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Plato's Hostility Toward The Arts

Updated on July 6, 2013

Platonic Forms and Artistic Abstraction

The role that the arts should and should not play in society are a major theme in, "The Republic." In book 1 we learn that Plato's view of the world is that it is in constant decay and always an imperfect rendition of the true and eternal forms which are perfect by their very nature. For instance a chair actually constructed of matter in the physical world is only an imperfect expression of the chair's essence. The physical chair is flawed, even if only in minute ways, the wood contains knots, rough patches, the chair itself contains imperfect jointing and a lack of perfect symmetry. While the idea of a chair existing in the mind is perfect In all respects, eternal, unchanging, and not replicatable in reality.

Geometric shapes lend themselves well to this idea of universal forms. No matter how roughly draw when we see a triangle quickly scrawled with a small single line through each side indicating that they are equal in length, we can imagine the perfect universal form that this crude drawing represents. A triangle with three perfectly equal lengths and three angles measuring a perfect 60 degrees each comes to mind. And we recognize that no matter how carefully a geometric shape is rendered by man it is not absolutely perfect in all respects. Plato called this realm of universal forms, "the really real." and considered them to be part of a rational unchanging paradigm that was more real than the irrational and alterable representations we make in an effort to depict them. He held ideas such as beauty, justice, and compassion to exist in the same regard. Both as perfect immutable forms and as flawed representations of these forms in practice.

He regarded the artistic renderings of objects in the real world to be crude imitations of imitations of these really real Platonic forms. And so art is a delusion draw from existence and obfuscates truth rather than adding anything to the universal forms.

His theory of differentiation of appearance is as follows;

1) Forms (of chairs, tables etc.) are made by god.

2) Individual Things (physical chairs, tables etc.) made by men

3) Paintings (of things such as chairs, tables, etc.) made by imitators

Poetry, Acting, and Literature

The idea of mimesis as described in books 2 and 3 of, "The Republic," refers to the imitation of characters done by both the storytelling of Epic Poets like homer and the acting done regularly in Greek Theater. Plato sees these imitations as potentially dangerous to the general character of citizen's within his Republic. In so far as poets and actors portray characters of questionable character and non-admirable qualities the effect upon the audience might be so corrupting that he will ban such performances and allow only the imitation of noble, brave, and honorable personas by actors and in poetic description. And so vast censorship and banning of inappropriate arts that may enervate the character of the city population as a whole are to be enacted in his Republic.

A further contention is that even fine poetry, as in the case of Homer, can impart no knowledge and can be created by the wholly ignorant. Even if poetry does impart some knowledge and the poet is not entirely ignorant it is still obvious that poetry and ignorance are not mutually exclusive. He further extrapolates then that is poetry can flow from the ignorant and succeed in spite of it's ignorance it must be detrimental to the fine qualities of the soul.

The dialogue continues to identity the sympathy we feel toward imitations as indicative of a part of us that is unreasonable. And as the just city must foster justice which is compromised of a proper balance of both reason and spirit, anything that corrupts reason must therefore corrupt justice and cannot be allowed.

Moving on to the staging of poetry, the focus is on tragedies and seems to only consider the tragic hero, one who is impassioned and impulsive, guided in his endeavors by unreasonableness and an illusion of virtue. As we emote with the tragic characters and weep openly with them this is seen as elicitation of bad habits and the undoing of the self-control and self-possession encouraged in people as virtues.

In book 10, the precepts already established regarding mimesis of characters with undesirable traits leads Plato toward displeasure with all types of literature and fiction. He adds further that if a collection of characters are presented within literature we are only bound to find multiple unreasonable and divergent points of view and modes of behavior further obfuscating just, virtuous, and reasonable truths.

The imitator is described as a kind of sorcerer who casts a wicked spell over his audience, drawing them in before degrading them utterly. Imitation draws the attention away from real objects of contemplation toward mere appearances. So all art, in that it arises from appearance and leads the enraptured toward only more appearance is considered base in origin and baser in effect, by Plato.

Summations and The Aesthetics of Aristotle

And so art of most types, will be either wholly disallowed or carefully monitored for content that is uplifting to the character of the average citizen within Plato's Republic. This is a truly dystopian picture with which we are presented. Plato's contention that imitation is in itself distracting and imitation of the ignoble is positively corrupting leads him down a path of censorship and creative paucity.

Plato's student, Aristotle, took a very different view of the arts as outlined in his own work, "Poetics." He saw the arts, and especially mimesis, in poetry and theatre as a necessary event for the emotional education of the public. He, in fact, first coined the term, "Catharsis," which has been misrepresented as a purging of emotion, in this case by proxy through a character, but was actually meant as a method for learning to cope with the unpleasant aspects of life through an unfettered indulgence in emotive art. He regarded the experience presented to an audience by a theatre production or to a listener by an Epic Poet to be of vital importance for the maintenance of emotional and psychological health within a population.

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