Plato has a simple objection to (many) poets, which is that they tell lies about the gods (as I write, the Islamic world is in uproar, synthetic or not, over some cartoons mocking the Prophet, or his legacy, so the idea is hardly unfamiliar). In Greek myths, and in Homer himself, the gods take on different shapes. They are a pretty rough bunch. Zeus, the top god, is prone to rape and to what we would call paedophilia. He constantly cheats on his wife Hera. The gods scheme and interfere with each other's plans. They are deceived and deceiving, prey to human passions like lust, anger, jealousy and envy, and are generally portrayed as carrying on much as people do. Plato is shocked by this on two counts. First, the gods are presented as less than perfect. And second, and perhaps more importantly, they are presented as changing.
It is here that Plato first strikes a note that becomes central later: since the divine nature is perfect it cannot be changed by external agency. But equally, it cannot change itself without changing for the worse. (Plato does not consider the possibility that God may change from one perfect state to another just as perfect. He thinks of perfect as meaning uniquely perfect, not first equal.)
This is the pregnant principle that whatever is truly good is unchanging. For the moment we simply note it, but it has incalculable consequences, including the deep and dark theory of knowledge in the central books.
Plato returns to the banishment of the artists in the last book of Republic, where his case is filled out by material from the central books. Here, earlier in the work, his focus remains the mutability of artistic representation. Not only do the gods change, but there is also the poet's ability to conjure up different characters with different thoughts, and the actor's ability to portray them in dramatic representations. Art is mobile and representations shift and change. It is wild and free. Plato's leading objection to this is the 'principle of specialization' that we have already met: the principle that regards each person as good for one thing only. A good man, then, voices good thoughts, and cannot be skilled at voicing the thoughts of a bad character.
This claim will probably strike most of us today as pretty silly. We cannot infer back from the character of Iago or Hamlet to the character of the actor playing them, nor to the character of Shakespeare who puts their words in their mouths. Even if we are mildly attached to a principle of professional specialization, in amateur dramatics we are not surprised if a shoemaker can act the part of a farmer. We might be more surprised if he could not.
But in Plato's mind something sinister remains, as if we called the theatre magical but gave the word its full disturbing weight. Perhaps rather than saying that he bases his view on the principle of specialization, we might call it a principle of purity: a monolithic view about integrity in the self, seeing pure unspotted integrity as inconsistent with even the temporary ability to act or voice anything other than its own nature. This may not be quite so alien to us as it sounds at first. There is after all something uncanny about the capacity to enter into the minds of others, so perhaps there is a grain of truth to the principle of purity, enough at any rate for us to understand comedian W. C. Fields's remark, 'show me a great actress, and you've seen the devil'. Nevertheless, the idea that drama is so bad for actors that the community ought to forego the pleasures it provides probably struck Plato's readers, just as much as it strikes us, as more than outlandish.
We can sympathize more with Plato if we transpose the idea, wondering not whether artists should be banned, but whether there is a need to ban dramatic artistry from the elite. A canker in the community that particularly frightened him was 'if the people who guard a community and its laws ignore their essence and start to pose' (421a; other translations simply have them believed to be seeming to be guardians when they are not). Here, I expect, many of us may give a shiver of recognition. We can all name posing guardians, and share Plato's view that they can destroy the community. Anything that encourages posing in public life, or leads those in public life to become skilled at posing, is a threat. We hope for purity. But, again, it is not so much acting ability that worries us as insincerity. The first is only a problem in so far as it conceals the second.
Before we mock Plato we may also reflect on our own consumption of art. The average American eighteen-year old, it is said, is likely to have watched something like 18,000 murders on TV. Although social science finds it almost impossible to speak with one voice about anything, there is good evidence that this relentless diet not only desensitizes young people, but makes them more fearful (and for that matter, more stupid). Dramatic representations give us patterns which we can follow, and then the question of how far children or grown-ups do follow them is an empirical one. Studies appear to vary, and no doubt the contagion varies with many different factors, but it is hard to believe that there is none at all. Perhaps Plato is right and our minds are imitative, in which case the doings of other people and the nature of other minds are also contagious. We cannot patronize Plato from a position of wisdom or success in knowing how to feed people's minds. If he were to talk not about the exile of the poets, but the exile of the entertainment executives, he would find a more sympathetic hearing.
We are much more inclined to worry whether people's minds can be harmed by too much exposure to what is bad, than to hope that they can be improved by a monocultural diet of what is good. But totalitarian states have indeed tried to control the imaginations of their subjects, by censorship and by promoting only an 'official' art in which nothing is depicted except the virtuous labours of the proletariat or the happy unity of the people in the relevant utopia. We tend to find the art dismal and the ambition fairly laughable, but living as we do in a world of mad fanaticism and routine incivility, even liberals may wonder if freedom has tipped into licence, and we have gone too far.
In other dialogues, notably Phaedrus and Ion, Plato associates artistic inspiration with divine madness: 'beautiful poems are not human, not even from human beings but are from the gods'.3 The sentiment is at first sight flattering to the poet, and became a staple of Romanticism. It is the basis of Shelley's A Defence of Poetry, where the divine inspiration substitutes for reason as the measure of the ascent of the soul, and this in turn inherits centuries of Christian appropriations of Plato, equating the inspiration that is the goal of the soul's ascent with mystic union with God. But as we shall see in more detail later, it is not true to Republic, for which there is still ambivalence in the air. In Ion divine madness, possessed by the orator and reciter of verses, is expressly contrasted with knowledge which is the true result of Plato's own drama of ascent – indeed, the dialogue ends ironically, with Ion encouraged to preen himself for being inspired, and not too bothered about the fact, which Socrates has established, that he does not know anything of what he is talking about. In Republic the goal of the soul's ascent is unambiguously knowledge, not rapture.
We could even see Plato, at this point, as being on the side of the reality-based community. For being 'carried away' may be in some sense a divine state, but it is not the state of someone who is telling it how it is, or who is to be trusted or followed. We only have to think of the endless ills inflicted on poor humanity by orators, charismatics, seers of all kinds, in order to share Plato's mistrust. Politicians may all be bad, but visionary politicians with holy righteousness draped around them are the worst.
We may also feel rather differently about the banishment of the artists if we return to the idea that the well-ordered state is a model of the well-ordered soul. Perhaps the truly well-ordered mind would not have the capacity to enter into the doings of the fallen. In a poignant moment towards the end of Othello (Act IV, scene 3), Desdemona asks the more worldly Emilia if there can really be women who would cheat on their husbands, the implication being that her purity is so complete that she finds it hard to credit that there could be. If the analogy is between the presence of artistic representation in the state and the presence of vivid representations in the mind, then Desdemona is an example of Plato's ideal. She can truly say, as it were, that 'the thought never crossed my mind'. True, her purity has something inhuman about it. We might be inclined to scoff at the idea that it is ever found, human nature being what it is. But this need not bother Plato. He is talking of an ideal of purity, not the fallen human nature we see all around us. He is talking of a kind of saintliness.
The elite, then, must be brought up on a monocultural diet, only acquainted with the fine and the good. They are innocent of bad things, and that includes being innocent of representations of bad things. There is no value in any expansion of their imaginations in that direction. This may still strike us as offkey, and the reason connects with the absence of sympathy in Plato's conception of the virtues. We might think that however saintly Desdemona's innocence is, a gentle induction into the way of the world, such as might be provided by drama and fiction, would be an improvement. It would enable her to understand and sympathize with a wider range of human experience (it would also have enabled her to understand what was wrong with her husband in time to avoid the catastrophe). If Plato's ruling elite are brought up so that they literally cannot understand cowardice, disloyalty, greed, jealousy, and the whole range of human dispositions, then it is hard to see how they are going to be much good at ruling.
This uncovers a fundamental divide between the Classical aesthetic and the Romantic worldview. Classicism insists on a complete separation between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, light and darkness, reason and passion. The good person is on the side of the one, and has as little as possible to do with the other. In contrast, the Byronic soul, the Romantic hero, experiences everything. He is acquainted with crime, passion and darkness. Christianity is ambivalent about this. It maintains an ideal of purity. But in the myth of the Fall, Christianity insists on the double nature of man, and Romanticism follows it. The moral reason that God comes to earth in Christianity is to share in human weakness – the very reason why Plato's embodiment of the ideal, whether in political or moral terms, must keep away from it. It is very hard for us to imagine how, by keeping away from it, the guardians can be anything human, let alone ideal exemplars of humanity.
Republic's preoccupation with the education of the elite continues through some rather tedious discussions of which kind of music should be allowed them, and which kind of diet. They must not concentrate exclusively on physical sports, or they become brutal. The elite should avoid hypochondria, and confine their listening to something rather like military bands. The details are of little interest, but in each case the same principle of purity is involved. The best is not to be contaminated by the worst. Proportion, orderliness and lawfulness must permeate all their experience (424e). This does not, however, mean that the state must legislate for every nuance of behaviour. Order flows naturally from the right, pure, uncontaminated education. One of the attractive things about Republic is that Plato insists on the supremacy of education over law. If a society finds it has to issue anti-social behaviour orders to whole sections of its young people—the British government's current strategy for improving them—it has already lost.
Excerpted from Plato's Republic: A Biography by Simon Blackburn. Copyright 2006 by Simon Blackburn. Reprinted by arrangement with Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.