Plato's Republic

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PLAOT ON CENSORING ARTISTS – A SUMMARY

In The Republic, Plato makes a systematic case for censoring all arts. The task of the Platonic philosopher is to take up the “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” [607b] and to assert the State-enforced dominance of philosophy. To that end, The Republic as a whole is a powerful integration of philosophy, religion, education, and politics, and its argument for the political suppression of most art follows from that integrated system.

Rhetorically, Plato uses Socrates’ discussion with Glaucon and Adeimantus to list a series of grievances against poetry, music, and painting:

* A good portrait of the gods and heroes will show them as worthy and exalted beings — but poets such as Homer and Hesiod often tell tales of the gods and heroes fighting and bickering and acting immorally [e.g., 390b-391e].

* A moral citizen’s soul will be composed and dignified — but many musical modes stir us up inside and make us jangled and unsettled [398e-400d.].

* Good people and gods do not deceive — but painters constantly deceive us by trying to make their fake imitations look real [598c, 602d]. (Meanwhile, Plato allows that politicians (and only politicians) ought to be allowed to lie to their citizens [389b-c].)

* A strong and moral man will not grieve the death of a friend by moaning and wailing like a woman — but poets regularly have their characters issue long, pathetic lamentations [387d-388d].

* Courageous men are willing to die in battle — but the poets tell scary stories about the afterlife and make us fear death [386b-d].

* A proper moral of the story will teach that good people meet good ends and bad men meet bad ends [613d-614a] — but tragic poets have will often have bad men profit and protagonists fail and suffer despite their virtues [392b].

* Decent people respect and strive for worthiness — but comic poets appeal to our basest desires and mock and deride everything [e.g., 395d-e, 606c].

And so on.

The Republic’s overall argument for censorship thus combines a particular conception of morality with religion and authoritarian politics. Formalizing the argument:

1. To have a good society, we must have good citizens.
2. To have good citizens, children must be well educated.
3. To be well educated, children must be exposed to good material and shielded from bad material [386a]. 4. So, to have a good society, children must be exposed to good material and shielded from bad material. 5. It is the obligation of the State to educate its citizens. 6. So the State should allow only good material and suppress bad material. 7. The State’s censorship applies also to art.

8. So the State should allow only good art and suppress bad art [401b, 595a].

Evaluating Plato's argument for censoring the arts.

Plato’s philosophy of art seems to be that it has a vital purpose, to illuminate, instruct, and foster virtues. And that its misuse can destroy a culture. Without granting art total control, I would agree that art serves a purpose, and might say, to illuminate values, including by warning of their destruction, by concretizing for contemplation and education. Plato’s primary value of art may be to have the individual serve the state, but he sees it working by serving the individual to make him of value to himself and the state. My primary value of art would be art’s service to the individual, but recognizing that this subsequently serves the community. We both recognize that art may have destructive effects on the individual and, thus, the state. But evidently I would grant individuals more powers of resistance. My additional thought would be that the “state” is an abstraction, not the entity or collective Plato imagined. So, Plato’s epistemology led him astray in evaluating art and justifying censorship. He saw the operation of the state as necessary for the life of the citizens. Its protections and the productivity...
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