In a grand summation, The Republic
is Plato’s vision of the ideal city state. Chapter X in particular concerns itself with the role of art in this ideal city. Plato
argues that Art (poetry
, prose, drama
, painting) have no place in society
as they undermine it. He believes that Art is a flawed imitation
of the Forms (the sublime state of an idea or thing). His conclusion:
Get rid of Art.
The following is a translation of a debate between a fictional character, Professor Elbow and his semi-fictional adversary, [liontamer]. Professor Elbow is a rigid defender of the works and ideas of Plato. [liontamer], as you may know, is not. In this dialogue she attempts to defend Art and bring it back into the city.
The Coffee House that night was unusually packed. There was the everyday motley crew of east-side artists, down-trodden intellectuals, bemoaning poets, tragic lyricists and unpublished authors. And of course, the philosophy camp was there too. The two factions were, as always, separated like oil and water, the philosophers preferring to situate themselves in the corner as far away as possible from the lower elements of society. They huddled together, rubbing their chins and scratching their heads, obviously lost in profound contemplation. The artists draped themselves across various pieces of furniture with complete nonchalance, as they are apt to do, and pursued their own high brow investigations.
Then something unusual occurred. Having just finished a particularly heated discussion about the existence of the table around which they sat, the philosophers turned and glared resentfully at the artists, like wild dogs salivating at the smell of blood. The artists sensing this, stared back, filled with repulsion and loathing. Probably nothing would have happened had not Bob, the group’s unofficial troublemaker, raised his fist at the artists, and shaking it dramatically shouted:
You worthless lot! Plato was right. If it were up to me I would have you all banished from the city.
There was a tense silence as both sides of the café prepared for battle, hackles up. Now, as you probably know, artists and philosophers have been at odds with one another for centuries and when the opportunity occurs for the two parties to come head to head in an official argument on the subject, the chance is taken up enthusiastically by both sides. Fortunately, Professor Elbow, always calm and debonair, happened to be present and, always willing to take on a philosophical discussion of Plato, interceded before any violence could occur.
Please, let us resolve this matter as mature and rational adults, not barbarian brutes!
He said something of this sort, of course in a much more eloquent manner than I could relate, being trained in the ancient art of Sophistry. He managed to win agreement from both sides and they decided that a speaker would be chosen to defend each of the warring parties. The artists picked young [liontamer], an unknown and unproved artist herself, since she was the only one amongst them with any apparent knowledge of Plato and The Republic. There was great fear that she stood no chance and most of the artists voted to place her in the ring with the Professor most reluctantly. Furthermore, I am sure that if bets had been taken they most certainly would have placed all odds in favour of the Professor. Of course, no one in the room could have been aware of what momentous and historical words were about to be exchanged. The debate went as follows:
Professor Elbow, let me ask you a few question in the manner of wise Socrates. Perhaps in his old fashioned game of question and answer we can reach some semblance of agreement and maybe even gain some knowledge in the process?
That seems like a good idea to me and since it is you that stands in defense of Art, I believe it fair that you should begin the questioning. Or would you prefer that I start?
No, thank you for your graciousness. I will start
Fine then, go ahead. Give me your best shot, as they say.
This remark was accompanied by muffled and malicious laughter from the corner.
Plato believes that the work of artists in general can be lumped into a category called imitative art.
Yes, he does.
And he refers to it as imitative, since art, like a mirror, transplants reality onto a canvas or into a play.
Yes, that is why.
And finally, he argues that in comparison to the craftsman, the artist is thus removed three generations from the truth, from the perfection of the Forms.
Absolutely correct. You have a wonderful understanding of this, one of the most basic concepts of The Republic.
This was said in the most patronizing and sarcastic tone.
But how can we be sure that the craftsmen isn’t simply imitating other craftsmen? Can we say with absolute certainty that the carpenter isn’t imitating another carpenter when he fashions a table? Answer honestly now.
No, I suppose we can not.
And can we say with absolute certainty that the painter who paints a table is imitating a real table and not drawing it out of some sense of the Form that he has developed in his understanding of the table? By that I mean an impoverished artist, who raised by animals in the jungle has never sat at a table, and yet when imagining a more comfortable way to eat, draws from a vision a table much like the ones that we find in this café? Can we then say that he is imitating the craftsman?
No, we can not say that he is.
Then it follows that Plato’s argument that the craftsmen is closer to the Forms and that the painter is three generations removed is essentially flawed and based on distorted reasoning. Yes or No?
Yes, it follows from this that there is a flaw.
The spectators gasped in amazement at this admission.
It also follows then, that the only difference between the painted table and the real one is that the latter is functional in the world of objects while the former is ornamental.
He agreed to this.
Also we might say that the painting is functional on a more emotional level since it invokes in the viewer an idea of the table that perhaps they had never themselves conceived and hence the painter enables the viewer to improve on his or her understanding of the essence of a table better than any carpenter?
Therefore, having before us these two tables, the one made by the carpenter and the one created by the painter, there is no method of determining which one stands in closer imitation of the true Form? And we can argue infinitely in favour of one or the other?
He agreed that she had a point.
Now let us see if we can find any similarities between the writers of tragedy and the painters. Shall I continue with this line of inquiry or would you prefer to end here.
No please, I am very interested in what you have to say.
Good. Let us continue. In The Republic Plato talks about poetry and tragedy. Now I would lump these two into the category of Literature, since it will perhaps be an easier term to work with. Also since the Greeks had no conception of the novel or of film, it is important for our purposes here to address these forms of art as well. And since these can be equally oral or written, we might agree that they communicate their message in a similar fashion. Or do you think it wise to ignore film and the novel and not explain their purposes.
No we must certainly take into account all forms of art, ancient and modern. I agree to continue with your categorization of these arts under the heading of Literature.
Great. How does Plato believe Literature to function in the city? Please tell us, Professor Elbow, in your own words how he feels that the written and spoken word undermine the city state.
He argues that Literature works to undermine Reason. It concentrates its efforts on the dark side of the soul and rarely is its purpose to show the happy man. It then brings to light in writing or in performance the regretful, resentful part of the soul, brooding and lamenting on misfortune instead of following the path of Reason. It prevents wise and calm deliberation and promotes anxiety and ill being. Literature is too weak and feeble to imitate the reasonable part of soul, since it is the dark and complex portion that is easier to mirror. It prefers to at leisure, and at profit only to itself, to exploit humanity’s faults and relentlessly dwell upon them. It preys upon misfortune like a sick dog. It leads to a destruction of self-composure in the viewer and ultimately leads to pandemonium and a complete destruction of peace, leading all men astray from the road to a good and happy life. It is thus, an element that must not be permitted to reside in our ideal city.
Allow me to paraphrase and downsize your passionate statement. Plato argues that Literature and perhaps even art in general might lend to the destruction of Reason?
And that it does this by taking the viewer or the reader over to the dark side of his or her very own soul.
Hence in order for the receiver of art to be affected we must agree that each individual indeed has such a dark side?
Why yes. Plato himself would argue this!
The Professor impatiently said, almost shouting.
I simply want to determine that we are on the same page before preceding in order to prevent any misunderstandings.
Now let me propose an example with which we might work out this issue, together. A man is jilted by his lover in a most horrendous and heartbreaking manner. He is hurt and torn apart by jealousy, rage and a sense of loss. How should he respond? Should he go on a raving rampage in expression of his ire or should he silently deliberate his loss, calming himself with reason and taking solace in the knowledge that these feelings will pass?
Obviously, he should calmly contemplate the situation.
Agreed, his emotional outburst, although satisfying and cleansing might cause him more harm than good and might furthermore lead him to regrettable action. And we wouldn’t want such excitable citizens in our city, now would we?
Precisely not! I’m glad even you can see that.
Now in Plato’s ideal city state, where this individual has lived his entire life, there has never existed any form of imitative art. Therefore we can agree with absolute certainty that this man has never been to a showing of Madame Butterfly or Eugene Onegin, has never read Anna Karenina, has never seen movies like The Blue Angel or The Mouline Rouge and therefore has no previous notion of the jilted lover?
No, he would have no experience of these works, nor would he be able to associate with the irrational reactions that these stories portray.
Now, my question is this. How would our misfortunate lover be capable of deliberating fully a course of action without resorting to emotional outpouring? He would have no model against which to judge his current state, no character with whom he could sympathize. He would be isolated with his suffering, which would then fester and grow like a cancer within his heart until he would have no choice but to strike out in some form of irrational and unreasonable behaviour.
But he would deliberate and by calmly assessing his options would choose that path which in the end would continue along to happiness and the good life.
Most likely not. Our man, left with nothing to compare his plight to, can not begin to deliberate in full. His thinking will be one sided and by ignoring that dark, emotional side of himself, of his soul, he will allow it to grow unfettered. Is suppression a cure?”
No it is not.
Is it not perhaps wiser to examine and extract disease from the soul?
Yes, it is better.
Now, on the other hand, if he had been to see plays, operas and movies or had read books portraying various extreme and moderate reactions of the jilted lover, he would have a mirror of himself, of his current condition and a starting point from which to begin his rational and sound contemplation. And this would enable him to choose the best course of action.
I suppose so.
He would see in these stories a mirror image of his inner state and the various possible paths open to him. Would he not?
Professor Elbow reluctantly nodded.
In this way, he would not have to, himself, experience all the possibilities in order to decide on the best route. All those erroneous decisions would have been made within the safe realm of art and would not cause any harm.
The Professor looked somewhat sullen at this point.
In conclusion, Literature, including poetry, drama and film, shows us the dark side of our souls in order that we can hold it before criticizing eyes and gaze upon its faults, hence never allowing ourselves to fall into the same traps. Literature and indeed all forms of art are then an arena within which the less desirable elements of our souls can exist (for there is no denying that these exist) without causing any harm to the individuals within the city.
A series of despondent grunts resonated from the corner.
There you are Professor Elbow. I have proven to you that Art is not three generations removed from the Forms, nor does it lend to a destruction of Reason and, in fact, facilitates it. The state can not survive without art. Lacking this arena for the expression of the pains and joys of existence, the individuals of the city will be prone to seek out experience, in all its horror, pain and agony, to prove to themselves the darkest and most morbid of life’s possibilities. Since these unquestionably exist, as we both agreed earlier they must have some place where they can play themselves out. And what could be safer than the realm of Art. The state should be thankful to the artist who is willing to lend him or herself over to the exploration of this darkness and produce works of art, which allow others to gain insight of these parts of the soul without themselves needing to commit this sacrifice. Our artists are the martyrs to whom we must bow with all of our gratitude for translating indigestible experiences and empowering us to face ourselves. The state which bans Art from its cities is the most irresponsible and harmful one. No amount of Reasoning and deliberation can prepare us as fully as Art for the good life. Art is the truest expression of the self, it carries an imprint of the soul in all of its humility. Now, I think that I have proven to you and your sulky companions that Art, which has been begging for re-entry at the gates of Plato’s illustrious city for two millennia must be once again be admitted and indebtedly so. For, if I am not mistaken, Plato himself promised to swallow his own words should there ever be a proper argument in defense of Art. Now I have done this not using poetry or even slippery rhetoric, but the very tools with which you yourself fight for truth: philosophical arguments and logic.
At this point the philosophers, who had been growing increasingly agitated throughout [liontamer]’s speech, stood up in unison and to the sound of overturning chairs and breaking glass, left the café in a storm. There was a general exclamation of joy as the jubilant artists crowded around the young artist shouting,
Of course the table is! The table is!
[liontamer] looked across the room at her opponent as he was slowly and dejectedly gathering the many folds of his dark cloak about him, preparing for his departure. He looked so small without the gathering of would be thinkers that had so hastily abandoned him.
I only want to say one more thing Professor Elbow and with this you must agree. Great thinkers are not necessarily great writers. Take for example Hegel.
At the mention of Hegel, the Professor shuddered.
His most beautiful ideas are incomprehensible because of his most unfortunate inability to structure sentences and self-edit. You need us, Professor like we need you. The time has come for Philosophy and Art to move forward in harmony and cooperation. We must leave behind all this animosity and work together towards Truth and Understanding!
A look of hatred and disgust passed over his expression. Then he hissed, spraying his words like venom.
This is not over yet!
And with that he spun about on his heal in a most dramatic fashion and left.
You can consider reading this from a completely different and E2 orientated perspective. Simply replace Philosophy/Logic with factual noding and Art with creative noding. Just a silly suggestion.