Plato's Hostility to Art

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  • Trustees of Boston University

    Plato's Hostility to ArtAuthor(s): Thomas GouldSource: Arion, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring, 1964), pp. 70-91Published by: Trustees of Boston UniversityStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20162893 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 19:32

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  • PLATO'S HOSTILITY TO ART

    Thomas Gould

    V THEN READERS OF PLATO COME TO

    one of the many passages where he questions the respectabiUty of stories, verse, song, chama, painting

    or dance, they are

    usuaUy

    upset. And well they should be; for Plato's conclusions are absurd ?that Homer, for instance, and all of the great Attic tragedians would have to be banned if society were to have a chance at uni versal happiness. Which of us does not gladly side with Aristotle, who reversed his teacher's decision in this matter and tried to show that the pleasure that we get from poetry and drama is not

    only harmless, but beneficial? The exhilaration cleanses us, Aris totle argued, and gives us insight more philosophical than the examination of actual facts and events.

    Plato's mistakes have a way of haunting us, however. When he criticizes men for preferring imaginative Uterature to reasoned

    discourse, we recoil with distaste. The fact is, however, that we

    instantly dissent from almost aU of Plato's most momentous, most

    original decisions. Indeed, if we were to dismiss as trivial and not worth further thought the discussions in the Dialogues that lead

    eventuaUy to incorrect conclusions or foolish recommendations,

    we should have very Uttle left. Consider Plato's most characteristic

    suggestions. There is the theory of the Form-patterns which exist, Plato thought, independent of sensed phenomena; there are the several demonstrations of the abiUty of the human psyche to sur vive separation from the body; the idea that beauty is UteraUy the creator of reaUty; the recommendation that teachers faU in love

    with students in order to attain the vision of reaUty that alone can make them masters of Ufe; the beUef that every instance of intel lectual understanding is the recovery of ecstatic knowledge once

    possessed before birth. There is Plato's plan to obUterate the

    family, his theory of soul as self-generating motion, his vision of

    intel?gent stars, a spinning world soul, post-mortem reward and

    punishment, the transmigration and reincarnation of human souls in animals and heavenly bodies, and so on and so on. The fact that Plato has triumphed, that he is stiU the most widely read

    philosopher in the world today, can surely not he traced to the

    regularity with which he has come out on the right side in his

    thinking! We reject almost all of his novel conclusions, as most of his immediate students did also. If we admire him it is only be cause we are nevertheless never quite the

    same after having gone

    through the process of demonstrating to ourselves that he must be

    wrong. Plato's decision that the older poets would have to be banned

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  • Thomas Gould 71

    from a well run city, on the other hand, has not been treated as

    just another instance of this penchant of his for profound thought leading relentlessly to perverse conclusions. It has almost always been treated as a special

    case. There are several reasons for this.

    First, we are, I think, repelled by Plato's hostiUty to art, more

    than we are by his other errors. We even feel a Uttle threatened

    by it, somehow. Why, we ask, should anyone want to deprive us of all our wonderful works of the imagination or submit future artists to rigid control by a conscious, calculating poUtical ration aUsm? A civiUzation that tolerated only those writers, printers and

    composers who could pass a test for scientific or poUtical useful ness would surely be a nightmare. Second, we are moved by the

    memory of countless attempts to censor art down through the

    centuries, the best of which have been useless, the worst savagely destructive. Plato knew of only one society in which the artists tended to limit themselves to the embodiment of their civiUza tion's ideals and did not often allow their personal imaginings to

    carry them where they would; that was Egypt, which he professed to admire for its rigidity in this respect. (Laws II 656, ff. and

    VII 799) But surely, we say, the example of Egypt should have been enough to alert anyone, especially a citizen of Athens in Plato's time, to the superiority of a society where the artists are free and genuinely individual, not impersonal instruments of a

    state-sponsored moraUty. And third, it is certainly very difficult to read Plato's own brilUant, dramatic dialogues and his haunting

    myths without being struck by the thought that he is essentiaUy an ally of the lovers of art and imagination. He gives a thousand

    proofs of his sensitivity to the deUghts of poetry, and he himself

    perfected new Uterary forms to enchant his readers and draw

    them toward his visionary's grasp of life and reaUty. A man who is moved by Uterature cannot but be moved by the Dialogues and lovers of Plato will always also be lovers of Uterature.

    And so, philosophers, scholars, and historians, from the six

    teenth century to the present, have regularly tended to ask, not could Plato's wrongheaded advice have grown,

    as so often, from a disturbing germ of truth, but could we not explain Plato's at tacks against the arts

    as not really

    meant seriously,

    or at least not

    worth our serious attention today. Plato's other ideas have met with a similar fate from time to time, of course. There is, for in stance, quite a respectable group of philosophers today who can not bring themselves to beUeve that Plato ever seriously enter tained the theory of separate Form-patterns. It is always a temp tation, I suppose, whenever we find a great

    man arguing

    some

    thing contrary to our own feeUngs, to look for some way to be lieve that he did not really say what he appears to say. But none of Plato's doctrines has suffered more from this kind of treatment than his recommendations concerning the control of artists. Aris totle's defense of poetry has always appealed to lovers of the

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  • 72 Plato's hostility to art

    Dialogues as far more Platonic than Plato's own jibes and

    sneers.

    It is significant, perhaps, that interest in Aristotle's defense of

    poetry was

    quickened, during the Renaissance, at

    exactly the

    same moment that interest began to shift from Aristotle back to Plato. In fact, while Aristotle's system was taken dead earnestly by first rate minds all over the world, his treatise on poetry was

    ignored; but when his influence declined and the important phi losophers were no longer AristotleUans, then and then only did

    men discover the Poetics and begin to apply its ideas to current Uterature. The year 1536 saw both Ramus' famous doctorate de

    monstrating the falseness of aU of Aristotle's major philosophical positions and also the work of TrincavelU, Pazzi, Daniello and

    others, which suddenly focused attention on the Poetics and made it Aristotle's best loved essay.1

    The ways in which men have attempted to reduce the harsh ness of Plato's questioning of art and Uterature vary from the crude to the subtle and inteUigent. First there are those who dis

    miss as simply false the very possibiUty that Plato could have been serious. He was ironical, they say, teasing, mischievously

    exaggerating, or throwing out a wild challenge in hopes of stimu

    lating just such a defense as Aristotle produced. This idea is sup ported by two arguments, one outrageous and one disturbing. The outrageous argument goes as follows. The only thing one needs in order to see that Plato was having fun here is a sense of humor; anyone who takes the attack against Homer and the

    tra

    gedians as a serious thrust is showing ipso facto his lamentable want of such a sense of humor.2

    The more challenging argument is the one that points

    to a pas

    sage in the Tenth Book of the Republic where Socrates says: Let it be declared that if the poetic, mimetic art, the aim of which is pleasure, could defend its right to exist in a weU

    governed state, we should be deUghted to admit it, for we are

    certainly conscious