Plato was the first philosopher-scholar who gave a formal and systematic shape to criticism. It is believed that he started his career as a poet but soon after his meeting with Socrates, he destroyed his poems and dramas and began to take active interest in philosophy and politics. But he was not a professed critic of literature and his critical observations are not embodied in any single work. His chief ideas are contained in the Dialogues and the Republic. Both these books are philosophical.
His Theory of Ideas or Imitation
Plato’s view of art is intimately bound up with what is called his Theory of Ideas. Ideas, he says in the Republic, are the ultimate reality. Things are conceived as ideas before they take practical shape as things. A tree, thus, is nothing more than a concrete embodiment of its image in idea. The idea of everything therefore is its original pattern, and the thing itself its copy. As the copy ever falls short of the original, it is once removed from reality. Now art—literature, painting, sculpture—reproduces but things ‘as mere pastime,’ the first in words, the next in colours, and the last in stone. So it merely copies a copy : it is twice removed from reality. Things themselves being imperfect copies of the ideas from which they spring, their reproductions in art must be more imperfect still. They take men away from reality rather than towards it. At best, they are but partial images of it. So the productions of art helped neither to mould character nor to promote the well-being of the state—the two things by which Plato judged all human endeavour. That it had charm and allured people he readily admitted but this made it all the more dangerous to the individual and society. He was not, however, unaware of its potentialities for good. Rightly pursued, it could inculcate a love for beauty and for whatever is noble in character and life.
Plato thus starts with the assumption that all arts are imitative by nature. The artist imitates the things of the sensuous world as they appear to him. This world itself is an imperfect copy of an ideal archetype. It is not real. Reality exists in the Idea which is Absolute, One and Unchanging. The artist is therefore concerned with the appearance of appearance. He tries to present a distorted image of reality or rather he tries to create an illusion of reality. His imitation is no more than an imitation of an imitation. He is therefore thrice removed from truth.
Plato regards imitation as mere mimesis or servile copying and not expression, which is creative. It did not occur to him that by imitating the artist could suggest the ideal form. Further, he did not realise that what the painter paints is not the exact reproduction of reality. It is the artist’s impression of reality, and not a mechanical representation of it. Poetry is not servile imitation or copying : it is creative. It is poet’s view of reality that we get from him, and not reality itself. Plato fails to understand the nature of poetic truth or truth of idea.
Plato s Theory of Inspiration
Plato’s views on poetic inspiration have been expressed, most pertinently and at great length, in the following passage in his Ion “For the poet is a light winged and holy thing and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired, and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him : when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles. Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them :not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine. God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and hold prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us.”
This is the most elaborate presentation in the ancient world of the notion of poetry as pure inspiration, a notion which survives even to-day with modifications. The poet speaks divine truth; he is divinely inspired like prophets. Poetry is not a craft which can be learned and practised, at will; it is the result of inspiration, the divine speaking through the poet. Plato here says nothing about the poet’s lying, and it would seem that he is all praise for poetry as being divine truth. However, the implication even of this view is that poetry is nothing rational, and that is why even the poets themselves do not often understand, what they write in a moment of ‘frenzy’. Therefore, poetry cannot be relied upon as it is not the result of conscious, considered judgement, but the outcome of irrational and the impulsive within us. Further, poets may express divine truths, but often, by their very nature, such truths remain beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.
But Plato shows his mistrust of poetry because of its dependence on divine madness. The poet, according to Plato, is a possessed creature. He does not use language in the way that normal human beings do. He speaks under the spell of some emotional frenzy. He is therefore not in his right mind when possessed by the Muse. Consequently, whatever he speaks lacks moral restraint and is divorced from reason and truth. He cannot, therefore, provide a sane guidance to sane persons. Hence he is not to be allowed to flourish in the ideal State.
The traditional view of poetry current before Plato’s time was that the minstrel or the poet was inspired by God and because he was “inspired,” whatever he sang was also true, and that he sang to give pleasure, not instruction. Plato could not accept this conventional logic. He rather objected to poetry on this very basis and questioned the truthfulness of poetry written under the spell of ‘divine madness.’
Plato’s Views on Drama
Plato’s views on drama are elaborated at length in Book X of the Republic. His views on poetry are as much applicable to drama because drama is also an imitation of an imitation; it is also emotional in appeal and a product of inspiration. But there are some other views of Plato which exclusively relate to Drama.
Plato’s severest objection against drama is that it arouses baser instincts as both noble and baser instincts have to be presented on the stage. People are prone to be easily affected by the presentation of baser instincts such as pride, lust and treachery. Plato condemns all those plays which produce bad taste and indiscipline among the people.
As drama is to be staged, it exercises a demoralizing effect on the actors themselves. By constantly playing the role of clowns, knaves, criminals and villains, they are insensibly possessed by these evil qualities and find to their chagrin that the mask worn by them had become their natural face. Even when they played the role of men of courage, wisdom and virtue, they would not benefit much because the wise and the calm temperament is not easy to imitate. Man is lured more by gold than by sermon.
Drama plays on human emotions; it appeals to emotion rather than reason. An innocent and God-fearing man may bear the suffering, misery, troubles and tribulations of life bravely but he is easily moved and swayed by a spectacle in which heart-rending scenes are presented to the full. He is moved; he sympathises with the innocent suffering and even sheds tears over the undeserved sorrow. It has a baneful effect for if we let our own sense of pity grow strong by feeding upon the griefs of others, it is not easy to restrain it in the case of our own suffering.’ Hence Plato concludes, “Therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit the poet into a well-ordered state, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feeling and impairs the reasons.”
Plato’s Observations on Style
Since Plato lived in an age of oratory, which is concerned with the spoken word, Plato lays down a few principles of good speech in Phaedrus, which apply equally to good writing. They cover practically the whole range of style. The first essential of a good speech is a thorough knowledge of the subject one is to speak on. He must be sure of what he has to say. But this alone will not make him a successful speaker. A speech has to impress the hearers as a written work has to impress the readers. So he should, next, know the art of speaking. For this, as for any other art, is needed a natural gift, a knowledge of its rules, and constant practice in this work. Thirdly, his thoughts upon his subject must follow each other in a natural sequence—the first things first, the middle one in the middle and the last ones last—, so that all together may form an organic whole, each part just fit where it should be. By this means he can communicate himself best to his hearers. But this does not mark the end of his labours. His hearers are also men like himself, with their own whims and prejudices, likes and dislikes, ideas and attitudes. So his last care should be to have a knowledge of human psychology to get into his hearer’s heart and soul. A writer, to succeed in his vocation, has to do nothing more, for the principles of the spoken and the written word are the same.
His Contribution to Criticism
The value of Plato’s criticism is great. Although Plato thought poorly of poetry and drama, he shows himself a discerning critic in both. In his very charges against them is contained a thorough insight into their nature, function, and method. In his insistence on truth as the test of poetic greatness he shows his awareness of the difference between the truths of poetry and the truths of life : that the poet states not what is but what appears to him; that it is coloured by his own vision, which makes it twice removed from reality. This, he states, is in the very nature of poetry, and this it is that militates against a dispassionate quest for truth. In his disapproval of the non-moral character of the poetic art is implied the difference between the function of poetry and the function of philosophy: the one aimed at delight and the other at instruction. And in his attack on the emotional appeal of poetry he indirectly discerned the poetic method, which was none other than that of any other art: to persuade by pleasing, to make one feel rather than think.
His observations on the sources of tragic and comic pleasure are an important contribution to the subject. So is his thoughtful analysis of the essentials of spoken and written speech. Even when he hits poetry and drama the hardest, as on the score of lack of moral teaching, or indulgence in unrestrained emotion, or melodramatic or farcical scenes, there is much to be said on his side. He was also, perhaps, the first to see that all art is imitation or mimesis, imitating the objects of life or Nature; and that there are two kinds of art—the fine arts, like literature, painting, sculpture, and music, which are indulged in for mere pleasure; and the useful arts, like medicine, agriculture, and cookery, that co-operate with Nature.
To him, again, we owe the division of poetry into the dithyrambic or the purely lyrical; the purely mimetic or imitative, such as drama, in which life is imitated in action and speech; and the mixed kind such as the epic, in which the poet partly indulges in lyrical flights and partly introduces action and speech. The last he considers as superior to drama,—a verdict upheld by later generations. He has something to say on the principles of art, too. These are, more or less, the same as the principles of style : well thought out matter, a knowledge of its technique, constant practice in it, and unity of design or the interweaving of the parts into an inseparable whole. In the Ion he makes the important pronouncement that to interpret poetry aright it is necessary to have a knowledge of poetry as a whole and . of the principles of its composition. Plato’s contribution to the critical art, thus, is considerable. Scattered in fragments though it might be, all together it can be read like a systematic treatise on the art of writing.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
1. His Theory of Imitation
(a) The first philosopher to give criticism a systematic shape; a creative writer and thinker, not a professed critic; main ideas in Dialogues and the Republic.
(b) Things imitated in art are conceived as ideas, hence art is the imitation of imitation, a copy of the copy. Things being imperfect copies of the original ideas, their reproduction in art must be more imperfect. Hence
the artist tries to create an illusion of reality. Poetry, therefore, is thrice removed from reality.
the artist tries to create an illusion of reality. Poetry, therefore, is thrice removed from reality.
(c) Plato regards imitation not as recreation nor as expression but as mere mimesis or servile copying.
2. His Theory of Inspiration
(a) Poetry to Plato is not an act of perspiration but of inspiration. Poets are divinely inspired beings. God speaks through poets
(b) The poet being a possessed creature working under emotional frenzy utters things beyond the ordinary grasp of human beings. He does not use language like ordinary human beings. Consequently what he speaks lacks moral restraint; hence cannot provide sane guidance.
3. Views on Drama
Like poetry drama also is imitation of imitation; emotional in appeal; arouses baser instincts; exercises a demoralizing effect on the actors.
4. Observations on Style
Plato lived in an age of oratory; hence observations on speech in Phaedrus. Ideas on speech applicable to speech. Mastery and knowledge of subject, knowledge of rules and constant practice of the work, coherence, a knowledge of human psychology, necessary to understand poetry.
A discerning critic both in poetry and drama; first to make a distinction between the function of poetry and that of philosophy, between the truths of poetry and truths of life; in his attack on poetry he directly discerned the poetic method. First to see that all art is imitation; and probably the first to make a distinction between fine arts and useful arts. First to make a distinction between dithyrambic (lyrical) and mimetic (dramatic) poetry; said many significant things on the principles of art.