In order to understand Plato’s attack on poetry as well as his theory of poetry, it must be remembered that the aim of his literary criticism was to educate the youth and form them into good citizens of his ideal state. His was an age of political decline and dissolution. Education was in a poor state. The epics of Homer were an essential part of the school curriculum. They were respected by the Greeks like the Bible, and the influence of the poets was too deep on society. Yet poetry was in a decadent state. This degeneration resulted in much heart-searching and reflection on the part of philosophers and orators who regarded themselves as superior to the poets. Plato also was a philosopher; to prove his superiority over poets, he attacked poetry on four grounds—moral, emotional, intellectual and utilitarian.
(A) Moral Grounds
On moral grounds, Plato attacks poetry as follows :—
(1) Poetry is not conducive to social morality, as poets pander to the popular taste and narrate tales of man’s pleasant vices. This has a demoralising effect. This is more so the case with drama which depends entirely on popular patronage.
(2) Poets tell lies about gods. Gods and their representative heroes are represented as corrupt, immoral, dishonest in the epics of the poets (notably of Homer). This depraves public taste and morality. Children tend to imitate the doings of gods and other heroes as told to them by their mothers, they fashion their own conduct on what they read. Philosophy alone is the proper subject of study.
(3) Drama is even more harmful. Judgment in dramatic matters is left to the many, and the result is lawlessness and licence both in theme and expression. Poets and dramatists appeal to the baser instincts of men, their love of the sensational and the melodramatic. The vulgar and the morbid is thus fostered, and a, “sort of evil theatrocracy has taken the place of old aristocracy, with disastrous consequences to national well-being.
(B) Emotional Grounds
The emotional grounds on which Plato objects to poetry are the following:—
(1) The poets are ‘divinely inspired’. It means that they do not compose poetry as craft, but by virtue of some impulse of a mysterious, non-rational kind, coming from some supernatural source, outside their own personality. They utter unconsciously what the Muse impels them to say : like fountains they allow to flow out freely what comes to it. Hence’ heir pronouncements are unreliable and uncertain. The inspiration may -ease at any moment. There might be some truth in them for they are divinely inspired, but such partial and imperfect truths must be carefully examined. Such truths can be no substitute for knowledge based on reason.
(2) The poets cannot often themselves explain what they write, for their frenzy is ‘non-rational;’. Allegorical interpretations may be clever, but they are useless, as they are beyond the reach of the young and the immature. Even allegorical interpretations cannot justify stories of a baneful nature.
(3) Barring lyric poetry, which is purely narrative, all other poetry— epic, tragedy and comedy—is imitative, wholly or partially, and all imitative poetry Plato regarded as pernicious. In Imitative poetry, the poet, and the reader as well, identifies himself completely with the fictitious characters of poetry, and such absorption in other personalities is weakening and unhealthy. It enfeebles character and personality, and impairs the single mindedness and integrity of the individual. Imitation soon becomes a second nature and the actor who imitates tends to behave like the object of the imitation. Thus one who imitates a female part tends to grow effiminate. Imitation will make him cowardly, knavish or clownish, if such roles are imitated.
(4) Since the imitation of lower or baser part of the soul is easier and gives greater momentary pleasure, poets have a tendency to imitate the passionate element and thus abound in the vulgar, the sensational and the corrupt. Reason is thus kept in abeyance and full sway is given to the emotions. Hence poetry leads to loss of balance. In Republic X, Plato condemns poets saying : “they feed and water the passions instead of
drying them up………. “
drying them up………. “
(5) Emotions such as pity and grief should be restrained, but in tragic poetry (tragedy) we give an uncontrolled expression to these emotions and thus play a woman’s part.
(C) Intellectual Grounds
Plato attacks poetry on intellectual grounds as well : poets have no knowledge of truth, for they imitate appearances and not the truth of things, illusions instead of reality. Poets, like painters, imitate the surface of things. Beyond the world of the senses there is another world, the world of ideal reality, where concepts, like truth, virtue, beauty, etc., exist in an ideal form. The phenomenal world is a mere illusion, a reflection or shadow of the ideal world. The poets have no knowledge of reality; they simply imitate the shadowy or the illusionary. Poetry is thrice removed from reality; it cannot be a source of knowledge and truth. It can tell us nothing about the essential reality.
(D) Utilitarian Grounds
Poetry is the product of futile ignorance. The poet who imitates without really knowing what he is imitating is demonstrating both his lack of useful purpose and his lack of knowledge. Plato is not content with putting the ‘imitator’, of something below its maker; he also puts the maker below the user. He writes, “there are three arts which are concerned with all things : one which uses, another which makes, a third which imitates them.” The poet stands the lowest, for neither does he use, nor does he make, he merely imitates. Poetry can serve no useful, practical purpose; it must not be a part of school curriculum.
At last Plato says that “no poetry should be admitted save hymns to the gods and panegyrics on famous men.” The poets may be honoured, but they must be banished from his ideal state.
Plato’s attack has caused more misunderstanding than light. During and after the Renaissance, Puritans cited him as an example in their attack on poetry, and lovers of poetry accused him of “a denial of the value of art.” For example, Sir Philip Sidney tried to justify Plato by saying that Plato’s attack was directed not against poetry but against the abuse of poetry. Nevertheless, Plato’s views were conditioned by his age and by certain specific circumstances of his time. And, therefore, his condemnation is not of universal application.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
Plato attacks poetry on personal, moral, emotional, intellectual and utilitarian grounds.
1. Personal grounds : Poetry in his age, though in a decadent age, was more popular than philosophy and had a captivating influence. Plato being a philosopher wished to prove the superiority of philosophy over poetry.
2. Moral grounds : Poetry has a demoralizing effect by pandering to the popular taste. Poets tell lies about gods. Dramatic poets encourage lawlessness and licence.
3. Emotional grounds : Poets write as inspired beings hence non- rationalistic, mad; hence their pronouncements unreliable and uncertain; meaningless, ambiguous statements; imitative poetry pernicious as imitation becomes the second nature of the actor. Reason is kept in abeyance and full play is given to emotion. By rousing pity and fear tragedy enfeebles human personality.
4. Intellectual grounds : Poets without knowledge of truths, illusive or delusive; poetry thrice removed from reality.
5. Utilitarian Grounds : Poetry, the product of futile ignorance; Poet is not the real creator but imitator. Poetry can serve no useful, practical purpose.