Monday, November 8, 2010

Artists of the Polis

In Book 10 of the Republic, Socrates renews his attack upon poets as mere imitators of imitations of reality. They are not to be trusted, because they do not work from the truest patterns, the Ideas or Forms, but merely from the copies of those true patterns found in the world. This sounds like a very dismissive attitude towards aesthetic objects like poems and statues—as if to say the artist never penetrates to anything essential, but merely copies like a child or a monkey whatever he sees on the surface. It's as if every artist should announce a disclaimer akin to "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV."

And yet the philosopher turned politician is also said to be a kind of artist and imitator. In Book 6, Socrates argues that the philosopher, looking to the true Forms, will become divine and orderly in imitation of the divine and orderly Forms; and that he will not be a "bad craftsman" of the virtue of others, into whom he will impart what he sees (500d).  Socrates argues that people won't resist philosophy so much if they imagine the philosophers to be "painters who use the divine pattern" in bringing about the just city (500e).

This is the important moment many of you were waiting for. Socrates is finally going to tell us something about the relationship between non-philosophers and their philosopher rulers.  The passage is all about the resistance of most people to philosophy, and yet the interaction here is couched in purely aesthetic terms. The city and the character of its citizens are the tablet or canvas on which the philosopher will work his masterpiece:
"...I suppose that in filling out their work they [i.e., the philosophers] would look away frequently in both directions, toward the just, fair, and moderate by nature and everything of the sort, and again, toward what is in human beings; and thus, mixing and blending the practices as ingredients, they would produce the image of man, taking hints from exactly that phenomenon in human begins which Homer too called god-like and the image of god." (501b)

For a moment, we almost seem to reconcile the ideal city with the poet! But besides the disturbing assumption that we will all passively take our parts in this new order, there is deeply troubling language about what to do with things that mess up the pretty picture. The philosophers will take the city and dispositions of the citizens as a tablet
"...which, in the first place, they would wipe clean. And that's hardly easy. At all events, you know that straight off in this they would differ from the rest—in not being willing to take either private man or city in hand or to draw laws before they receive it clean or themselves make it so." (501a; my emphasis)
A bit later he says the philosopher will "rub out one thing and draw in another again, until they made human dispositions as dear to the gods as they admit of being" (501c).  The artistic image is supposed to reconcile people to this project, but this language of erasure is quite unsettling. And later in book 7, our suspicions are confirmed when we hear details about how a philosophical takeover would be accomplished: all over the age of ten will be "sent out into the country," and the children will then be raised in conformity with the philosophers' divine plan (541a).

In the wake of the twentieth century, it is very hard to hear such things said with anything less than utter dismay.  Karl Popper (1902-1994), a notable philosopher of science, reacted with especial vehemence to Plato as he watched a real-world political revolution unfold.  In 1938 his native Austria was annexed to Hitler's Germany, and when he got the news, he immediately set to work on a book that became The Open Society And Its Enemies, a two-volume attack upon the thought of Plato and Marx. Popper admits that the great troubles of modern times "spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous—from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows" (ix). 

In Plato, Popper sees a dangerous radical whose commitment to Utopian social engineering is doomed to bring about catastrophe. The danger lies specifically in his aestheticism, that is, in his desire to bring to life a whole pretty picture of a new and just society. Utopianism harbors the fallacy that a total reconstruction of our social world would lead instantly to a new workable system. This could never happen. "Even with the best intentions of making heaven on earth, it only succeeds in making it a hell—that hell which man alone prepares for his fellow-men" (168).

Popper clearly couldn't think of Plato's political artist without seeing in him another politician with aesthetic pretensions: Adolf Hitler. Hitler had dreams of becoming a painter as a young man, but was rejected by the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. We have to wonder what world history would be like had Hitler been accepted to that Academy. The tragedy of Plato is, for Popper, that his own thinking threw him into the arms of tyrants, while the real Socrates died for his political convictions.
Socrates had refused to compromise his personal integrity. Plato, with all his uncompromising canvas-cleaning, was led along a path on which he compromised his integrity with every step he took. He was forced to combat free thought, and the pursuit of truth. He was led to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence. (200)
You can certainly decide for yourself whether this is a fair characterization of The Republic. Like Plato himself, Popper wrote from a situation of deep depression and dread at the current political scene. But as we finish our reading of this great and irritating work, it's worth acknowledging both the power and the danger of its artistry.

—Richard Armstrong

For further reading:

Karl Popper. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. Princeton UP, 1971.


  1. "... our suspicions are confirmed when we hear details about how a philosophical takeover would be accomplished: all over the age of ten will be 'sent out into the country,' and the children will then be raised in conformity with the philosophers' divine plan (541a)."

    Dismay, indeed. It's not quite fair to Plato, but I cannot help but think of Cambodia's Year Zero, the cities emptied, the people "sent out into the country" for "re-education."

  2. I appreciate these thoughts on Plato because they bring to mind the "fundamental confusion" that we talked about in lecture. The society that Plato wants to bring about with his idea of justice, "that everyone minds his own business," is questionable when the very way the society is created is so appalling. Also, on the note of belonging, how does the society instill an idea of belonging when certain things are ruled out? Taking Confessions into consideration, it sort of makes sense that Plato's ideal society would not have poetry because he seeks the true "knowledge" almost like Augustine seeks things like God that are eternal. The idea of material positions and whimsical poems is that they are only temporary and fleeting and don't fulfill the need for eternity or "being." Even though I can sort of reconcile the idea of poetry being virtually eliminated from such a society, once again I don't understand how he can "wipe the slate clean." I suppose in a completely inhumane and strictly calculating sort of way that would be the best way to create such a radically different society, but still. Anyway, I can see why Popper wasn't too fond of Plato given that particular political climate.

    Megan Aldridge

  3. It is interesting that you again mentioned the idea of poets and what role they play in a society. I wanted to bring in a psychological theory called the SLT (Social Learning Theory). It basically states that we learn new behavior through imitation. As children we begin our lives as blank slates, without any knowledge of behavior or language. However as we age we begin to mimic others and behave like those we see around us. I think that Plato might present an interesting point of removing the poets from society. If the young children were to imitate everything they see and hear, they might also imitate poetry. In Plato’s Aristocracy this however might not be such a good idea. Since poetry usually allows the Lion (spirit) to take over the Multiple Headed Beast (appetite) and the Human(rational). Thus the children might begin to imitate this unstable sense of mind. Eliminating poets might be a precaution in order to further insure that his Aristocratic form of government succeeds.

    Kamil Khanipov