A City Without Poets; or, Can Popular Culture Threaten the Social Order?

In the Republic, Socrates made a point of throwing poets out of his ideal city. Essentially, they posed a threat to the social order. Yet how could something as innocuous as poetry threaten the day-to-day operations of a city and the safety of those who live there? Poetry is supposed to bring pleasure, after all, and perhaps reveal something new about the world. Not so, says Socrates and, it turns out, many other thinkers since his time.

What follows is an examination of several aspects of Socrates’s decision in the context of a discussion of the role of poetry as a popular form of expression. What I’m interested in is not just why Socrates (and Plato) found poetry to be so corrosive to the fabric of a culture, but also how and why popular forms of expression are marginalized. Socrates went to great lengths to define poetry against other forms of thought and expression — to the point where he, as mayor, so to speak, was obligated to exile poetry and poets for the greater good. By understanding the arguments Socrates made against poetry, our discussion is an intervention, of sorts, into the impulse to censor free expression.

This discussion will focus a main aspect of Socrates’s critique of poetry: that poetry does not present original ideas but merely recycles existing things from the world in a new way. On its face, this doesn’t sound too bad. But we must understand that for Socrates (and others, as we shall see), poetry was intoxicating. You could get drunk of its auditory charms and do things you and others might come to regret. If this sounds familiar, it is. We hear this argument today with regard to music lyrics, television and film narratives, and other forms of popular entertainment. Socrates would have these to be as nutritious as garbage because they did not (in his estimation) to the work of elevating one’s thoughts toward pure knowledge (episteme). That poetry did not reveal episteme and that it influenced people too readily were reason enough to put poetry on the 10 Most Wanted list. But how is this a threat to the social order?

To get a handle on this question, we will engage two questions. Is poetry capable of original ideas? Put another way, can poetry do the work of philosophy? If this is the case, then Socrates was wrong in claiming that poetry is incapable of revealing truths about the universe. It would also complicate contemporary discussion about whether one can be “nourished” intellectually by popular forms of expression. If poetry does, in fact, reavel Truths about the world, and simply entertain, then it is invaluable to a culture and should definitely not be censored or expunged.

The second question we will engage is: How are forms of expression marginalized and why? Socrates in the Republic offers a case study in this, but we will bring in voices since then to deepen our examination. This discussion is timely today as we continue the conversation that Socrates started with regard to music, internet content, and television and film narratives.

What follows is a consortium on the value of poetry as a source of truth and a force for subversion. We will begin to answer these questions by looking at the role that aesthetic representation plays in poetry. We will then turn to the Socrates’s “ancient quarrel” over who has better purchase on true knowledge, poets or philosophers.

What is Representation?

Nietzsche provides a tantalizing place to begin discussing representation, because he limits and expands the possibilities of representation simultaneously. Disrupting the discourse by suggesting that our conception of representation is misguided, he argues that “a concept is produced by overlooking what is individual and real, whereas nature knows neither forms nor concepts and hence no species, but only an ‘X’ which is inaccessible to us and indefinable by us” (Nietzsche 767). Under these conditions, no method of inquiry (of which philosophy and poetry are a part) can access or speak to the true essence of an object, since such knowledge cannot be located “in nature,” which has no human epistemological in itself.

This claim destabilizes the notion that language, properly deployed, is capable of making claims about truth. Language can be mapped onto an object, but it can never be the object itself. Due to this separation of word and object, one cannot access the thing itself via methods which employ language. Yet this rupture between word and world has greater implications than just an inability of language to speak — acting as the testing mechanism mediating true premises from false, and in effect telling us things we can measure, verify and take as truth. Nietzsche suggests that concepts, forms, and even words are true, in as much as they are true to the logic of a system of meaning-making, but are illusionary in respect to purporting the truth or falsehood of objects in nature. According to Nietzsche, oppositions we make between things (species and individual) create meaning only in the context of concepts, not in the things themselves (Nietzsche 768).

For Nietzsche, X is the thing itself, the wordless indefinable thing itself. But if a rupture exists between the thing and ideas about the thing, what is the role of language in elucidating objects? Nietzsche suggests that there is an arbitrariness to language. Dividing things up by gender — male trees, female plants — or describe a rock as ‘hard’ as if ‘hard’ were of the rock itself or male were of the tree itself, rather than a subjective judgement on the part of the beholder (Nietzsche 766). If language is incapable of speaking for the essence of an object, how does one access the object? Nietzsche’s rupture has implications for the notion of representation, because it upturns one of the battles in the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry: That representations present appearance of an object but not its substance. Indeed Plato argued that poetry could not be trusted as a means of education because appearance and truth “are a considerable distance apart” (“Republic” 67). The poet may write about tables, the painter may paint images of table with great precision, but both have little contact with the object table outside of the appearance of the object, and have no clue about carpentry (“Republic” 67). The carpenter can make more pervasive claims to the truth of the form table because she manufactures the object table (imperfect though it is) with the ideal form in mind.

If Nietzsche were to object to the truth value of Socrates’s table the object table he would suggest that the poet’s representation of table is equal to the carpenter’s table, since the location of truth is not to be found in concepts. Since Plato locates truth in ideal forms that the gods create, under these terms appearance of table in word or in object is not truth, but the object table is closer. However, Nietzsche would argue that the gods have it wrong — truth is not conceptual, at least a table’s truth, since tables do not define themselves with conceptual systems. Thus the sticking point for Plato, appearance as illusory truth, is not a sticking point at all. Objects are liberated from the restricting gaze of human conceptual systems, which test[1] objects to determine their truth value. And yet because Nietzsche’s X knows nothing of external concepts which attempt to abstract from the individuality of X, we are still left with the problem of X appearing to be there. How does one access X if one cannot represent the thing itself directly via language? Nietzsche does not advocate giving up on poetry and philosophy, but he does acknowledge that “[t]ruths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions” (Nietzsche 768). Since X has no language itself and mapping language onto X yields concepts, what Socrates might call a form of episteme, yet this is not, for Nietzsche, true to the thing itself.

One surprising connection between Socrates’s notion that poetry is inherently incapable of representing the object itself and Nietzsche’s suggestion that language itself cannot represent the object is that for both thinkers neither poetry nor philosophy are enough to satisfactorily speak for the object. The limits of philosophy, arguably, prevent it from accessing ideal forms, which, like Nietzsche’s X, are of the gods’ design and don’t follow the logic(s) of human conceptual systems. To presuppose that the dialogue, Socrates’s preferred method (superior to poetry), can gain purchase on the truth, if truth is only located in (ideal) forms not present in the philosophers life, nor especially in the systems the philosopher devises to erect ladders to the forms (since the dialogue is the creation of humans, not the gods), seems to commit the very mistake that Nietzsche suggests we make when we assume we can rely on our systems of reason to give us access to the thing itself. I do not mean to suggest that Nietzsche is right in this argument. Plato’s suspicions of representation must be read in relation to the political questions he sets out to answer in the Republic, one of which is how to maintain a sense of unity among citizens. Love of representations is a love of appearances, and this excites the emotional center of the mind, which cannot operate simultaneously as the part of the mind interested in making calculations and seeking episteme.

Perhaps the through line is to tell it slant: Is representation mere appearance, with no linkages to episteme? And if so, how does one prove this? Plato depicts poetry as a closed loop, of drawing from a closed pond only to return to the pond its own elements. And yet his alternative to poetry (philosophy) is based in a methodology that presupposes that human language can gain access to that which has no name, the ideal forms of the gods. Perhaps obscurity, not representation, is what Plato feared. The logic of his arguments against poetry position the discipline of poetry in a subordinate position. Plato distinguishes every aspect of thought in Republic through a system of binaries which subordinate ideas Socrates determines are inferior or pernicious to a healthy community. Thus the low mind occupies the same position as mimetic poetry and falsehood, while the high mind occupies the same position as philosophy and truth. This system of difference serves to exclude poetry (because it relies on representation) as a serious force in people’s lives. At the heart of this quarrel is that poetry is not functioning in a productive manner. Nietzsche would argue that poetry is being productive, as is philosophy, since neither, in the end, can make absolutely true epistemological statements. (Not a position Socrates would have found agreeable.) Perhaps if Boccaccio had been present in one of Socrates’s symposia, Plato’s suspicion of representation might not have taken on such great proportions.

Boccaccio offers an alternative conception of poetry that resituates Plato’s objection to representation (as offering truth with no substance) as a productive means of argumentation. Boccaccio allies himself with Plato and holy texts, which present a reader with no clear cut answers (“…for the works of Plato and Aristotle . . . abound in difficulties so tangled and involved that from their day to the present . . . they have yielded no clear nor consistent meaning” [Boccaccio 198]). Is this an answer Plato would have accepted? Perhaps not, for his dialogues offer increasing amounts of clarity about a subject as one moves deeper into that subject, as Socrates eliminates false premises and draws conclusions from true premises. Yet means do not excuse the difficulty in interpretation for Boccaccio. And he answers Plato’s objection to the hypnotic power of poetry that charms one out of critical thought:

If by chance in condemning the difficulty of the text, they really mean its figures of diction and oratorical colors and the beauty which they fail to recognize in alien words . . . my only advice is to go back to grammar schools . . . and learn what license ancient authority granted poets in such matters . . . Let them not trust to concealing their gross confusion of mind in the precepts of the old orators . . . (Boccaccio 199)

As if answering Plato himself, Boccaccio links the obscurity to a “license” from the “old orators” — Socrates must have been a candidate for this allusion — who practiced their own forms of elucidation. That Boccaccio also suggests that, for instance, Socrates is capable of being just as obscure as a poet lifts a mirror to Plato’s dichotomy of truth and representation. Not so despairing as Nietzsche, who offers no solution to the problem of representing the object, Boccaccio nevertheless offers no direct reply to Plato. Obscurity can be an obstacle to truth, but only if you have assumptions about the form a poem (or speech) ought to take which preclude flourishes of metaphor and diction. Be this as it may, decoupling the elements of poetry (“figures of diction and oratorical colors”) from unproductive obscurity is an important step toward answering Plato. Obscurity is not inherently a bad thing — Plato’s ideal forms present obscurity on a scale we cannot fathom, and yet this obscurity is productive because it spurs the dialectic of inquiry forward. In a similar manner, the “difficult involutions” of poetry obscure in the direction of the form of the poem, which illuminates if one “unwinds” the coils of its argument.

Section II: The Ancient Quarrel

Shortly before Socrates declares an “ancient quarrel” between philosophy and poetry, he offers Glaucon the example of Homer as an object lesson for poetry on the practical level of people in the street: “…he’s a good source for people to learn how to manage their affairs and gain culture in their lives, and that one should structure the whole of one’s life in accordance with his precepts” (“Republic” 76). By focusing on Homer, a “supreme poet and the original tragedian,” Socrates offers Glaucon the best example of the very traits of poetry of which one ought to be cautious. Underlying the notion that people order their lives according to Homer’s poetry is the notion that poetry exerts a strong influence on people. That one would organize one’s life categorically according to Homer’s precepts, as Socrates suggests here, must be read in relation to Socrates’s earlier remarks, in book III, that poetry can influence people and therefore has potentially negative pedagogical implications, and in book VII, that poetry does not have access to true knowledge (episteme). I shall go over each of these points in relation to the “ancient quarrel” before confronting how one might save poetry from exile. Guiding Plato’s arguments vis-à-vis poetry are two questions: 1.) What is justice? And 2.) What is a well-organized society? Therefore as we confront Socrates’s conception of poetry in Republic we must keep these questions in mind. Plato seems to have a division of poetry and philosophy in mind at the onset of the Republic, but the characteristics that distinguish poetry from philosophy contribute to the former’s significantly lower status in the polis, as a member that does not forward the goals of the community but can forward features that would undermine social unity. Put another way, Socrates’s conceptions of poetry and philosophy are based in practical considerations of how each form (as Socrates envisions them) might reinforce or decay social unity. Socrates’s exile of poetry, then, ought not to be read as a condemnation of poetry in general (for he does praise Homer, after all), but rather as a sign of respect to the power of a particular type of poetry, so called false poetry. If false poetry is to be excluded from the ideal polis, what is true poetry? And what makes poetry false? Because poetry seems to compete with philosophy for the minds of people in the polis, can philosophy be analogously divided into true and false? These are important questions to ponder in relation to the quarrel, because Socrates takes pains in the Republic to test the practicality of poetry in the polis as a means of formulating his conception of poetry. A true poetry is a poetry that will work in a social setting.

I wish to draw attention to one aspect of this “old opposition” and that is the form that Socrates’s definition for poetry takes — as a contrary number to philosophy — and as such gains definition due only to its proximity to “truth,” which comes out of the ideal forms of nature. Therefore a study of poetry in the Republic is necessarily a study of proximity and of quantity, since under Socrates’s propositions only one nature exists and only one ideal form for everything in nature exists, and these are not present in a tangible way in the experience of humans, it follows that poetry will be a third-order derivative of several processes of approximation. Nevertheless, this opposition between philosophy and poetry is woven into the floors of the city, and becomes an issue, as Socrates implies to Adeimantus in book III, “…there is a certain form of style and narrative in which the real gentleman narrates whenever he must say something, and, again, another form, unlike this one, in the man who is by nature and rearing the opposite of this other, always keeps and in which he narrates” (Republic 396c).

The good speaker, Socrates argues, is one whose style will participate in imitation (mimesis) like Homer, making a high register for one form of address but also an “other” style, which takes its meaning from being what the high style is not. When Adeimantus questions Socrates for more details about this other style, he frames his inquiry around this definition by proximity: “And what of the other? Doesn’t it need the opposites — all modes and all rhythms — if it’s going to be spoken in its own way, because it involves all species of changes?” / “Yes, indeed, that’s very much the way it is” (The Republic 397b-c). This “other style,” as Adeimantus suggests, may be thought of in terms of its proximity to Homer’s style of address, which serves as the “form” from which other speakers imitate by degrees. Under these terms, the Homer, as we have seen earlier, is applauded as the originator of tragedy and a “charmer” of the mind. Yet as distinctive and well-executed as Homer’s art is, it is still linked with the lowest poem in the world due to the fact of degree of imitation. Homer’s conception of poetry provides the blueprint data for approximation by poets of inferior skill, who create poems that are lower but derived genetically, so to speak, from Homer’s model. Therefore Socrates unites high and low forms of poetry on the grounds that both employ mimesis, and the low is an imperfect variation on a more perfect (yet still imperfect) form.

The implications of this are that, at best, poetry cannot be other than Homer’s model. If this condition is true, then poetry cannot “improve” or adapt to meet new modes of inquiry. What this means for the quarrel is that, because mimesis is so integral to poetry, poetry cannot fulfill the needs of the people in the ideal polis, who must have more than their pleasures satiated. Homer is great theater, I imagine Socrates saying to Glaucon, turning what we know and see into something pleasurable, but he would be silent in posing answers to questions not yet seen or known that the city will have to confront in the future.

Yet it must also be noted that these traits are not defined solely by their proximity to the moral and practical imperatives necessary to ensure the functioning of the city. The quantity opposition that I have outlined gives a thread of meaning to the category of poetry, but other types of opposition are important if we are to grasp Plato’s notion of the old quarrel. Socrates argues that while sight alone is a poor judge of truth, one can test empirical qualities for their truth value via calculations, to align sight-value with a value less subject to variation, such as weight and number (Republic 72). To account for the “confusion” in matching what the eye sees to what the truth-value of a form, Socrates imposes tests on the object. But tests, like sight, are subject to an individual’s imperfect perceptions, thus Socrates divides the mind into rational (inclined to engage with and trust calculations) and “the part that opposes [tests of judgement]” — what might be termed the non-rational mind, a “low-grade part of the mind” (72). The high mind is assigned the task of testing sight (or other sense data) for its truth-value. The high mind, in other words, does the work of philosophy. The low mind, on the other hand, does the work of promoting (or destabilizing, as we call it today) truth value. For the health and success of a community, cultivation of the high mind is an obvious choice for one who is assembling the grounds for the ideal polis. And Socrates goes to pains to align the qualities of the high mind with the qualities of philosophical inquiry: both are in the service of revealing episteme.

Linking the high mind with a mode of expression (philosophy) is also a brilliant way of complicating the terms of the quarrel, which might be mutually exclusive. For Socrates suggests that everyone has a high as well as a low mind (72). If this is the case, then everyone is capable of performing the calculations necessary to fulfill the procedures for testing forms for their truth-value. Likewise, everyone is capable of being “charmed” by Homer (and by the multitude of inferior Homers) into developing a relationship with false objects (art) that promote distortions in things as they are. Since poetry and philosophy are made possible due to the high/low minds everyone in a community possesses, the quarrel is not just an abstract, polis-wide policy question. Everyone is implicated since everyone has a divided mind (Socrates’s describes this as an individual having contrary feelings in response to the same object [73]). The quarrel, therefore, is both universal and subjective, as are the stakes, since all groups are composed of individuals and individuals are subject to the same internal quarrels and tests over the nature of episteme. But the scheme I have laid out begs the question: Is there insight to be gained in Homer’s epics and tragedies? Since they are art, they appeal to the low mind, which is in incompatible with the thirst for episteme that one who is in a position of power in the polis ought to exercise.

At the same time, because Homer distorts the truth-value (under Socrates’s conditions for truth-value) of the Peloponnesian War by representing not the war itself but derivative forms of the war (via the imperfect medium of language and that poets work from second-order earth-bound sense data object), might it be possible that this very distortion privileges some aspects of the event over others? Foregrounding some traits and eliminating unnecessary characteristics can reveal things about a subject; this process can also conceal things (unnecessarily or necessarily) about a subject. Yet this editing process is one which, I argue, both artists and philosophers share. Put another way, when treating a subject (such as a war) artists must focus their lens on a finite set of features (call these themes) at the expense of others; since the universe of a subject is debatable, it is larger than any single mind can translate it into a set of logical (or at least comprehensible) propositions. Homer’s war is the Illiad — one of Socrates’s revered texts — but is this text necessarily at a further removed from the true thing-itself than the War as accessed and translated via philosophical inquiry? This is a point that Socrates does not nail down definitively. At a certain point the philosopher must focus on a finite set of features at the expense of other features. Under the terms of the quarrel, moreover, both the poet and the philosopher depend upon language to modulate their thoughts and expressions.

Critically for the quarrel, and for poetry, Socrates links painting (representation) with the low-grade part of the mind. Painting, he argues, “produce a product which is far from truth, but it forms a close, affectionate relationship with that part of us which is…far from intelligence. And nothing that is healthy or authentic can emerge from this relationship” (72). The ground for the case against poetry is that poetry is a form of representation of other forms, just like painting, and both the part of the brain and the activity toward which that part of the brain is inclined are “far” from intelligence and truth. Under these conditions, the low mind, which Socrates characterizes as impatient and prone to emotional outbursts, falls back on “a variety of representable possibilities” when challenged, while the high mind remains “constant and unchanging” (74). Since the low mind is interested only in representation and the emotional relationship that comes with absorbing existing forms, representational poetry is the only form of poetry for the low mind.

To bring this discussion back to the notion of the relationship between polis and the individual as a central concern in Plato’s conception of poetry, what would another form of poetry (one that is non-mimetic, for instance) look like on a practical level, given the power Socrates grants poetry in influencing people’s morality? In book X, Socrates seems to suggest an alternative to the beautiful yet non-productive (as a method toward episteme) poetry that, crucially, is located in an appeal to the high mind. Such an appeal would be difficult, according to Socrates, because “the kind of motley crew you find crammed into a theatre” are “not acquainted with the experience that’s being represented to them” (74). Those who imbibe representational poetry are of a low-mind disposition since it is the low mind that seeks representative poetry, and it is this sort “motley crew” that fills theatres. What is more, the representational poet is not interested in appealing to the high mind, preferring the low one because the masses do and it is “easy to represent” (74). The grounds common to painting and poetry are thereby established, of two aspects — a regard for the imperatives of the low mind at the expense of the high mind and a method of appealing to the low mind via mimesis of existing forms rather than elimination of existing false forms via a system of tests. And because the subjective is always also universal in the ideal polis, Socrates uses this common ground to generalize the poet’s effects in a practical way:

Now we can see how right we’d be to refuse him admission into any community which is going to respect convention, because … [h]e destroys the rational part [of the mind] by feeding and fattening up this other part … he establishes a bad system of government in people’s minds by gratifying their irrational side, which can’t even recognize what size things are…by creating images, and by being far removed from truth. (74)

The language Socrates deploys in this passage conflates the individual divided mind described earlier with a sort of group mind and with government. That a mind has its operating system a government situates any conception of mind as being inseparable from a question of the imperatives of the city. Socrates might have deployed non-political language to refer to the operation of the mind, but by linking high and low minds with the same class of language (political, governmental), he makes the individual subjective experience of feeling and thinking an operation of government, in relation to the polis’s imperatives. Therefore Socrates chafes at any inclination toward the low mind, be it representational poetry or any art form, because these destabilize “convention” by foregrounding the free expression of emotion, an alternative to the “manly behavior,” as he notes later, of suppressing the low mind and abiding by hierarchy, which is always allergic to free expressions of emotion.

But why conflate the personal with the political? Apart from his goal of envisioning the nuances of the ideal polis, Socrates is crafting the ideal poetry for the ideal polis. This might seem an obvious point, but I think that Plato’s efforts to distinguish poetry from philosophy are meant to define the one against the other, but also to define poetry as the other, so to speak. If poetry is conceptualized by citizens of the polis as a mode of thought and expression subordinate to philosophy, then poets would be at pains to commit any of the destabilizing activities Socrates ascribes to them. However if poetry is othered to the point that it is verboten not by law but by its inherent bankruptcy as a mode of expression, then the guardians and the leaders of the polis have successfully expunged poetry as a competitive force for the eager, weak-willed hearts and minds of the polis. (One wonders if this is what has happened to poetry in our time.) This is a basic move Socrates deploys to create a system of differences that will have substantial implications for poetry when Socrates grants poets the opportunity to appeal their exile. Because the binaries Socrates assigns poetry create a subordinate position (and only a subordinate position) for poetry in the community, poetry’s essence (which arises from these binaries) has no chance of competing with philosophy in the quarrel, because the binary system assigns dominant and subordinate role for the members of the quarrel. What is more, it should be noted that Socrates genders the quarrel by 1.) Creating the condition that the quarrel is composed of binaries — two disciplines defined against each other, and 2.) That characteristics of poetry are simultaneously characteristics ascribed to women, and 3.) That characteristics of women are subordinate to “manly” characteristics. Socrates’s notion of the high mind, which uses reason to test what it sees, is superior to the low mind, which seeks representations of itself and emotes rather than tests reality, and that the low mind emotes without checking itself, as the “manly mind” is apt to do (75), further genders the quarrel, the terms of the quarrel, and the very conception of expression, mind, and right-thinking that people living in Socrates’s polis might have taken for granted had the polis existed in any real sense. It seems a forgone conclusion, sadly, that Plato would situate women below men in the polis, but to take the metonymy of the terms of discourse in the quarrel to function simultaneously as a system of strict limits on gender roles might be to push a reading (my imperfect reading) of the signifiers too far. Socrates does implicate men (indeed his audience seems to be men exclusively) in the process of identification with representational poetry. We can safely conclude, therefore, that the “motley crew” which fill the amphitheaters in the hopes of satisfying the emotional needs of the low part of their brains is composed of men as well as women. Significantly, the individual subjective experience of hearing poetry and emoting due to its influence seems almost Kantian in that, as Socrates conceives the aftermath of experiencing poetry, no one, not even Socrates himself, is free from feeling.

The subject becomes the universal, just as Kant lays out in section 9 of Critique of the Power of Judgment, because while everyone has an individual experience of poetry, we all have “imagination for the composition of the manifold of intuition and understanding for the unity of the concept that unifies the representations. This state of a free play of the faculties of cognition with a representation through which an object is given must be universally communicated, because cognition … is the only kind of representation that is valid for everyone” (Kant 422). Therefore, Socrates is subject to the same excitement of the low mind as the motley crew who consume poetry as popular entertainment. I do not mean to suggest that Kant had Plato’s individual/polis relationship in mind, but the grounds uniting the individual and the universal in each case are located in the machinations of the mind. This condition reinforces the notion that the individual citizen must be thought of as an active agent within the polis, for this concept seems to guide Socrates’s position toward poetry. If poetry had no influence, or no negative moral influence, why ban it? Socrates must have reckoned that since the individual subjective experience can be (though not necessarily will be, of course) had by, potentially, all the citizens of the city, then measures must be in place to prevent unrest. Since Socrates determines that poetry has the potential to influence morality, the best safeguard against breaches of “convention” is to ban poetry. With no possibility of an agent of unrest, the people of the polis will be free to exercise their high minds with no interruption from the low-mind exciting influence of poetry. The effects of poetry as an agent of change in the polis are at this point in the discussion clearer than at the outset. But what about poetry as a method makes it so inferior to philosophy in Socrates’s mind?

In general terms we can think of philosophy as the pursuit of knowledge (episteme) — what Socrates has been arriving at in the dialogues by means of winnowing away false possibilities to reveal true ones. Another way of looking at the philosophical method is as a means of exclusion. Socrates excludes in order to arrive at a conclusion. In book X, Socrates tests and eventually eliminates poetry as a true method of judging reality. Central to this methodology is Plato’s division of art from truth, and true-art from false-art. The first division involves the metaphysical hierarchy of ideal forms, of which each form has only one (i.e. one ideal couch exists, one ideal garbage bag, one ideal circle, etc.). In book X, Socrates locates some tendencies in empiricism that deviate from truth. For instance, when one looks at an object that is underwater, the object’s shape will be distorted by the medium of water (Republic 73). Critically, one sees an object, but not the object’s true form. From this we can infer that sight alone is not the best test of truth. Socrates then divides the mind into one which aligns with calculations Other couches, for instance, existence — they are manufactured daily by craftsmen — but each of these merely approximates the ideal couch, which is the location of “truth,” as Socrates points out to Glaucon in book X, arguing that truth is found in the true form while imitation breeds forms with “phantoms” at their center instead of substance. Put another way, the ideal, true form is singular while the imitative forms are plural. Conclusions based in quantity are a means Socrates deploys to arrive at conclusions, as we have seen. In book X, the problem of imitation — that poets and artists replicate forms and in so doing expand substanceless things — is a central concern for Socrates, who must consider whether these things will stand in for truth in the polis.

To put this discussion into context I wish to draw attention to Plato’s arguments for the location of knowledge in Phaedrus. While Socrates and Phaedrus discuss the desirability of storytelling, Socrates argues that spoken stories are more desirable than written stories and cites the story of Theuth as a case in point. Theuth presents Thamous, the king of Egypt, with his invented branches of knowledge and written language meant to improve “memory and intelligence” (Phaedrus 78). Socrates’s rejoinder to this (via Thamous) is telling for a reading of Socrates’s arguments against poetry in book X. Socrates uses a story to argue against stories. Resituating Theuth from the inventor of categories of knowledge and a writing system to help students remember and expand the limits of knowledge, Theuth seems firmly settled in the “lovers of eros” camp; yet Thamous argues that Theuth’s position as the “originator” of writing leads Theuth to tell Thamous the opposite of writing’s “true effect” (“Phaedrus” 78), that is, writing actually gives the “appearance” of intelligence, not real intelligence (Phaedrus 78), and that student’s source of knowledge, coming from the written word, will come without teachers; therefore a knowledge originating in the written word, even when supported by a library of written words, is one lacking in wisdom, because this is located in “contact with a teacher” (“Phaedrus” 78). The terms of Socrates’s reply to writing — “appearance” standing in for truth — are similar to Socrates’s arguments regarding the nature of poetry vis-à-vis the “old quarrel” in book X.

Also important to an understanding of the definition of poetry in the city is the proposition that the written word is at odds with truth set forth in Phaedrus. This position is put to the test in the mechanism of Socrates’s methodology, with the stakes in book X — the exclusion of poetry — at play once again. In Phaedrus Plato links writing with deception, because writing claims a purchase on the improvement of the acquisition of knowledge, but in reality offers only appearances, like painting other forms of art.[2] That Socrates links writing with “the offspring of painting” is critical in understanding Socrates’s positions with regard to poetry in book X. Once Socrates has drawn a line between something (painting) that has heretofore been proven to be appearance without substance and the written word, the only possibility for the written word is to conform to the ground of Socrates’s analogy — that the written word peddles a knowledge filled with nothing, to borrow from book X. The corollary Socrates draws from his analogy is an allusion to the one drawn from the story of Theuth: that the written word will never be composed of knowledge, which comes out of the speech of teachers or “men of knowledge” (“Phaedrus” 79). The only lifeline for the written word (and for poetry) can be found in the “brother” to writing, which, conveniently for Socrates’s argument, subordinates itself to the precepts of Socrates’s argument. This “brother” of writing is capable of “defending itself, and it knows how to speak to those it should and keep silent in the company of those to whom it shouldn’t speak” (“Phaedrus” 79). That an alternative exists mirrors the “other styles” of speech from book III that exist due to their proximity Homer’s style of address and the manner in which Socrates situates poetry in The Republic.

Far from proving poetry’s worth as a method for negotiating reality, as Socrates might hope, I have offered a way of reading Socrates’s exile of poetry by putting pressure on the terms in his conception of the system of differences separating philosophy from poetry. Plato deploys these in books III and X of The Republic and in Phaedrus to exclude as many possibilities for truth as possible. At stake in this discussion is the role of poetry in society. If one believes, as Socrates does, that poetry does influence morals — down to the level of exciting the low part of the mind at the expense of the high mind, in effect shutting off the ability to discern truth from falsehood, than one must eliminate poetry. Socrates does this not because poetry is inherently evil, but because poetry does not occur in a vacuum. The effects of poetry are like a ripples on the surface of a pond after a stone breaks the surface. One way of thinking of the Republic is as a test of poetry, in the manner Socrates lays out in book X for testing the true shape of an object under water. Poetry’s shape does not align with the imperatives of the city, which depends, in Socrates’s view, on adherence to convention. This privileges the qualities he assigns to the high mind — calm and unchanging when tested. Citizens who privilege the high mind over the low will be citizens whose emotions are constantly in check and who seek episteme over emotional fulfillment through representations.

Add to this Socrates’s skepticism of the written word, in the Phaedrus, which tests another competing means for accessing episteme, and one see that Plato locates knowledge in a politically expedient position: in the speaker of the words, rather than in the words themselves. Put another way, this is truth “written in the soul” rather than on a papyrus potentially far removed from its originator (“Phaedrus” 81). What is striking about this distinction is that Plato locates knowledge in an individual (or a class of individual teachers), rather than in something which has no agency itself. What if the learned teachers decide that poetry is not so bad after all? That, for instance, citizens depend on a fulfillment of the low mind (to borrow from book X) from time to time to decompress from the rigors of testing the myriad propositions of reality confronting them each day? And what if those same teacher ruled that written poetry is stronger than oral poetry? These counterfactuals tell us little about ancient Greece historically, but they do offer a glimpse into the mechanism of thought Plato sets up to privilege the spoken word over the written word, and philosophy over poetry. Damning to any government, virtuous or otherwise, are citizens with access to written literature which offers alternative modes of thought, some which may be counter to received and accepted practices. The written word offers the listener of it invisibility as long as their literature remains out of the notice of authorities. Due to Plato’s reckoning of poetry via practical political considerations, as I have outlined above, I believe Plato must have had this possibility in mind when he locates knowledge within a select learned class.

So where does all this leave poetry? After books III and X and the Phaedrus it would seem that poetry has lost the quarrel. But this is due to Plato’s conception of poetry as enmeshed in questions of the individual will versus that of the community. If we consider the quarrel outside these restrictions, then Plato’s views toward poetry are warmer. He does, after all, praise Homer’s skill in creating reproductions that capture the mind’s attention and cause the low part of the mind to emote. This is not an easy task. If Plato had not applied the effects of poetry to a community, he might have struck a more mutually inclusive note between poetry and philosophy. One must also consider Sir Philip Sidney’s antidote to this discussion: that poetry is a better teacher than philosophy, because it moves the listener (or reader) “to a higher degree,” with the end result action rather than knowledge, as, according to Sidney, Aristotle advocates (Sidney 265). Further complicating Plato’s faith in philosophy over poetry, one must actively and attentively read the philosopher in all his or her tediousness and “studious painfulness,” which wicks the reader’s desire to plunge further into the philosopher’s teachings (Sidney 265). Sidney’s view aligns with Plato’s, however, in positing the location of wisdom “as good as a philosopher’s book” in the reader’s “inward light each man hath” (Sidney 265). Like Kant and Plato, Sidney locates the grounds necessary for a universal method of accessing episteme, as well as “…what is well and what is evil…for out of natural conceit the philosophers draw it” (Sidney 265). Sidney’s response to Plato’s political imperatives might take this form, placing more faith in the individual’s ability to be an arbiter of episteme and moral considerations. It is tempting to think that Sidney’s conception vests agency in Plato’s dreaded “motley crew” of theater-going libertines, and that Sidney would use this precept to restore poetry if he were in charge of the polis.

Works Cited

Boccaccio, Giovanni. “From Genealogy of the Gentile Gods.” Trans. Charles G. Osgood. The

Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, George Lynn Cross, and Paul and Carol Daube Sutton. New York: Norton, 2010. 193–200. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of the Power of Judgement.” Trans. Paul Guyer. The Norton

Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, George Lynn Cross, and Paul and Carol Daube Sutton. New York: Norton, 2010. 411–30. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Living in a Non-Moral Sense.” Trans. Ronald Speirs. The

Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, George Lynn Cross,

and Paul and Carol Daube Sutton. New York: Norton, 2010. 764–74. Print.

Plato. “Republic.” Trans. Robin Waterfield. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed.

Vincent B. Leitch, George Lynn Cross, and Paul and Carol Daube Sutton. New York: Norton, 2010. 45–76. Print.

— -. “Phaedrus.” Trans. Robin Waterfield. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed.

Vincent B. Leitch, George Lynn Cross, and Paul and Carol Daube Sutton. New York: Norton, 2010. 77–83. Print.

— -. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic, 1991. Print.

Sidney, Sir Philip. “The Defense of Poesy.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed.

Vincent B. Leitch, George Lynn Cross, and Paul and Carol Daube Sutton. New York: Norton, 2010. 254–83. Print.

[1] “Now, methods have evolved of combating [disparities due to subjective perspective] — -measuring, counting, and weighing are the most elegant of them” (“Republic” 72).

[2] “So anyone who thinks he can get a ranch of expertise to survive by committing it to writing — and also anyone who inherits the work with the assumption that writing will give him something clear and reliable — would be behaving in a thoroughly foolish manner and really would be ignorant…” (“Phaedrus” 79).