Plato: The Attack on Poetry

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      Plato's attack on poetry came as a substantiation of his view that philosophers were superior and of greater significance than poets. At the outset, however, one must take note of the fact that Plato was not ignorant of the 'greatness' or enchantment of poetry; nor was he insensitive to it. Indeed, it was because he was acutely conscious of the effect of poetry that he banished poets from his Republic of ideal citizens and statesmen. Although he respected the skillful poet named Homer, he was not ready to give poets any place in an ideal state.

      His attack on poetry was made on several grounds. On intellectual grounds, Plato considered poetry to be a copy of the world of senses, and appearances. Poets thus have no knowledge of truth, but merely imitated a copy. Their poetry was thus a copy of a copy - a twice removed from reality. The poets were unaware of the ideal world of concepts like truth, and beauty. The poets merely copied the phenomenal world, which was a reflection of the ideal. Poetry thus can serve no useful function.

      On moral grounds, Plato declared that poets had a bad influence on social morality, for they cater to popular taste and tell tales of man's 'pleasant vices'. Secondly, poetry tells lies about gods. Gods are often represented as corrupt, and the tales told of them are immoral. This tends to corrupt public taste and morals. Even Homer does not escape this charge, and cannot be suitable for young students to read. Poets and dramatists, in other words, appeal to the baser instincts of man, according to Plato. Drama caters to, and encourages the instinct in men for the morbid and the sensational.

      Poetry is also attacked on emotional grounds - that poetry feeds and waters the desire and passions of men, instead of drying them up as they ought to. Plato was highly distrustful of the emotions, which according to him, created for men a sort of illusion. Emotions weaken man and are contradictory to the views of philosophy. The soul has three parts - the rational, the spirited, and the desirous or appetitive. Poetry keeps reasons at abeyance and encourages emotions. People give way to emotional distrubances under the effect of poetry, which they would be ashamed of in real life. Poetry causes imbalance and leads to unrestrained emotional states in which reason is subdued.

      Thus, poetry is attacked on the basis of being the result of inspiration', the poet writes quite unconsciously out of irrational impulses, and an irrational frenzy. Their work is not a craft but the result of some irrational outside force. Hence, what they say is unreliable and uncertain. What they write is useless, and a bad influence. Plato allows place for no poetry except "hymns to gods and panegyrics on famous men".

Philosophy-Superior to Poetry

      Plato felt that philosophy was more suitable for nurturing and educating the young than poetry. It was philosophy which would cure society of depravity and corruption. Philosophy would offer a guide to good conduct. Plato conveniently ignores the fact that the imitation' in poetry could stimulate and elevate human nature. He emphasizes the bad effects only. Citizens and rulers alike are advocated to read philosophy, for philosophy sees Truth in it's ideal or pure form. Poetry, on the other hand, imitates shadows, and Leads men to experience unreal feelings of pain and pleasure and makes men lose their hold over themselves.

The Value of Plato's Criticism

      Plato's criticism of poetry primarily stemmed from a desire to correct the prevailing tendency in Greece, to regard poets as seers. At the time, Homer was not considered merely a great poet; he was regarded in a more religious light. Plato felt that this was a dangerous thing not only for the welfare of the state and society but also from the point of view of the right appreciation of fine art. Further, Plato's criticism gave direction to future criticism: he proved to be a great stimulant to thought, an irritant to thought; he dropped suggestive and illuminating ideas which have proved to be more useful than any reasoned out, coherent theory.

Plato's ideas are given in brief, in the following lines:

1. In his works, appears for the first time the conception of 'mimesis', or imitation, as the essential characteristic of all art. The very concept of 'mimesis' is used by him to depreciate poetry. Aristotle modified the concept to elevate poetry. Plato further divides art into two types - the useful, and the fine arts.

2. Plato, in spite of his depreciation of poetry as a copy of a copy, was alive to the unseen reality behind the world of the senses. He observed that poetry in its highest form imitated this ideal world; in its highest form, it became a process of representing things as they ought to be. This is a hint of poetry being a creative process. It was to be taken up and elaborated by Aristotle.

3. Plato considers poetry to be a matter of inspiration. However it is also an art, and Plato lays down basic principles for the practice of poetry: first, there must be selection of material; secondly, there must be knowledge of the rules and techniques of the art: thirdly, study, practice and learning are necessary.

4. Plao emphasizes the organic unity in a work of art. He compares the work of art to a living organism. This implies a coherent whole in which the parts have a significant relationship with one another and to the whole. Once again, we see that Aristotle has taken the idea of his discussion.

5. Plato classifies poetry into dithyrambic, epic, and dramatic, on the basis of the method of narration in each. This begins the classification of poetry according to form and style.

6. Plato favored decorum, austerity, order and restraint in poetry. "He is thus the first to enunciate the classical ideals of artistic beauty."

7. Though Plato took delight in the comedies of Aristophanes, he was against excessive laughter. So is Aristotle.

8. Plato gives a moral basis to good art. Good art imitates truly, and thus it cannot run counter to principles of morality.

      Plato's works formed the main literary criticism before Aristotle took up these views, elaborated some, modified others, and gave a new dimension to literary criticism.

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