At first, one may be surprised at Socrates’ notion that the peaceful and enchanting nature of poetry can have detrimental effects on society. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates attacks poetry by asking the essential question of whether or not the pleasure that poetry creates is good for us. Socrates speaks of an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry, which both greatly influence ethics, politics, and society. Socrates criticizes well-known and praised poets, including Homer, and the role of poetry itself in society by claiming that poetry is unjust and unethical. For example, Socrates states, “The ones Hesiod and Homer told us, and the other poets too. They surely composed false tales for human beings and used to tell them and still do tell them” (Rep. 2.377d). Socrates believes poetry is not an appropriate because it is written without reason but by inspiration alone, teaches incorrect values, is merely an imitation, and encourages excessive emotions from those listening.
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Socrates begins his argument by discussing proper education of citizens in the just city. Socrates compares the poet to a man in speech making “a bad representation of what gods and heroes are like, just as a painter who paints something that doesn’t resemble the things whose likeness he wished to paint” (Rep. 2.377e). Poets only write from their own inspiration, not from reason or through any deep intellectual understanding. Their work only shows understanding in the material realm and not of the intellectual realm. Socrates claims that these poems not only contain many fabrications of the truth but fabrications that are held up as model behavior. A young child that is in the process of receiving his education should not be exposed to these stories because “a young thing can’t judge what is hidden sense and what is not; but what he takes into his opinions at that age has a tendency to become hard to eradicate and unchangeable” (Rep. 2.378d-e).
Socrates continues to say that the stories that children hear first should be virtuous and portray the gods truthfully by describing them as good. In Homer’s Odyssesy, the gods, such as Zeus and Athena, are depicted as tricky and full of deceit; Socrates claims all of Homer’s references about the nature of the gods as false because the gods are not capable of evil doings and do not want to alter themselves because “each of them is as fair and as good as possible, he remains forever simply in his own shape” (Rep. 2.381c). For instance, Athena is depicted as the ultimate trickster throughout the Odyssey because she appears to mortals in different shapes and forms, specifically when interacting with Odysseus and Telemachus. According to Socrates, Athena is not capable of this trickery that Homer bestows to her but is only capable of justice and good deeds. However, the entire basis of the Odyssey is that Homer was divinely inspired shown through the narrator saying, “Speak, Muse” (Od. 1.1). This statement implies that the Muse speaks through Homer to construct the stories that make up the Odyssey. Nevertheless, Socrates believes that such poetry should be censored from citizens to protect the just morals in the city. Since citizens find it difficult to distinguish between what is wrong and right, role-models of the just city should be completely moral. Socrates fears that the stories of gods punishing, tricking, and lying to mortals will have a disadvantageous affect on children who may begin to believe that these actions are correct or even good. The aim of censoring tales is to instill the belief in children that just actions are admirable while socially unjust actions are dishonorable.
Socrates furthers to expand his argument greatly in Book III. Socrates claims that poetry invokes excessive emotion that is not in accordance with reason and analyzes the ethical and mental effects of poetry. Socrates begins by saying that tales should be shaped in a way that does not depict Hades as a place full of terror “but rather to praise it, because what they say is neither true nor beneficial for men who are to be fighters” (Rep. 3.386b-c). Socrates is making a reference to the famous meeting in the Odyssey of Odysseus and Achilles in Hades. Achilles says that he would “rather be a hired hand back up on earth, slaving away for some poor dirt farmer, than lord it over all these withered dead” (Od. 11.510-513). Fearing Hades more than slavery is seriously detrimental to the success of a guardian because the guardian will have trouble maintaining strength and loyalty to his people in battle. The idea of Hades should be expunged in Socrates view because it is false and is not beneficial for guardians, who have to show immense courage in battle. Also, Socrates warns against powerful emotions with the guardians by saying that they “shouldn’t be lovers of laughter” (Rep. 3.388e). Socrates wants the guardians to strive for complete moderation with their emotions in all aspects of their lives. Poetry that is censored by philosophy can maintain this balance in the guardians and citizens of the just city. Socrates knows that poetry is needed to invoke emotion, but philosophy is needed to keep those emotions in moderation. With the two in harmony, the citizens can live a content life of moderation.
Having dealt with the content of poems, Socrates now discusses the style of poetry that poets take. Socrates characterizes poetic narration into narratives that are either simple, produced by imitation, or both together (Rep. 3.392d). When the poet speaks with his own voice without meter, as in dithyrambs, it is simple narrative; when the poet likens himself to another man, as in tragedies or comedies, it is imitative narration (Rep. 3.394c). Socrates believes that each person in the just city can only do their best work in one activity alone. Therefore, no one can do a good job imitating many things. For example, Socrates claims that one cannot be both a tragic poet and a comedic poet (Rep. 3.395b). Nevertheless, Socrates ends by insisting that the guardians must not engage in imitations. If they do, the imitations they engage in must be righteous and not detrimental to their development. Since “imitations, if they are practiced continually from youth onwards, become established as habits and nature, in body and sounds and in thought” the guardian children should only be allowed to imitate those actions of “men who are courageous, moderate, holy, free, and everything of the sort” (Rep. 3.395c).
Socrates continues in Book X to completely rid poets from the just city. Socrates claims that the poets do not truly know what they are writing about because they have no firsthand experience or knowledge about their writing. What poets write about are far from the truth and “maim the thought of those who hear them” (Rep. 10.595b). Socrates attacks poets by saying that the poet “knows nothing worth mentioning about what he imitates” (Rep.10.602b). Socrates holds philosophical nature to be far superior to imitative art. Then, Socrates criticizes poets, especially Homer, for their lack of knowledge upon the topics they write about and therefore lack of any knowledge that can be gained from reading their works. Socrates also does not approve of how poets imitate the soul. Poets describe excessive emotions and ones that are not rational or in moderation. The lamentation of heroes in poetry brings enjoyment to those who watch, but Socrates says” when personal sorrow comes to one of us, you are aware that, on the contrary, we pride ourselves if we are able to keep quiet and bear up, taking this to be the part of a man and what we then praised to be that of a woman” (Rep. 10.605e). Even if the character is a fictional one, taking enjoyment in anyone’s suffering can corrupt one’s soul. Socrates emphasizes the danger of irrational emotions to one’s soul when he states that:
And as for sex, and spiritedness, too, and for all the desires, pains, and pleasures in the soul that we say follow all our action, poetic imitation produces similar results in us. For it fosters and waters them when they ought to be dried up, and sets them up as rulers in us when they ought to be ruled so that we may become better and happier instead of worse and more wretched.
These desires grow in one’s soul to the point where one begins to imitate the actions of those on stage, causing one to become more miserable and unhappy. One also cannot understand the pain that the characters are going through simply by watching them on stage. They must experience it firsthand to truly know the emotions felt by those portrayed by the poets.
Despite the dangers poetry imposes, Socrates regrets ridding the city of all poetry. He says that “only so much of poetry as is hymns to gods or celebration of good men should be admitted into a city” (Rep. 10.607a). However, Socrates cannot use these forms of poetry to convince Glaucon of the importance of philosophy so he uses a reformed version of poetry with the myth of Er. The myth of Er describes the alternative that Socrates wants for Hades. The myth opens by describing a strong man named Er who died in war but came back to life twelve days after his death to tell others about the eternal world (Rep. 10.614b). In the myth, heaven is described as a place where virtue is rewarded and unjust deeds were paid for “ten times over for each” (Rep. 10.615a). People are rewarded or punished for their life deeds every thousand years, and then are given the opportunity to choose their form in their next life (Rep. 10.615a-620a). Socrates here integrates Homeric heroes into this story without emotion to prove that wisdom and knowledge is the best way to enrich one’s soul. The correct choice for one’s form in his next life is only discovered by those who were just while alive. Socrates portrays Odysseus, Ajax, and Agamemnon all as philosophers who choose their next life form wisely based on events of their past lives. The philosophers know how to choose their new life, because they understand what was just and unjust in their past lives. Socrates ends by giving Glaucon hope in the afterlife and telling him to “always keep to the upper road and practice justice with prudence in every way so that we shall be friends to ourselves and the gods, both while we remain here and when we reap the rewards for it” (Rep. 10.621d). This type of poetry is much different than Homeric poetry because it provides a deeper understanding of one’s soul. It provides hope and knowledge without excessive emotion or immoral actions.
Socrates was completely correct in challenging the nature of poetry because its ideals were not in agreement with the positive upbringing of mankind. The world remains fascinated with pleasures that poetry provides even if it does not better them intellectually. The emotions and drama of poetry is to what humanity appeals. Even though Socrates tries to give poetry a philosophical twist with the myth of Er, this kind of poetry is not as appealing because the emotions and suffering experienced by others is absent. Plainly, humans like to view the despair of others because it makes their troubles seem less daunting. One can obviously see that the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry is still alive to this day. For example, the music of this generation definitely has a superficial meaning, but no deeper philosophical message. Without philosophical messages in modern poetry, the world continues to decline in its search for knowledge and the eternal judgment of the soul. Socrates’ work still applies today and his wisdom will last through the ages. With the help of Socrates, the world can work towards being one that is full of both knowledge and eternal happiness.