In book X of The Republic, Plato holds the argument the artists should be banished from the ideal state. To explain why Plato argues this we must first look at how his ideal state is categorized.
Three major classes uphold this ideal which corresponds to three parts of the soul (reason, spirited element, bodily appetites). The first class are the philosophers, they are the guardians of the state and they are the ones who oversee and govern the state. The second class are the auxiliaries, these are the soldiers who defend the city, and lastly are the producers, which include artisans and farmers and so on… The education of the guardians and auxiliaries of the city are the same and excludes the arts. Thus, each class in the state is parallel to a part of the soul and its function.
In Plato’s ideal state only, poetry which leads to nourishment of the soul of virtues of the people can be taught and all other poets and poetry would be banned from the state. But why exactly is this? To explain this, we must first look at Plato’s theory of forms. The forms are what represent truth, everything around us, whether it be what we think or see. In this theory we have one perfect form for each thing. The chair, for example, has one true form and represents the form of “chairness” in itself. It is then this quality of “chairness” that all chairs are then seen as chairs because they imitate this quality of “chairness”. Meaning that even if all the chairs look different from each other, they are ultimately still all defined as chairs regardless of their differences of aesthetic. The form of good is the most crucial and important for Plato as for him it is the base of everything else around us. He compares the form of good to sunlight in the way in which it is sunlight which keeps things alive and makes those things visible. It is then to be seen that the good, the form of good is the ultimate goal in philosophy. And that knowledge and goodness are completely intertwined.
Socrates explains that the soul is organized in the same manner as the state. First the philosophical and rational, second the energetic and thirdly the appetitive part which pertains to our regular needs and desires which pertain to the physical day to day world. Our souls should then be ruled or guided by reason to reach its highest good or potential just as the city should be ruled by the philosophers as they are the ones who are fit with the knowledge to guide others and govern the state. In this ideal state, the poet has been banished. Plato believed that the issue with poetry and the poets was ‘Mimesis’ or imitation. Art, in this case, imitates life. Plato’s theory of forms then means that the arts only take us further away from the forms as oppose to closer to them. The forms are in essence the point of philosophy. The true form in itself is the closest to the true nature of things. The forms are the true essence of things rather than the imperfect versions of those forms.
Socrates defines the concept of “imitation” using the example of the couch and table. He explains how regardless if we have more than one type of table, we actually only have one idea of this table. The table holds its own “tableness” and it is this “tableness” of the table that does not let a couch, for example, be understood or seen as a table. A craftsman who is crafting this couch does not come to this idea of a couch on his own but rather the idea is already within his mind. Socrates goes on to describe a craftsman who not only crafts tables or couches but also plants and animals as well. Glaucon rejects this idea marking it as just simply impossible but Socrates explains to him that if he were to go with a mirror and face these animals or plants he too could be a craftsman. And as Glaucon remarks, this is not creation but rather representation and he creates the link between the painter and the man holding the mirror. So in this light, we can see that the craftsman is also making a representation of the couch since he is not able to actually create the true idea or form of the couch which is its “couchness.”
Put simply we have 3 couch-crafters. First, G-d/nature who is responsible for the creation of the true “couchness” – (The Form). Second, the craftsman who makes a version of this couch – (Individual Things) and thirdly, the painter or imitator who makes a representation of the couch created by the craftsman. – (Paintings). In this light, we see that the painter is even further away from the truth then the craftsman as he is just imitating a representation of the idea or form of “couchness.” In this respect, we must think of the painter third removed from the actual idea or form. The painter as Socrates explained is not in the realm of trying to paint in the goal of getting closer to the true inner idea of the things in their actual form. Another issue arises if the painter is very skilled at his craft because then his skill in imitation will lead the foolish citizens and children of the city to believe that what he has painted is reality and closest to the truth/nature of things.
When it comes to poetry and the poet the main question within the dialogue is can poetry propel us to wisdom or are we then mistaking imitation for truth. Poetry was considered to be a safe of some sorts for all wisdom and so, Socrates speaks on the importance of making accomplishments rather than speaking on accomplishments. Homer, for example, speaks on war but yet no city has ever been ruled or won a war under the reign of Homer himself.
Homer for Plato is then an imitator of virtue and does not know virtue in its true form. Poets imitate details, harmony, scenery, colors, emotion and so on. They exaggerate and amplify their work but in doing so lack actual substance and weight of truth. Many praise Homer and his work but according to Plato, he has never truly accomplished any of what he speaks on. Rather he imitates and thus pushes those who listen to his work (if they are foolish) further away from the true form of things. Socrates thus organizes three sorts of people. 1. those who use things, 2. Those who make things and 3. Those who imitate things. It is the person who uses things which is then the most knowledgeable. An example of this is the example of the flutist and the flute maker. The flutist is most knowledgeable in flutes and thus is best suited to advise the flute maker on how to make the best flute. Whereas the one who imitates the flute whether it be through poetry or painting and so on.. does not have the knowledge on what makes the best flute, it’s sound, its structure, its usability etc.. all the imitator is concerned with is the flutes appearance. Thus, leading to imitation being a sort of play and the poets’ poetry whether the tragic or epic are both imitations for Plato. Imitation remains the furthest away from the truth and the world of forms. Appearances are only concerned with one aspect of things, the least reliable. As we see when an object looks deformed when placed in water. Only its appearance seems to be distorted but this is an illusion of appearance and perception. This brings us back to the soul, the most accurate way to understand things is with measurement or calculation, this activity is then connected to our soul since it is an activity, we take part in which uses our rationality. According to Plato, it is our rationality which is the highest portion of the soul and brings us closer to the truth and reality of things. The highest-good for human beings according to Plato is the happiness and well-being which arises from the fulfillment of the three parts of the soul.
Socrates explains in Book X that man has two motivations within him. The first being the rational portion which leads him to the understanding that the quality of grief pushes us away from accomplishment and analyzation of situations. And second, the portion of the soul which desires and leads him to indulgence in grief. From this, we see that imitation is then in the category of leading citizens to imitate desire, anger, irrationality, sadness as well as passion in this portion of the soul. Rather than to see the imitation of the rational portions of the soul such as sensibility of contemplativeness. This is why poets are not allowed in the ideal state since they push the citizens further away from the truth and reality. Citizens through poetry are further away from the highest portions of the soul, rationality and reason. Ultimately Socrates states that even if we are moved by poetry such as he was by homer it does not mean that they can be let into the ideal state unless they prove an argument otherwise. Poetry and the poet in this sense and this ideal state represent good and evil. Plato believed that imitation carried out by the poets would lead to bad habits because it means that the poet must pretend to be something he is not. This then leads the listener to also take part in this imitation. His main concern was that the more we take part in these imitations the further we are led away from the truth and closer to becoming imitations. Understanding the true forms of things are essential and crucial to philosophy and the truth. So this means that poetry and the poets guide us further away and the citizens of this ideal state from the truth rather than closer to it. Artistic representation is for Plato a third removed from reality. The main focus is to push the citizens of the state closer to the highest good and truth rather than away from it, and in The Republic, poets only get in the way of the main philosophical goal of truth.
Plato. Plato’s The Republic. New York :Books, Inc., 1943. Print.
T.Z. Lavine. From Socrates to Sarte: The Philosophic Quest. Bantam Books., 1984. Print
Tim Chappell. The Plato Reader. Eidinburgh University Press Ltd., 1996. Print