Part Three on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

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In Plato’s Cave No.1 by Robert Motherwell, 1972

Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory.  Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded.  In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave.  The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality.  The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention.  The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.”[1]  Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful.  The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations.  Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.”[2]  Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.

Therefore, we cannot overlook the fact that Plato’s critique of art is accomplished by way of art.  He criticizes the poets of his day with poetry.  As has been mentioned, the entire work is profoundly relational, built around the philosophic quest for truth through a dialogue between friends.  Plato employs multiple layers of meaning and rich imagery such as the myth of Er, the cave allegory, and the divided line to convey his view of the cosmos as one that is orderly and discernible through reason and proper education.  The primary difference between Homer and Plato, then, is in their respective views of the world outside the cave.

Perhaps the greatest evidence that Plato’s assessment of the arts in Republic is accurate is our modern age.  As mentioned earlier, Plato was critical of art that created false pictures of reality by relying on the senses alone.  Artistic endeavors restricted to sensual grounds create powerful chains that enslave people in the cave.  Yet, given the pagan philosophy that the world was chaotic and non-rational at its core, such a result was to be expected.  In essence, the pagans doubted the existence of the cave’s exit and the world of order beyond.  This is where the pagan ethos parallels that predominant spirit of the modern world.  Materialistic naturalism has all but destroyed any confidence one might have of escape from the cave.  The world of one’s senses is all that exists with the appetite to survive providing the only end goal in a world stripped of rational causes.  Indeed, one could say that science has reduced the world to the cave, barring any hope of escape by confining reality to the senses alone.  The pagans could only hope for escape into a more shadowy realm of death.  Moderns escape into the nothingness of non-existence.  How has this affected the arts and moral education of man?

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis looks at the consequences of not teaching the young to look beyond this world to order either their reasoning faculty or emotions.  The results are students for whom “the world of facts, without one trace of value and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront each other, and no rapprochement is possible.”[3] Arguably, this is the kind of education that puts asunder what God has meant to join, the union of reason and emotions, instincts and mind, the natural and the supernatural, of which “the chest” or conscience joins in harmony as an “indispensable liaison officer.”[4]  This lack of chest can be seen in the arts today – from the grotesque forms that are mired in the sensual to the point that the senses are deformed, to the bland and utilitarian, overly rationalistic and lifeless forms – both of which end up fracturing and dehumanizing its audience by failing to appeal to the entire person.  The nihilistic undertones once heard in Homer are on full blast today.  In the end, like the artists in Plato’s day, modern art tells lies about its subjects because it fails to understand their essence.  Indeed, many modern artists doubt the very concept of essence, reducing all to the material.

Reynolds writes that while Plato will place all of his emphasis on reason guiding the lower senses, he knew that humans “are not just heads,” but that they “possess spiritedness and passion” as well.[5] This is why many of his dialogues contain mythic elements and allegories.  He ends this journey towards to the just city with a myth in a tacit acknowledgment of this power of story.  His myth of Er is a powerful corrective to the chaos of Homer’s Odyssey, with some of Homer’s characters even making appearances and serving as a commentary on the problems with their original rendering in Homer’s epic.  Translator Allan Bloom writes that Plato doesn’t seek to banish but rather reform poetry, offering a new kind that nourishes “a life of moral virtue and respect for philosophy.”[6]  He writes that though “Book X begins with a criticism of Homeric poetry,” it “ends with an example of Socratic poetry.”[7]

In the end, Plato seems to intuit that goodness, truth, and beauty are more than mere abstractions, and indeed are deeply relational.  He understood the power of the beautiful to lead the soul astray.  Art is all of these things, so souls are instinctively drawn towards it.  His Republic itself is a dramatic demonstration of this in that it is a quest for truth built upon a rich conversation and communion between friends. The dangers arise when the relational and beautiful are divorced from truth and goodness.  For Plato, this is essentially the power and peril of the poets of his day.  Homer and Hesiod were working from within a flawed framework as regards to truth and the good.  One could even argue that their poetry was locked within the cave.  Little has changed today.  Indeed, in some ways, it seems that mankind has been gradually returning to the cave since the Enlightenment, with the scientists rather than poets creating the shadows for a humanity in chains, the cave’s fire being fueled by materialistic naturalism.

Plato’s Republic, with its hard and soft aspects, “leans forward repeatedly and urges” the reader to engage with its characters on their quest for goodness, truth, and beauty.[8]  Recalling the “hidden layers” that “resonate with parts of the reader’s mind,” it offers a well-ordered art of sorts that engages not only the lower appetites and spirited parts of the soul but the intellect, grounded in an unchanging and immutable God.  What will nourish and guard the inner man on his treacherous quest to find and follow the good?  Plato gives us a taste in his Republic.

Part One on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

Part Two on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

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[1] Reynolds, 83.

[2] Ibid., 167.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 30-31.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Reynolds, 119.

[6] Plato, Republic, transl. Allan Bloom, 427.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Reynolds, 70.

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2 thoughts on “Part Three on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

  1. Pingback: Part One on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic” | Along the Beam

  2. Pingback: Part Two on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic” | Along the Beam

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