Plato’s Idea of Good and Bad Poetry

Christopher Hurtado —  December 7, 2009
Plato’s Idea of Good and Bad Poetry | Christopher Hurtado

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.

Plato needed to discredit the moral authority of the poets in order to establish philosophy in their place. Before philosophy and reason could reign over rhetoric and poetry, Plato had to discredit the poets as moral authorities. As long as the poets were believed to be the possessors of knowledge, and poetry its means of transmission, Plato could hardly establish philosophy as superior to them. In this period of transition between an oral tradition and a written one, Plato had to contend with the weight and authority of tradition. Plato begins his critique of poetry in Book III of the Republic by censuring the imitation by children of bad character on the grounds that it will instill this character in them.

Battin points out that Plato maintains that truth is paramount, yet he admits poetry that is false and bans poetry that is true. In Book II of the Republic, Socrates claims that poetry is false and should not be a part of the education of the young guardians. But in several places, he advocates telling the adult inhabitants of the city “opportune falsehoods” (389b) crafted by poets hired by the guardians. These so-called “noble lies” are to be plentiful in the their literary diet according to the Laws (Battin 164).

In Book III of the Republic, Plato is concerned for those who recite poetry. He is especially concerned for the Guardians of his “ideal” city. Plato’s main concern in Book III is that the Guardians do not imitate persons of bad character in reciting their thoughts and deeds in the first person. More than third person narrative, this imitation is what Plato seeks to avoid, but only when the persons imitated possess bad character. Plato is not at all opposed to the Guardians imitating persons of good character. In fact, he believes this will develop good character in them. In Book X, Plato makes epistemological and metaphysical arguments for banning all imitative poetry.

Sayers points out that Plato’s use of the term imitation shifts markedly between Book III and Book X. In Book III, it denotes the kind of poetry that uses direct speech instead of narration or description. The concern in Book III is about the impact of the impersonation of bad character on young Guardians, the impersonation of good character being exempted from scorn. According to Sayers, Plato’s use of the same term in Book X does not imply a total ban on all poetry, but rather a new use of the term. Whereas in Book III, imitation referred to a particular kind of poetry, in Book X it refers to all imitation in poetry. The concern in Book III was for the impact on the performer, whereas the concern in Book X is for the impact on the audience. The only exception in Book X is for hymns to the gods and poems that praise good people. All other imitations are banned.

Sayers points out that Plato attempts to justify his conservative views in rational terms by appealing to the theory of Forms. He wants to defend philosophy against rhetoric and the arts. His treatment in the Republic and earlier works is polemical. He classifies poetry as a form of rhetoric and, as such, antithetical to philosophy. He argues that poetry, like rhetoric, uses language to appeal to the emotions rather than reason and thus convey no knowledge. However, later, in the Phaedrus (278b-e), he says that there is good and bad rhetoric and thus good and bad poetry. Good rhetoric and good poetry embody knowledge (Sayers 149-153).

Pappas points out that Plato’s basic argument in Book X of the Republic is that poetry is imitation, which appeals to the worst part of the soul, and should therefore be banned. Plato argues that the poetry at the time of the writing of the Republic imitated human beings in general, whereas in the “ideal” city it should only imitate the best of them. Plato argues that the skill of imitation is inferior to other skills. While carpenters look to Forms as models for their handiwork, painters imitate such handiwork, ignoring the Forms. Poets, argues Plato, also imitate particulars in ignorance of the Forms. Plato emphasizes that imitation is of the appearance of things, not of their true nature. Plato’s accusation against the poets is that they can excel at imitating truth while ignoring truth itself. Socrates argues that users of things possess knowledge, makers of things right trust or opinion, and that imitators of things lack both (Pappas 174-176).

Pappas’ exposition is helpful in that his argument ties Plato’s discussion of art to the allegory of the Divided Line. Pappas points out that the words for “trust” and “opinion” used in the discussion on art coincide with those used in referring to perception of physical objects in the allegory of the Divided Line. This, Pappas argues, shows that Plato regarded the work of poets as belonging in the lowest part of the Divided Line. Furthermore, this epistemological argument helps transition to a psychological argument based on the effect of artistic imitation on its spectators (Pappas 177).

In Book X of the Republic, Plato wants to ban all imitative poetry on epistemological and metaphysical grounds first. Using his theory of Forms, couched in the language of the allegory of the Divided Line, Plato attacks imitative poetry for its lack of any substantive knowledge whatsoever. Based on his theory of Forms, he demonstrates by analogy to painting that poetry is thrice removed from reality. Just as a painter represents objects, which are but shadows of Forms, poets deal with appearances, while lacking knowledge of reality. In the language of the allegory of the Divided Line, poetry belongs to the cognitive awareness furthest from knowledge. Plato’s concern next moves beyond reciters of poetry to their audiences.

In Book X of the Republic, Plato is concerned for those who hear poetry. Given his argument couched in the language of the allegory of the Divided Line, Plato argues that imitative poetry appeals to the lower, non-rational part of the soul and serves to strengthen it to the detriment of the higher, rational part of the soul. Poetry, argues Plato, appeals to the emotions, while bypassing reason and eventually overriding it. At the same time, based on his argument from the theory of Forms, Plato clinches his argument against the poets, having demonstrated that they are not authorities on any subject since they possess no true knowledge, but are mere imitators.  But what of the exceptions Plato allows and what of his own writings?

Plato’s exceptions and his own writings seem to contradict his reasons for banishing the poets. Rice (49) and Pappas (214-215) have argued that Plato contradicts his own argument against imitative poetry by allowing imitations of good persons and hymns to the gods. This would seem to invalidate Plato’s epistemological and metaphysical arguments against imitation. Without philosophical grounds, Plato’s argument becomes merely polemical. Rice and Pappas have also pointed out that Plato himself uses literary devices and rhetoric in his own writings. Indeed, he writes fiction. How, they ask, is this justified? This would seem to invalidate his philosophy on the same grounds he used to invalidate imitative poetry. How can Plato be interpreted such that a contradiction does not result from the interpretation?

There is no consensus on whether Plato can be exonerated from the contradictions he seems to embrace. Moss, Belfiore, and Nehamas argue that Plato is justified in the exceptions he makes and in using literary devices and rhetoric in his own writings because these appeal to reason rather than to the emotions. They serve to draw their audience into a rational inquiry, by virtue of their own apparent inadequacy and incompleteness. Rice and Pappas, on the other hand, argue that there is no way to exonerate Plato from this apparent contradiction. At the same time, they point out that it seems that Plato believes the exceptions he makes and his own writings imitate not individuals, but the “form of philosophy.”

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. Without resolving the seeming contradiction, either Plato has given no valid philosophical grounds for banishing the poets, or the grounds he gives apply equally to his own writings, putting them on the same lower level of the Divided Line as the writings of the poets. If the exceptions to imitative poetry Plato allows and his own use of literary devices and rhetoric are to be justified, his writings must be distinguished from the writings of the poets he banishes.

Sayers sees a contradiction between Plato’s own writings, which Sayers considers literary masterpieces, and his interpretation of Plato, which denies the embodiment of knowledge in poetry. Sayers argues that literature has philosophical traits and that philosophy has literary traits. Sayers adds that philosophy and poetry both embody knowledge, and therefore do not compete with one another, but, rather, complement one another. He concludes that the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy can be transcended on the grounds that both are valid means of representing reality and conveying knowledge (Sayers 153-155).

Sayers also sees a contradiction between Plato’s views in the Republic and those in the Phaedrus. His interpretation of the former is that poetry has a negative psychological effect on the soul because it excites its emotional part and thus inhibits and harms its rational part. He extols the latter work for recognizing literature’s “charm,” which he points out can be used for good or evil (Sayers 155-156). Pappas (215) also refers to the “charm” of poetry but argues that its effect is to stifle poetry’s audience’s ability to rationally question poetry.

According to Belfiore, “Plato’s greatest accusation against poetry” is based on a psychological theory. The poet (1) “appeals directly to the childlike and foolish element in the soul divided against itself” and (2) “takes advantage of the knowledge of the superior element of this soul about what is right and wrong in normal circumstances” (Belfiore 61). He causes the superior element of the soul to let down its guard, temporarily yielding to the lower element, in the belief that, under the circumstances the poet has created, the usual rules don’t apply. Thus, the lower element is strengthened. Citing Book X of the Republic (608a3-4), Belfiore concludes that Plato’s intent is not to ban all representational art from the ideal city, but rather to defend us against “uncritical acceptance” of imitative poetry. That is, Plato’s intent is that we do not let our guard down (Belfiore 61-62).

According to Belifiore’s interpretation of Plato, he is advocating critical thinking, not censorship. Belfiore’s understanding of “Plato’s greatest accusation against poetry” is that it is not an ontological argument, but a psychological one. Belfiore’s thesis must be addressed by those arguing for a thesis based on an ontological interpretation of Plato’s banishment of the poets. It is a radically different interpretation of Plato that questions the intent and basis of his argument.

Moss (429) differs from Rice and Pappas in her interpretation of imitating appearances, while agreeing with Belfiore and Nehamas. However, Moss goes beyond Belfiore and Nehamas. Moss’s (430) interpretation of Plato is that poets copy appearances of human excellence, not actual human excellence, and that actual human excellence differs from appearances of human excellence such that multifaceted characters appear excellent while in reality true human excellence is found in stability and uniformity. She argues that Plato’s accusation against the poets is not that they imitate actual human excellence, but that they imitate the appearance of excellence (Moss 433). Plato’s greatest accusation against the poets, argues Moss is that their imitation of the appearance of human excellence is “’realistic,’ plausible, and persuasive” (Moss 433-434), and therefore deceptive.

According to Moss, the poetry Plato bans from his ideal city in Book X of the Republic is “realistic” imitative poetry, i.e. poetry that copies virtue as it appears (multifaceted). The poetry he allows in Book III, i.e. hymns to the gods, eulogies of good men and passages of Homer, on the other hand, imitate reality itself, not just the appearance of it. It imitates stable, uniform characters. These are “quiet and moderate” characters (as quoted in Moss 441) that speak to the rational part of the soul. Psychologically, it is not this poetry, but the poetry that imitates appearances and thus speaks to the non-rational part of the soul that troubles Plato. His greatest concern is that imitative poetry is so compelling for its realism that it appeals to the non-rational part of the soul and thus threatens to upset the order of the soul (Moss 441).

Moss’s interpretation of Plato does not result in a contradiction. While Plato did not think systematically like his pupil Aristotle did, this does not necessarily imply that he did not think in principles. Moss’s interpretation of Plato is the most charitable reading of Plato given the apparent contradiction that results from the interpretation that Plato is banning all imitation, yet makes exceptions for some, including his own writings. Moss’s interpretation distinguishes between the poets’ imitation of the appearance of reality, which does not require any knowledge on the part of the poets, and the imitation of reality itself in Plato’s writings, which stems from actual knowledge – direct knowledge of the forms. Moss’s interpretation likewise justifies Plato’s exceptions for hymns to the gods and eulogies of good men, as long as these represent reality as it is, rather than the appearance thereof. Presumably, under Moss’s interpretation of Plato, the Homeric passages he allows also meet this criterion. However, this can only have occurred accidentally since Homer was not a philosopher.

In his comparison of poets to painters by analogy in Book X of the Republic, Plato points out that painters imitate appearances, not reality (598b). He adds that the painter, and therefore the poet, knows nothing about his subject (598c). Plato, referring to poets, then concludes that

whenever someone tells us that he has met a person who knows all the crafts as well as all the      other things that anyone else knows, and that his knowledge of any subject is more exact than any of theirs is, we must assume that we are talking to a simple-minded fellow who . . .  can’t distinguish between knowledge, ignorance and imitation (598c-d).

This passage shows that Plato distinguishes between those who imitate reality and those who imitate appearances. The question remaining is, who are the imitators of reality and who are the imitators of appearances?

In the Phaedrus, referring to “Lysias and anyone else who composes speeches, as well as to Homer and anyone else who composes poetry either spoken or sung, and third, to Solon and anyone else who writes political documents that he calls laws,” Socrates argues that anyone who composes poetry “with a knowledge of the truth, if [he] can defend [his] writing when [he is] challenged, and if [he] can [himself] make the argument that [his] writing is of little worth, then [he] must be called by a name derived not from these writings but rather from those things that [he] is seriously pursuing. . . . wisdom’s lover – a philosopher” (278c). “On the other hand, if a man has nothing more than what he has composed or written, spending long hours twisting it around, pasting parts together and taking them apart – wouldn’t you be right to call him a poet?,” asks Socrates. “Of course,” answers Phaedrus (278d). This passage answers the question posed above. It identifies the imitators of reality as philosophers and the imitators of appearances as poets. It is interesting to note that this passage also shows that Plato does not consider Homer a poet, but a philosopher. This explains how Plato was able to hold Homer in such high regard while at the same time banning the poets, without contradiction. It also explain why Homer’s and Plato’s own writings are exempted from the ban on poetry. The philosophers have knowledge to convey, while the poets have none.

At the time Plato wrote the Republic, the poets were regarded as moral authorities. Plato wanted this distinction to go to the philosophers because their wisdom was deeper and of a higher order than that of the poets, so he banished the them from his “ideal” city. He justifies this based on a psychological argument against the poets’ use of literary and rhetorical devices. But he too uses literary and rhetorical devices in his philosophical writings. Thus, Plato seems to contradict himself. However, Plato distinguishes his own writings from those of the poets he banishes in that the writings of the poets imitate the appearance of reality while his writings imitate reality itself. Plato distinguishes between philosophy and poetry, between reason and rhetoric. Thus, the apparent contradiction is resolved. The only question that remains is how exactly Plato justifies his allowance of certain passages of Homer. While these passages may imitate good men, Homer was not a philosopher. Therefore, he could have only accidentally produced poetry Plato would allow under this interpretation.

Works Cited

Battin, M. Pabst. “Plato on True and False Poetry.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (1977): 163-74. Philosopher’s Index. Web. 26 Oct. 2009.
Belfiore, Elizabeth. “Plato’s Greatest Accusation Against Poetry.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 9.Supplement (1983): 39-62. Philosopher’s Index. Web. 26 Oct. 2009.
Cooper, John M. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
Moss, Jessica. “What is Imitative Poetry and Why is it Bad?.” The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. Ed. G.R.F. Ferrari. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Nehamas, Alexander. “Plato and the Mass Media.” Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Nehamas, Alexander. “Plato on Imitation and Poetry in Republic X.” Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Pappas, Nickolas. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Republic. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Rice, Daryl H. A Guide to Plato’s Republic. New York: University of Oxford Press, 1998.
Sayers, Sean. Plato’s Republic: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Christopher Hurtado

Posts Twitter Facebook

Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.