Why to expell the poets? The art in Plato's Republic

Why to expell the poets? The art in Plato's Republic

“...if I am not mistaken, we shall have to say that about men poets and story-tellers are guilty of making the gravest misstatements when they tell us that wicked men are often happy, and the good miserable;” - Plato



Plato's “Republic” is one of those fundamental books of the Western world that managed to have some popular parts. In this book, written around 380 B.C., the most famous piece is the The Allegory of the Cave, but here we're going to explore a less known but also popular part of the socratic dialogues: The expulsion of the poets from the city.

The book is narrated by Socrates in first person. Plato was his pupil but doesn't appear on the narrative, the Republic is divided in 12 books with dialogues debating a lot of themes necessary to lay the ground for a good city.

When it comes to the expulsion of the poets, basically what's in discussion is: what's the appropriate level of autonomy for the art and the poet's speeches? Art should be free from moral, ethical and political restrictions?

In the first book Socrates listen from other people some definitions of Justice, but he ends up questioning all of them and gets to the conclusion that it's good for you to be just and bad to be unjust. Despite that he still don't have a satisfatory definition, as he admits to Thrasymachus.

Not convinced by Socrates arguments, in the second book the other friends keep using the arguments proposed by Thrasymachus. To him there are cases where being just can be a problem and being unjust can offer benefits. However, Socrates believes that they only agree with this because they are looking at city as whole not individually. Furthermore, the city he is proposing depends on a class of guardians to defend the laws and the justice. Then he goes discussing the importance of the education of these soldiers.

"Socrates and His Students". San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.

The debate gets to a point where they consider the content and the form through which the stories are told. As always, the focus is on the concepts of true and false, justice and injustice:

“Because, if I am not mistaken, we shall have to say that about men poets and story-tellers are guilty of making the gravest misstatements when they tell us that wicked men are often happy, and the good miserable; and that injustice is profitable when undetected, but that justice is a man's own loss and another's gain—these things we shall forbid them to utter, and command them to sing and say the opposite.”

Socrates goes back to the problem of justice, or better, the lack of a definitive concept at this moment in the dialogue:

“That such things are or are not to be said about men is a question which we cannot determine until we have discovered what justice is, and how naturally advantageous to the possessor, whether he seem to be just or not.”

Socrates. Illustration by E. Wallis.

Socrates tell Adeimantus that the poets always talk about facts, be they present, past or future. And these informations have to be transmited through simple exposition or imitation. These are the styles and he want to decide which of them is the most suited to the Republic:

“Then, Adeimantus, let me ask you whether our guardians ought to be imitators; or rather, has not this question been decided by the rule already laid down that one man can only do one thing well, and not many; and that if he attempt many, he will altogether fail of gaining much reputation in any?”
“Then the same person will hardly be able to play a serious part in life, and at the same time to be an imitator and imitate many other parts as well; for even when two species of imitation are nearly allied, the same persons cannot succeed in both, as, for example, the writers of tragedy and comedy—did you not just now call them imitations?”

Developing the idea that to imitate is to be influenced, Socrates says:

Greek Theater

“Suppose, I answered, that a just and good man in the course of a narration comes on some saying or action of another good man,—I should imagine that he will like to personate him, and will not be ashamed of this sort of imitation: he will be most ready to play the part of the good man when he is acting firmly and wisely; in a less degree when he is overtaken by illness or love or drink, or has met with any other disaster. But when he comes to a character which is unworthy of him, he will not make a study of that; he will disdain such a person, and will assume his likeness, if at all, for a moment only when he is performing some good action; at other times he will be ashamed to play a part which he has never practised, nor will he like to fashion and frame himself after the baser models; he feels the employment of such an art, unless in jest, to be beneath him, and his mind revolts at it.”

But the infamous expulsion of the poets isn't necessarily hostile. The fact that the poets doesn't have a place in the Republic isn't related to the use of force or an excuse to violate the customs towards a guest:

“And therefore when any one of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. And so when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city.”

Socrates explains the kind of poets and orators are needed in the Republic:

“For we mean to employ for our souls' health the rougher and severer poet or story-teller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed at first when we began the education of our soldiers.”

Plato. Roman marble sculpture, copy of a greek original from the 4th century.

It's hard to define where ends the narrator Socrates and begins the writer Plato, but this book is now beyond the question of authorship, being a essential reading to any intelectual enterprise. There's a lot of historical value, but also a atuality in many of these concepts that, despite the influence of time, still permeate our lives.

Other readings to complement these themes are the discussion about the Death of the Author by Roland Barthes and the views of James Joyce about the effects of the art produced in the Renaissance over the modern man.