Essay on Poetic Theory

from the Republic

by Plato

Introduction

Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, was a student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. Writing during the mid-4th century, BCE, he founded an academy in Athens, Greece. His philosophical writings are primarily in the form of dialogues (the form became known as the “Socratic dialogue”), where truths are revealed by a series of questions and inferences based on the questions and their responses. In simplified terms, he believed that abstract ideas and truths exist in a place beyond the material objects of the world. The term “platonic” has come to mean pure or lofty. In Books III and X of the Republic, Plato addresses the problem of poets. He deduces that they are imitators of the world, and therefore far from the truth: “the tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth.” The other dangers of poets are that they corrupt youth and incite the passions instead of the faculties of reason. The poet, “with his words and phrases,” is able to convince listeners that he knows what he speaks of: “such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have.” Poetry, including the narratives of others’ lives, appeals to the emotions; it “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.” In Book X, Plato concludes that poetry must be banished from the hypothetical, ideal society; however, if poetry makes “a defense for herself in lyrical or some other meter,” she may be allowed to return from exile. Qualities of usefulness and a “well-ordered State” are emphasized; he adds: “we may further grant to those of her defenders who are lovers of poetry . . . the permission to speak in prose on her behalf: let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?”

Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893) was an Anglican clergyman and educator. His translations of Plato’s Dialogues appeared in 1871. The translations from poetry come from Jowett’s translations of both Plato and Plato’s quotations from others. The numbers in brackets following quotations refer to book numbers.

BOOK III

[participants] SOCRATES–ADEIMANTUS

[Socrates narrates:]

Such then, I said, are our principles of theology—some tales are to be told, and others are not to be told to our disciples from their youth upwards, if we mean them to honor the gods and their parents, and to value friendship with one another.

Yes; and I think that our principles are right, he said.

But if they are to be courageous, must they not learn other lessons besides these, and lessons of such a kind as will take away the fear of death? Can any man be courageous who has the fear of death in him?

Certainly not, he said.

And can he be fearless of death, or will he choose death in battle rather than defeat and slavery, who believes the world below to be real and terrible?

Impossible.

Then we must assume a control over the narrators of this class of tales as well as over the others, and beg them not simply to but rather to commend the world below, intimating to them that their descriptions are untrue, and will do harm to our future warriors.

That will be our duty, he said.

Then, I said, we shall have to obliterate many obnoxious passages, beginning with the verses,

I would rather he a serf on the land of a poor and portionless man than rule over all the dead who have come to nought [Odyssey, 11]

We must also expunge the verse, which tells us how Pluto feared,

Lest the mansions grim and squalid which the gods abhor should he seen both of mortals and immortals [Iliad, 20]

And again:

O heavens! verily in the house of Hades there is soul and ghostly form but no mind at all! [Iliad, 23]

Again of Tiresias:—

[To him even after death did Persephone grant mind,] that he alone should be wise; but the other souls are flitting shades. [Odyssey, 10]

Again:—

The soul flying from the limbs had gone to Hades, lamenting her fate, leaving manhood and youth [Iliad, 16]

Again:—

And the soul, with shrilling cry, passed like smoke beneath the earth [Iliad, 23]

And,—

As bats in hollow of mystic cavern, whenever any of them has dropped out of the string and falls from the rock, fly shrilling and cling to one another, so did they with shrilling cry hold together as they moved. [Odyssey, 24].

And we must beg Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we strike out these and similar passages, not because they are unpoetical, or unattractive to the popular ear, but because the greater the poetical charm of them, the less are they meet for the ears of boys and men who are meant to be free, and who should fear slavery more than death.

Undoubtedly.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

Translated by Benjamin Jowett

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