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Junior Year Introduction to Literary Criticism
In the exerts from his dialogues Ion and The Republic, Plato has Socrates describe, both the potential values and the present limitations of Poetry. In Ion Socrates gives the more positive potential value of poetry. In the latter, he points out its shortcomings and the danger of individuals or societies giving too much credence to it.
The poet, he implies, like the philosopher, transcends the falseness of this world and both visits and relates what he sees in this other world. This provides the "artistry" of poetry, by which Socrates means the gift the peculiar vision given to the poet, rather than the technical skills usually associated with poetry. The skills with rhyme, meters, and other features of the art of poetry, Socrates considers only the mechanizations for expressing this vision. The vision itself, however, is the essential element. The poet achieves this vision only when "he has been inspired and put out of his senses, and his mind is no longer with him."
This, however, contrasts with the vision of the philosopher, which he achieves through control and reason, and makes poetry inherently inferior. Since the poet cannot control his vision and does not derive it from the power of reason, his vision does not match that of the philosopher. Further, as the vision of the poetry derives from a kind of "divine madness," a poet can easily mistake true madness with that of the poetry. The poet’s vision, then, admirable though some may find it, Socrates’ Ion shows as inherently untrustworthy and open to suspicion.
If in Ion, Socrates examines the poetry as it could be, in The Republic he presents limitations to that potential. In the Republic, which Socrates uses as an analogy for the individual soul, he suggests banning poetry from his "Republic" as constituting a danger to that Republic. He does this on two grounds, first on its inherent inferiority and second on his subversiveness.
First of all, Socrates shows that poetry derives its origins from mere imitation. As an imitation, poetry suffers from the same problems of all forms of imitation in that it lacks originality. In this case, poetry imitates life, which itself imitates the truth, the ideal world of forms. This makes poetry an imitation of an imitation. Poetry, by imitating the physical world, makes it merely an imitation of an imitation. Hence he considers poetry as an inherently inferior "art."
Second Socrates the largely negative effect of poetry on the soul. By "soul" he means the mind, heart, and body which he asserts should properly order themselves with the first controlling the second and the third.
Socrates grants that poetry might still might exert some limited influence on the soul, and he attempts to trace the nature of that effect. Socrates finds shows that poetry exerts no direct influence on the body. Socrates reasons this because, although poets write poems about objects and persons in the physical world, their creations can in no way change the physical world. Further, Socrates challenges his audience to show an instance in which poetry enriches or illuminates a life intellectually. Having found no examples, he concludes that poetry imparts no benefit to the mind, the highest part of the soul. Logically, then, Socrates concludes that poetry must play upon the emotions.
By influencing the heart, rather than the mind, poetry acts on a lesser part of the soul. Thus it inherently encourages an overthrowing of the natural order of things as it leads the heart to rule the mind. He proves this by examples citing instances in which poetry encourages individuals towards unreasonable action. Poetry, he proposes, might show someone in a piteous situation crying profusely and encouraging others crying with him. He also implies that a lay might show a bad character in a sympathetic situation, which, of courses, occurs in works by the great Greek playwrights. By showing people in such "perverse" situations, poetry can encourage similar perversions in ourselves. Poetry might show characters in a ridiculous fashion, without reason controlling their actions, again, encouraging similar behavior. Through public performances, an entire society might become perverted. Thus poetry not only effects the wrong part of the soul; it also encourages perversity of individuals and entire societies. Poetry, Socrates asserts, is so dangerous that the poet must be guided or exiled.
Socrates' models of poetry leave two possible assessments of poetry: it is useless, superfluous, or pernicious. If poetry is merely secondary imitation, then it offers only an inferior vision. Such an inherently inferior vision offers little to recommend it, particularly in contrast with the superior vision of philosophy. Alternatively, poetry may add little to society. Poetry that reinforces correct and reasonable thinking falls into this category. A play, for example, that encourages good behavior merely persuades men to do what they might otherwise do. However, it offers an inherently dangerous situation as it threatens to overthrow the natural order of behavior by taking men away from their natural ordering of the soul. Finally, poetry may actually work against the society of the Republic, or, by extension, that of the soul by working to undermine the authority of reason and encouraging irrational behavior.
For this reason, Plato proposes banning poetry from the Republic as a dangerous influence on the state and, by analogy, the person. At best, poetry mirrors the true, but in a perverted or disorded vision inherent in a form that imitates an imitation. At its present state of development, Socrates suggests, only "hymns to the Gods and the lives of current men" meet the standards he would set for poetry. Even these he would only have aired under proper precautions.
In conclusion, then, in Ion and The Republic, Plato, in the mouth of Socrates voices a very negative view of poetry. It offers the potential to give a vision of the true. However, it also stems from an inferior source of vision and offers the potential to overthrow the senses. It offers, then, at best a superfluous incentive to do right and both the individual and the society must keep it carefully controlled.