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Kicking Out the Poets

For my post-introduction aesthetics post, I wanted to talk some about Plato, and specifically whether and why the poets need to be kicked out of our ideal city.

Originally I planned to cover Plato and Aristotle in one post, because Aristotle’s Poetics is often treated as a direct challenge or at least response to Plato’s ideas on the arts. But I found I had a lot more to say about Plato than could comfortably fit alongside Aristotle. So I’ll hold off on Aristotle till next time.

Plato is one of three “proto-aestheticians” I’d like to discuss, along with Aristotle and Longinus. I call them “proto-aestheticians” because, as I mentioned last time, aesthetics as a distinct branch of philosophy doesn’t exist until the eighteenth century.

For that matter, the term “art” itself wouldn’t make much sense to these thinkers, at least not as we understand it: the Greeks thought in terms of techne, which we could render the “art” of doing something (whether painting or basketweaving—the ability, not the product); mimesis, or imitation; and poetry. Art, as a broader category, simply didn’t exist. Still, Plato has enough concerns about techne, mimesis, and poetry that, in hindsight at least, we can talk about his views on—what we would call—art.


The simple (though in certain important ways wrong) version of Plato’s aesthetic theory is that he wasn’t much of a fan of the arts. As everybody knows, or sort of thinks they know, Plato kicked the poets out of the Republic, finding that they had no place in his version of the perfect society. (He doesn’t have particularly good things to say about painters, either.)

Why? Well, there are two possible answers here. The first & simplest is that poets create emotional responses in their audiences, which can overwhelm reason. Plato is always trying to get at the capital-T, eternal Truth, and anything that gets in the way of that has to be cast aside. The second, connected answer brings up, more generally, the problem of mimesis.

For Plato, mimesis represented a metaphysical problem. Phenomenal reality itself, the stuff we perceive with our senses, cannot be capital-T truth, because it’s in a constant process of changing—and Truth, as defined by Plato, must be eternal. Thus the concept of the Forms: the Truth of a thing that is more real than the thing itself. If, Plato argues, phenomenal reality is inferior to the reality of the Forms—if, say, a chair is inferior to the Form, “Chair,” which we can come to know only through philosophical speculation on what makes a chair a chair—then what are we to make of a painting of a chair, which is, in effect, an imitation of an imitation, at two removes from reality?

"That's a pretty cool chair, but hey, you know what? Still not as cool as the ETERNAL FORM CALLED CHAIR WHICH I HAVE DEDUCED. Boo-ya!"

Even for those of us who don’t buy Plato’s argument about the Forms, mimesis still brings up a significant problem if what we want or value in art is truth—about, say, politics, or the experience of disadvantaged groups, or human nature more generally. As I’ve said to my intro lit students before: what novel could teach you more about “human nature” (insofar as we believe in such a concept) than the Milgram study? Or the Stanford prison experiment?

Which is not to say that you can’t learn anything about human nature, or whatever else, from novels. But it’s hard to imagine anything you could learn about the exterior world [1] from a novel that you couldn’t learn more efficiently through some other method.[2]

Let’s look at the actual kicking-out-the-poets section, though. We should note, for the sake of context as well as precision, that Plato does not argue that the Republic should kick out all poets; those that inspire virtue in soldiers, for example, should remain. The following passage, therefore, distinguishes between the poet who “can imitate all things” and the poet who only imitates those things that might inspire virtue, etc:

It seems then that if a man who in his cleverness can become many persons and imitate all things should arrive in our city and want to give a performance of his poems, we should bow down before him as being holy, wondrous, and sweet, but we should tell him that there is no such man in our city and that it is not lawful that there should be. We would pour myrrh on his head and crown him with wreaths, and send him away to another city. (Book III, pg. 68, my emphasis; I’m using the translation by G.M.A. Grube.) [3]

I don’t actually think Plato’s being sarcastic here, with the whole myrrh-and-wreath thing; the relevant context to keep in mind is that Plato himself was generally acknowledged to be the greatest Greek stylist of his generation—before he met Socrates, he planned to be a poet himself. Though he refers to the poet who can “imitate all things” as inferior to the poet who only imitates good men and their speech, the former is inferior in terms of the Good (of the city, or just in general). Plato is not saying that he’s the inferior artist. Just the opposite, actually. Homer himself is in this “all things” category, and it requires some extensive editing, cf both the end of Book II and the beginning of III, to bring the greatest Greek poet in line with the Good of the city.


There is another part of The Republic which tends to get overlooked in discussions about Plato’s views on the arts. Actually, it gets overlooked in most discussions about The Republic, period, which is weird because it takes up a sizeable chunk of the book’s beginning.

Most of the text of The Republic is Socrates’ response to the question of what the ideal city would be. From around the midpoint of Book II through to the end you get the Republic that people tend to be familiar with, the Philosopher-King, kick-out-the-poets Republic. However: this is not Socrates’ original answer.

The original version of the ideal city doesn’t contain a warrior class (described at great length in version 2), it doesn’t contain a philosopher king or strict laws outlining what poets can and cannot say. It doesn’t actually contain all that many people, or no more than are necessary to feed and clothe each other, maybe engage in some small-scale trading between themselves and with their neighbors. Everyone, in Plato’s ideal city, does only what work is necessary to ensure the survival and comfort of the community.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most beautiful passages anywhere in Plato’s work:

Obviously they will produce grain and wine and clothes and shoes. They will build their houses. In the summer they will strip for their work and go without shoes, though they will be adequately clothed and shod in the winter. For food they will make flour from wheat and meal from barley; they will bake the former and knead the latter; they will put their excellent cakes and loaves upon reeds or clean leaves; then, reclining upon a bed of strewn bryony and myrtle leaves, they will feast together with their children, drinking of their wine. Crowned with wreathes they will hymn the gods and enjoy each other, bearing no more children than their means allow, cautious to avoid poverty and war.

There’s moderation, but it’s moderation designed to allow for the most possible pleasure. There are no need for artists here (Plato’s usual word is “imitators”), but the connection between life and aesthetic experience is direct: feasting and hymning.

And then comes the reply from Socrates’ listener, Glaucon, a few lines later:

If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what else would you fatten them on?

I think it’s fair to say that the life outlined in the rest of the book already represents a fall from this state of grace; the Republic offers the best life we can live, says Plato, if we believe that only a city of pigs would content themselves with hymning the gods and enjoying each other, avoiding poverty and war.

[1]That is, the world exterior to fiction and the workings of literature and art. Reading novels is, of course, one of the best ways to learn about novels.
[2]Note that this is not the same as saying there’s nothing you could learn through narrative that you couldn’t learn more efficiently otherwise. A case study, for example, is a narrative, but makes no claims to art; any positive literary qualities a case study might have are superfluous to the information the case study is attempting to relay.
[3]As with all of Plato’s dialogues, the person supposedly doing the talking isn’t Plato, but Socrates—though most likely a fictionalized Socrates, engaging in conversations which did not literally take place. Which you would think would bring up problems in Plato’s mind w/r/t the mimesis occurring in his own works.
  • James Tadd Adcox's work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Barrelhouse Magazine, and Another Chicago Magazine, among other places. He is the editor-in-chief of Artifice Magazine/Artifice Books (www.artificemag.com). His first book, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, is forthcoming in 2012 from Tiny Hardcore Press (www.tinyhardcorepress.com).

10 thoughts on “Kicking Out the Poets

  1. Thanks for another good post.

    Your address of the often overlooked “first answer” is especially valuable. I wonder if you happened to have read Arne Melberg’s Theories of Mimesis? I ask because your post recalled something I found super interesting in his chapter on Plato, which also dealt with “the first answer” and placed a huge significance on the word “if” — Homer is rejected IF he uses mimesis in his art (if he is a mimitis). Melberg says that this little “if” opens some interesting possibilities, all of which unfortunately disappear when we get to the second answer where Socrates is saying “we can agree that imitators know nothing worth mentioning…yadda yadda.”

    Anyhow, good stuff. Clear, concise, and informative. I plan to direct my students to these posts.

  2. Hi Christopher,

    I haven’t read that, though it sounds interesting–it’s definitely going on my to-read list.

    It’s interesting that most of what Plato has to say about (what we’d call) art is actually about the problems of mimesis, and his critique kind of becomes moot as soon as you stop thinking about art in terms of representation and start thinking about it in other ways. Probably Plato still wouldn’t be on-board anyway, but it does complicate his position. What would he make of the definition of literature that appears in one of Barthelme’s early stories (“Florence Green Is 81”): “The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered in fur that breaks your heart”?

      1. Hey Adam,

        Possibly he would, but I guess the larger point is that the primary critique he’s leveling isn’t about art as such–which isn’t a conceptual category for Plato–but is aimed rather at mimesis.

        His critique of poets & poetry does extend to some problems other than mimesis–which is I think what you’re responding to–but I find it interesting that those problems really only obtain in Republic vers. 2.

        At any rate, his criticism of poetry as something that threatens to get in the way of truth can be turned on its head as soon as we ask, what if poetry’s business isn’t truth? What if there are other values at play?

  3. Another interesting post–thanks! It’s funny–I’m reading about Plato and Aristotle right now but from a political/historical perspective. Wasn’t much of the “kicking-the-poets-out” thing specifically related to the poets that refused to praise the ruling class? Because Plato was essentially a throwback, I think, who wanted to go back to the strong ruler from the upper class and he frowned on true democracy. I’d argue that just as much as aesthetics informed his viewpoint, it was also informed by his conservative politics. But that does sort of tie in with the idea of moderation: Plato probably wasn’t going to throw himself with open arms into the idea of true democracy since that would be outside of the bounds of what is moderate and balanced, no?

    1. Hey Amber,

      Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying them.

      Plato definitely wasn’t a fan of democracy (though he does offer a rather utopic vision of it in the “first draft” of the Republic that I mention in my post). Though I would say, too, that it’s worth distinguishing between the incentives someone has for believing something (ie, Plato is upper class and therefore has incentives to support the upper class) and the reasons someone gives for X belief. Someone can have questionable incentives for a true and ultimately well-reasoned belief–for example, it could be in someone’s financial best-interest to argue against racism, but that doesn’t make racism any more right, nor does it make the financial-interested anti-racist’s arguments any worse as arguments.

      Still, it’s good to have the wider perspective you’re giving, here–it can be easy to talk as if these ideas are occurring in a vacuum, when in fact quite a bit of aesthetic theory is a response to very real (economic, political, social) changes.

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