Plato: “The Republic” and its Censors (1)

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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10 Responses

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    In my philosophy of religion class in college, my professor was of that minority of scholarship that believed that the Republic was not meant to literally describe the structure of an ideal state, but rather used the state as a metaphor for ordering one’s own life (putting philosophy at the top, etc.). Are you aware of this school of thought on the Republic? I’d be interested in your comments on it.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      @Alex Knapp, Yeah, absolutely. It’s totally fascinating to think of the whole text as a description of how to order your life and soul under the metaphor of a city. In fact, the heart of the thing is a comparison between the different types of souls and types of states.

      It’s hard to me say for sure if the sections on ordering society are really all metaphorical; but even if they’re not, I definitely think there’s something to the fact that all of the suggestions on how to order society are rooted in creating the sort of state that facilitates the development of an ideal soul. Usually, when you read texts about the ideal state, the motivation is establishing freedom or security or improving on the mistakes of the current society. With Socrates, the whole motivation is what will be best for the spiritual life of certain individuals. This is where his calls for censorship come from- he’s really calling for people not to be misled towards spiritually unhealthy thoughts or behavior by bad art. And certainly, you could flip that around and take it as a suggestion on how to live your own life.

      So, I’m always a bit skeptical when people talk about the “real” way to read a text, but I definitely can see where people are coming from on that idea.Report

    • Kurt Englehart in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      I thought that was the point of the book.Report

  2. Paul B says:

    I don’t have anything to add about the Republic, so I’m just going to throw out some pure speculation on mimesis.

    To use Greek painting as an example, there’s a pretty clear trajectory from abstraction in the Geometric age towards realism in Classical Athens — with a culmination of sorts in the famous contest between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Now obviously not even a painter infinitely more skilled the Zeuxis can depict the Form of the Curtain, but I suspect that Plato’s censors would be inclined to credit that kind of hyper-realism for at least approaching the ideal more closely than cruder efforts.

    (Then again, the Islamic prohibition against depicting the human form led Muslim artists to take up geometric abstraction and ornamentation again.)

    Anyway, with that thought in mind I pose the question of what Plato’s censors would do about modern forms of art–impressionism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism–that abandon the pretense of realism entirely. Are they allowed because they’re not going to lead us away from the forms, or are they forbidden because they introduce a dangerously distorted way of looking at the world?Report

    • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B, It’s really hard to say, isn’t it? From the discussion in the text, it seems like they wouldn’t understand, say, Pablo Picasso. But his paintings would still seem to get around the problem of mimesis being misleading.

      It also seems like Socrates discusses two different things- the subject matter and the style- as if they were one. He goes on and on about art that depicts inappropriate subject matter, seemingly calling for more encomiums on great men, and then in the last book, the characters agree that the problem with art is that it imitates, which would seem to apply to nearly everything. I thought that maybe a poet describing their own feelings would be okay, and so maybe expressive art in general… but that’s not clear.

      So, it seems like Francis Bacon would be further from the truth, and therefore not misleading, and still get banned for the subject matter.

      It’s also really interesting that they mention a poet depicting his own words, and yet the idea of art as expression is completely unknown to them. Maybe this comes from the core of the soul deriving from these universals, as opposed to be being especially personal. What would an artist have to express?Report

    • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B, Incidentally, where does the Islamic prohibition on images of the human form come from? I always assumed it was in line with the Old Testament ban on graven images. Are there neo-platonist ideas there too?Report

      • Paul B in reply to Rufus says:

        @Rufus, The Quran condemns idolatry probably even more emphatically than the OT. A ban on depicting Muhammad follows pretty directly, but I’m not really sure how you get from there to no pictures of anything at all.

        Good point about the lack of distinction between subject matter and style. It’s a bit similar to the way poetry and music were wrapped up together, rendering certain poems suspect just by virtue of the modes they were sung to.Report

        • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

          @Paul B, I’ve read a modern sufi writer who said that the human image is veiled in Islam, apparently connecting the prohibition on images of the human with the chador, because it has power and must be kept sacred. But he didn’t make it clear why that applies to all images of man, nor why men wouldn’t be veiled in real life.Report

  3. sam says:

    “Maybe the first thing to say about The Republic is that most of us would not want to live there. ”

    The initial and interesting question is always, Would Socrates want to live there? And, judging from the beginning of the book, the answer is No. I was amused when I first read it that in response to the question, Socrates initially describes a bucolic little village out in the boondocks. Oh no, says Glaucon, not that. We want a description in terms of the city we know, with games, and theater, and — though Glaucon didn’t say it — lotsa sex. Ah, says Socrates, you want a description in terms of the fevered city. The “fevered” city. Hmmm.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to sam says:

      @sam, There’s a lot of things about that which amuse me. People don’t always get to how funny Plato can be. My favorite part of the text, which always makes me laugh, is when they’re discussing in detail how their society will not allow for writers to “mimic” the speech of their characters, and why that’s a terrible thing to do- in a text that is doing exactly that! I’m sure Plato must have been pulling our legs. Another funny moment is when they press Socrates on his comment that children and women will be common property and he basically says, “Oh, yeah, I was afraid you’d ask me to explain that…”Report