Culture, Art and Poetry in The Republic
Course-wide Lecture, Fall 1999
by Professor Alexander Nehamas Princeton University
Plato's Republic, I hope, is one of the most disturbing books you have ever read: a casual conversation about old age, through an immense series of small steps, to which, though most seem reasonable, we are never allowed to object (Glaucon and Adeimantus are always there ahead of us with their unending "Yes, of course, Socrates"), results in an obsessively detailed description of a social organization in which most people in this room, despite our qualifications, would have ended up either as laborers or soldiers through no obvious choice of our own.
That choice would be left to the philosophers among us - a small class, definitely not that of philosophy professors today, who know what is good, just and right for every citizen. And, Plato argues, we would be happier with their choices than we ever could be if we chose our lives for ourselves under the circumstances of our everyday world. A combination of 1984 and Brave New World, the Republic is more disturbing than both not only because of its immensely larger scope but also because it is completely free of their cynicism. The Republic is not satire. Plato really believes his world is the best there is and that its people are as happy as human beings can be. And he gives us reasons why.
One of those reasons, which is also a main reason the Republic has disturbed so many people over the centuries, is supposed to be the fact that the ideal city will contain no art. Plato, on this picture, believes that art perverts and corrupts: being simply "imitation", it makes us attached to the wrong things - things of this world rather than eternal Forms - and depicts vile and immoral behavior on the part of the gods and humans as if it were normal or admirable. It implants the wrong values; its power is itself a reason we find the Republic repugnant today: if our souls were free of Homer's heroes, we would realize that the work's depressing austerity is really transcendent harmony.
The Republic's main discussion of art occurs in Books II and III and then again in Book X. In Book III, a famous passage is usually quoted as proof that Plato banished the artist:
It seems, then, that if a man, who through clever training can become anything and imitate anything, should arrive in our city, wanting to give a performance of his poems, we should bow down before him as someone holy, wonderful, and pleasing, but we should tell him that there is no one like him in our city and that it isn't lawful for there to be. We should pour myrrh on his head, crown him with wreaths, and send him away to another city. (398a)
But note that Plato, though not everyone remembers it, goes on:
But, for our own good, we ourselves should employ a more austere and less pleasure- giving poet and story-teller, one who would imitate the speech of a more decent person and who would tell his stories in accordance with the patterns we laid down when we first undertook the education of our soldiers.
Plato, as the long discussion of poetry in Books II and III has made clear, depends crucially on poetry, which he considers mimesis or imitation, that is, acting like someone else, to educate the future leaders of his city. The long account of the expurgation of stories that attribute immorality to gods and heroes depends on the necessity of poetic imitation to their upbringing. Plato not only allows, but he requires his young Guardians to imitate - to play the part of, to act like - various good characters. He even allows them to imitate bad characters provided they do so not seriously - only in play, in order to ridicule them (396ce).
Still, the expurgation of Homer and Aeschylus - monuments of western culture - may leave those who admire that culture uneasy. It may also leave uneasy those who don't admire it, since what Socrates expunges is not obviously bad from every point of view: why, for example, should only women and not men be allowed to grieve and lament when something awful happens to them (388).
Plato's discussion has then already raised two questions: first, do we have the right to mutilate great works of art, and, second, if we do arrogate that right to ourselves, by what standards are we to mutilate them?
In regard to the first question, I want to say two things. First, in Books II and III, Plato is mainly concerned with the material available to young children. And everyone agrees that we must exercise control over that. Second, to think of the Homeric epics as "great works of art" in this context is a red herring, for we fail to place them within their own complex cultural context, within a world ("Homer's world, not ours," in the words of W.H. Auden) which is now, partly because of the Republic itself, long dead. Unlike the Greeks of Plato's time, we do not use the Homeric poems as a primer for reading, speaking, thinking, and valuing. The relevant comparison is not between our "enlightened" attitude and Plato's moralistic reaction to Homer (and in any case how many children even know who Homer is today? And do those who read him in various watered-down "mutilated" versions hear about Odysseus and Calypso, or Ares and Aphrodite?). The proper comparison involves mass education and entertainment. Instead of Homer, children today learn from books which we constantly monitor for sexist, racist, violent or other unacceptable attitudes. We find nothing wrong with protesting against them; we rewrite history every few years. They are entertained, and learn about friendship or hope, from TV shows which produce indignation and agitation when their values seem wrong. We do not disagree with Plato over whether children should be exposed to the right values or not, but only over who - the government or the family - should decide what children should learn.
That brings me to my second question. What standards are we to use in making such decisions? The Republic claims that only philosophers know them. Such a view is impossible in a society that is democratic and pluralistic, as we believe ours to be - and the more confused we are about the answer to that question the more likely our society is to be democratic and pluralistic. Nevertheless, we are at one with Plato in agreeing that mimesis, "when practiced from youth become[s] part of nature and settle[s] into habits of gesture, voice, and thought" (395d). Otherwise, we would not care what children do on Saturday morning.
Plato's case, however, is much more radical than I have suggested so far. He concludes his discussion of poetry with a central and very controversial principle:
Good speech, . . . good accord, good shape and good rhythm follow upon goodness of character. (400de)
Style expresses character in a straightforward way: moral goodness appears as grace and beauty, evil as coarseness and ugliness. He says that this is so not only in poetry but also in painting, weaving, embroidery, architecture, furniture and household utensils, even in the shape of human and animal bodies, and especially in music - that is, in the general culture to all of which, therefore, his restrictions will apply and to which not only children but adults as well exposed. In all these practices, which include the arts, Plato would legislate the right things to depict and the right way to depict them. For that he needs a lot of people capable of creating graceful and beautiful things - that is why he does not banish the artists: on the contrary, they turn out to be essential to his project.
Book X of the Republic, however, under the rubric of "mimetic poetry," does banish all of epic, tragic and comic poetry. Since we know that selected passages from epic and tragedy are used in education, Plato's proscription must amount to the elimination of all the great dramatic festivals of ancient Athens, around which much of the city's life revolved, as well as the public recitations of Homer which sometimes attracted as many as 20,000 people. Although that is not to banish the whole of art, it is still a serious enough issue.
Why does Plato banish these performances? We are usually given two reasons. First, because dramatic poetry is mimetic. And mimesis, according to Book X, is imitation, or representation, of sensible things and not of the intelligible Forms which are the only worthy and possible objects of real knowledge: art only gives an account of appearances, not reality. But that can't be right. A careful look at Book X shows that Plato's argument against mimesis has a clear structure. Again and again, he shows how mimesis works in painting, and then, on the assumption that dramatic poetry too is mimetic, he shows how mimesis functions in it. For example, he distinguishes the Form of the Couch, which is made by God, the physical couch the carpenter makes by reference to the Form, and the merely apparent couch painters make by imitating the carpenter's work. Painters, who, unlike carpenters, are imitators need to know only what couches look like, not what they are. Plato then argues that poets too are merely imitators. Therefore, just as painters touch only the appearance of what they represent, the poets, whose subject is human action and therefore human virtue, can do no more. They address only represent the appearance of virtue, and need to know noting about it in order to imitate it successfully. But neither the fact that mimesis is ignorant nor the painters' ability to fool "children and silly people" (598bc) into thinking that what they paint is real is enough to banish painting from the ideal city, and Plato nowhere, in this or any other part of the Republic, suggests that painting, or sculpture, will be eliminated. Its harms, such as they are, are minor, and are easy to control.
But not the harms of drama. Drama imitates human action which leads to success or failure, to pleasure or pain, to happiness or misery, virtue or vice (603c). No harm in this domain is minor. In any case, Plato claims, drama is inherently suited to vulgar subjects and shameful behavior: no villain, no drama. An
excitable character admits of many multicolored imitations. But a rational and quiet character, which always remains pretty well the same, is neither easy to imitate nor easy to understand once imitated, especially by a crowd consisting of all sorts of people gathered together at a theater festival, for the experience being imitated is alien to them. (604e)
But drama harms everyone. Confronted with the shameful behavior in drama even "the best among us ... enjoy it, give ourselves up to following it, sympathize with the hero, take his suffering seriously, and praise as a good poet the one who affects us most in this way" (605cd). And yet that is the sort of behavior we try to avoid when we face real misfortune. How can poetry make us admire just what we would be ashamed to be in life?
Plato's explanation is that the appetitive part of our soul, which aims at immediate gratification and not with our overall good, delights in such behavior as it delights in everything that lacks measure. Since in drama we watch the sufferings of others - in fact, merely the representations of the sufferings of others - the rational part of the soul, our sense of what is good for us overall, loosens its control and, perhaps against its better judgment, allows our appetite to indulge itself.
What we fail to realize, Plato says, is that all our reactions to the theater - to sex, anger, and all the desires, pleasures, and pains that accompany action - are directly transferred to, and determine, our reactions to life, We end up acting in reality as if we lived on a stage. By taking pleasure in spectacles we make a spectacle of ourselves. In short, dramatic poetry perverts. It "introduces a bad government in the soul of each individual citizen," with appetite ruling where reason should (605b), and since the soul and the city are parallel, in destroying the soul, drama destroys the city. Since conflict and evil are inherent to it, it can never exhibit grace and beauty. That's why it is altogether intolerable.
On the face of it, Plato's assumption seems absurd. Admiring Odysseus does not generally tend to make people better liars. But, again, recall that we agree with it in connection with children - that's why we exercise such care with their books and entertainment. Although matters are in fact much more complicated, we often think that children treat representations and reality as equivalent, often unable, for example, to distinguish fictional dangers from real.
Plato thinks the same is true of adults as well: their reactions to poetry and life are the same because, he believes, the representations of poetry are, superficially, exactly the same as the real things they represent. Expressing sorrow in the theater is superficially identical with - exactly the same in appearance as - expressing sorrow in life. Actors don't feel the sorrow they express, but this difference is imperceptible: it is so to speak ontological, and allows the surface behavior of both actors and real grievers to be exactly the same. If, then, the representation of the expression of sorrow in drama produces pleasure, so eventually will its expression in life. Plato does not consider that the pleasure we feel is aimed at the representation, which is an object in its own right, and not at what it is a representation of. Representation is, for him, transparent. It derives its features only from what it represents, an object we can see directly through it. The imitation of expressing sorrow is simply sorrow expressed, just as sorrow is expressed in life. Their only difference is the underlying, imperceptible feeling that fiction lacks and reality possesses. But imitation, as we have seen, tends to become nature. We emulate in life what we admire in the theater.
A silly view, you will say. No one believes that any longer. Well, perhaps not, not in connection with what we know as the fine arts, although the hysteria prompted by Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio a few years ago and the brewing storm over the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition of recent British art may suggest otherwise. But leave the fine arts behind, and you will find Platonism rampant in our concern with mass entertainment, particularly television. Television, one author has written, unwittingly repeating Plato almost word-for-word, is suited only for
expressing hate, fear, jealousy, winning, wanting, and violence ... hysteria or ebullience . . . the facial expressions and bodily movements of antisocial behavior.... We slowly evolve into the images we carry, we become what we see.
Even adults confuse appearance with reality:
people ... believ[e] that an image of nature [is] equal. . to the experience of nature . . that images of historical or news events [is] equal to the events ... the confusion of. . . information with a wider, direct mode of experience [is] advancing rapidly.
The eminent critic Wayne Booth, who tried to like television and failed, concluded that
the effects of the medium in shaping the primary experience of the viewer and thus the quality of the self during the viewing, are radically resistant to any elevation of quality in the program content: as a viewer, I become how I view, more than what I view. . . the new media will surely corrupt whatever global village they create; you cannot build a world community out of misshapen souls.
Whatever its content, the form of television is vulgar, coarse and graceless, and produces stunted people. "Television is a rare thing, a technology wholly without redeeming features," someone else wrote:
The influence of TV on our society has been uniformly malign, and there is not a single social problem we face that has not been caused by or exacerbated by television [computer games and the Internet are now also part of the problem] ... I believe there is only one cure for the social illness television has caused: abolition.
The parallels are endless. Contemporary criticism of television is identical to Plato's moral disapproval of dramatic poetry in the 4th century B.C. In that respect, most of us are still Platonists.
But wait, you will say. This is television, while Plato is talking about Homer and Aeschylus - they determine the criteria of artistic quality, while most of television hardly qualifies as entertainment. Isn't there a vast difference between the fine arts on the one hand and mass culture on the other? There may be.
But to the extent that there is, this objection will not work against Plato. Because, in his time, dramatic poetry was much closer to popular culture and entertainment than we can even imagine. We dress up to go to the theater, pay a steep price, and don't dare cough. The audience for Attic drama - as many as 17,000 people packed in the theater of Dionysus shouted, whistled, ate, threw food and dirt at actors they did not like, were probably there for free, since Pericles may have offered farmers (and eventually the rest of the citizens) a subsidy to attend the plays, whose ideology was often the democratic ideology of fifth century Athens: an ideology as obnoxious to Plato as the commercial ideology and the dramatic content of contem- porary television is to its intellectual and conservative critics.
Greek drama and contemporary popular culture also resemble each other in their repetition of relatively few similar plots, which the incessant demand for new works makes absolutely necessary (literally tens of thousands of plays must have been written by the various Greek dramatists: the three great tragedians alone account for over three hundred, and they had hundreds of competitors). Formally, they are both considered inherently realistic: we are told that women fainted when the Furies made their entrance in Aeschylus' Emenides; TV cops are expected to wear seat belts, and Mayor Giuliani, when he was the U.S. Attorney, required his staff to see The Godfather in order to really understand what the Mafia was like.
As long as we think that a work, a genre or a medium is inherently realistic, that it depicts the world just as it is, we are bound to believe that our reactions to the world will be determined by our reactions to its representations. And, as a result, perhaps they will be. As works recede from the popular level, the conventions they embody become obvious, and their subjects come to be located at more abstract levels. Where Plato saw a story of blasphemy, attempted infanticide, foolishness, cruelty, murder, incest, ignorance, arrogance, suicide and self-mutilation (the staples of soap opera), we see the struggle of a heroic individual against cosmic forces over which he has no control and an image of the harshness of human life: we call that story Oedipus Rex. What would Plato have thought if he knew that you all read that play last year in Literature Humanities? The Oedipus you got to know is very different from the Oedipus he was so suspicious of Would that console him?
I find Plato's attack on Homer upsetting not because I think Homer is pernicious but because I find in it all the features that have characterized every attack on popular culture and entertainment since his time. He was there first, and he is still in the lead. The irony is that those who repeat his attack, in the name of taste, cultivation and refinement, do so in ignorance of the fact that they follow on his footsteps. When Wayne Booth and, more recently, James Salter lament the decline of serious literature - the novel or The Iliad - and the ascendance of popular culture, they don't realize that their reasons are Plato's very reasons for banishing The or that no less an authority than Coleridge wrote that compared to Milton and Shakespeare,
where the reading of novels [which were still, in his time, a popular genre] prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind: it is such an utter loss to the reader, that it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time. It ... provokes no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility, which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler powers of the understanding.
But what the novel was to Coleridge, Shakespeare had earlier been to Henry Prynne, who thought his dramas attracted and created
Adulterers, Adulteresses, Whore-masters, Whores, Bawdes, Panders, Ruffians, Roarers, Drunkards, Prodigals, Cheaters, idle, infamous, base, profane, and godlesse persons, who hate all grace, all goodnesse, and make a mock of piety.
The popular art of one era becomes the fine art of the next. If, then, we think that Plato was wrong to banish dramatic poetry from his city, we must be careful with our own attitude toward the popular entertainment of today. That is not to say, as some so defiantly do, "I love television!" Such a blanket statement is as silly as its total denunciation. Television is a medium; it consists of a vast variety of genres, some of which have nothing to do with art. To praise it, or condemn it, as a whole would be like saying "Writing is good (or bad)," which wears its absurdity on its face (and which Plato has also been accused of saying). Even a more specific view, for example, "Literature is valuable," is impossible to make when you consider that the overwhelming majority of literary works are absolutely horrible and, mercifully, forgotten. What we need to do is to think critically and to develop the means for making judgments, distinctions and evaluations, following the example of Aristotle, who, in the Poetics, proposed the first set of critical principles that allowed people to explain why some works of fiction are better than others.
Plato, however, believed that he knew what was good and what not. Dramatic poetry was not good, and so it was banished. But other branches of poetry, suitably controlled, were not: "Hymns to the gods and eulogies of good people" (607a), though perhaps less exciting than Euripides, are central to his city. Not all poets are banished, and neither, we saw, are painters, sculptors, architects, on anyone who produces the cultural objects which, for Plato, embody the beauty that accompanies moral goodness.
And now we can return to Plato's radical project of creating a beautiful culture which will correspond to the moral and ethical rightness of his society. In his attack against the culture of his society overall, Plato, like many contemporary enemies of popular art, centers on poetry because it was the main means of cultural transmission and because it gave him the strongest case. The parallel is with television, rock music, advertising. There is something apparently reasonable in the thought that to enjoy ugliness or the depiction of evil is, in the long run, to run a moral risk. Plato does not say that watching a performance of Euripides' Medea will cause you to murder your children. His idea is that poetry, like all cultural products, works slowly, gradually and imperceptibly. He does not want his citizens to be "brought up on images of evil, as if in a meadow of bad grass, where they crop and graze in many different places every day until, little by little, they unwittingly accumulate a large evil in their soul." He wants them to live among works that are "fine and graceful ... so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason" (40 1 cd).
Plato's view disturbs me when I think about the representational arts. But I really do find it difficult to see the moral content of architecture, furniture, household items, landscape, the shape of our bodies and other natural creatures. Plato believes that "in all these there is grace or gracelessness." That is true. But grace is an aesthetic features of chairs, buildings or bodies. Are "lack of grace, of rhythm, and of accord ... akin to bad character" (40 la), if "bad" here denotes a moral characteristic? Is his principle that "good speech.... good accord, and good grace follow upon goodness of character" true? I don't believe so. Salome, Don Giovanni and Satan do not exist only in fiction. Beautiful villains, graceful outlaws, tasteful criminals, elegant torturers are everywhere. Quasimodo is not just a figment of the imagination.
"Ah," you may reply; "that is because we already live in a degenerate world, corrupted and made ugly by Baywatch, David E. Kelly, oil spills, deforestation, the corporate mentality, housing projects, strip shopping malls." But if you say that, then you have already granted Plato everything he needs, but for which he has not argued: the idea that beauty and goodness coincide, that nothing can be good and ugly, beautiful and evil; that beauty and goodness depend on and produce each other; that Alcibiades - handsomest and worst of all Athenians - was a horrible accident, not just an extreme case of an essential human type. "Wouldn't it be better," you might persist, "if that type disappeared, if Alcibiades' beauty and intelligence could only promote his goodness?" Perhaps it would be better; I am not sure. But I am sure that it could happen only if beauty and goodness were much closer to each other than they are.
Plato, however, thought that they go hand-in-hand. So he admitted that the beauty of dramatic poetry - and, unlike his modem followers who find popular entertainment below them, he was honest enough to admit that he took pleasure in it - was a result of irrationality. Mimesis gives us pleasure despite our better judgment: Plato believes that we know we should not sympathize with the sufferings of Priam or laugh with the antics of Bdelykleon, that we should condemn Andy Sipowitz's tactics in NYPD Blue and scorn the sexual innuendo of Niles' feelings for Daphne in Frazier. Mimesis for Plato works surreptitiously and irrationally, and that is why it undermines our rational impulses, which he thinks are always aimed at the good and the beautiful.
I believe, by contrast, that mimesis does not contradict, and does not undermine, our better judgment; the effects of the arts, fine or popular, are less pernicious than Plato and Platonists suppose. But if any art more complex than "hymns to the gods and eulogies of good people" is to exist, society must include conflict: Plato was right that consistently good characters fail to excite. We are therefore faced with a dilemma: Either an imperfect world that contains complex art or a perfect world in which such art has no place.
It seems to me that most of us would choose the former. We already have. For even though we say that the art and culture are justified through their contributions to the souls, to the moral nature, of society and its members, we admire Greek society less for its moral perfection - doubtful at best - than for its culture itself, whatever its effects on its people, about which we know next to nothing, but which we often imagine, sentimental and Platonist as we still are, to have been beneficial. The truth is that we are more apt to admire a society because its people produced great art than because its art produced good people. And that is a difficult truth to face about ourselves, morally and politically. Beauty may not only be independent of goodness: it often supplants it.
All of which is an argument why Plato was wrong to distrust the popular arts of his time. But, like all arguments with Plato, not strong enough to allow me, and perhaps you as well, to look forward to a world in which, say around 4375 AD, Darth Vader and Jerry Seinfeld have joined Oedipus and Lysistrata on the syllabus of Columbia's Literature Humanities.