Plato’s Republic – Attack on Poetry

plato's attack on poetryPlato’s Republic – Attack on Poetry. Plato’s Republic attacks Poetry and poets. Plato’s statement that poets deserve to be banished is one of the most famous views of great thinkers in relation to Poetry. When Plato talked about the ideal in ‘Republic’, he gave no place to poets there. Plato was very clear about the reasons due to which he did not advocate the presence of poets in the society.

Some factors that need to be mentioned while discussing Plato’s attack in poetry are that poetry had become exceptionally influential in the society; it was facing degeneration in terms of quality; and, Plato, like many other philosophers, desired to advocate the superiority of philosophers over poets.

Plato’s Republic
Plato’s Republic

Plato’s literary criticism was aimed at motivate the young people in the society to become capable enough to be the citizens of his ideal state. He believed that poets’ influence on youth was not appropriate. Thus, he attacked poetry and criticized it on four grounds- moral, emotional, intellectual and utilitarian.

(A) Moral Grounds

The moral basis for Plato’s attacks on poetry was his belief that:

  1. Poetry responded to popular beliefs. Thus, poets fondly narrate tales publicizing pleasant vices of human life. He considered drama to be a bigger culprit in this sense since the dramatists entirely depended on popular patronage. Publicity of such vices led to immoral tendencies among people.
  2. Poets presented false ideas about Gods and heroes who represented Gods. Gods were shown to be corrupt, immoral and dishonest in the epics that poets created. Such tendencies were particularly noted in Homer’s epics. The natural inclination of children and youth to follow Gods and heroes, therefore, accounted to immorality in the society.
  3. The likeness of dramatists for sensation and melodrama was responsible for inspiring the baser instincts of men which, in turn, led to lawlessness.

(B) Emotional Grounds

Plato also held some objections to poetry on emotional grounds:

  1. He objected to the claim that poets are ‘divinely inspired’. He stated that if the claim is to be believed, the views of the poets could not be relied upon. Their views are not based on reason.
  2. He believed that the views presented by the poets could not be explained even by themselves since their views were non-rational.
  3. He particularly condemned the forms of poetry other than lyric poetry. He believed that epic, tragedy and comedy were imitative by nature. Identification with fictitious characters on the part of poet or reader was inappropriate as per Plato’s views since imitation would soon become second nature.
  4. He believed that poetry abounded in vulgar, sensational and corrupt elements since imitation of baser aspects of human life was easier and also offered more momentary pleasure. Thus, poets preferred emotions over reason.
  5. As per his beliefs, tragic poetry gave uncontrolled expression to te emotions like pity and grief which actually were to be restrained.

(C)  Intellectual Grounds

On intellectual basis, Plato condemned poets by stating that:

  1. Poets imitated only superficial appearances and had no knowledge of truth.
  2. Poets never understood the world beyond the senses which was the world of ideal reality. Thus, they could not understand the concepts like beauty, truth and virtue.

(D) Utilitarian Grounds

Plato considered poetry to be futile on utilitarian basis as well. According to him, poetry can serve no useful purpose to deserve to become part of school curriculum. It was so since he felt that:

  1. Poets imitated things without understanding them fully. The imitation based on lack of knowledge, thus, lacked purpose as well. So, poetry was not useful.
  2. He identified three arts in concern to all things- to use, to make and to imitate. He considered the art of imitation to be least in value and that is the art poets were concerned to. Poetry is the product of futile ignorance. The poet who imitates without really knowing what he is imitating is demonstrating both his lack of useful purpose and his lack of knowledge. Plato is not content with putting the ‘imitator’, of something below its maker; he also puts the maker below the user. He writes, “there are three arts which are concerned with all things : one which uses, another which makes, a third which imitates them.” The poet stands the lowest, for neither does he use, nor does he make, he merely imitates. Poetry can serve no useful, practical purpose; it must not be a part of school curriculum.

Keeping all these views in mind, Plato stressed that “no poetry should be admitted save hymns to the gods and panegyrics on famous men.” Along with the grounds mentioned above, Plato also had personal interest in criticizing poetry. Being a philosopher himself, he had to take on the cause of the philosophers in general who were struggling to prove their superiority in comparison to poets. He has made his objections to poetry very clear in his attack on poetry.

Further Reading

Plato in Wiki

Plato’s Republic