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Are any of Plato's reasons for banning the poets from the just city defensible?
Plato's attitude toward poetry, most fully expounded in his Republic, is one that we might intuitively consider unusual, since it both emphatically denounces poetry, asserting that it has no place in his ideal city, whilst acknowledging the power that poetry and the arts hold over human emotion, and whilst being explicated in language itself very poetic. Plato spends much of the Republic propounding and explaining his notion of the kallipolis, his ideal and truly just city, by which he intends to demonstrate that his theory of justice can be put into practice on a social, political and ideological level. Poets, however, are banned from this city, at least until they present a satisfactory case for their re-admittance, and Plato presents three largely interlinking reasons for this rejection: that imitation in poetry is essentially deceitful; that the distancing effect of artistic context has the potential to corrupt; and that poetry appeals to and nurtures a part of the mind that subverts our rationality. We should precede our exploration of these reasons by considering what we will take Plato to have meant by 'poetry', and outlining Plato's goals in the Republic toward which his challenge against poetry is intended to contribute. I will go on to conclude that Plato's denouncing of poetry is based in large part upon the notion that the portrayal of character flaws and reprehensible human behaviour inevitably engenders such behaviour by those portraying it in their real lives, and that since it is not at all clear that this is the case, we can defensibly assert that Plato has not shown that poetry need be banned from his kallipolis. This having been said, he is arguably justified in demanding that poetry meet philosophy on its home ground, and present a comprehensive argument and description of the value of poetry to human personal and societal life, since it is unclear what role poetry does indeed serve. When Plato talks of 'poetry', he uses the term in a manner dissimilar to our use of the term today. In Plato's Greece, poetry was almost exclusively a performance art, and private reading of and contemplation upon poetry was the preserve of a handful of intellectuals 1. This is an important point for us to bear in mind, since a large part of Plato's distrust of poetry results from its 'theatricality', and the imitative performance that he suggests is a corrupting influence on the performers. Given the vast gulf between what was considered to comprise 'the arts' in the time of Plato and what we would consider to fall into this category now, it is at times difficult to be fully certain of what forms Plato has in his sights, since the terms 'music', 'poetry' and 'arts' are used almost interchangeably throughout the relevant sections of the Republic. Indeed, whilst he begins his argument in Book X of the Republic intending to justify the prohibition of 'mimetic' poetry - where mimetic should be understood to mean 'image-making' or 'representational', by the end of the argument it is arguable that he has extended its scope to cover all poetry, and indeed at no point does Plato clearly distinguish between mimetic and non-mimetic poetry. With this understanding of the at-timesamorphous nature of Plato's terminology, we should begin to examine Plato's reasons for banning poetry from his just city. Plato's main aim in the Republic is essentially to show that justice is in everybody's best interests, because it is necessary for true happiness. Plato endeavours to develop an account of the ideal city, the kallipolis, to show how this justice to be achieved and realised on a political and social level. Plato, through 1 G Ferrari, Plato and Poetry, in HB Nisbet et al (eds.), The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, CUP (1989)
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