the most serious charge against imitation, namely, that with a few rare exceptions it is able to corrupt even decent people, for that’s surely an altogether terrible thing…. An in the case of sex, anger, and all the desires, pleasures, and pains that we say accompany all our actions, poetic imitation has the very same effect on us. It nurtures and waters them and establishes them as rulers in us when they ought to wither and be ruled, for that way we’ll become better and happier rather than worse and more wretched.
Book 10: ….If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason…. Nonetheless, if the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises….Therefore, isn’t is just that such poetry should return from exile when it has successfully defended itself, whether in lyric or any other meter?” Republic X 605-607.
Book 10: • After his discussion of injustice in the soul and the city he returns to his critique of poetry. • Pappas’ commentary states that every issue in Book 10 reflects back on the Republic’s psychological theory in Book 4 and on the vindication of a life in which reason rules in Books 8-9. Therefore, given the fact that Plato defends “the life of reason, it becomes clearer why he now returns to his discussion on aesthetics.
Book 10: According to Pappas the general argument against poetry is evident: • Poetry imitates appearance (595b-602c); • Poetry appeals to the worst parts of the soul (602c-606d). • Poetry should be banned from the good city (606e-608b).
Book 10: Pappas offers this insight into Book 10: “Despite his conclusion, Plato’s interest lies not in censorship but in the new discoveries he has made about poetic imitation. He gives no argument for the steps from  to (3), considering it obvious that if he can show poetry to yield deleterious effects, he will have made the case for its abolition. (Free speech for views known to be harmful has no value for Plato- if anything, it reminds him of the licentiousness of democracy.). The work consists in showing where those effects come from. So he will first argue that poetry is a phantom , then use  to expose its psychological effects .
Book 10: • Book 10 contributes the following (595a-602c): • Artistic imitation is an imitation of appearance: • Poetry imitates humans but in the ideal city it will imitate only the best, the most virtuous of them. • Painting, the imitation of an appearance, is a duplication of an object as opposed to the object’s true nature. • Poetry and Paintings reveal the ignorance of their makers because they imitate humans or objects because the imitate appearance only. • The imitator lacks both knowledge and justified belief.
Book 10.602-607a: The Arousal of Unreason: • Book 10 contributes the following regarding the arousal of unreason, Pappas offers the following outline (pg. 183 cf. 602c-603b): • 1. Art imitates appearance and not reality. • 2. Reality is the object of knowledge, perceived by the rational part of the soul. • 3. From premise 2, appearance without reality appeals to a non-rational part of the soul. • 4. From premise 1 and premise 3, art appeals to the irrational in human beings.
Book 10: • Poets have a tendency to imitate the soul’s worse impulses instead of its better ones (603c-605c). • Poetic imitation appeals to and encourages the irrational impulses in the soul as witnessed in the dramatic depictions of passions instead of the sobering calculating agency of reason that reins in those passions (604e-605a).
Book 10.602-607a: The Arousal of Unreason: • Imitative arts produce objects of low metaphysical status. • Aesthetic imitations are a concern for Plato because they seduce people away from using their powers of calculation unlike other objects. Something about the artistic image keep people from asking rational questions. • Products of artistic imitation lure the audience with its intoxicating enchantment. For example, the charm of poetry is its rhythm, meter, and harmony.
Book 10.605c-607a • Poetry leads it audience to privilege those parts of the souls that ought to be kept in a subservient position (605c-607a). Why? • Desires lack awareness of their own insignificance; • Impulses that don’t flow from reason will always make mistakes. • Subject desires to scrutiny, weighing each non-rational motivation against a philosophical evaluation of its worth and meaning. • Playwrights and actors shy away from perfect characters; they thrive on imperfection (pg. 185).
Book 10: Pappas states: “In his final argument, Socrates convicts the audience of poetry of the same perverse preference (605-60a) [of desiring to arouse the emotions against the idealized character of the just]. For whatever reason, we let ourselves enjoy actions, passions, jokes., and drives in a dramatic or fictional work that we would never tolerate in our private lives. Such enjoyment amounts to privileging non-reason over reason, because every appeal to the emotions is a seduction away from the use of reason. Emotions by themselves are not bad; not can something like grief e suppressed entirely. But preferring an emotional response to a rational one is like asking the army what its leaders ought to order it to do. And just as too many calls for votes in an army would weaken its officer’s power, so too every indulgence of an irrational impulse leaves it stronger (606b-d; cf 444c, 589c-d). The enjoyment of poetry leads to injustice in the soul” (pg. 186).
Concluding Observations: • At the beginning of our study poetry that is mimetic is to be excluded but by Book 10 all poetry is indeed mimetic; only “hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people” Republic, 607a) are retained. So, except for above, he banishes poetry from his ideal society. • If poetry can satisfy philosophy by producing an argument that is beneficial to the community to the well-ordered society, then it can reclaim its place.
Concluding Observations: • Mimetic poetry has its greatest force on the human psyche, appealing to the non-rational aspect of people. Even the individual who attains the Platonic ideal and is governed by the noble, rational, good-seeking part of the soul, is powerfully affective by the experience of myths and stories (Republic 605c). • We begin to value responses that appeal to our feelings and this will no doubt corrode our quest for the good in real life. • Mimetic art falsely pretends to be knowledge but is detrimental to the human mind; it enchantment to arouse the non-rational is a huge concern because it displaces reason.
Concluding Observations: • We begin to value responses that appeal to our feelings and this will no doubt corrode our quest for the good in real life. • Mimetic art falsely pretends to be knowledge but is detrimental to the human mind. • Therefore, except for hymns to the gods and eulogies, poetry is to be banished.
Appendix: What is beauty? • Plato’s concept of beauty finds its greatest expression in the Symposium. • Platonic metaphysical distinction between the beauty of things and properties as they occur in the sensible world and BEAUTY ITSELF-the eternal, unchanging, and divine FORM of BEAUTY, accessible only to the intellect, not the senses (Symposium 211d). • Form of Beauty is itself beautiful (211a).
Appendix on Beauty: The highest form of love: “If someone got to see the Beautiful, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality…only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue (because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue (because he is in touch with the true beauty).” ~ Symposium, 211e-212a.
Appendix on Beauty: The result: While the poet makes imitations and understands images, the philosopher who encounters the eternal, pure, and immutable Beauty, is able to bring genuine goods into the world because he understands what virtue really is. Christopher Janaway, “Plato” in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 12.
Bibliography: • Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper (Indiana: Hacket Publishing, 1997). • Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (London: Routledge, 2001). • Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Republic, 2nd. Edition by Nickolas Pappas (Routledge: London, 1995).