Who were the poets in Plato’s time? What did Plato have against them? Why does Plato banish them? How does he justify it? How then does he justify his own use of literary and rhetorical devices in his philosophical writings? What then is to distinguish his writings from those of the poets? The first question will be answered below. Plato answers the next three questions himself in Book X of the Republic. It is the last two questions that remain unanswered. Unless Plato’s writings can be distinguished from those of the poets he banishes, Plato fails to distinguish between philosophy and poetry, between reason and rhetoric.
In Plato’s time, the poets were considered moral authorities. Poetry was recited in song and education consisted in memorizing and reciting poetry. All knowledge was transmitted orally by this means. It is not surprising then, that Socrates’ interlocutors were given to citing the poets in the same way Christians cite the Bible to defend their arguments when he pressed them. Thus, philosophy sought to develop reason in opposition to oral tradition based on poetry. In order to establish philosophy and reason as a path to knowledge superior to poetry, Plato had to take on the conventional wisdom of his time, which was embodied by poetry.