Notes & Summaries
The Republic Book X
The following have been gleaned from several educational web sites, and somewhat altered by me. They are a collection of various authors’ exegeses of Plato’s essay in your text. You will recall that Plato’s writings are in the style of dialogues between Socrates and various pupils. In this case, one of his favorites (and a friend of Plato’s), Glaucon. [Notice the digressions – even conflicts! – between them.]
"The Recompense of Life"
The final book of The Republic begins with Socrates’ return to an earlier theme, that of imitative poetry. While he is still content with having banished poetry from his ideal State, he wishes to explain his reasons more thoroughly. Taking a bed as his example, Socrates relates how in the world there are three levels at which phenomena occur. First and original is the level of God, who creates the bed as an idea; second is the carpenter who imitates God's idea in making a particular bed; and last is the poet or painter, whose bed imitates the carpenter’s. Or, the imitator imitates the imitator's!
Homer is offered as an unfortunate case of a mimetic artist. The great poet, Socrates laments, would have helped his country more truly had he taken a political role. An artist imitates that which he does not understand; the poet sings of the cobbler, but does he know the trade? Not at all. Imitation, says Socrates, is a game or sport; it is play.
Socrates warns his pupil of the common imbalance of the soul toward the "the rebellious principle” – toward grief and lamentation – of which opportunistic poetry takes advantage. Thus it uselessly commemorates human irrationality and cowardice, and worse, for the sake of a popular (non-philosopher, we’re to understand) audience. The audience is seduced, as it were, into feeling undesirable emotions. (You recall that Sartre also warned readers against that dishonest, ungenerous mistake when creating literature).
The only poetry that Socrates will allow in the State is "hymns to the gods and praises to famous men." Poetry, and especially musical verse, on the other hand, is pleasurable and serves neither truth nor the State, in fact, just the opposite. And so, after admitting his own love for poetry and Homer in particular, Socrates must leave it out.
But Socrates lifts his spirits and the spirits of his listeners by illustrating the rewards of the virtuous man. He begins, to Glaucon's incredulity, to state that the human soul is immortal. Like the healthy body, the human soul, fortified by the good (a Platonic Ideal Good), lives on eternally. The soul, Socrates continues, cannot be purely known otherwise than through the faculty of reason, which is the pursuit of Philosophers seeking to know the Truth. And its final and greatest recompense is attained in the afterlife, when the gods (having observed the good soul's pursuit of god-like virtues) honor it accordingly. Whereas the unjust man suffers in life, more often in the long run than the short, and is viciously scorned by the gods thereafter.
The book closes with Socrates' long narration of the tale of Er, an ancient hero who, after being slain in battle, entered the afterlife only to return again. The tale defies facile summary except to say that every man and woman arriving in the afterlife is held accountable and judged for his or her actions. A tyrant is condemned to hell for a thousand years. The primarily righteous, however, ascend to heaven where they are made to choose their next mode of life. Some elect to return as animals, others as a famous athlete or ruler; Odysseus, for example, chooses the life of a humble man. But the choice is their own: based on the wisdom they carry with them. Finally, the souls drink from the river of Forgetfulness, become oblivious, and return to earth in their new forms. Throughout the story Socrates is careful to warn Glaucon of all the pitfalls and mistakes.
The argument presented against poetic imitation is, however arduously maintained, not entirely convincing. Plato believes poetic knowledge to be of appearances only because, were it otherwise, the poet would dedicate himself to "realities" not "imitations," or images. The poet knows no trade and produce nothing material, nothing of real, that is, necessary value. In fact, Plato's portrait of the artist makes him seem superfluous, if not downright treacherous.
Plato's second objection is that the artist knowingly manipulates the passions of his audience. In a purely rational State, there is no room for the stirring up of "evil constitutions," nor the retelling of misfortunes or misadventures in the past. What lies behind Plato's dislike of maudlin dramas or even great tragedy is his conviction that the audience will identify with and in turn imitate whatever it sees. This poses a danger to the State and the order it establishes where everyone is born into a social stratum or class.
The immortality of the soul, for Plato, does not depend on the justice and cannot be destroyed even as the body is destroyed. Its fate, on the other hand, is contingent upon its relationship with the good; it feeds and nourishes itself on the wisdom. The souls of the wicked are a more complicated issue, for, insofar as they are immortal, evil cannot destroy them. However, Plato warns, there are various manifest parts to the soul, and evil-doing damages these. And unjust men also injure their own bodies and the bodies of others. In any case, the afterlife is what is most important; there the good soul enjoys the benefits it may or may not have experienced in life.
The moral of the tale of Er, if we may drain it of its color, is that of the eternal return, or recurrence. After death the soul is ultimately judged. This judgment determines the owner of the soul's order of choice in lots for the next life. Then, whatever wisdom he has accumulated previously helps him make his choice when his lot comes up. Both moments are essential because they represent choices between good and evil. One is an ongoing choice, alive in mortal life, and the other is the ultimate choice (the sum of what the soul has learned in life). Man is responsible for his own behavior, says Plato. And the final twist is that, it seems, the wise man does not really forget, since if he is truly wise he will choose yet another wise existence.
Socrates has now completed the main argument of the Republic; he has defined justice and shown it to be worthwhile. He turns back to the postponed question concerning poetry about human beings. In a surprising move, he banishes poets from the city. He has three reasons for regarding the poets as unwholesome and dangerous. First, they pretend to know all sorts of things, but they really know nothing at all. It is widely considered that they have knowledge of all that they write about, but, in fact, they do not. The things they deal with cannot be known: they are images, far removed from what is most real. By presenting scenes so far removed from the truth poets pervert souls, turning them away from the most real toward the least. Worse, the images the poets portray do not imitate the good part of the soul. The rational part of the soul is quiet, stable, and not easy to imitate or understand. Poets imitate the worst parts—the inclinations that make characters easily excitable and colorful. Poetry naturally appeals to the worst parts of souls and arouses, nourishes, and strengthens this base elements while diverting energy from the rational part.
Poetry corrupts even the best souls. It deceives us into sympathizing with those who grieve excessively, who lust inappropriately, who laugh at base things. It even goads us into feeling these base emotions vicariously. We think there is no shame in indulging these emotions because we are indulging them with respect to a fictional character and not with respect to our own lives. But the enjoyment we feel in indulging these emotions in other lives is transferred to our own life. Once these parts of ourselves have been nourished and strengthened in this way, they flourish in us when we are dealing with our own lives. Suddenly we have become the grotesque sorts of people we saw on stage or heard about in epic poetry.
Despite the clear dangers of poetry, Socrates regrets having to banish the poets. He feels the aesthetic sacrifice acutely, and says that he would be happy to allow them back into the city if anyone could present an argument in their defense.
Socrates then outlines a brief proof for the immortality of the soul. Basically, the proof is this: X can only be destroyed by what is bad for X. What is bad for the soul is injustice and other vices. But injustice and other vices obviously do not destroy the soul or tyrants and other such people would not be able to survive for long. So nothing can destroy the soul, and the soul is immortal.
Once Socrates has presented this proof, he is able to lay out his final argument in favor of justice. This argument, based on the myth of Er, appeals to the rewards which the just will receive in the afterlife. According to the myth, a warrior named Er is killed in battle, but does not really die. He is sent to heaven, and made to watch all that happens there so that he can return to earth and report what he saw. He observes an eschatalogical system which rewards virtue, particularly wisdom. For 1000 years, people are either rewarded in heaven or punished in hell for the sins or good deeds of their life. They are then brought together in a common area and made to choose their next life, either animal or human. The life that they choose will determine whether they are rewarded or punished in the next cycle. Only those who were philosophical while alive, including Odysseus who chooses to be reborn as a swan, catch on to the trick of how to choose just lives. Everyone else hurtles between happiness and misery with every cycle.
In Book X, Plato at last pits philosophy-based education in confrontation with traditional poetry-based education. Plato has justified philosophy and the philosopher and now he displays them in relation to their rivals—the people who are currently thought most wise and knowledgeable—the poets.
The myth, in appealing to reward and punishment, represents an argument based on motivations Plato earlier dismissed. Glaucon and Adeimantus had specifically asked him to praise justice without appealing to these factors. Why is he now doing exactly that?
Allen Bloom suggests that the inclusion of this myth is connected to the distinction between philosophical virtue and civic virtue. Philosophical virtue is the kind of virtue the philosopher possesses, and this kind of virtue differs from the virtue of the normal citizen. So far, says Bloom, Plato has only shown that philosophical virtue is worthy in itself. He has not shown that civic virtue is worthy. Since Glaucon and Adeimantus and countless others are not capable of philosophical virtue, he must provide them with some reason to pursue their own sort of virtue. With the contrast between philosophical and civic virtue in mind, Plato describes the thousand year cycles of reward and punishment that follow just and unjust lives.
Yet on our understanding of what makes any virtue worthwhile – its connection to the (Ideal) Forms – Plato has sufficiently demonstrated the worth of both sorts of virtue. Philosophical virtue might be more worthwhile because it not only imitates the Forms, but aims at and consorts with them, but civic virtue is worthwhile as well because it involves bringing the Forms into your life by instituting order and harmony in your soul. Bloom, though, also has another plausible hypothesis for why Plato included the myth of Er, and this one coheres well with our understanding of justice’s worth. The myth of Er, Bloom explains, illustrates once again the necessity of philosophy. The civic virtues alone are not enough. Only the philosophers know how to choose the right new life, because only they understand the soul and understand what makes for a good life and a bad one. The others, who lack this understanding, sometimes choose right and sometimes wrong. They fluctuate back and forth between good lives and miserable ones. Since every soul is responsible for choosing his own life, every person must take full responsibility for being just or unjust. We willingly choose to be unjust because of our ignorance of what makes for a just or unjust soul. Ignorance, then, is the only true sin, and philosophy the only cure.
In Book X of The Republic, Plato offers his closing comments on justice and the ideal state. Curiously, a substantial portion of this book is devoted to an attack on the arts of painting and poetry. Earlier in The Republic Plato had announced that he would exclude mimetic poetry (i.e., any work in which an author speaks through a character rather than exclusively in his own voice) from his ideal state, suggesting that the mimetic mode is chosen by an author when he is depicting the gods inaccurately or when he is showing characters behaving foolishly or when he has some other reason to hide behind another's voice. In the ideal state only that poetry which praises the gods or presents pictures of noble character or encourages patriotism and courage is to be allowed.
Now Plato again takes up the question of the place of poetry in the ideal state, perhaps prompted to do so because of the claims of the Sophists that the poets are masters of every craft as well as astute students of human nature. In the view of the Sophists, the poets become guides for human behavior, sources for the answers to problems as varied as how to drive a chariot and how to lead a good life. Deeply committed to the process of rigorous philosophical inquiry as the only way to knowledge of the forms (i.e. ultimate reality) and thus to just rule, Plato must expose what he sees as a spurious claim by the Sophists. Poetry is not an alternative to philosophy. The arguments which Plato advances are several; the conclusion is single: banish the poets.
Reproduced below are two of the most famous sections of Book X. The first argues that the poet, like the painter, deals in representations or copies (the Greek word is mimesis, often translated as "imitation") which may actually distort reality. As imitations which are two or three degrees removed from the Forms, works of poetry, like paintings, can never hope to reach the truth. Poetry's realm is that of appearance and illusion. The second section presents Plato's argument that the illusions created by the artist and the poet are potentially dangerous because they appeal to the irrational, or worst, principle of the soul, rather than to the rational, or best, principle of the soul. Tragedy, for example, seduces a steadfast and good audience member into feeling sympathy for a character who does not "observe due measure" in expressing grief, thereby encouraging similarly intemperate behavior on the part of this same audience member in the future. Here Plato is offering arguments which are still used in support of censorship.
And a third:
In Book X of the Republic, Plato’s discourse on poetry ultimately condemns creative poetry because it would not be morally beneficial to the ideal state. Because his theory of mimesis hold that a poem is a material copy of a divine Ideal Form, Plato is skeptical that poetry can be anything but a crude approximation of divinity. Thus he sees all sorts of chances for poets to exercise “the power which poetry has of harming even the good." Plato thinks that the bad poem can corrupt a society by imparting bad morals -- faulty copies of divine orders to behave well. His dialogue anticipates the moral questions:
"And still will [the poet] go on imitating without knowing what makes a thing good or bad, and may be expected therefore to imitate only that which appears to be good to the ignorant multitude? Just so."
Since Plato sees the poet as capable of creating only through a dialectic, then the poet is only capable of making embellished copies of what already exists in a divine form. The problem, to Plato, is that even the best poet simply cannot know which forms are most instructive to copy. Thus Plato limits the creation of poetry in his ideal state to morally-beneficial hymns to the gods and to the state.
Other dialogues by Plato, such as Meno or Phaedrus seem to value more highly the fact that poetry is a form of divine madness. But these views are fragmentary, and Plato's main later pronouncements in the Republic and the Laws present us with a view of literature which is in the main negative. It is significant that both dialogues have a dominant social and politic concern: they are the blueprints for ideal communities.
In The Republic, Plato discusses the role of poets in his perfect commonwhealth in several places, above all in books II, III and X.
Book II deals with the contents of educative literature. They can be either good or bad. Those erroneous tales about gods and heroes carrying out revenge, quarreling, showing disrespect towards parents, etc., must be censored. "The founders of a state ought to know the general forms in which poets cast their tales and the limits which must be observed by them" (Republic 27). The traditional tales transmitted by Homer contain false ideas about the gods: divine beings are supposed to assume several shapes, and God is supposed to be the cause of all things, including evil. This is untrue for Plato's spokesman Socrates. God is essentially good, and is not the cause of evil in the universe. All these tales must be forbidden.
Book III continues this discussion. The stories about Hades must portray it as a delightful place, and not as a terrible one, so as to obliterate fear of death in the warriors. The more poetical false stories are, the more harmful. The poets will no longer have the privilege of lying: it will be restricted to the rulers themselves, whenever public good demands it. "And therefore let us put an end to such tales, lest they engender laxity of morals among the young” (Republic 27). But the tales which tell of virtue, endurance, heroism, courage, etc., are to be admitted. So much, Plato says, for the content of the tales.
As for the style: "All mythology is a narration of events, either past, present or to come . . . . And narration may be either simple narration, or imitation, or a union of the two." That is, the poet may speak in his own voice (simple narration) or he may speak in the voice of a character (imitation, mimesis). This is a different sense of mimesis from the one we found in Ion. Tragedy and comedy are wholly imitative, in dithyramb and other genres the poet is the sole speaker, "and the combination of both is found in epic, and in several other styles of poetry" (Republic 28). We may notice that this is the first theoretical definition of literary genres on a formal basis. But it is more than that: it is also the first theoretical approach to the problem of narrative voice. We may as well point out that "narration" is to be taken in the more general sense of "enunciation"; it is obvious that this classification accounts for other genres apart from narrative.
Human nature, according to Plato, is incapable of imitating many things well; there is a need of specialization. That may be one reason why poets are either tragedians, or comedians, or epic poets. In any case, imitative genres are dangerous because imitations "at length grow into habits and become a second nature, affecting body, voice and mind" (Republic 29). Many of the themes the poet will be dealing with will be unworthy, and imitation of them would be below a reasonable man. Therefore, only one narrative mode is decent when dealing with unworthy themes, "unless in jest." Only the imitation of good men acting wisely is allowed. In general, the ideal poet will have a definite style: "His style will be both imitative and narrative; but there will be, in a long story, only a small proportion of the former" (Republic 29).
All these qualifications would seem to give more latitude to poetry than many interpretations of Plato would allow. However, Plato has indeed divided poetry into good or bad and poets into beneficial or pernicious:
And therefore, when one of those pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sacred, marvellous, and delightful being; but we must also inform him that in our state such as him are not permitted to exist: the law will not allow them. And so, when we have anointed him with myrrh and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city. (Republic 30)
The form of the words in a poem has already been determined, as the content before it. But there is more in a poem than words. According to Plato, there are three parts in a song: words, melody, and rhythm. We see that in the Republic Plato has gone beyond Ion in that he no longer makes poets responsible for their raw material only: he also discusses questions of style, of the shape that the poets must give to that material. However, he does not grasp all the implications of form in a work of art, and this is a serious shortcoming of his theory even at this point.
So, words, melody and rhythm are the three aspects of a poem or song. Rhythm is what we call meter, accent, and quantity; Melody is music, which is taken into account by Plato because lyrical poetry was sung in ancient Greece. Plato gives a careless account of the rhythms used in his time, saying that it is better to leave such things to the poets. He applies to music and rhythm criteria similar to those used in dealing with words. Those harmonics and rhythms expressive of sorrow or indolence must be banned. In Plato's view, therefore, harmony has ethical effects on the soul. This is a heritage of earlier Pythagorean doctrines.
Music and literature, therefore, are not banned by Plato, although some specific kinds of melodies and subjects are. On the contrary, music and literature have an important role to play in education. They educate the soul before reason can start to act: so much greater the need of their having the right effect.
In Book X we find again the concept of mimesis or imitation. It is different from that used in Book III, which was written several years before. Here imitation has metaphysical implications, and is used as a pejorative term. Plato's definition of imitation runs as follows: Artificers make things following the Idea as a model: we can likewise make images of all particular things moving a mirror around. So, we have a scale going down from the Idea, through the things in the world, to images of those things reproduced by artificial means. The scale goes from God, through the artificer, to the artist (painter, tragic poet, etc.). "And so, if the tragic poet is an imitator, he too is thrice removed from the [philosopher] king and from the truth, and so are all other imitators" (Republic 35). To these notions we should add the cosmological variety of mimesis described in Timaeus : a lesser divinity or demiurge (that is, artisan) gave shape to the chaos of matter and created the universe taking the eternal ideas as his models.
Although the dotted line is implied in Plato's discussion, is not taken into account by his theory. This is one of the many flaws in the whole reasoning – it would imply that the artist need not be a third degree, but only a second degree imitator. Besides, this scheme lacks integration with Plato's theory of divine madness as developed in Ion. Here there is no direct relation whatsoever between the poet and the divine realm of ideas.
One further problem concerning mimesis arises with the issue of fantasy. Are we to understand that artistic mimesis can only be an imitation of objects which exist in fact? There would be no place then for creative imagination – which is in fact a concept completely foreign to Platonic thought. Plato does, however, account for both kinds of imitation. In the Sophist , Plato draws a distinction between the art of making likenesses of actual things (icastic mimesis) and the art of making images of fantastic objects or beings (fantastic mimesis). He concludes, as might be expected, that this art of the fantastic is unworthy and indeed harmful. This is another vital blow dealt by Plato to any elements in literature that we might want to consider artistic, and even to the legitimacy of fiction as a poetic activity. It is perfectly coherent however with his rejection of perspectivism, with his notion of painting as the imitation of appearances and with his denial of a real knowledge of any craft to the poet. Real things are for Plato better than the fantastic, and better than their own images.
"The imitator has no knowledge worth mentioning of what he imitates" (Republic 37; cf. Ion ). He is not guided by reason, but by appearance, and so his is an unhealthy aim. The reasonable response to things of fortune does not lend itself to imitation; crowds are inclined to the imitations of irrational, useless and cowardly impulses. A completely virtuous life, Plato seems to say, would not be a fit subject for a tragedy or a comedy, and this does not say much in favor of tragedies or comedies.
There is no cathartic theory of art in Plato, as there will be in Aristotle. Instead, we find an anti-cathartic pronouncement. Sorrow repressed in ourselves breaks loose when as spectators we sympathise with another's misfortune. This is not a good thing for Plato: it is habit-forming and contagious. It weakens the soul instead of fortifying it. The same happens with all other passions induced by art. It could be said that, for Plato, art severs thought from the emotions and breaks them loose. (Wouldn’t Sontag enjoy taking Plato to task over this?) There is no intellectual element in the effect of art on the spectator, just as there was no intellectual element in the inspiration of the poet. (And with this sentiment, she could agree. But the two formulate their ideas from different value systems.) Later, we shall see that Aristotle's theory of catharsis has opposite implications.
As we have said before, this theory of Plato's does not mean that all art has pernicious effects. If the passions aroused by it are positive (well, conformative to order), art is beneficial, and this accounts for Plato's tolerance of some kinds of poetry: "hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our state" (Republic 40). Plato justifies this severe treatment with an allusion to an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy. He calls those defenders of poetry who are not themselves poets to prove "that there is a use in poetry as well as a delight" (Republic 40). (Here we see Sontag’s contention that intellectuals – and Plato certainly is that! – are seeking revenge on artists.)
The quarrel between philosophy and poetry is also the quarrel between the sophists and the philosophers in Plato's time, the quarrel between rhetoric and logic in the Renaissance, and the quarrel today between the Arts and the Sciences. It seems that the only possible agreement is to be found with a scientific account of poetry, or of literature in general. The basis for such an account was already set by Aristotle's Poetics.
In a later dialogue, the Laws, Plato brings forward similar arguments on the subject of poetry to those of the Republic. He sets as an example the poets of Egypt, who are subservient to the aims of the state. Plato, who is about eighty by the time he writes the Laws , selects old men as the most discerning public (other sections of the public listed by Plato include children, older children, young men, women, and people in general). Pleasure, he says, ought not to be the basis of the value judgments given by discerning judges. However, pleasure has a role in the evaluation of poetry, since pleasurable learning is most adequate when teaching to children by means of poetry. Plato insists again on the need of a censorship on literature.
We may conclude that Plato, like many others after him, including Tolstoy and many Marxist critics, has found something greater than art, and art has to be subordinated to this something. In his case, it is the welfare of the soul and the state. But in general, anyone who believes to have found Truth with a capital T will agree to some extent with Plato's views on art. Whether we support or dislike this view, the role of Plato as a literary critic is an outstanding one. He raises or develops in an important way many of the topics that all later critical theories will have to deal with: the social role of the artist, the psychological effects of art, the formal grounds for a classification of literary genres, the debate on whether art is the product of technique or inspiration, the analogies between the different arts . . . The Platonic view of art can be regarded as one of two main perspectives on art, the other being the Aristotelian one.