The six reasons why Plato condemned poets

 

Plato

In Plato’s totalitarian Republic the educators cultivate “gravity, decorum, and courage.” Literature is censored, and mothers must read their children only authorised stories. Poets, particularly Homer and Hesiod, are not allowed for six reasons.

Firstly, they sometimes show the gods behaving badly, which is not acceptable as the young must be taught that gods are the source of good things. Evil never comes from the gods.

Secondly, the poets teach people to fear death, telling of people who weep over those who have died. This is not acceptable because the young must be warriors and not fear death. For them slavery must be worse than death, and they must be willing to die to avoid slavery. (They would not be fighting for what we call “freedom,” as Plato’s Republic is far from what we consider to be an open and free society.)

Thirdly, laughter is incompatible with the essential virtue of decorum, and poets both may encourage laughter and report, as Homer does, “inextinguishable laughter among the gods.”

Fourthly, the poets promote fun—feasting, drinking, lusting, and playing. The line in the hymn “the shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast” is unacceptable to a Platonist. Fun diverts people from their true vocation.

Fifthly, there must be no stories in which the wicked are happy and “the good” unhappy. The wicked must suffer and the good triumph.

Sixthly, just as it unacceptable to Plato for an actor to play a bad man, so a poet or author could never inhabit a bad person. Plato did at least recognise the impossibility of creating drama in which there were no villains and so banished dramatists as well.

Although Plato spoke of poets, his objections would include not only dramatists but certainly novelists and comedians—and many artists. Somewhat confusingly the two parts of education, which is of great importance to Plato, are “music” and “gymnastics.” By “music” he probably meant something closer to what we call “culture.” I can’t help thinking that like Hitler and Stalin he would not tolerate jazz.

I’ve taken this from Bertrand Russel’s “History of Western Philosophy,” a marvellous book that criticises as well as celebrating philosophers. The book was published in 1946, and Russell saw Plato’s Republic as horribly close to the utopia imagined by the Nazis.

 

 

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