Plato's attack on the art of poetry in his The Republic is one of the oldest philosophical debates. It certainly has meaning still today in the midst of debates on censorship, and also on considerations of the value of certain genres of writing. That certain discourses such as history and law disparage texts for their supposed lack of truthfulness and correspondence to reality is not altogether removed from Plato's charges issued in Books II, III, and X.
It is generally acknowledged that Plato's arguments in Books II and III act more as a prelude to the argument in Book X, rather than as self-sufficient indictments of the poetic form. It is only after Plato has developed his psychological theory of the triparite soul that he is able to offer a complete presentation of the vices of poetry. I will here offer a brief description of these arguments, without any critical treatment. Below are a number of key quotes from The Republic, which constitute a great deal of Plato's diatribe against poetry.
In Book X, Plato gives at least two different arguments for the banishment of poetry from his ideal State. The first argument is ontological and moral, while the second argument is based on the psychology developed earlier in The Republic (between Book III and Book X) and a corresponding moral theory.
The first argument is best understood within the context of Plato's theory of Forms. An object in our everyday world is actually a copy of a divine and Ideal Form which is the truest and most perfect exhibit of the object. Any table at which we sit is possible only as an imperfect copy of the ideal Form of a Table which was fashioned by God or some other such ideal and perfect activity. A table, then, is removed from the truth by at least one degree. Further, we generally do not have a proper apprehension of the true value and perfection of any particular table. Rather than viewing the table as it actually is, we treat it as an appearance, and so the common (non-expert) experience of a table is twice-removed from the truth. Lastly, it is these appearances of objects that artists such as painters and poets seek to imitate. Their imitations, then, are a long way off the truth, says Plato: they are thrice-removed. This is the argument that culminated around 597e in Book X. The ontological fact that poetry is so distanced from truth implies that poetry is contemptible only if we also adopt the moral premise that knowledge is virtuous, which Plato certainly did insofar as it is one of Socrates' more famous maxims The first argument, then, depends not only on this ontological theory (and the corresponding theories of correspondence and representation implied), but also on the moral equation of knowledge, truth, and the good.
The second argument is more complicated and can only fully be understood within the context of Plato's psychological theory which carves the human soul into three parts. To be brief, this psychology holds that the passional and emotional aspect of the human soul is the lowest, and most contemptible part. It is argued around 605a in Book X that the poet, like the painter, is concerned with the inferior aspects of the soul. And, not only is poetry so devoted, but it also thereby damaging to the higher elements of human activity, divine contemplation of the Forms, i.e., the one and only true philosophy, or wisdom-loving. This is 'the heaviest count' against poetry, that it induces us to our emotional side, thereby denying our rational activity: "it feeds and waters our passions" (606e). The psychological location of poetry in the lower parts of the human soul is alone not sufficient to condemn poetry. Like the ontological argument, we also require a moral component that expresses condemnation for the lower parts of the soul. Again, that this is Plato's own moral position is not at all surprising given his love of order, proper government, and the soul's highest activity: philosophic contemplation.
Below are some selected quotes from The Republic of Plato on the ancient quarrel poetry and philosophy, and the values of poetry, imitation (or mimesis), and lying or falsehood in general.
" ‘Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad.’
‘Of what tales are you speaking?’, asked Adeimantus... ‘And what fault to you find with them?.
‘A fault which is most serious’, replied Socrates, ‘The fault of telling a lie, and, what is more, a bad lie.
‘But when is this fault committed?’
‘Whenever an erroneous representation is made of the nature of gods and heroes,--as when a painter paints a portrait not having the shadow of a likeness to the original.’ " (377b, Book II).
"A young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts." (378e, Book II).
"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 honour the gods and their parents, and to value friendship with one another" (386a, first sentence of Book III).
"Again, truth should be highly valued; if, as we were saying, a lie is useless to the gods, and useful only as a medicine to men, then the use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians; private individuals have no business with them. Then if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the philosopher kings should be the persons" (389a, Book III).
"Of the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry: the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received" (595a, first sentence of Book X).
"All mimesis are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them" (595a, Book X).
"The Aeschylus is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is Plato's ontology from the king and from the truth" (597e, Book X).
"When we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human, virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet, we ought to consider whether here also there may not be an illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations Plato's theory of the Forms from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities?" (598e, Book X).
"The real artist, who know what he was imitating, would be interested in realities and not in imitations; and would desire to leave as memorials of himself works many and fair; and, instead of being the author of encomiums, he would prefer to be the theme of them" (599b, Book X).
"Must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures" (600e, Book X).
"And now we may fairly take the poet and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth--in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into Plato's theory of government, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implans an evil constitution,k for her indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small--he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth" (605a, Book X).
"But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our accusation--the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed), is surely an awful thing.
Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast--the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most...
If you consider that when in misfortune we feel a natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under control in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the poets;--the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s; and the spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in praising and pitying any one who comes telling him what a good man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious and lose this and the poem too? Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own...
In all affections poetry 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 eudaimonia and virtue" (605c, 606a, 606e, Book X).