Aristotle vs. Plato on the Dangers of Poetry
Poetry's Emotional Effect: Detrimental as Plato Claims or Beneficial as Aristotle Concludes?
Speaking well about Homer; it's a divine power that moves you, as a "Magnetic" stone moves iron rings. (That's what Euripides called it; most people call it "Heraclian.") This stone not only pulls those rings, if they're iron, it also puts power in those rings-so that there's sometimes a very long chain of iron pieces and rings hanging from one another. And the power in all of them depends on this stone. In the same way, the Muse makes some people inspired herself, and then through those who are inspired a chain of other enthusiasts is suspended. You know, none of the epic poets, if they're good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems.
Representation is natural to human beings from childhood. They differ from the other animals in this: man tends most towards representation and learns his first lessons through representation. Also (ii) everyone delights in representations. An indication of this is what happens in fact: we delight in looking at the most detailed images of things which in themselves we see with pain, e.g. the shapes of the most despised wild animal even when dead. The cause of this is that learning is most pleasant, not only for philosophers but for others likewise (but they share in it to a small extent). For this reason they delight in seeing images, because it comes about that they learn as they observe, and infer what each thing is, e.g. that this person [represents] that one.
Plato and Aristotle critique poetry and the effect it has on poets and their audiences, as well as society and humankind. Both men approach the critique from different perspectives-Plato from an idealistic deductive viewpoint depicted in dialogue format, and Aristotle from a realistic, practical and inductive viewpoint in essay format. Both men disagree on the emotional effects poetry has on individuals and on society, but both agree that poetry does stimulate great emotion which has a lasting impact on individuals and society, although if this impact is positive or negative is also a concept of debate.
According to Plato, the basis for Ion's skill as a rhapsode is far removed from his individual talents. Through a logical series of deductions, Plato argues that if Ion were in fact an expert rhapsode of Homer's poetry, he would have to know the meaning behind Homer's words to properly convey this meaning to his audience. As proof of this knowledge, Ion should be able to compare and contrast Homer to other poets and determine how they are both similar and different in subject and furthermore know which poetic depiction is superior or inferior. However, Ion, although prized as a great rhapsode by the rest of society, can do none of these things, and therefore Plato turns to a theory which abandons explanation based on knowledge. Plato determines that Ion's talent is not one he possesses, but one by which he is possessed. Ion is not an intellectual master, but he is rather, similar to poets themselves, "an airy thing, winged and holy, and [...] not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer in him" (41). According to Plato, Ion's ability to speak the words of Homer is an ability that comes to him only in moments of divine insanity.
Plato extends this idea yet further through metaphor, likening Ion to an iron ring moved by the power of a "Magnetic" stone. This stone transfers its magnetic power to iron rings, which in turn magnetically attract more iron rings, which in turn attract yet more. The consequence is "a very long chain of iron pieces and rings hanging from one another. And the power in all of them depends on this stone" (41). The stone itself represents the Muses which give divine power to the poet, represented by the initial iron ring. This ring then attracts and transfers power to another ring, representing the actor or rhapsode, who becomes possessed by the divine power through the poet. This ring further attracts and transfers power to another ring, representing the spectator who is then possessed by the divine power through the rhapsode. Divine inspiration is the sole source of poetic genius and must be passed on to everyone involved in the depiction of the poetry, so that "hung from that stone, there's an enormous chain of choral dancers and dance teachers and assistant teachers hanging off to the sides of the rings that are suspended from the Muse" (43). If the divine power fails at reaching an individual, the poetry fails, much as an unpossessed poet cannot compose good poetry, an unpossessed rhapsode cannot deliver good performances, and an unpossessed audience will be unmoved by any work.
In contrast, if visited by divine power, the rhapsode will be beside himself upon recitation, becoming so involved in his story that he in fact envisions himself present at the scenes he describes, and feels the emotions of sadness, happiness, and fear along with the characters he depicts. His audience, furthermore, if he has properly transferred his inspiration, will perceive themselves similarly linked to the places and people in his story. All which, according to Plato, indicates that they are out of their minds because a logical man would not "when he's at festivals or celebrations, all dressed up in fancy clothes, with golden crowns, [...] weep, though he's lost none of his finery" (42). It is this strong emotion and detachment from self control and reality that Plato later finds most objectionable about poetry in his work Republic.
In this work, Plato argues that poetry inspires undesirable emotions in society and should be censored from adults and especially children for fear of lasting detrimental consequences. Plato believes that since children have not yet acquired proper formation of character and knowledge of the world around them, every new experience makes a profound impact upon them. Children have no ability to know what emotions should be tempered and which should be expressed, and certain expressed emotions can have lasting consequences later in life. Plato finds it necessary to limit the types of poetry, works which he deems induce profound emotions in individuals, to protect children and future society. He states that scary stories, such as gods coming to the world in disguise and harming people, must be avoided to eliminate timidity, as such tales will induce profound fear. Furthermore, children must not be told tales detailing the horrors of death for they will then grow up to fear death and lack courage. Poetry inspiring laughter must be eliminated as well, for "the stronger the laughter, the stronger the consequent emotional reaction too-that's almost inevitable" (58). Strong emotions of every kind must be avoided, in fear of them spiraling out of control and creating irreparable damage.
Plato attempts to cultivate the rational component of the children's minds, which is distinct from the irrational component. Being that poetry is representational and two levels removed from the truth, as can be seen from the stone magnet sending its influences to the poet and then the rhapsode, representations can be deceiving and distorted, and must be approached rationally. Plato states that representations in general not only "produce a product which is far from truth, but it also forms a close, warm, affectionate relationship with a part of us which is, in its turn, far from intelligence" (76). Similarly there are two parts of the mind, one which lets societal conventions dictate emotions and another which urges inappropriate emotions to be expressed. In poetry the logical side that listens to convention is hard to represent because it is constant, and also hard to understand for the same reason. Therefore, a poet doesn't represent the logical calm part of the mind "otherwise he'd lose his popular appeal. He's concerned with the petulant and varied side of our characters because it's easy to represent" (77). He represents to the inferior part of the mind that lacks control and is overly expressive.
Representational poetry allows people to get caught up in their emotions, the inferior part of their undisciplined mind that sees things from a distorted irrational perspective. It is therefore that when poetry is heard, according to Plato, "even the best of us, as I'm sure you're aware, feels pleasure. We surrender ourselves, let ourselves be carried along, and share the hero's pain; and then we enthuse about the skill of any poet who makes us feel particularly strong feelings" (78). This is improper behavior because similar emotions seen on stage are avoided by individuals in real life, and self-indulgence seen on stage should be avoided, not shared. In tragedy the good part of the brain allows the inferior part of the brain to express itself with lasting consequence, for the sadness of the tragedies encourages such feelings until they are expressed in real life. Similarly, in comedy, an event might be humorous but never performed in real life for the risk of personal shame. However, when it is seen on stage it gives people the opportunity to laugh because they are then unrestrained by their reasoning. Consequences of this excessive emotion-sadness or humor both affect personal lives, making people less able to restrain displays of grief when sadness strikes or inappropriate mirth at a humorous situation encountered later in their lives. Therefore, Plato decides to ban such poetry to prevent its adverse effect on citizens; "if you admit the entertaining Muse of lyric and epic poetry, then instead of law and the shared acceptance of reason as the best guide, the kinds of your community will be pleasure and pain" (79).
Aristotle disagrees with Plato's arguments that poetry is a corrupted form of representation far from the truth and therefore that it can be readily dangerous to its audience. Aristotle instead sees representation as an effective teaching method, consistent with how children naturally learn, not as something that children should avoid. Plato suggested a method of education that immerses youth in things closer to the truth and further from representation whereas Aristotle finds that children naturally learn about the world through representations. Furthermore, where Plato argues that representational poetry serves only to produce harmful pleasure in its audience, Aristotle argues that representations are pleasurable because they impart beneficial knowledge. Harm is, in fact, avoided to a certain extent through representation because objects potentially harmful in nature can be depicted and studied in close proximity without fear. Therefore, people "delight in seeing images, because it comes about that they learn as they observe, and infer what each thing is, e.g. that this person [represents] that one" (93). Therefore, Aristotle has found a positive impact that poetry has on human life-that it aids transition in children and adults alike from ignorance to knowledge by seeing representations of things and then studying and learning from these representations.
Aristotle goes further to explain the relative importance of poetry in comparison to other subjects, namely history. He differentiates the two as poetry explaining situations that could possibly occur and history as explaining situations that did already occur. Therefore, "the difference is that the former relates things that have happened, the latter things that may happen. For this reason poetry is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history; poetry tends to speak of universals history of particulars" (98). Poetry involves probability and necessity whereas history only involves what has already occurred, and therefore poetry has a general encompassing message for all and any of society whereas history has a narrow specific scope. This is a far different outlook from Plato, who deemed that poetry was purely pleasure and could offer nothing meaningful to society. In contrast, here Aristotle equates poetry to a branch of study that is philosophical in nature and that can be applied to all members of society.
Aristotle agrees with Plato that poetry does inspire great emotion, but instead of being an enduring detrimental effect as Plato foretells, Aristotle finds that the sharing and expression of emotion is a type of katharsis. A katharsis allows the flushing of emotion, for a type of release, and can even result in the clarification of moral, ethical, and intellectual beliefs (88). Therefore, the expression of emotion is an act of emotional liberation, not one of degradation and emotional weakening. Emotional involvement in poetry causes people to become more moral, ethical, and intellectual by the release of emotion, thereby improving their personal lives. Overall, Aristotle believes that poetry improves the general society whereas Plato believes instead that poetry harms society.
However, Aristotle agrees with Plato that the poet himself must be insane or else a genius to produce proper work. In order to make sure diction and actions will appear appropriately and without contradiction, a poet must be able to properly visualize these components. Gestures should be an integral part of the plot, and are best represented by those who are actually experiencing the emotions meant to be depicted. It is therefore that "he who is agitated or furious [can represent] agitation and anger most truthfully. For this reason, the art of poetry belongs to the genius or the madman; of these, the first are adaptable, the second can step outside themselves" (104), meaning that the genius can experience these emotions when needed but remain in conscious reality whereas the madman becomes totally lost to his rational self when immersed in his emotions. By this reasoning, Aristotle leaves open the possibility that greatness can be achieved without madness, that it can be a rational human accomplishment, and not always an irrational divinely inspired one, as Plato believes.
Aristotle and Plato are both concerned with the beneficial elements that poetry offer individuals and society. Plato found poetry to be a degraded form of representation far removed from truth and therefore excluded it from his ideal society. In contrast, Aristotle found poetry to be philosophical and to have a general theme that can benefit all of society since it is general and inclusive in nature, unlike history. Both men also debated the effects that poetry has on individuals and society. Plato sees the effect as detrimental by increasing unconventional and unacceptable emotions, but Aristotle sees positive effects such as moral, ethic, and intellectual clarification and purification. However, both men find poetry as stimulating great emotion for both the poet and the audience, and this emotion effects their individual lives and overall society.
Source: The Norton Anthhology of Theory and Cricism by Leitch, Cain, Finke, Johnson, McGowan, and Williams.