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



Plato conversing with his students, mosaic from Pompeii, first century BC

The opening dialogue of Plato’s Republic centers on the question of whether or not “morality is beneficial to its possessor – that, in fact, an individual gains happiness by being moral whether or not any external advantages accrue to him.”[1]  Plato has three characters express the general view of the pagans, none of which seem to indicate that morality is an intrinsic good. It is here that the reader gets the first glimpse of Plato’s complaint against the popular poets of his day such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides.  Reynolds notes that the Homeric religion, in particular, “had a tight grip on the Athenian imagination and represented a dark power against which even the love of wisdom seemed scarcely enough protection.”[2] Glaucon and Adeimantus, two of his young questioners, present the case for injustice as told by the poets and storytellers of the day.  This forms a succinct summary of the pagan beliefs about morality against which Socrates must contend.

In essence, the pagans believed that the world was chaotic at its core.  They had no concept of teleology and did not assume that the universe was moving towards good and perfect ends.   Instead, history was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods. The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul.  Out of this despair and skepticism arose a kind of “ethical relativism.”[3]  The world of the senses was the ultimate measure of truth and these being obviously disorderly and conflicting, this was reflected in the epistemology.

Adeimantus states that the poets “unanimously go on and on about how self-discipline and morality may be commendable, but are also difficult and troublesome, whereas self-indulgence and immorality are enjoyable and easily gained, and it’s only in people’s minds and in convention that they are contemptible.”[4] He remarks that these story-tellers then teach that “immorality is more rewarding than morality.”[5]  It is important to note that the ancients viewed the poets as teachers and, concerned with aesthetics as they generally were, still maintained that “the overriding purpose of poetry was didactic.” Such literary endeavors were the means by which the ancients made sense of the world and poets were often hired by rulers to create the official histories of the polis.  They were key contributors to the pagan ethos as a result.

Therefore, the authorities of Plato’s time were the poets, and their art vividly portrayed that virtue was not more rewarding than vice.  This is perhaps difficult for moderns to understand since today the arts tend to be subservient to the sciences when it comes to understanding reality.  Still, as will be discussed later, modern science may indeed have some of the same blind spots as the ancient arts when it comes to its devaluation of philosophy, both lacking “penetration beyond the surface of things to its function or to whether or not it serves some moral purpose.”[6]

Nevertheless, despite the common refrain of their world, the young men intuited that morality is an intrinsic good.  They challenge Socrates to prove that they are indeed correct in this.  Socrates agrees with their intuition and accepts the challenge to prove the benefits of morality.  He then suggests that “perhaps morality will be easier to see if [they] construct a community, describe its political system, and look for morality in this imaginary community.”[7]  They all agree on the necessity of unity for morality in the soul, and this then becomes a key feature of Plato’s philosophy, and one that will be central to his discussion of the role the arts play in his Republic. Anything that threatens the unity must be evaluated with caution. The basic structure of the city that Socrates and the young men construct parallels Plato’s division of the human soul into three main parts:  intellect, will, and appetites.  The counterparts in his imaginary city are the workers/craftsmen (the appetites/desires), the guardians (the will), and the complete guardians (the intellect or reasoning part).  In building the city, the principle of unity can be seen in the requirement that each citizen has only one specialization for which they are responsible.  Because of this specialization, there exists a complexity of conflicting needs such that the unity of the city is threatened.  Destabilizing threats from beyond the city must also be taken into consideration.  All of these work together to lower the chances for harmony (and thus morality) to prevail.

The guardians then are assigned the task to maintain this unity in the midst of the competing needs.  Socrates and the young men determine that these will be a special class within the city with a specific skill set. These guardians must be lovers of “knowledge and learning” and their education must be undertaken with great care to ensure that they will “have a philosopher’s love of knowledge” and will be courageous, able defenders.[8]  Socrates states that “when something young and sensitive is involved,” the utmost care must be taken to control what it is exposed to, for such a mind “absorbs every impression that anyone wants to stamp upon it.”[9]  It is here that Plato begins his controversial evaluation of the arts and its effects upon the education of the guardians.  Reynolds writes that, in a pointed reversal of the real-life charges laid against Socrates, in this fictional city it is the arts that are censored to “prevent the youth from being corrupted,” not philosophy, as it was in the Athens that executed Socrates.[10]

With regards to the guardians, the dialogue proceeds along the path of their education with a view to cultivating in them the necessary virtues to maintain unity.  With Socrates leading, the young men determine the kinds of stories the guardians should be exposed to and what should be censored.  “They must hear only morally sound stories, which will help them gain the appropriate social attitudes, such as respect for their parents, the desire for political unity, and, above all, correct beliefs about God, who is good, straightforward, and unchanging.”[11]  Stories that do the opposite should be excluded from their education.  In particular, Socrates says, stories should be censored that “give a distorted image of the nature of the gods and heroes, just as a painter might produce a portrait which completely fails to capture the likeness of the original.”[12] The goal is to fine-tune the guardians’ senses such that the discordant notes of vice can be quickly detected and eliminated from the city.

Plato recommends a program of very specific restrictions on the kind of arts that will be allowed in the education of the guardians.  These seem harsh if one forgets that this city is imaginary and the means by which Socrates and the young men can determine if morality truly benefits the individual.  Plato understood that culture speaks most directly to the lower appetites and spirited portions of the soul.  In order to safeguard these from external influences that might work against the growth of inner harmony and undermine the role that reason might play in bringing about order, the soul must be trained to love those arts that seek the good.  Again, the goal is “to be assimilated to God,” therefore, one must “be very careful about what kinds of impressions they take in” for these “are a kind of food, and may therefore poison the system.”[13]

There is a potential for misrepresentation in the arts that concerns Plato.  He is working from the premise that goodness is objectively real.  Socrates tells the young men that though things like knowledge and pleasure are good, they are not the good.  In several allegories, we see Plato give literary expression to his concept of the good, although he has Socrates himself hesitate to give an exact description.  Instead, he likens the good to that which gives “intellectual light.”[14]  Socrates says that goodness is that “which gives the things we know their truth and makes it possible for people to have knowledge.”[15]  Importantly, “in this realm it is right to regard knowledge and truth as resembling goodness, but not to identify either of them with goodness, which should be rated even more highly.”[16] The good is like the sun; we cannot look at it directly, but by its light we can see the true essence of things in this world.  According to Plato, this good was necessarily non-contingent, transcendent, and unified.

For Plato then, the task of the artist is to move beyond appearances to the good upon which they are grounded.  It is here that their true essence can be found.  This is a difficult task and one which will require a knowledge and love of philosophy to accomplish.  As Socrates has demonstrated, the Athenian poets have not done so, for they have not valued this goodness for itself.  Instead, they remain at the level of what he calls mere representation, creating copies of copies of objects in this incomplete, contingent realm without ever considering their essence or the ultimate good that gives them form.  In doing this, they deform the audience’s minds, turning them away from true knowledge to distorted and imperfect forms. [17] This, in turn, deforms the soul.

Poets such as Homer and Hesiod imitate vice and virtue, “using words and phrases to block in some of the colours of each … although all [they understand] is how to represent things in a way which makes other superficial people, who base their conclusions on the words they can hear, think that [they’ve] written a really good poem … set to meter, rhythm, and music.”[18]  Socrates then notes that there is enough truth in such representations to capture the senses, “but when the poets’ work is stripped of its musical hues and expressed in plain words,” its penetration will be shown to be inadequate.[19]  Yet there is enough rhetoric to charm the senses such that without properly molded guardians, disorder and chaos will be introduced into the soul.

Most importantly, by confining truth to the senses, these poets imprison souls in this world.  For Plato, the material realm is one that is in constant flux and change.  It is a domain of contingency and imperfection.  Because he intuited that goodness must be immutable and complete, he surmised that this world was one of becoming rather than sheer, unadulterated being.  This world could be likened to shadows.  When these shadows are used to build a view of virtue, vice, and the gods, this view will be shadow-like – disorderly, unpredictable, and imperfect.  Ultimately, their poetry will cut off free-thought, for it will produce powerful images that appeal to man’s senses in a world in which he is powerless to rise above them.

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

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


[1] Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield, xvii.

[2] Reynolds, 93.

[3] Reynolds, 52.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield, 344.

[7] Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield, xvii.

[8] Plato, Republic 375e.

[9] Ibid. 377b.

[10] Reynolds, 103.

[11] Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield, 70.

[12] [12] Plato, Republic 377e.

[13] Plato, Republic, transl. Robin Waterfield xxiv.

[14] Reynolds, 165.

[15] Plato, Republic 508e.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. 377d.

[18] Ibid. 601b.

[19] Plato, Republic 601b.

[20] Reynolds, 83.

[21] Ibid., 167.


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

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