In Awe of Art
Plato and Poetry
In the Republic, Plato argues that an education in poetry or art more broadly understood is essential to the education of children. In one of my favourite passages, he says that we must
“seek out craftsmen who are by nature able to pursue what is beautiful and graceful … so that our young people will … be benefitted on all sides, and so something of those beautiful works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze … leading them unwittingly from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason … and having been educated this way he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with himself”(401d-402e).
Our own experience indicates part of the truth of what Plato says, for we know that often the best way to teach children is through a story or images. You don’t drop a five year old into a calculus class. Instead, you begin the process of teaching them the abstract principles of math by using images. I recall a lot of apples being added and subtracted.
Plato’s point, though, goes further. He suggests being surrounded by works of beauty can have a transformative affect on a child’s character and soul. Such children will love and take pleasure in beauty. Becoming “friends” with the beautiful, they will want to be good and beautiful themselves. Eventually, they will understand why such activity is good and then knowingly choose it.
In The Laws, Plato explicitly extends this argument, suggesting that poetry or art is an essential form of education at all ages, but specifically for the middle aged to elderly. Walking with two older men from martial cultures, an Athenian seeks to convince them of the necessity of a poetic education. With presumably no small amount of irony, the Athenian argues that they should participate in Dionysian choruses- songs and dances dedicated to the god of wine, forms of madness and ecstasy, as well as theatre.
In saying this the Athenian suggests that for many people the earlier education in beauty will fail. As his companions demonstrate, their experience in the world indicate a different reality than what beautiful childhood stories might have taught. They know that virtue is hard, and that vicious actions, including violence and treachery, when successful, come to very satisfying ends.
A new form of poetry is this required. Suggesting that older people become set in their ways and more reserved in their behaviour, the Athenian says that Dionysus has given them the gift of wine (good news certainly for me). By drinking, one achieves the suppleness of soul that one had as child, thereby encouraging what was our natural tendency to play, taking pleasure in song and dance. The Athenian explains that the best songs will be “the most beautiful,” because it images the very “being” of the thing it represents, the best of things, of course, being the divine itself. While the Athenian counsels very controlled drinking, cults of Dionysus are well known for their Bacchic revels-where participants are driven out of their minds, and, into, presumably, the mind of the god (668b-c). Plato describes this kind of madness in the Phaedrus as a gift of the Muse, and says that no one will excel at poetry without experiencing this madness (245b).
The result of this education, the Athenian suggests, will be a kind of awe or “divine fear”(671d). Having experienced the awe-ful nature of the divine, these individuals recognize their own insufficiency, the paltriness of the power they seek, and again willingly “enslave themselves” to the laws of beauty (699c-701a).
The best of art, Plato suggests, provides us with intimations and even the experience of the infinite — something our imagination can invoke but which have difficulty articulating in our own limited speech. In being “driven out of our minds” we return to a more rational state than before- one in which our finite nature has been clearly revealed, and we are directed again to set our souls again in the direction of the beautiful.
Originally published at sara-macdonald.com on February 15, 2017.