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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Plato has been strongly condemned over the centuries
for banishing the poets, or most of them at any rate,
from his ideal republic and for approaching literature


from the moral point of view. Before we join that
chorus of critics, however, it will be well to remind
ourselves that to discuss the social effects of poetry,
and literature in general, is a perfectly legitimate form
of criticism provided we do not confuse the moral with
the aesthetic. Indeed, where, as in ancient Greece,
poetry is a vital educational force—and Homer was
still an important part of a Greek boy's education in
the fifth and fourth centuries—such an approach is
inevitable. It is therefore no surprise to find Greek
criticism beginning as moral criticism, with Heraclitus
and Xenophanes at the end of the sixth century already
blaming Homer for his immoral stories about the gods.

This trend continued through the fifth century and
was taken up by the philosophers in the fourth. The
belief that the poets were the teachers of men, while
first expressed by Aristophanes in our extant text, went
back a very long way. Its origin should probably be
traced back to the time before writing came into com-
mon use, when the epic poems, orally composed and
orally transmitted, were indeed the main trustees not
only of traditional history but of traditional morality
as well.

Moreover, as the founder of the Academy and the
spiritual heir of Socrates—who was the apostle of a
new kind of education based upon the search for truth,
the supremacy of reason in human affairs, and the
responsibility of the individual for the state of his own
soul—Plato was bound to investigate the claims made
on behalf of the poets; that they were the teachers
of the art of living, as well as the similar and more
recent claims of the Sophists. What knowledge did
poets or Sophists have, which they were able to

When Socrates was told that the oracle of Delphi
had declared that no man in Greece was wiser than
he, he set out to investigate the knowledge of others,
and we are told in the Apology that he went to the
poets, among others, and found them quite unable to
explain their own poetry. Since knowledge to him
meant to be able to give a reasonable account of what
one knows, he came to the conclusion that the poets
wrote their fine poems when inspired, but without
knowledge of the things they wrote about. This view
is further investigated in the Ion. Ion is a rhapsode
who claims to recite and to talk about Homer better
than anyone else. This should mean, Socrates tells him,
that he understands the thought of the poet as well
as the words since he must be able to interpret the
poem to his audience. Further, he must surely be
acquainted with other poets before he is able to judge
the quality of Homer's poetry. Ion, however, firmly
disclaims any knowledge of other poets. If this is true,
it would seem that he, like the poet himself, relies on
inspiration rather than knowledge, and here we find
a remarkable simile to describe how inspiration flows
from the poet to the rhapsode (or actor), who then
communicates it to his audience (Ion 533d):

It is no art or craft [technē, which requires knowledge]
which enables you to talk well on Homer but a divine power
which moves you, like the power of a magnet. This not
only attracts iron rings but imbues those rings with its own
magnetic power to attract other rings, with the result that
sometimes a long chain of such rings are suspended from
one another, and the power of attraction in all of them
is derived from the magnet. So the Muse herself inspires
men, and the inspiration is communicated by them to
others, until we have a whole chain of men possessed.

We may note here that being possessed by a god was
not, to the Greeks, necessarily a good thing, since the
gods' purposes were not necessarily good. We need
only think of Phaedra's illicit love inspired by
Aphrodite, or of Agave killing her own son when
possessed by Dionysus. Further, this communication of
strong emotion or ecstasy is a purely emotional process
without intervention or control by reason or knowledge
at any point. It is this which made Plato afraid. We
should remember that a wave of powerful emotion
sweeping over twenty or thirty thousand spectators in
the Greek theater must have been almost tangible in
its intensity, and that Plato must often have felt it.
That is the background of his attacks upon the poets.

In the Gorgias Plato turns his attention to the
Sophists, the new teachers of the art of prose, and
examines what it is they claim to teach. As he is here
concerned only with content, much of what he says
applies to poetry also, and indeed he identifies poetry
and rhetoric as different kinds of public speaking
(501d-502d). When told that the art of rhetoric is the
art of persuasion Socrates makes an important distinc-
tion between two kinds of persuasion: the first is based
on knowledge in the persuader and is the art of teach-
ing; the second persuasion aims at making people
believe something and requires no knowledge. This last,
Socrates maintains, is the art of rhetoric; and since the
orator deals with matters of right and wrong the dis-
tinction is vital. Gorgias at first accepts this distinction
and quite logically suggests that a teacher of rhetoric
should not be held responsible if his pupils misuse the
skill he teaches any more than a fencing master should
be if his pupils use the skill he has taught them to
commit murder. However, when he is faced with the
consequences of this position, namely that orators need
know nothing of good or evil, he changes his mind
and says that if a pupil should be so ignorant as not


to know good from evil, he will teach him that as well.
When the contradiction is pointed out to him he retires
from the discussion, which is taken over by his younger

It is the moral irresponsibility of the rhetoricians
which Plato is attacking, for rhetoric does not aim at
goodness or truth, only at immediate success. It is not
a genuine craft based on knowledge and aiming at the
good as gymnastic aims at health, and medicine at
restoring it; as lawmaking aims at the good life,
(corrective) justice at restoring it. Rhetoric is merely
a counterfeit art which aims only at pleasure in an
empirical way. For the good of the soul the rhetoricians
do not care at all; indeed they have no knowledge of
it. Socrates is here obviously thinking of the use of
rhetoric in court and the Sophists' claim that they could
make the worse appear the better cause. The aim, to
Socrates, should be to correct the state of soul of the
wrongdoer. Gorgias had claimed that the rhetorician
could be more persuasive than the expert. Yes, says
Socrates, and so could a pastry cook get more votes
than a doctor on a question of diet from an assembly
of ignorant children.

In the Republic too Plato approaches poetry from
the point of view of the educator and gives us in effect
the first theoretical discussion of the place of poetry
and the other arts in society. Convinced as he is that
their influence is great both in the formation of char-
acter and upon society generally, he firmly establishes
the principle of censorship of literature. For this he
has been strongly criticized, and yet every civilized
state, except his own Athens, seems to have followed
his advice in one form or another.

He attacks, in particular, Homer's tales about gods
and heroes—their misbehaviors, their displays of ex-
cessive grief, and the like. This criticism was by now
traditional, but the educational problem was real since
Homer was still the core of Greek education and the
Sophists had taught men to argue from the behavior
of the gods to justify their own. To Plato, at least from
the Republic on, gods could not be the source of evil
and heroes should behave with dignity and self-control.

We shall ask Homer and the other poets not to be annoyed
if we expunge things of that kind. It is not that these things
are not poetical and pleasing for the majority of men to
hear; indeed the more poetical they are the less they must
be heard by children and by men who must be free and
fear slavery more than death

(Republic 387b).

We note that Plato is well aware that there are other
criteria of judgment, with which he is not here con-
cerned. No doubt he would have applied the same
moral standard to works of prose but poetry had a
much wider appeal, and it is obviously the theater and
the epic recitations that he has mainly in mind.

It is in this discussion in the second and third book
of the Republic that we first come across the Platonic
theory of art as “imitation” or mimesis. There has been
a good deal of confusion about the meaning of this
word and for this Plato himself is largely responsible.
The word “mimesis” had, in a general sense, been
applied both to poetry and the arts long before Plato.
We find it in a Homeric hymn about a choral perform-
ance where it is usually translated “to mimic.”
Herodotus and Hippocrates use it of carving and
sculpture, and in Xenophon's Memorabilia (3.10)
Socrates persuades a sculptor, who argues that he can
only “imitate” the physical, that he can also “imitate”
the emotions since he can represent at least their phys-
ical or outward manifestations. In the Thesmophoria-
Aristophanes represents the poet Agathon in
women's clothes when writing an ode for a female
choir, because a dramatist must identify himself with
his characters and “what we do not have, mimesis will
find for us.” The dubious jokes of that scene have much
more point if Aristophanes is playing on a semi-
technical word commonly applied to poetry, as he
probably is. Finally, in the Laws (668b) Plato himself
introduces, as a truism which everybody will accept,
the notion that poetry is “imitation” or mimesis. He
applies the word in the Republic (401b-c) not only
to poetry, painting, and sculpture, but to music as well,
and even to architecture. In this general sense then
it means that poetry and art must represent life, and
that the representation must be true, not that the artist
can only copy what he has actually witnessed.

It is in this general sense that Plato first uses the
word in the Republic, where he says that the poet must
not “imitate” Zeus weeping (388c) at the death of
Sarpedon or Hector, for obviously no one had ever
seen Zeus weeping, indeed no one had ever seen Zeus.
His criticism is that so to represent Zeus is not true,
for this is not how the gods behave. In this general
sense, then, the theory of imitation demands no more
than that art must be true to life.

Censorship of content being now firmly established,
Plato applies it to literary forms, and in so doing he
gives a new meaning to mimesis—that of imper-
sonation. Poets and storytellers, he tells us, proceed
either by narration, or by impersonation, or by a mix-
ture of the two. Clearly drama belongs to the second,
epic to the third kind. Believing as he does that imper-
sonation makes the emotional impact stronger and that
“we become like what we imitate,” Plato severely
restricts arts which are “imitative” in this sense and


forbids all impersonation of evil characters or actions
on the stage. When we meet such an “imitative” poet
who can impersonate every kind of character

... we shall do him reverence as before someone wondrous
and sweet.... We shall anoint his head with myrrh, crown
him with wreaths, and send him away to another city


Censorship of this kind would of course emasculate
both tragedy and epic, and leave little of comedy. It
is true that not all poetry is banished, since encomia
of good men, hymns to the gods, even dramatization
of good actions might remain, but there is little point
in exercising our ingenuity as to what would still be
acceptable. It is more useful to recognize that, while
his solution is totally unsatisfactory to us, Plato is
raising for the first time an important social problem—
that of the need to censor art and literature, especially
drama, a problem to which we have not yet found an
entirely satisfactory solution two thousand years later.

That Plato recognized the importance of the prob-
lem is clear, for he discusses it again in the tenth and
last book of the Republic, where he pursues his attack
upon the poets with gusto and, one suspects, a good
deal of irony. He now attacks poetry on the basis of
the psychological and metaphysical theories which he
had developed in the intervening books. And again he
broadens and changes the meaning of the word
“mimesis” or imitation.

The psychological argument offers little difficulty.
The human soul has three main parts or functions: the
reasonable part which in the good man governs and
directs all the rest; the spirited part which rules in the
ambitious man (one might call it the feelings, for it
is the seat of anger, indignation, and the like); and the
lowest or passionate part, the seat of the essential
human desires such as hunger, thirst, and sex. This last
part rules the soul of the worst type of man whom
Plato calls the tyrannical, because this is the rule of
Eros in the lowest, most primitive, and most violent

Plato's accusation here is that the poet appeals only
to the passionate part, without any rational control,
for it is the most violently passionate states of the soul
which are the favorite material of tragedy and are most
pleasing to the mob. We, the spectators, identify our-
selves emotionally with the characters on the stage and
the more we are emotionally affected the more we
praise the poet. Such identification in the theater will
not help us to control our passions and desires in our
own lives, as decent people must do, for once more
we become like what we “imitate,” and mimesis here
includes, more clearly than before, the notion of
emotional identification, of “suffering with.” Essen
tially, this is the same magnetic power of inspiration
described by the simile of the Ion.

It is the metaphysical argument of the tenth book,
or rather the illustration of it, however, which has
caused a good deal of confusion. The whole Republic
has argued the need for knowledge of the ideal Forms,
the only true Realities, on the part of the philosopher,
the ruler, and the educator. It is not surprising that
Plato denies this knowledge—to him the only true
knowledge—to the poets, and this might well have
been accepted. Unfortunately, he attempts to clarify
his meaning by an oversimplified illustration. There
exists, first, the Form of bed created by God (or the
gods, the divine, for the word theos is used generically);
second in truth or reality is the actual bed made by
the carpenter with his eye on the Form; and then, third
in the degree of truth or reality comes the picture of
the bed made by a painter who has no knowledge of
the Form nor indeed of the actual bed either, but
“imitates” it, as seen from one particular angle only.

If taken literally, this illustration seems to imply that
poetry and art can only “imitate” particular things or
scenes in a photographic kind of way. However, it is
notoriously dangerous to take literally a particular
detail in a Platonic myth or a particular Platonic illus-
tration. If we do take this one literally we create a
lot of philosophical problems, for nowhere else in Plato
do the gods create the Forms; nowhere else would an
artisan know the Forms. Yet only too often this partic-
ular illustration of the painter and the bed is treated
as the only important thing Plato ever said about art
or poetry, in spite of the fact that this kind of almost
photographic imitation cannot possibly be applied to
music or architecture, which Plato categorically asserts
also to be “imitations.” The only reasonable conclusion
is that Plato is only half serious, or at any rate that
the illustration must not, in its details, be pressed too

Besides, while in his actual discussions of poetry
Plato never allows the poet or other artist any knowl-
edge of the Forms—which the poet cannot, therefore
“imitate” directly—there are, elsewhere in the Repub-
hints of a different kind of art, of artists who have
such knowledge, as in the Gorgias there was a better
kind of persuasion. Not only can the artist combine
different aspects of existing things to make something
which does not exist in the actual world (Republic
488a), but when Socrates is challenged as to whether
his ideal state could ever exist he says a man who paints
a picture of a most beautiful man is surely no less a
good painter if he cannot prove that such a man exists
(472d). Then again, when defending the philosopher's
right to rule (484e), Socrates says that those who do


not know the Forms cannot, “as a painter can with
their eyes on what is most true,” establish laws and
customs in the state. Elsewhere again (500e) he com-
pares philosophers to “painters who use the divine
model,” and the Republic itself is “like a pattern laid
up in heaven.... It matters not whether it exists
anywhere, or ever will exist.” It seems then that an-
other kind of art, another kind of persuasion could be
conceived as is another kind of politics in the Gorgias,
of which Socrates was the only practitioner. But none
of our poets, orators, or politicians practice these
higher forms of their own arts.

Yet in spite of these occasional hints, Plato's discus-
sions of both poetry and rhetoric are up to this point
essentially negative. He puts all the emphasis upon
what the arts do not accomplish, rather than upon what
they might achieve. He is afraid of their purely
emotional appeal and influence and shows but scant
respect for any actual practitioners of these arts. We
should not, however, fail to recognize that if Plato
insists upon censorship not only of poetry but of music,
painting, and even architecture, it is

... in order that our guardians shall not be nurtured among
images of evil as in an evil pasture, feeding little by little
and day by day on evil herbs from many sources and imper-
ceptibly gathering a mass of evil into their very souls. We
must seek out artists with an inborn gift to represent what
is in its nature beautiful and gracious, so that our youth,
living as it were in a healthy place, shall be improved as
they see or hear works of beauty on all sides. As a breeze
from salubrious climes brings health, so shall our youth from
childhood on be led to sympathy and harmony with, and
to love of, the beauty of Reason

(Republic 401b).

In later dialogues, the Phaedrus and the Laws, Plato's
attitude is not so harsh, nor so negative. The Phaedrus
emphasizes rhetoric, though Plato makes it quite clear
that most of what he says applies to poetry as well
(258d). We are first given what purports to be a speech
by the orator Lysias on the paradoxical subject that
a youth should yield to one who does not love him,
rather than to one who does—a typical piece of
sophistic display rhetoric; then a speech on the same
subject by Socrates, who proceeds to criticize both
speeches. He interrupts his criticisms, however, with
a palinode in praise of Eros, whom he feels he has
insulted. (This palinode is the myth on the soul's ascent
through love to vision of the eternal Forms.) He then
proceeds with his criticism which leads to a search for
the true art of rhetoric.

This great myth is in part a vindication of inspiration
and of that strong emotion of which Plato has hitherto
been so very suspicious. Poetic inspiration is here the
third of four kinds of “madness” sent by the gods (the
other three being prophecy, mystery rites, and love)
and such madness is said to be “a better thing than
human sanity” (Phaedrus 244d), so that:

whoever comes to the gates of poetry without the Muses'
madness, believing that technical skill will make him an
adequate poet, is himself ineffectual, and the poetry of this
sane man vanishes before that of the man who is mad.

This is the language of myth, and “madness which
comes from the gods” means passion properly directed,
much the same in fact as what, in the more sober prose
of the Republic Plato called desire directed by Reason.
There is, then, no actual contradiction; but obviously
there is a strong change of emphasis, a much clearer
recognition of passion as essential to great poetry.

In his first comments on Lysias' speech, Socrates says
he admired its manner (diathesis) but not its matter,
thus establishing a distinction between form and con-
tent which soon became a commonplace in rhetorical
theory (Phaedrus 236a). He then goes on to state some
simple but very important critical principles.

The first of these we expect from Plato, namely that
the speaker or writer must have knowledge of his
subject. Rhetorical theory denied this; all persuasion
required was knowledge of the crowd's beliefs. Socrates
insists, however, that good advice requires knowledge
and adds, with some irony, that even if your intention
is to deceive, you will do this more successfully if you
yourself know the truth.

The second point is that the writer must define his
subject, which Socrates did but Lysias did not.

The third requirement is that every discourse should
be like a living organism, with each part in its place
and in tune with all the other parts and with the whole.
Socrates quotes as bad poetry a four line epitaph:

I am a bronzen maiden, on Midas' grave I lie,
Till stop the flowing waters, as long as trees grow tall,
Forever here remaining, on this lamented tomb,
To those who pass by saying, Midas is buried here.
The order of these lines makes little or no difference.
This is bad art.

Fourth, as the various parts of a discourse must each
make a significant contribution to the whole, it is
essential that the writer should be able to analyze his
subject logically, that is, divide it “along the joints”
or “according to the Forms.”

The fifth requirement is perhaps the most interesting
of all, as Plato is here concerned to establish the differ-
ence between art and mere technical devices. The
elaborate technical vocabulary of the rhetoricians, the
claim that they can make things seem important or
trivial, speak briefly or at length on any subject, stir


up the emotions at will: all this is not the art of
rhetoric. It is as if a man claimed to be a musician
because he knows the musical notes, or a doctor be-
cause he knows the effect of all medicaments without
knowing when to apply them:

What if a man came to Sophocles and Euripides and said
that he knew how to speak at length on trifling subjects
and briefly on important ones, that he could at will make
pitiful, frightening or threatening speeches and so on, and
that by teaching these things he teaches the making of

—I think, Socrates, they would laugh at anyone who
considered tragedy to be anything less than the fitting
together of those elements so that they harmonize with each
other and with the whole work

(Phaedrus 268c-d).

What is particularly interesting here is that in thus
vehemently denying that the rhetoricians have any
adequate knowledge of their own art, Plato clearly
implies that Sophocles and Euripides (and Pericles as
an orator) were true artists or craftsmen, for he puts
them on a par with Hippocrates as a doctor. This surely
is a great advance upon the harsh condemnation of
all existing poets in the Republic.

Nor does this passage of the Phaedrus stand quite
alone. In a passage of the Sophist which tries to track
down the Sophist by a process of dichotomy, Plato has
a division for mimesis based on knowledge. Image-
making is divided into the making of exact copies and
the making of images which only look like the original.
The latter class of image makers is then divided into
those who use tools to make their images and those
who use their own bodies and voices to do so. The
word “mimesis” is then applied to this latter class,
which surely must include poets, especially dramatists,
and rhetoricians as well; for once these are separated
from sculptors and painters. A further subdivision sep-
arates those imitators who have knowledge of their
model from those who have not. These last may or
may not have the intention to deceive, Sophists and
demagogues being among the deliberate deceivers.

Without pressing these somewhat ironic dichotomies
too far, it does seem that when Plato here speaks of
imitators by voice and gestures with knowledge of their
models, he does allow for certain actual practitioners
of poetry and rhetoric based on knowledge in much
the same way as he ranks Sophocles, Euripides, and
Pericles among real artists in the Phaedrus passage.

That dialogue goes on to state that the true art of
rhetoric will require natural talent, knowledge, and
practice. This soon became a favorite formula of the
schools, except that knowledge was interpreted by the
rhetoricians as knowledge of techniques. This is also
what it means to the rhetorician Isocrates, Plato's older

Since any art must acquire knowledge of the object
of its concern—for without this it is no art or technē
but a mere empirical routine (270b)—the true rhetori-
cian must acquire a thorough knowledge of human
psychology. He must then analyze the different types
of arguments, and how they will affect different types
of minds. Equipped with this knowledge, and the fur-
ther knowledge of the proper moment to speak and
to remain silent, the true orator will then be able to
apply the techniques, which is all that the rhetoricians
now teach, in the right way.

That Plato is here trying to be practical is shown
by the well-known fact that this is very largely the
method followed by Aristotle in his own Rhetoric. But
Plato, we find at the end of the argument, is not really
satisfied with the arguments from probability which
will satisfy Aristotle. He wants his true orator to have
true knowledge, and to Plato there is only one true
knowledge, that of the Forms. So we find our orators
(and poets) in danger of becoming philosophers on the
way. And then, of course, they will have more impor-
tant things to do than write poetry or make speeches.

Once more, in the second book of the Laws, the
work of his old age, Plato returns to the subject of
mousikē (μουσικη̆), music and poetry. He approaches
it as an educator, as he did in the Republic, but the
discussion is much more positive, and makes a number
of points of special interest.

The function of mousikē in the formation of charac-
ter, in training the young to take pleasure in the right
things before the age of reason, is still the most impor-
tant; but to this educational function Plato now adds
a second function, the recreational. Even where edu-
cation has properly trained the emotions in childhood,
this proper balance is disturbed and slackened by many
things in life, and the gods have granted the festivals
of the Muses, Apollo, and Dionysus in order that men
might be “put right”—that is, in order that the proper
emotional responses may be restored. Clearly this is
a new function for poetry and music, and the restora-
tion of emotional balance which this envisages seems
to come near to the Aristotelian concept of Catharsis.

All this is possible because a sense of rhythm and
harmony is a special gift from the gods to mankind,
so that men take pleasure in them. Poetry, music, and
the dance are then seen as the culmination of the
gradual application of rhythm and harmony upon the
random cries and uncoordinated movements of the
human infant. These arts therefore have their roots
deep in human nature (Laws 655b).

Plato then allows three criteria by which art may
be judged: the first is still the social or moral criterion,
and Plato still denies that any representation of evil
or vice can legitimately be called beautiful (ibid.).


The second criterion is pleasure, towards which he
is much more indulgent, both in this and other contexts,
than he was in his earlier works. However, it must be
the pleasure of the right people. And it is no use
pretending to praise what one does not enjoy—the
appeal must be to the whole man (Laws 655e). We
may doubt Plato's particular application of the pleas-
ure principle—namely that children enjoy puppet
shows, older children comedy; youth, educated women,
and perhaps the majority prefer tragedy, and old men
the epic—as this would seem to make the epic the
highest kind of poetry, but we must surely agree to
the principle that art is not to be judged by box office
receipts. If art is beneficial and a form of education,
both poets and judges must educate the audience and
not be swayed by it—we must not be a “theatrocracy.”

The third criterion is an artistic one, however
crudely expressed as “the correctness of the imita-
tion”—how true it is to life. We must not be misled
by Plato's use, once again (Laws 668d), of sculpture
and painting as illustrations, into interpreting this
“correctness” too narrowly; it is explicitly said to in-
clude at least good and consistent characterization,
appropriateness of words and tune to the situation and
characters, and is probably meant to include a good
deal more. In any case the critic, if he is not to fall
into error,

... must know in each case the nature of the work, for
if he does not know its essential nature and intention, of
what it is truly an image, he can hardly know whether it
succeeds or fails in its purpose

(Laws 668c).

The critic must know the model in order to judge the
image. Indeed, one feels that Plato is requiring almost
too much from his critic and almost making a philoso-
pher of him too, but the Forms are not mentioned in
the Laws. He does, however, make one concession to
the artist—that he does not need to know whether his
work is “good” or “beautiful” in the moralistic sense.
But he must then obey the lawgiver, as to whether
his work will be performed.

It is obvious, as we have seen, that the Phaedrus
and the Laws display a much milder attitude towards
poetry and rhetoric than the earlier dialogues, and
equally obvious that these later works make a far more
positive contribution to literary theory and criticism.
Plato even allows certain artists to be true practitioners
of their art. Nevertheless we should not be led by this
concession to assume any great change in Plato's basic
attitude to poets and rhetoricians, or perhaps even to
poetry and rhetoric as such.

Plato has admitted from the very first that poets
often say some wonderfully fine things; his criticism
was that they speak without knowledge, that they stir
up our emotions without knowing whether to do so
is good or bad. They are inspired but not responsible.
In the Gorgias there were two kinds of persuasion, and
one of them was based on knowledge, but that was
not the persuasion of the rhetorician. He too is irre-
sponsible. The vehement attacks upon the poets in the
Republic are directed to the same point, the violent
emotional effects of poetry without any intervention
at any point by reason and true knowledge. Because
of the power and influence of such appeals, Plato is
afraid of them. Yet we have seen hints even in the
Republic that there might be another kind of poetry.

Inspiration is certainly spoken of with greater re-
spect in the myth of the Phaedrus, at least such in-
spiration as comes from the Muses, and it has been
suggested in this article that Plato here means inspira-
tion directed to the right objects and utterances. This
dialogue certainly implies a greater recognition of the
value and need for strong emotion; but then already
in the Republic even the philosophic life is based on
passion, the passionate desire for wisdom and truth,
the Eros of the Symposium. When, in the Phaedrus,
Plato set out to find the characteristics of the true art
of Rhetoric, he concluded that it is based on knowledge
and is obviously the first kind of persuasion—that
which Gorgias did not practice, but which Plato did
practice throughout his dialogues and more specifically
in the Laws, where every law is preceded by a
proemium or introduction, the purpose of which is to
persuade the citizens of the need for it. Here we have
persuasion based on knowledge.

Censorship remains to the end in Plato's writings.
It is discussed again in the Laws and it is not without
interest to note that, when asked for an example of
the kind of thing the censors will allow, Plato cites
as an example the Laws itself which is “not unlike
poetry of a kind” and “not without some kind of divine
inspiration” (811c). This will hardly satisfy lovers of

The story of Teuth at the end of the Phaedrus re-
minds us forcibly that Plato refused to take even his
own writings very seriously. Although in the Phaedrus
myth the poet rises above the carpenter whose bed
he merely “imitates” in the Republic, he still remains
only the sixth in the scale of lives classified according
to the degree to which the souls have shared the vision
of true reality (which all human souls have shared to
some extent). The poet is ranked below not only the
philosopher but also below the law-abiding ruler or
general, below the statesman or man of affairs, below
the doctor and gymnastic trainer, below the priest or
the prophet.

However important art may be in the training of
the emotions, especially before the age of reason, the


products of art were, to Plato, less important than the
characters it formed—less important, that is, than life
itself. No one is more aware of the importance of a
sense of beauty. Yet in the gradual ascent of the
philosopher in the Symposium toward the vision of that
supreme Beauty which is also Truth and Goodness, the
products of art are never mentioned. The same is true
in the myth of the Phaedrus, where the sense of beauty
in nature and life leads to the winged soul's vision of
the eternal Forms. Nowhere in his works does Plato
envisage an aesthetic divorced from the knowledge of
reality, or make a place for poetry and the arts in the
curriculum of his philosopher's higher education.


The reader will find a very complete bibliography in
“Plato 1950-1957,” by Harold Cherniss in Lustrum (Göt-
tingen, 1959, 1960). Plato's theories of aesthetics and art
are dealt with in Lustrum (1960), 520-54. Cherniss does not
restrict himself to the years indicated, but mentions most
works of importance from about 1930. The vastness of the
literature on our subject can be seen there, and Cherniss'
frank comments are a useful guide; they also bring out the
startling differences between the interpretations of reputa-
ble scholars.

To this we should add: P. Vicaire, Platon, Critique
(Paris, 1960), a very full study of the subject.
Attention should also be drawn to the chapter on “Plato's
Treatment of Art,” in N. R. Murphy, The Interpretation of
Plato's Republic
(Oxford and New York, 1951); the chapter
on Plato in G. M. A. Grube, The Greek and Roman Critics
(Toronto, 1965); and I. M. Crombie, An Examination of
Plato's Doctrines,
2 vols. (London and New York, 1962), I,
143-50, 183-98. A somewhat novel approach will be found
in E. A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass., 1963),
which contends that Greek culture was still very much oral
even in the fourth century, and that this affected the nature
and meaning of Plato's attack upon the poets.

Translations are by the author of this article, unless oth-
erwise identified.


[See also Catharsis; Criticism; Education; Empathy; Har-
mony; Language; Literature; Mimesis; Myth; Platonism;
Poetry; Rationality.]