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Plato's Objection to Poetry and Aristotle's Defence

This presentation deals with Greek philosopher Plato's objections to poetry and Aristotle's clarification on the confusion created by Plato. It is said that Plato confused study of morals/ethics with that of aesthetics. Aristotle removed this confusion.

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Plato’s Objection to
Poetry
&
Aristotle’s Defence:
Theory of Mimesis
Department of English
M.K. Bhavnagar University
dilipbarad@gmail.com
Plato’s valuable contribution to
the study of art and literature
• Plato’s theory of Mimesis (imitation): The arts
deal with illusion or they are imitation of an
imitation. Twice removed from reality.
• He was the first who inquired into the nature
of imaginative literature and put forward
theories which are both illuminating and
provocative.
• He was poet – dialogues full of poetic beauty
(dramatic quality).
Plato – the philosopher
• As a moralist Plato disapproves of poetry because
it is immoral, as a philosopher he disapproves of
it because it is based in falsehood.
• Philosophy is better than poetry because
philosopher deals with idea / truth, whereas poet
deals with what appears to him / illusion.
• He believed that truth of philosophy was more
important than the pleasure of poetry.
• Plato’s chief interest was Philosophical
investigations which form the subject of his
great works in form of Dialogues.
• He was not a professed critic of literature and
his critical observations are not found in any
single book. They lie scattered in seven of his
dialogues, more particularly in The Ion, The
Symposium, The Republic and the Laws.
Art – twice removed from reality – illusion!
• According to him all arts are imitative or mimetic in
nature. He wrote in The Republic that ‘ideas are the
ultimate reality’. Things are conceived as ideas before they
take practical shapes. So, idea is original and the thing is
copy of that idea. Carpenter’s chair is the result of the idea
of chair in his mind.
• Thus, the chair is once removed from reality. But painter’s
chair is imitation of carpenter’s chair. So it is twice
removed form reality. Thus artist/poet takes man away
from reality rather than towards it. Thus artist deals in
illusion.
Plato's three main objections:
• Plato's three main objections to poetry
are that
–poetry is not ethical, philosophical and
pragmatic, in other words,
• he objected to poetry from the point of view of
Education,
• from philosophical point of view and
• from moral point of view.

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Plato's Objection to Poetry and Aristotle's Defence

  • 1. Plato’s Objection to Poetry & Aristotle’s Defence: Theory of Mimesis Department of English M.K. Bhavnagar University dilipbarad@gmail.com
  • 2. Plato’s valuable contribution to the study of art and literature • Plato’s theory of Mimesis (imitation): The arts deal with illusion or they are imitation of an imitation. Twice removed from reality. • He was the first who inquired into the nature of imaginative literature and put forward theories which are both illuminating and provocative. • He was poet – dialogues full of poetic beauty (dramatic quality).
  • 3. Plato – the philosopher • As a moralist Plato disapproves of poetry because it is immoral, as a philosopher he disapproves of it because it is based in falsehood. • Philosophy is better than poetry because philosopher deals with idea / truth, whereas poet deals with what appears to him / illusion. • He believed that truth of philosophy was more important than the pleasure of poetry.
  • 4. • Plato’s chief interest was Philosophical investigations which form the subject of his great works in form of Dialogues. • He was not a professed critic of literature and his critical observations are not found in any single book. They lie scattered in seven of his dialogues, more particularly in The Ion, The Symposium, The Republic and the Laws.
  • 5. Art – twice removed from reality – illusion! • According to him all arts are imitative or mimetic in nature. He wrote in The Republic that ‘ideas are the ultimate reality’. Things are conceived as ideas before they take practical shapes. So, idea is original and the thing is copy of that idea. Carpenter’s chair is the result of the idea of chair in his mind. • Thus, the chair is once removed from reality. But painter’s chair is imitation of carpenter’s chair. So it is twice removed form reality. Thus artist/poet takes man away from reality rather than towards it. Thus artist deals in illusion.
  • 6. Plato's three main objections: • Plato's three main objections to poetry are that –poetry is not ethical, philosophical and pragmatic, in other words, • he objected to poetry from the point of view of Education, • from philosophical point of view and • from moral point of view.
  • 7. Why? • It is not ethical because it promotes undesirable passions • It is not philosophical because it does not provide true knowledge and, • It is not pragmatic because it is inferior to the practical arts and therefore has no educational value.
  • 8. His objections • “if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarreling among themselves as of all things the basest, no word should be said to them of the wars in the heaven, or of the plots and fighting of the gods against one another, for they are not true…. • If they would only believe as we would tell them that quarreling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarreling between citizens…… these tales (of epics) must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have allegorical meaning or not.” • Thus he objected on the ground that poetry does not cultivate good habits among children
  • 9. His objections • “The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearance only …. • The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior and has inferior offspring.”
  • 10. • Plato felt that poetry, like all forms of art, appeals to the inferior part of the soul, the irrational, emotional cowardly part. The reader of poetry is seduced into feeling undesirable emotions. • To Plato, an appreciation of poetry is incompatible with an appreciation of reason, justice, and the search for Truth. • In the Ion, he suggests that poetry causes needless lamentation and ecstasies at the imaginary events of sorrow and happiness. • It numbs the faculty of reason for the time being, paralyses the balanced thought and encourages the weaker part of soul constituted of the baser impulses. Hence poetry has no healthy function, and it cannot be called good.
  • 11. Plato • To him drama is the most dangerous form of literature because the author is imitating things that he/she does not understand. • Plato seemingly feels that no words are strong enough to condemn drama. • Plato felt that all the world's evils derived from one source: a faulty understanding of reality.
  • 12. Aristotle • The nature of poetry: Poetic inspiration: Theory of Inspiration: – Aristotle agrees with Plato in calling the poet an imitator and creative art, imitation. He imitates one of the three objects – things as they were/are, things as they are said/thought to be or things as they ought to be. – In other words, he imitates what is past or present, what is commonly believed and what is ideal.
  • 13. Aristotle • Aristotle believes that there is natural pleasure in imitation, which is in-born instinct in men. • It is this pleasure in imitation that enables the child to learn his earliest lessons in speech and conduct from those around him, because there is a pleasure in doing so. • In a grown up child – a poet, there is another instinct, helping him to make him a poet – the instinct for harmony and rhythm.
  • 14. Aristotle • He does not agree with his teacher in – ‘poet’s imitation is twice removed from reality and hence unreal/illusion of truth. • To prove his point he compares poetry with history. The poet and the historian differ not by their medium, but the true difference is that the historian relates ‘what has happened?, the poet, what may/ought to have happened?- the ideal. • Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical and a higher thing than the history, which expresses the particular, while poetry tends to express the universal. Therefore, the picture of poetry pleases all and at all times.
  • 15. Aristotle – Aristotle does not agree with Plato in function of poetry to make people weaker and emotional/too sentimental. For him, catharsis is ennobling and humbles human being. • So far as moral nature of poetry is concerned, Aristotle believed that the end of poetry is to please; however, teaching may be given. Such pleasing is superior to the other pleasure because it teaches civic morality. Therefore, all good literature gives pleasure that is not divorced from moral lessons.
  • 16. Plato’s objection refuted: • Plato says that art being the imitation of the actual is removed from truth. It only gives the likeness of a thing in concrete, and the likeness is always less than real. • But Plato fails to understand that art also give something more which is absent in the actual. • The artist does not simply reflect the real in the manner of a mirror. • Art is not slavish imitation of reality. Literature is not the photographic reproduction of life in all its totality.
  • 17. Plato’s objection refuted: • R.A.Scott-James rightly observes: –“But though he (Poet) creates something less than that reality, he also creates something more. He puts an idea into it. He put his perception into it. He gives us his intuition of certain distinctive and essential qualities.”
  • 18. Plato’s objection refuted: • Plato, again says that art is bad because it does not inspire virtue, does not teach morality. • But is teaching the function of the art? Is it the aim of the artist? • The function of art is to provide aesthetic delight, communicate experience, express emotions and represent life. It should never be confused with the function of ethics which is simply to teach morality. • If an artist succeeds in pleasing us in aesthetic sense, he is a good artist. If he fails in doing so, he is a bad artist.
  • 19. Plato’s objection refuted: • R.A.Scott-James observes: • “Morality teaches. Art does not attempt to teach. It merely asserts it is thus or thus that life is perceived to be. That is my bit of reality, says the artist. Take it or leave it – draw any lessons you like from it – that is my account of things as they are – if it has any value to you as evidence or teaching, use it, but that is not my business: I have given you my rendering, my account, my vision, my dream, my illusion – call it what you will. If there is any lesson in it, it is yours to draw, not mine to preach.”
  • 20. • Similarly, Plato’s charge that needless lamentations and ecstasies at the imaginary events of sorrow and happiness encourages weaker part of soul and numbs faculty of reason. • This charge is defended by Aristotle in his Theory of Katharsis. • David Daiches summarizes Aristotle’s views in reply to Plato’s charges in brief: “Tragedy (Art) gives new knowledge, yields aesthetic satisfaction and produces a better state of mind.”
  • 21. Conclusion: • Plato judges poetry now from the educational standpoint, now from the philosophical one and then from the ethical one. • But he does not care to consider it from its own unique standpoint. He does not define its aims. • He forgets that every thing should be judged in terms of its own aims and objective its own criteria of merit and demerit. • We cannot fairly maintain that music is bad because it does not paint, or that painting is bad because it does not sing. • Similarly, we cannot say that poetry is bad because it does not teach philosophy of ethics. If poetry, philosophy and ethics had identical function, how could they be different subjects? • To denounce poetry because it is not philosophy or ideal is clearly absurd.