Art and Mimesis in Plato’s ‘Republic’

M.F. Burnyeat

Plato is famous for having banished poetry and poets from the ideal city of the Republic. But he did no such thing. On the contrary, poetry – the right sort of poetry – will be a pervasive presence in the society he describes. Yes, he did banish Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – the greatest names of Greek literature. But not because they were poets. He banished them because they produced the wrong sort of poetry. To rebut Plato’s critique of poetry, what is needed is not a defence of poetry, but a defence of the freedom of poets to write as, and what, they wish.

No big problem, you may think. But suppose poetry was not the minority pursuit it has become in Britain today. Suppose it was the most popular form of entertainment available, the nearest equivalent to our mass media. That is not far from the truth about the world in which Plato wrote the Republic. The Athenian democracy, audience for much of the poetry Plato objected to, accepted that it was their responsibility to ensure the quality of the poetry funded by the state. In modern terms, they thought that democracy should care about whether the mass media encourage the right sorts of values. Do we want Rupert Murdoch to determine the overall quality of the culture? Should money decide everything? If not, what can we do about it?

Plato was no democrat, and had no qualms about proposing Soviet-style control from above, by those who know best. But democrats who reject such authoritarian solutions may still learn from Plato’s disturbing presentation of the problem. What he is chiefly talking about is the words and music by which the culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. Tragedy and comedy were performed before a crowd of 14,000 people at the Great Dionysia and other civic festivals. We hear of 20,000 people attending a recital of Homer. Then there are hymns sung at religious ceremonies and songs at feasts or private symposia. Forget about reading T.S. Eliot to yourself in bed. Our subject is the words and music you hear at social gatherings, large and small. Think pubs and cafés, karaoke, football matches, the last night of the Proms. Think Morning Service at the village church, carols from King’s College Cambridge, Elton John singing to the nation from Westminster Abbey. Think popular music in general and, when Plato brings in a parallel from the visual arts, forget the Tate Gallery and recall the advertisements that surround us everywhere. Above all, think about the way all this is distributed to us by television, the omnipresent medium at work in every home. What Plato is discussing in the Republic when he talks about poetry is how to control the influences that shape the culture in which the young grow up. How to ensure that what he calls the ethos of society is as ideal as possible. Even as adults, none of us is immune.

Books II-III of the Republic present Plato’s proposals for reforming the culture in a carefully arranged sequence of stages. The first stage concentrates on the content of musical poetry, the last on its material and social setting – with special reference to the symposium or drinking party. In between come various other elements of poetic performance. This sequence of stages is not a sequence of independent topics. Each should be thought of as one layer among others in the analysis of a single cultural phenomenon: the performance of poetry with music (and sometimes dance as well).

From time to time the discussion touches on a non-musical topic, be it nursery tales or the content of the visual arts. But the central thread is the performance of musical poetry at a social gathering. This for Plato is the main vehicle of cultural transmission. This is what he is trying to get right when he designs a musical education for the warrior class in the ideal city – the Guards, as they are called, from whose ranks a select few will go on to become philosopher rulers. All else is subordinate.

One further preliminary. Plato is well aware that what he has to say will shock and appal his readers, then as now. His proposals for the ideal city amount to a complete reconstruction of Greek culture as it existed in his day. What motivates the proposals is his profound understanding of the many subtle ways in which the ethos of a society forms the souls who grow up in it. If you shudder at the authoritarianism of his programme, remember that shudder when the newspapers next debate whether bad behaviour in schools is the fault of parents or teachers. As if parents and teachers were anything but a tiny facet of the total culture of our time. Either grasp the nettle of devising democratic alternatives to Plato’s authoritarianism, or stop bleating.

Plato’s first charge, and perhaps the most shocking to ancient readers, is that, from Homer onwards, poetry has been full of lies about the gods. The entire religious and mythological tradition stands condemned for blasphemy. It is like someone today proposing to ban the Bible and all reference to Biblical stories, because the Bible presents a wrong picture of divinity. None of the stories of God’s dealings with humankind can be true; and even if some of them were true, they are morally unsuitable for young ears.

And what is unsuitable for ears is unsuitable for eyes as well. Stories it is wrong to sing, like the battle of gods and giants, must not be represented in embroidery. This is no joke. Plato’s readers would think at once of the colossal embroidered robe (πέπλος) carried in procession at the festival of the Panathenaea. The robe showed the battle of gods and giants, spotlighting the victory of Athena over the giant Enceladus. A ban on such embroidery is a stake through the heart of Athenian religion and Athenian civic identity. Though Socrates does not stop to mention it, the censorship of embroidery will inevitably extend to painting and sculpture. The battle of gods and giants will be removed from the carved metopes of the Parthenon (currently on display in the British Museum). In the ideal city, the religious content of the visual arts will be as restricted as that of poetry and music.

How much Greek literature would survive enforcement of the following norms? (1) Divinity, being good, is not responsible for everything that occurs, only for the good. So gods never lead mortals into crime. (2) Divinity is simple, unchanging, and hates falsehood and deception. So gods never appear in disguise to mortals, never send misleading dreams or signs. (3) Hades is not the dreadful place the poets describe. So a good man finds no great cause for grief in the death of himself, his friend, or his son. (4) Heroes are admirable role-models for the young. So they never indulge in lamentation, mirth, or lying (save for high purposes of state), impertinence to their commanders or arrogance towards gods and men, sexual passion or rape, longing for food and drink, or greed for wealth; nor, mutatis mutandis, should any such thing be attributed to the gods. Finally, (5) the moral argument of the Republic itself, when completed, will prove that it is justice, not injustice, that makes one happy. So no poet may depict a happy villain or a virtuous person in misery. Under this regime very little of the Greek literature we know would remain intact, and much of the art would disappear.

Nearly all the poetry cited in the Republic so far will be banned. Many of the themes of the earlier discussion came from poetry, because poetry articulates the values and beliefs of the culture. In Book I, Cephalus recounts how, when old age comes and death is near, one begins to take seriously the stories about Hades and the terrors it holds for wrongdoers. In a society with no Bible or canonical sacred text, the chief source for these stories is poetry. Conversely, it is poets like Pindar who hold out the hope of a pleasant afterlife for those who have lived in justice and piety. On the other hand, a major theme of Adeimantus’ speech at the beginning of Book II is the way the poets instill in the young a wrong attitude towards justice, because they praise it for its contingent consequences rather than its intrinsic value. Justice, the poets say, is a real sweat in this life, much harder and less pleasant than injustice (provided you can get away with it). It is only in the very long run that justice pays: the poet Musaeus, for example, promises the righteous that their afterlife will be an unending symposium, as if the ultimate reward for virtue was eternal intoxication. But at the same time his teaching is that the wicked can always bribe the gods with sacrifices and festivals to let them off. None of this is compatible with the norms that Socrates has now put before us.

To begin with, however, Socrates speaks as if he is merely purging the culture of certain objectionable features. He asks Homer and the other poets not to be angry if he and Adeimantus expunge all the passages that breach the norms. He takes the scissors to Aeschylus, but implies that tragedy (cleaned up by himself) will still be performed. At this stage, Plato is concerned only with the content of the arts, especially their religious content. Like many later (and earlier) religious reformers, he will have his new orthodoxy, utterly different from traditional Greek religion, rigorously enforced throughout the society. The next stage of the discussion, concerned with the manner of poetic performance, will justify banishing Homer and the tragedians altogether.

But already it is clear that the norms for art in the ideal city will reshape the whole culture. Students of Plato are sometimes told they need not be shocked by the censorship advocated in Republic II-III, because its target is the education of young Guards, and any responsible parent today keeps watch on the entertainment and reading-matter of young children. The proposals are made for the sake of the young. But Plato’s insight is that if you are concerned about the souls of the young, it is no good simply laying down rules for parents and teachers, or agreeing to keep sex and violence off the TV screen until after 9 p.m. His conclusion: for the sake of the young, the entire culture must be purged.

The text makes this quite plain. The stories which must not be told to very young children by nurses and mothers should not be heard anywhere in the city – or if at some ritual they have to be told, the audience should be kept as small as possible. Conversely, once we have the right kind of stories for the very young, we will compel the poets to tell them the same kind when they grow older. The norms about the representation of divinity apply to all poetry, whether epic, lyric or tragic: epic and tragic meters are primarily used for public occasions, while lyric is for smaller group gatherings like the symposium. And things that must not be said in verse must not be said in prose either, must not be said or heard by anyone in the city, young or old. They are not fit for the ears of boys or men. Such things are not merely false, but impious, and therefore harmful for anyone to hear. The one mention of schoolteachers is a sharp passage at the very end of Book II, referring to some objectionable lines of Aeschylus: ‘When anyone says such things about the gods, we shall be angry with him, we will refuse him a chorus, and we will not allow teachers to use him for the education of the young.’ Nothing is to be put on in the theatre unless it is fit for classroom use afterwards. The Greek word παιδεíα means both culture and education. Plato’s message is that culture should be taken seriously for what it is: education.

Yet telling false, blasphemous, immoral and passionate stories is not the worst thing a poet can do, in Plato’s opinion. Such stories corrupt the young by filling their minds with dangerously wrong ideas about matters of great moment. But a more enlightened, grown-up mind, with the aid of philosophy, may come to reject the community’s religious narratives, as Socrates does in the Euthyphro. Stories as such are something a rational mind can resist, question and reject. With visual images and likenesses in sound and music, resistance is not so easy. The manner of poetic performance is more insidious than the content. Even the best philosophical minds are at risk.

The advanced industrial countries of the West have fewer occasions for community singing than more traditional societies, but one that survives is Christmas:

Once in Royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby,
In a manger for his bed.
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ the little child.

This carol is a third-person narrative, all the way through. Listeners hear about the birth of Jesus. But when someone reads the Lesson from the Gospel and their voice modulates to express kindness or anger in words that Jesus speaks in the first person, or when in Bach’s St Matthew Passion Jesus sings those words in recitative – then it is mimesis. We do not merely hear about the Son of God. In a certain sense, we hear him. We hear him in the same sense as we see him on the Cross in a picture of the Crucifixion.

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