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Philosophy & Literature

Plato versus Literature

Daniel Toré asks, can literature save us?

Take a second to sincerely ask yourself: has literature improved my life? There’s often an immediate pin-prick reaction to defend our most beloved stories, as if our safety blanket is being snatched away from us. But letting go of nostalgia and its associated emotions will help us to think critically. Are all these drawn-out evenings staring at paper really worth it, and if so, how?

For the first seventeen years of my life I read only what school demanded of me, and felt sincerely that it would be more enjoyable to eat a book than to open one. Then, one day, a browned and dogeared copy of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997) caught my eye, in the same way that something you pass every day can inexplicably gain new life and you see it as if for the very first time. I read it cover to cover almost in one sitting, and it ignited in me a burning passion for literature that has never dimmed.

I’ve always considered this a personally pivotal moment, in which I crossed a bridge out of childhood, exchanging juice boxes for coffee, Velcro for laces, and Saturday cartoons for stock-market speculation. But was it because of the book itself, or was it just the timing? Could it be that I had suddenly matured, or rather, that I found doing something typically adult novel (no pun intended)? Or was it because I simply enjoyed the sitting-inside-on-a-rainy-day feeling, which just so happened to have involved a book? Regardless, I liked it, and parallel to this, I somehow matured from a child to a mostly functioning adult. My question is, then: did literature save me? Can it save us?

To be clear, I don’t mean, can literature save us from drowning? No, it can’t. Instead, I mean to ask: can literature save us in the sense of enlightening us?

Here we’re dealing with a problem of aesthetics, or the philosophy of art. Amongst other things, aesthetics asks us how we can know whether something is beautiful; or, if value is an internal or external trait of a thing; or, what’s the point of all these paintings? Now I want to ask of aesthetics: can literature enlighten us?

Plato and Athena

Plato’s view of aesthetics, specifically the theory he proposes in The Republic (c.375 BCE), is certainly not a glowing one. In it Plato described most (if not all) art as a bad thing: an inane pass-time poisoning our youngsters and distracting us from truth. He even went so far as to suggest banning certain musical modes for being too exciting ! In all this, Plato could be seen as antiquity’s equivalent of a grumpy old-timer shaking his fist at Athenian kids because their tunics were too short, and muttering things like “Is that how you play a kithara these days?” However, for our purposes, Plato described literature (he uses the word poetry, since the standard of literature in those days was epic poetry) as something at best distracting, and at worst wholly corrupting of our souls. It cannot enlighten us; in fact, it may even destroy us.

No serious literary figure has ever agreed with this view, but many do accept Plato’s assertion that literature is an imitation of reality. It is my aim here to disprove both of these ideas in one heroic swoop. That is: a) Plato’s view of art is wrong – literature can save us; and b) Literature is not imitation as Plato and others have suggested.

Drawing the Line

Plato’s view of art as something we should disdain was odd even to other ancient Greeks. The Athens of the fifth century BC had a culture overflowing with rich theatrical festivals, mingling colourful statues and frescoes, and elaborate architecture. The Athenians were proud of their society being inspired by, if not directly copying from, Homer and Hesiod’s poetry. Then, sometime late that century, Plato sat amongst the audience of Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds. In the first act, a drunken parody of Socrates rolled onto the stage, and the whole city erupted with joy at this chance to jeer at the Mad Gadfly. We can picture an open-mouthed Plato, watching in horror this grotesque portrayal of his beloved teacher. Years later after Socrates’ trial and execution, Plato in his Apology puts some of the blame on that play. He also, perhaps as a result, harboured a grudge against imitations in art.

In Book X of The Republic he argues that:

1. Poetic mimêsis (that is, impersonation or copy) – just like the kind found in painting, poetry, and all art forms – is the imitation of appearance alone, and so is ranked far below truth – that is, below what it attempts to imitate (Republic, 596e–602c).

2. Therefore, mimêsis (in other words, art, poetry, etc) corrupts the soul, weakening reason’s control over the person’s other drives and desires (602c–608b).

3. Therefore, poetry should be banned from the ideal republic.

What exactly does he mean?

Dogs Playing Poker
The original Dogs Playing Poker, by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, 1894

Plato is saying that all art is a kind of impersonation or copy of something. The impersonation gives us a false idea of the true thing being impersonated, and therefore this corrupts us, by spreading falsehoods to us. The dogs playing poker in the painting are mere representations of the real dogs used to model for the picture. By impersonating dogs in this way, the painting has corrupted or falsely altered our image of dogs and what they do on their nights out. To some extent, even poker itself is misrepresented in the painting (and therefore in our idea of poker), as something dogs can play.

An example more familiar to Plato is of the gods depicted in the Homeric epics The Illiad and The Odyssey. Homer, and the oral tradition behind him, chose to represent the Olympian deities as petty and childish, squabbling like kids laying claim to the last lollipop. Plato would say these are only imitations of the real gods, imitations which corrupt how we think of these just and wise deities. In fact, however, any imitation – any work of art in whatever sense – can only ever be a misrepresentation, because it can never wholly and accurately recreate the truth, as it will always be at least one step away from the real thing.

Brought to Book

What does this mean for books and poetry? Curmudgeonly old Plato means that literature has deceived us. So in fact, it has done the exact opposite of saving us: it has wantonly misled us. For want of a better word, literature can only unenlighten you. (Maybe this is why when I read my work back to myself I feel stupider than I did before?)

It seems that many of the giants of literature might agree with Plato’s first point that all art is imitation. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), a man whose literary status is nearly as grand as his beard, wrote: “Art is a human activity, consisting in this: that one person consciously, by certain external signs, conveys to others feelings he has experienced, and other people are affected by these feelings and live them over in themselves…” (What is Art?, 1897). Since Tolstoy’s primary artistic outlet was long novels, we can understand his use of the word ‘art’ here as synonymous with ‘literature’ – in which case his view seems to fit nicely into Plato’s model, since, according to Tolstoy himself, literature can be described as, say, ‘intentionally recreated experiences and emotions communicated by the author to the reader for the purpose of the reader having an illusory similar experience’. In other words, art intends to imitate a feeling and pass it along. From this standpoint, it is easy to run from a) art is imitation, to b) imitation corrupts, since what is happening in the reader can accurately be described as a ‘false experience’.

Moreover, the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) insisted that art either manifests, articulates, or reconfigures the style of a culture. In this sense, art is capable of revealing someone else’s world, and so producing a shared understanding between artist and audience. Even the largely unintelligible Hegel (1770-1831) thought that art expressed the spirit of particular cultures, as well as the general human spirit. The reader’s or viewer’s ideas are then derived from imitations by the artist, each misleading in its own right.

If these unhappy northern European writers are correct, and the human spirit is only expressible via corrupting false imitations, then we quickly fall into Plato’s third preposition: that, art, including poetry and other literature, should be banned from the ideal society. Yet this conclusion certainly still feels false, as if Plato’s passion for reason may have clouded his judgment. Surely our snug lexical safety blankets wouldn’t be so lovely and warm if we didn’t gain something from them?

No Imitations

So let’s switch camps and go in defense of literature. The first counterattack maneuver would be to ask: Does art really stop at imitation? All the books, poems, paintings, movies, plays, pantomimes, and anything else expressive, surely cannot be swept away all at once under such a vague heading and dumped?

Not your typical Bronze Age Israelite

Aristotle, rebelling against his mentor Plato like some kind of overly articulate teenager, said that art is the realization in the external form of a true idea, and its origins are traced back to that natural love of imitation that characterizes humanity, and to the pleasure which we feel in recognizing likenesses. That is to say, we think it’s fun to see new versions of things we recognise. Yet according to Aristotle, art is not limited to mere copying. Art also idealises nature and completes its deficiencies: and in doing this it seeks to grasp the universal in the individual phenomenon. In plain English, art creates ideal versions of things, and one specific piece of art has less to do with its subject than with the universal truths its subject represents. Take for instance Michaelangelo’s David: to what extent did Michaelangelo wish to imitate the actual David of ‘David and Goliath’ fame? Probably not much – otherwise the statue would have looked more like a normally-built Middle-Eastern man rather than a Roman adonis. Instead, Michaelangelo used David to represent universal types, such as regality, allure, or making me feel like I should work out more. This work was clearly not Michaelangelo’s attempt at imitating a Biblical figure: it could be more accurately named Michaelangelo’s Statue of the Idea of What the Biblical David Represents (admittedly, that’s a terrible name).

If Aristotle is right, then art is far more than imitation, and Plato’s argument falls at the starting pistol. However, a Platonist could counter-argue that Aristotle’s theory falls exactly into what is stated in The Republic. No matter what Michaelangelo may have intended, his statue is only a poor imitation of the real David, and is therefore corrupting. By choosing to make the King of Israel look like a Praetorian guard who can’t find his toga, we gain the misleading notion that this is how Biblical characters looked. Consider all the paintings you’ve ever seen of Jesus, for example, where he looks more like a heroic white European than an Iron Age Palestinian Jew. No matter how Aristotle chooses to muddy the water, it’s clear that art is in itself, and must always primarily be, an imitation. Admittedly Aristotle raises many interesting points; but at the end of the day what he’s describing is the intention behind the work, not the work itself, which is an imitation of reality. Ergo: a) Art is imitation; b) Imitation corrupts; therefore c) We would be better off without it. This is Plato’s argument. However, if we can prove point a) wrong, then the argument cannot be completed. So can we do that?

Into the Light (of literature)

Trying to go toe-to-toe with Plato on aesthetics makes me feel like a blind man trying to describe the sunlight; but I do sincerely feel that he is mistaken. His mistake is his assuming that all art is essentially the same, and so what can be said of one artwork also goes for all the others. My strategy for overthrowing his argument is to demonstrate that literature is actually not imitation as he thinks all art is: it is only presented as though it were.

According to Plato’s arguments, reading a good book (of epic Homeric poetry, say) is the intellectual equivalent of chewing gum and calling it a meal: it gives us nothing but the illusion that we’re eating, and we gain nothing but a stomach ache. However, I contend that literature only seems to be an imitation. Book X of The Republic describes poetry (and by extension literature) as a copy of true things; but this is a misunderstanding of what literature actually is. That is, Plato’s criticism may well apply to sculpture and still-life drawing, but cannot go further than that.

Literature seems to be an imitation, in that it describes events. That is to say, we read a description of something and conclude that it’s representing something that’s happened. However, these events, even if inspired by real ones, are in fact fictional. Therefore, the descriptions cannot be imitations, because there is nothing they are imitating, there only seems to be. However, there never was a Jane Eyre flirting with her boss at Thornfield Hall, or a Batman scissor-kicking the mentally ill. Rather, literature is a tool for inspiring reflection and discussion that uses exclusively imaginary scenarios specifically to enlighten us. So it is the innate role of literature to save us, in the same way that it is in the nature of Batman to be excessive.

Take Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), and its problematic main character, the human raincloud Raskolnikov, whose dilemma is a fictional battering of emotions which is recognised as true in the mind of the reader. As Raskolnikov wrestles with himself and his actions (he’s murdered two very unsavoury people), we, the readers, are asked to contemplate what we would do, how we feel in response, and to analyse what we have perhaps taken for granted, all within an entirely imaginary world – a world that only presents itself as real because the story is set in a real place. Taking an imaginary scenario and using it to make a higher point, is what literature is about – not simple mimêsis as Plato suggests. Additionally, should a book actually convey (imitate) real events, we would then categorise it as a textbook, and not literature, meaning that it cannot help us with our present question. Therefore we can conclude that Plato was mistaken in Book X of The Republic, and literature can save us, enlighten us, and inspire us. And we may draw this conclusion because literature is not simply imitation. Of course, an argument can still be made for Plato’s critique holding up in cases of evidently mimetic art, such as sculpture or photography. But that’s for some other philosophy nerd to untangle.

According to Dante, the damned philosophers will spend eternity at the entrance lobby to Hell, bickering amongst themselves forever, like the worst party you could possibly imagine. Should I meet Plato there, pulling up his sleeves in readiness to set me straight about what I have said here about literature, I plan to ask him, “Then what was the point of all your dialogues?”

© Daniel Toré 2024

Daniel Toré is a philosophy teacher in Sweden.

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