“There’s an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.”
“Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston …” Thus begins the world’s seminal Socratic dialogue, Plato’s Republic. It is a literary journey through the human soul; a dramatic dialectic in the search for morality. The process will involve constructing a “city with words” in an attempt to create a concrete representation of the elusive human psyche. The hope is that such a projection, writ large, of the inner workings of man will enable Socrates and his young students to find true morality and observe its effects on the one who seeks it above all else. The question: Is morality “intrinsically rewarding” regardless of extrinsic benefits? Inevitably, part of the discussion moves to education, namely, how one ensures the production of a moral soul. What will nourish and protect the inner man on his treacherous quest to find and follow the good? What will guard him against all the various temptations he will encounter along the way? This leads the discussion to poetry, something that C.S. Lewis saw as “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.” At first glance, Plato seems to suggest that the arts are inherently dangerous and should be avoided. Yet, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize that the very medium he chooses to denounce them is itself artistic, an attempt to make the invisible soul incarnate. Indeed, Plato’s narrator Socrates will compare the construction of this mythical city to the work of the artist. What, then, is Plato’s assessment of the role of the arts in society, and can we find any truth to guide us in our consumption and production of art in our modern world? Republic is what translator Allan Bloom observed as an “invitation to the philosophic quest.” Let us take Plato up on his invitation and determine if he is correct in his assessment of the role of the arts in the soul and in society.
Before proceeding on the journey, it is important to establish our bearings by determining the best way in which to approach Plato’s Republic as a modern reader. As translator Robin Waterfield suggests, “Plato was a genius as a thinker and as a writer.” This dialogue is not unlike all great works of literature in that it contains “hidden layers” that “resonate with parts of the reader’s mind that are not directly being used while focusing on the immediate words of the text.” Waterfield uses a helpful distinction here between the immediate words of the text – what he terms the “hard aspects” – and the submerged meanings, or the “soft aspects.” The reader is continually challenged to dive below the layered surface of this Socratic dialogue in order to apprehend Plato’s purpose. In considering these, we will come to a greater understanding of Plato’s view of the arts in general, and of literature in particular.
With respect to our bearings, it is also important to take into consideration the philosophical themes of Plato’s works. It could be argued that Plato viewed the philosophic endeavor as deeply relational and lived. In his book When Athens Meets Jerusalem, John Mark Reynolds writes that more than anyone before him, Plato “illustrated how philosophy is born in dialogue between passionate people about the biggest issues facing humanity.” Story was an essential element in all of his works as he created myths to breathe life into the central themes of his work. For him, philosophy was not only a search for the good and true but also the beautiful. Reynolds summarizes these themes as follows: “First, there is a world beyond that is eternal, unchanging and utterly good. Second, this world can be known through recollection. Third, this truth would transform if the seeker had the courage to pursue it through dialectic.”
Finally, the cultural and historical context in which Plato wrote is of great importance to understanding the themes of Republic. In 399 B.C., approximately twenty years before it was written, Athens had put his teacher Socrates to death on “charges of irreligion and corrupting the minds of the city’s youth.” Waterfield writes that “Socrates was a great individualist, and was killed for promoting individualism.” Greeks did not hold philosophers in high esteem and they were generally “suspected of peddling private salvation” that undermined the unity of the polis, or city-state. For them, this polis was “an entire culture, religion, and way of life.” Therefore, the good life for the average Greek citizen was inextricably linked to citizenship within the polis. As a result, it was expected that discussions of morality and justice would naturally take on decidedly political and public tones. Any deviation from this convention would be suspect and perhaps viewed as subversive to societal harmony.
Yet it seems as if Plato had inherited the belief of his mentor that a discussion of political philosophy is useless at best, and dangerous at worst, if it does not take into consideration the inner life of the individual, the inner polis. Given the prejudices of his audience, how could he then steal past the conventions and suspicions of his beloved city and teach them a more excellent way? Plato chose to do this by formulating this search for the moral soul in “political terms.” The city with words serves as “a paradigm” whose “primary purpose” is to help his reader “understand an individual.” With our bearings thus aligned, let us take his invitation “to use features of the community he constructs as a map or key for understanding our own psyches” and assess his views on the ways in which the arts can shape and fashion them.
 Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 361.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 363.
 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (New York: Harcourt, 1986), 5.
 Plato, Republic, transl. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), xx.
 Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield, xiv.
 Ibid., xv.
 John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 69.
 Ibid., 174.
 Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield, xii.
 Ibid., xv.
 Reynolds, 150.
 Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield, xvi.
 Ibid., xvii.
 Ibid., xix.