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Andrew Watson

'This whole genre of poetry deforms its audience's minds, unless they have the antidote, which is recognition of what this kind of poetry is actually like' (Republic, 598b). Why, in your opinion, does Plato reach this conclusion that the fine arts are dangerous in book ten of Republic?

In this statement, Plato makes two powerful assertions: the first is that all poetry is unacceptable, is a kind of poison to the mind; the second emphasises that to avoid infection one has to see and understand the effects of the virus from the outside. The uncompromising, severe language is difficult to reconcile on first viewing, but for Plato there is much at stake. The whole direction of the Republic is towards gaining knowledge. Everything that hinders progress towards this goal is of crucial importance and must be scrutinised. Plato has therefore arrived at the belief that the threat of poetry is so significant that the only 'antidote' is knowledge. Plato's censorship of poetry, however, begins at an earlier stage of the Republic.

Although Plato's initial censoring of poetry is concerned within an educational and literary context, his argument is anchored in the Divine, the stable source of purity, goodness and knowledge in which the moral falsehoods that poetry contains have their ideal corrective. The portraying of God 'as he really is' is essential as this can only have a good effect on the people who hear the message. This is why the tone is serious and why even the greatest and most influential poetry of his time such as Homer's Iliad, must be expurgated. Issues such as the effects of poetry on the young and its 'preventative medicine' for people who cannot live in the right way (382c), are smaller issues in comparison to the danger that poetry poses through its links with the metaphysical world. Even if poetry contains factually true accounts of immoral behaviour they cannot be excused purely on account of their verity.

Plato's discussion of mimesis, which becomes a fluid term, is nonetheless a vital link between book two and book ten. 'Representational narrative' depicting intemperate emotions is embodied in tragedy and in comedy and both must be banished completely. But representation is permitted, provided it is used in small measure and is of an edifying nature. In book ten the leap to the assertion that 'the whole genre of poetry deforms its audience's minds' seems at odds with the earlier claim. This is because Plato has modified his definition of mimesis and has given it complete metaphysical status. Although not made explicit in the text, the realms explored in the Divided Line underpin Plato's advanced argument against poetry.

The connections Plato then makes between painters and poets are rooted in this new definition. Representation in both genres imitates appearance. In representing a table, a painter cannot understand the relevant Form of a table as he understands nothing of its physical construction. It is the carpenter who knows the table's formal proportions and it is he who can look to the table as a thing that can partake in some greater reality; like the person who has the ability to see beauty 'as well as the things that partake in it' (476d). A representation in poetry and in painting is therefore 'two generations away from the throne of truth'. There are significant difficulties in drawing comparisons between poetry, drama and painting but the key distinction is that they are all ignorant of reality.

He can move his argument into this sphere because he has already shown in the visible realm of the Divided Line that the lowest part is given over to shadows and reflections (eikon). Mimesis and eikon are similar and belong to the division furthest away from the sphere of knowledge. It is only by gaining knowledge that opinions, images and imitations which are beneath, can be grasped. At 602c Plato links this idea to our perception of images. A stick that looks bent in water feeds the mind with a distortion. The calculating part of the mind which knows what the stick is really like has an 'organ of understanding' that clears away falseness and deception. The radical assertion that Plato now makes is that through philosophical enquiry, the organ of understanding can perceive and correct the lower part of the mind. The lower organ is always fed with irrationality because it is there that all unphilosophical things are created.

Mimesis then, feeds the lower part of the mind with emotions, actions and thoughts that we would rarely, if ever, tolerate in our own lives. An audience's mind can be 'deformed' by all poetry because a poet cannot represent the organ of understanding, largely because its immutability is difficult to portray. A poet is always likely to favour the 'petulant and varied side of our characters, because it is easy to represent' and is most likely to win the favour of his audience (605c). This is because we 'fall under the spell' of an image in verse or in painting. The spell seduces us and acts as a barrier to morality. Poetry is then a complete aberration of everything that Plato holds to true and good: this is why it must be banished.

This of course is Plato's perfect state and his ideals are felt passionately; to some they are expressed hysterically.[1] Book ten makes us uncomfortable, but probably not as uncomfortable as Plato was in writing it. He was, after all, one of the few philosophers in history who expressed his ideas in ways that are now highly regarded for their poetic and literary merit. As Annas has pointed out, Plato is 'not only a social reformer, he is himself a literary artist who knows from the inside what creative writing is'.[2] But in book ten of the Republic he is apparently denying the poet's creativity, and, she continues to argue, in writing in a way that is obviously inferior in literary merit and even philosophically in contrast to other parts of the Republic, it might beg the question if he was denying his own creativity, too. Annas maintains that his arguments in book ten are clumsy and crude for she feels that they do not convince us that poetry is inferior to philosophy and that the poet has no creative power. Yet Plato thought them so significant that he added what are often claimed to be his most outrageous and notorious thoughts on the arts.

Because Plato was artistically sensitive, Waterfield has pointed out that there is often a 'natural tendency to mitigate Plato's words', but that it is a tendency which must be resisted. We should be certain that when Plato asserts that we can become like the thing that we habitually contemplate, that representational poetry can deform minds, he means what he says.[3] Let us, therefore, take Plato at his word.

On the surface it is difficult to argue that the arts in their different forms affect us in the same way. Yet in book ten all poetry is said to be imitative in precisely the same way as a trompe l'oeil painting imitates a three dimensional object, a claim that seems hard to sustain; after all, we might reasonably counter Plato's argument by saying that the power of the spoken word is more likely to affect one's emotions more than a trompe l'oeil painting. Plato obviously cannot convince us by the comparison he makes, yet he fervently maintains his view that representational poetry imitates in the same negative, limited sense that representational painting does.

For Plato to have an argument Annas maintains that the two lower parts must be one and the same and that the 'argument from painting does not carry over to poetry because the parts of the soul are not the same in both cases'. 'How', she asks, 'can the strength and importunate nature of one's desires have anything to do with one's being taken in by optical illusions?'[4] Annas concludes that whatever inconsistencies and shortcomings of Plato's arguments about the value of poetry, they are ultimately most interesting for what they reveal about Plato.[5] His weak, crude attempts to downgrade poetry and strip it of its creative power suggests that he was only too aware of the creative force of poetry, or by extension, of all art.

Plato's conclusion that only 'hymns to the gods and eulogies of virtuous men' (607a) should be allowed into his ideal republic has been interpreted by Waterfield as saying that despite the fact these eulogies are representational, they are acceptable because they show morality in a way that does 'not appeal to the lower, emotional parts of the mind. It is in this sense that poetry can predispose the mind for philosophy'.[6] Annas goes further to suggest that there is 'no real inconsistency' in Plato's admitting poetry, even of this limited kind, because 'Plato is enough of a creative artist himself to know that such productions are not real poetry'.[7]

The second issue that arises from Waterfield's comments, one that Annas obviously has sympathy with, namely that 'hymns to the Gods' or art that is offered as worship to God being of necessity a dry, unexciting, 'boring' form of expression to us 'post romantics', is not necessarily true.[8] By presenting a picture of an artist who is locked into an illusory world, producing unrealities in his work, feeding off the base side of his nature, Plato allows us to imagine an art that could do the opposite: one that steers us to truth, to the archetypes or gods that 'animate and inspire' objects in the visible realm. An artist who intuits these true realities allows, as Sherrard has said, 'the radiations of their presence to flow into and inform his work' and although 'his work will not then be at one with reality itself... at least it will be an evocation or a symbol of it, untrammelled as far as possible by his purely personal and private responses'.[9]

This process is at work in creators of sacred art, and Sherrard argues that it is 'only in the light of some such understanding of things as that which Plato proposes that we can begin to grasp certain features of traditions of sacred art' like the art of the Christian icon, for example; things like its 'limitlessly fresh and undated' character.[10]

Our present society demands originality from artists, to find their own style or voice. Those that seek to do otherwise are often hailed in disparaging terms as mere traditionalists, or copyists. The irony of this is obvious in the case of artists concerned with sacred art that pass down from generation to generation unchanging repeated patterns. Plato argued that this is precisely the type of art which frees itself from mere copying! What is new and what is not permeates all aspects of our contemporary culture, particularly the arts; and it is largely superficial. What new or innovative material or technique has the artist used? To invent or discover is to attract a positive value. As to its content, much current conceptual art is impenetrable without some written explanation, and even when its content is clear, to interpret or speak clearly about its value is often avoided, because this would involve a declaration of faith that few critics are willing to make. Yet these are the same critics or teachers that tell us painting has had its day; life-drawing is no longer required in an art college to which it was once indivisibly linked. Whence comes the authority for such pronouncements?: both must surely rely on some greater principle.

Originality in sacred art has been described as 'the quality which relates that work to its origin' or its 'source or cause' and does not depend on an innovative approach to technique or content; it rather 'originates' in reality 'and it is because it manifests its origin that it possesses originality'.[11]

It is interesting to consider that artists who were great students of tradition, like Constable, Cezanne, Mondrian, Pollock, and Morandi, to name a few, have all, in their own way, been highly original. Their art can be seen to have captured a higher reality or universals that in the case of Constable, Mondrian and Morandi was stated to be one of their main aims. Only Constable directly spoke of God in relation to his works. I would like to think that Constable's paintings are eulogies to God in the Platonic sense, for they are mediations on canvas of the artist's reflections on nature that acknowledge God as the Essence and Animator of those reflections. The depiction of nature then became for Constable an extremely serious, moral concern. Worship in art need not be restricted to icons. Revolutions can take place in which the innovations of the artist need not attract pejorative responses.

An artist like Constable knew that in order for him to create something from nothing he had to become 'poetical'. But he had a divine anchor that allowed him to gain a true perspective on the fountain of creativity that, as Plato argued in the Laws, when fully activated, brings up filth as well as excellent things (iv, 719c). It seems that opening oneself to poetic creativity is like opening Pandora's box and the magnitude and intensification of what comes out, with its subsequent effect on the artist's emotions, is a force to be reckoned with. I think that this is another reason why Plato was at pains to stress the vital need for the young, and indeed all of us who aspire to being creative, to first firmly establish a moral capstone in our lives. To create anything, however earnestly, without attunement to God, is dangerous. In an imperfect world, God the creator, the gauge and regulator of the creative fountain, at once offers security and a moral harness to control the darker elements that would seek to keep us in the shadows.

Plotinus said that evil could be 'bound in beautiful fetters'.[12] So worship of beauty will not help us either. Beauty that is contaminated is very potent. Plato also argued that truth is beauty; but beauty is not always true. For Plato, if the vision of an artist's soul is spoiled or clouded then what might appear to be a sacred beautiful form in his creation can be gaining its charge from a darker supernatural energy, thus its potential to deceive or poison minds in a dangerous way is increased. I believe that this is the central issue that Plato raised, and he want us to take it seriously. He is forcing us to make a choice; this is why he is so absolutist in his approach.

Plato's argument for corruption in the lower part of the mind therefore cannot ultimately be reduced, as Annas has done, into a problem merely of semantics. If Plato's arguments are bad, perhaps this is because his message is more urgent, perhaps this is where, as Annas readily acknowledges, we truly get a glimpse of what really mattered to him. A man does not make pronouncements like the ones that are found at the start of book ten, unless he has either experienced a bad side of creativity himself or recognised it at work in other artists.

Proclamations of faith can often look superficially 'hysterical', can often be easily attacked as they do not, or perhaps cannot, be backed up with arguments that have the subtlety or nuance that other themes may elicit. Plato's belief in ultimate goodness, in God, and its connection with art and beauty, may sit uncomfortably with some contemporary authors. But Plato means what he says. Creativity enhances and makes more powerful the master it serves, good or evil. We should face up to the challenge of book ten with a conviction that does justice to the certitude of what is offered to us: without the antidote art truly can poison the mind. And art can be seductive as well as subtlety deceptive. Under apparently still waters lie dangerous currents.


1. Annas, Julia, An Introduction to Plato's Republic, Oxford, 1981, p.344.

2. Annas, p.343.

3. Waterfield, Robin, Plato: Republic, Oxford, p.xxix.

4. Annas, p.338.

5. Annas, p.344.

6. Waterfield, p.449.

7. Annas, p.344.

8. Waterfield, p.449.

9. Sherrard, Philip, The Sacred in Life and Art, Ipswich, 1990, p.58.

10. Sherrard, p.59.

11. Sherrard, p.63.

12. Cited in Sherrard, p.18.