Shall We Allow Poets in the Republic?

By Gerald Therrien

Much has been written and read about Plato banning poets from the republic – why would he do that?  The poet, John Milton, wrote a humorous and ironic poem, ‘On the Platonic Idea as it Was Understood by Aristotle’, that ends –

‘… Ah, Plato, unfading glory of the Academe,
If you were the first to bring such monsters as this into the schools,
you really ought to call back the poets
whom you exiled from your republic,
for you are the greatest fabler of them all.
Bring them in, or else you,
the founder, must go out !’

Milton was showing us that, ironically, Aristotle didn’t understand Plato’s idea!  And therefore, that we could not discuss whether or not to ban poets from the republic, from an Aristotelean (literal) point of view.  Because it seems, that Plato was not an Aristotelean, he was a Platonist!

With all this in mind, let us begin to look at the discussion of poetry in our republic.

Plato specifically mentions certain events in some of his dialogues, to locate the date of the dialogue.

The Charmides dialogue (translation by Thomas Taylor, in 1804) begins:

Yesterday, when I came in the evening from the army, I gladly returned to my accustomed exercise, in consequence of having been for some time absent from it; and entered into the Palaestra of Taurean Neptune, which is opposite to the royal temple … But Chaerepho, as if he had been insane, leaping from the midst of them, ran towards me, and taking me by the hand, O Socrates, says he, how were you saved in the engagement?  For a short time before we came away there was a battle at Potidaea, of which those that are here just now heard.’ [Note: Charmides was Plato’s uncle.]

Socrates was returning home after a long absence, on military service as a hoplite, from the battle of Potidaea (432 BC) and the following two-year siege.

The Republic dialogue (translation by Rev. Hary Spens, in 1763) begins:

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus, with Glauco, the son of Aristo, to pay my devotion to the Goddess; and desirous, at the same time, to observe in what manner they would celebrate the festival, as they were now to do it for the first time.  The procession of our own countrymen seemed to me to be indeed beautiful; yet that of the Thracians appeared no less proper.’  [Note: Glauco was Plato’s older brother.]

The festival to honor the Thracian goddess of healing, Bendis, was reportedly first held in Athens in 429 BC.  So, the Charmides dialogue must have occurred just shortly before the Republic dialogue – at around the time of the start of the Peloponnesian War, the death of Pericles, and the birth of Plato.

[Note: Plato was born around at the same time as the dialogue of the Republic – what a funny and ironic place to begin the story of Socrates’ philosophic enquiries!]

With that historical setting in mind, let us look at the ‘so-called’ banning of poets from our republic.

In Book X, Socrates was observing the establishment of their city – ‘in a right manner’, when he remembered the rule respecting poetry – ‘that no part of it which is imitative, be, by any means, admitted’, and a discussion then began of what imitation is – ‘for I do not myself altogether understand what it means’.

Socrates and Glauco began by discussing the workman who makes some piece of furniture, or a utensil.  But the workman doesn’t make the real thing, he makes something like it, by looking towards the idea (form) of it.  Using a mirror, the appearance of the thing could also easily be made, and therefore, similarly, a painter is the maker only of an appearance, not of the real thing.  

And so, Socrates says, we are looking at three types of things – the one which exists in nature and is made by God, the thing which the workman makes, and the appearance of the thing which the painter makes – in imitation of the workman or artisan.  And this painter, the imitator, who makes ‘what is generated the third from nature’, is similar to the composer of tragedy – ‘since he is an imitator, a sort of third sprung from the King and the truth’.

Ought we not then … to consider tragedy, and its leader, Homer? … It behoves us then to consider whether these who have met with those imitators have been deceived, and on viewing their works have not perceived that they are the third distant from real being, and that their works are such as can easily be made by one who knows not the truth (for they make phantasms, and not real beings); or, whether they do say something to the purpose, and that the good poets in reality have knowledge in those things which they seem to the multitude to express with elegance.

Socrates is asking us whether we are deceived by the poets ‘who know not the truth’, or, whether the ‘good poets’ do have knowledge of the difference between truth and imitation.  Socrates asks whether ‘Friend Homer’ is the third from the truth – the imitator, or maker of appearances, or is he the second from the truth – an artist, or imitator of real things in nature.

But if he were in reality intelligent in these things which he imitates, he would far rather, I think, seriously apply himself to the things than to the imitations, and would endeavour to leave behind him many and beautiful actions, as monuments of himself, and would study rather to be himself the person commended than the encomiast. 

But, what cities acknowledge Homer to have been a good lawgiver? – what war is recorded to have been well conducted by Homer as a leader? – what are Homer’s discoveries and inventions? – is there a certain Homeric manner of life?  did Homer procure himself many companions, and been honoured and beloved by them (like Protagoras and Prodicus)? – is it ‘that all the poetical men, beginning with Homer, are imitators of the images of virtue, but that they do not attain to the truth’?

I think, we shall say that the poet colours over with his names and words certain colours of the several arts, whilst he understands nothing himself, but merely imitates, so as to others such as himself who view things in his compositions, he appears to have knowledge.’

But however he will imitate at least, without knowing concerning each particular in what respect it is ill or good; but it is likely that he will imitate such as appears to be beautiful to the multitude, and those who know nothing … That the imitator knows nothing worth mentioning in those things which he imitates, but that imitation is a sort of amusement, and not a serious affair … that those who apply to tragic poetry in iambics and heroics, are all imitators in the highest degree.’

If poets are but imitators, then poetry ‘imitates men who act either voluntarily or in voluntarily; and who from the result of their action, imagine that they have done either well or ill, and in all these cases receive either pain or pleasure’, and this imitation, ‘being far from the truth, delights in its own work, conversing with that part in us which is far from wisdom, and is its companion and friend, to no sound nor genuine purpose’ – that ‘imitators’ of pain or pleasure, do so without a purpose.

Socrates and Glauco then discuss the case of a good man, who suffers a misfortune (such as the loss of a son or of something that he values most); that he will moderate his grief in public among his peers, but will grieve openly when in private; that it is ‘reason and law’ that ‘restrain his grief’, but that it is ‘passion’ that ‘drags him to grief’; and that we should ‘accustom the soul to apply in the speediest manner to heal and rectify what was fallen and sick, dismissing lamentation.’

Socrates and Glauco then discuss the two different ‘conductors’ in man; that the ‘prudent and tranquil part’ isn’t imitated or understood very easily, especially to a large crowd in a theatre; that the imitation of this kind of disposition is foreign to them; and that our imitative poet ‘is not made for such a part of the soul as this’ – if he hopes to win the audience’s applause.  But he imitates the passionate part of man’s soul, because it is easily imitated.

And thus, we may, with justice, not admit him into our city which is to be well regulated, because he excites and nourishes this part of the soul, and, strengthening it, destroys the rational.  And as he who in a city makes the wicked powerful, betrays the city, and destroys the best men, in the same manner we shall say that the imitative poet establishes a bad republic in the soul of each individual, gratifying the foolish part of it, which neither discerns what is great, nor what is little, but deems the same things sometimes great, and sometimes small, forming little images in its own imagination, altogether remote from the truth.’

Then Socrates adds this little line – ‘but we have not however as yet brought the greatest accusation against it: for that is, somehow, a very dreadful one, that it is able to corrupt even the good

Oh, Socrates! Oh, humorous and ironical Socrates!  Is this not the same crime, that you will be accused of?  How can you be criticized for banning poets from our city, when you are simply following the laws of Athens?  How can you be accused of corrupting the youth when you say here that we must ban the poets from our city?

But, on second look, you actually banned that imitator that ‘makes the wicked powerful, betrays the city, and destroys the best men’.  And who can those ‘imitators’ be? 

[Note: We shall learn about these ‘imitators’ in some of Socrates’ later dialogues, against the ‘sophists’.]

But what shall become of our poets?  – 

for somehow, the best of us, when we hear Homer, or any of the tragic writers, imitating some of the heroes when in grief, pouring forth long speeches in their sorrow, bewailing and beating their breasts, you know we are delighted; and, yielding ourselves, we follow along, and, sympathizing with them, seriously commend him as an able poet whoever most affects us in this manner.’

Socrates explains that ‘if you consider that the part of us, which in our private misfortunes is forcibly restrained, and is kept from weeping and bewailing to the full, being by nature of such a kind as is desirous of these, is the very part which is by the poets filled and gratified’ – that the poets can give a voice to that part of our soul.

But that part in us, which is naturally the best, being not sufficiently instructed, either by reason or habit, grows remiss in its guardianship over the bewailing part, by attending to the sufferings of others, and deems it no way disgraceful to itself, to commend and pity one who grieves immoderately, whilst he professes to be a good man

– that our problem is due instead to not being sufficiently instructed by reason.

And the case is the same as to venereal pleasures, and anger, and the whole of the passions, as well the sorrowful as the joyful, which truly, we have said, attend us in every action; that the poetical imitation of these has the same effect upon us; for it nourishes and waters those things which ought to be parched, and constitutes as our governor, those which ought to be governed, in order to our becoming better and happier, instead of being worse and more miserable

– that the poets can help to educate our emotions, to our becoming happier.

Socrates continues that

when therefore … you meet with the encomiasts of Homer, who tell how this poet instructed Greece, and that he deserves to be taken as a master to teach a man both the management and the knowledge of human affairs, and that a man should regulate the whole of his life according to this poet, we should indeed love and embrace such people, as being the best they are able; and agree with them that Homer is most poetical, and the first of tragic writers.’

Remembering those tyrants of Athens who may wish to charge him with corruption, Socrates adds that ‘but they must know, that hymns to the Gods, and the praises of worthy actions, are alone to be admitted into the city.’

But if it should admit the pleasurable muse likewise, in songs, or verses, you would have pleasure and pain reigning in the city, instead of law, and that reason which always appears best to the community

– that we should keep away those pleasurable muses (of pleasure and pain), and admit those muses of law and reason. 

And we can recall that at the beginning, Socrates and Glauco asked about poets, whether ‘their works are such as can easily be made by one who knows not the truth’, or, whether ‘the good poets in reality have knowledge in those things which they seem to the multitude to express with elegance’.

Socrates and Glauco then conclude with their ‘apology’ that ‘when we recollect what we have said with reference to poetry, that we then very properly dismissed it from our republic, since it is such as is now described: for reason obliged us’– that reason obliged us to ban poetry from our republic.

But nevertheless let it be said, that if any one can assign a reason why the poetry and the imitation which are calculated for pleasure ought to be in a well regulated city, we, for our part, shall gladly admit them, as we are at least conscious to ourselves that we are charmed by them

– that reason can admit poetry into our republic.

And we may at least grant, somehow, even to its defenders, such as are not poets, but lovers of poetry, to speak in its behalf, without verse, and show that it is not only pleasant, but profitable for republics, and for human life … through this unborn love of such poetry that prevails in our best republics, shall be well pleased to see it appear to be the best and truest: and we shall hear it till it is able to make no further defence

– but that it is our job to become the defenders of poetry, to keep it the best and truest!

In continuation of this line of reasoning, Socrates and Glauco next begin their discussion of our souls.  One must think that there was a reason, why Plato would place this discussion of poetry, just before the discussion of the immortality of our souls – something that Aristotle could never understand.  Oh, humorous and ironical Plato! 

Bards of passion and of mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Have ye souls in heaven too,
Double lived in regions new?

Feature Image: Plato’s Academy, Roman mosaic from the House of T. Siminius in Pompeii.


GERALD THERRIEN IS A HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR OF A FOUR VOLUME SERIES ON CANADIAN HISTORY ENTITLED CANADIAN HISTORY UNVEILED AND HAS LECTURED ON TOPICS RANGING FROM POETRY, ANCIENT ATHENIAN CULTURE, THE RENAISSANCE AND THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION.

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