Plato’s Philosophy of Poetry and Moral Truth

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Plato, left, walking with Aristotle, who studied at Plato's Academy. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Plato, left, walking with Aristotle, who studied at Plato’s Academy. Painting by Raphael, Image by the Web Gallery of Art.

Plato’s views on art are problematic for most modern thinkers, due to their inconsistency. According to Plato, all art is a merely an imitation of life, which, in itself, is an imitation of true reality.

In representing the good in art, Plato believed we may seek true knowledge in our illusionary world. However, he condemned the “bad” or “evil” in art, which he believed should be suppressed to avoid corrupting the young.

Plato demanded that art should be morally educational. He despised false representations of the gods, which he also believed corrupt the young. This stance restricts most myths and legends, because there can be no impersonation of bad men.

Can Art Represent Moral Truth?

“The artist’s representation is a long way from truth… merely manufacturing shadows at third remove from reality… a superficial representation of any subject they treat, including human goodness,” says Rosalind Hursthouse in “Truth and Representation,” Philosophical Aesthetics.  

However, as Hursthouse explains, “…painters may not always try to represent superficial appearances, but may indeed try to penetrate beneath them.”


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Can this be true of poetry?  In other words, can poetry realistically depict moral truth and the reality of human experience?

Poems Can Embrace Moral Truth

A simple moral truth embracing common human experience can be found in the lines of William Blake’s poem, A Poison Tree from Songs of Innocence and Experience, published between 1789-1794.  Here are the first and last stanzas of this four-stanza poem:

I was angry with my friend,

I showed my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe,

I showed it not, my wrath did grow.

 ……..

And into my garden stole

When the night had veiled the pole –

In the morning glad I see

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

This is about a bad feeling, a hatred, which is an integral part of human experience, although we, as individuals, may do our best to contain it. The moral truth of this poem is in its openness and honesty, and the need to confront such evil, which might then lead to good.

For us, as human beings, this is a conceptual and psychological reality, for our senses and emotions are real to us. We can learn to deal with them intelligently through reason and reflection. Meaning in artistic representation, in metaphor and allegory, can help us to do this. Ignoring the dark side of our nature does not help us to reason.

Therefore, we must honestly contemplate evil in order to overcome it.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, by Julia Margaret Cameron, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Alfred Lord Tennyson, by Julia Margaret Cameron. Image by the Art Institute of Chicago.

Interpretations of Good

Human beings may differ in their individual interpretations of what is good, however. In his poem, In Memorium, Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) reprinted in Culture and Society in Britain, expresses his feelings about death in an ironical way, describing the reactions of others:

Another answers, “Let him be,

He loves to make parade of pain,

That with his piping he may gain

The praise that comes to constancy.

Plato, according to his theory, would regard these lines as negative and self-berating. In The Republic, he scorns the “pitiful laments by famous men,” preferring to assign them to bad men or to “the less reputable woman characters.”  

On the contrary, however, we might feel that the lines of grief expressed by Tennyson may be cathartic and a comfort to many people, and what is a comfort must, surely, be good. Therefore, Tennyson’s artistic representation must be good.

Plato’s Failed Philosophy

Plato’s words in The Republic on suffering are lacking in empathy: “And what is more, we reckon that the good man’s life is the most complete in itself and least dependent on others. So the loss of son or brother, or of property or what not, will hold the least terrors for the good man, who, when some such catastrophe overtakes him, will mourn it less and bear it more calmly than others.”

Plato’s view, is indeed, a narrow view and one that does not make allowance for human feeling, of which art is an expression. His assertion that art cannot express reality in this world of illusion, but can only resemble it through striving towards good, simply fails to convince as a philosophy.

The assertion fails for many, because it denies what is meaningful to us.

Resources:

Colby, J.M. (Ed) Culture and Society In Britain. (1992). Oxford University Press.

Plato. (The Republic). J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Hursthouse, R. “Truth and Representation” Philosophical Aesthetics. (1992). The Open University.

Wu, Duncan (Ed). (Romanticism, An Anthology). (1994). Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

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