Plato: “The Republic” and its Censors (1)
The Republic is an exceedingly difficult text to write about. This is because it’s that rarest of books: one that everyone calls a must-read, and that they actually have read. Gallons of ink have been spilled on Republic exegesis, and at least a few cupfuls went to a good cause. Meanwhile, undergraduate professors seem to agree that, if their students only read one work by Plato- and even that might be wishful thinking- it should be this one. So, to sum up, a good many people have read the Republic and there is likely nothing new or interesting that might be written on the text at this point.
But that’s never stopped me before! I do think this text needs to be broken up into a few discussions on different themes because it is so multifaceted, and I think this approach might suit a group as garrulous as this one. I’m a bit worried about this project turning into Sparknotes anyway. So, if you’ve somehow not read The Republic yet, well, stop dicking around on the Internet and read it, so that we may begin.
Maybe the first thing to say about The Republic is that most of us would not want to live there. A sort of thought experiment, Socrates details, in the text, an ideal republic. He follows a number of thoughts to their logical conclusions and ends up with a state that is entirely rational- and terribly so. Comparisons of Plato’s republic to totalitarianism are a bit overstated; yet there is something disconcerting about the thing- it has an overabundance of clean and neat lines that is disconcerting to anyone living after the 20th century. No human being is completely rational, so ideal states tend to read a bit like the sort of place only a technocrat could call ‘home’. And we should note that Socrates probably couldn’t have survived in this ideal state either, although neither could he live in the real Athens.
The most serious problem though is that we can reassure ourselves that this is only an idealized city; but for Plato the pure Idea is more real than any actual city. His city isn’t flawed- we’re just too flawed to get it right. And we have to ask ourselves if he isn’t on to something here- if we’re too imperfect to create a pure copy of beauty or goodness on earth, it’s entirely possible that our republic is just a bastardized copy of the real thing that we’ve grown accustomed to. In other words, we might just be deceiving ourselves.
Which brings us to the question of art. What do we make of Socrates’s stated preference for a board of censors to protect society from morally destructive types of art?
As is so often the case with these sorts of things, he first talks of establishing “a board of censors” to protect the children during their education. In order to provide them with good models, the poets must portray the gods correctly. First, the gods cannot do harm. “The gods are only sources of good,” so poets should be forbidden from depicting the gods performing evil actions. Also, they cannot show the gods as quarreling, changing form or lying. This means that much of Homer would be gone. This idea shocks us and it would have shocked his contemporaries as well.
It’s not just the gods that matter. The people must be strong and brave. So, depictions of death and the afterlife must be heavily monitored, and depictions of humans laughing violently, mourning, crying or lying are verboten. Heroes must be heroic! “We will not have them trying to persuade our youth that the gods are the authors of evils, and heroes are no better than men.” In fact, art of any sort must not depict vice, intemperance, meanness, or any other sort of moral deformity. Art must appeal to the highest part of the soul- the reason- as opposed to the two lower- will and appetite- and draw us upwards and upright. Artists should avoid mimesis (imitation of others), and restrict themselves mostly to poetic exaltation of great men. Propagandists should apply within.
In Book X, Socrates essentially rejects imitative poetry from the republic. Everything we create is, by his estimation, already the imitation of an eternal and absolute Idea made by God. A carpenter, therefore, makes an imitation of the Idea (or Form ) of a table. However, an artist (specifically a tragic poet) is “thrice removed from the truth”: he’s creating a copy of a copy. “The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he only knows appearances.” He is deluded and thereby deceives. A poet can leave behind a true record of himself, of course. Or, he can take the path of Homer (and Plato!) and depict others by imitation, such as attributing statements to them. This is untrue and misleading. Moreover, depictions of the passions and irrational behavior are simply more popular than depictions of moderate men, so he will likely write them. Already box office matters. Even Homer, who Socrates admires greatly, is a threat to the youth.
Socrates evokes the age-old battle between poets and philosophers (at this point, we’d be permitted to imagine the wimpiest action film ever). The reason poets are dangerous is because they lead the soul towards illusion, while philosophers lead the soul towards truth. Note the soul, which Socrates calls immortal and unchanging, is still somehow marked by bad art. This is because bad art leads us to bad behavior, which marks our soul and for which we are punished in the afterlife. So, censoring art is a matter of preserving spiritual integrity (for others).
Something has always troubled me about my own response to this argument. As a good libertine, I’ve always been opposed to censorship, or more specifically, I’ve been opposed to letting people act as censors. This hasn’t changed. But, when I read attacks on Plato’s position (and often agree with them) it occurs to me that it’s easier for me to take this stance because I somehow think it’s indifferent what sort of art we’re exposed to. It’s just personal tastes and so forth. In other words, I underestimate the power of art in comparison to Socrates. To me, it makes no difference if you listen to Bach or 50 Cent, read Thomas Aquinas or violent pornography, because it’s all a matter of choice. (I’m not quite that glib, but you get the point.)
The problem I have is this seems somehow like a very naive diminishment of art. If a child witnesses a car accident, we have reason to believe that new neural pathways will be created in response to the event. That is, the architecture of the brain will be altered. However, as a child, I watched every horror/gore film I could find at “The VHS Den”, with great glee*; my nervously hopeful assumption is that this did nothing to alter my neural pathways or brain architecture whatsoever. I don’t feel demented anyway.
I don’t agree with Socrates about exiling poetry- and it has to be pointed out that Plato is probably, at least ironically, aware that ‘The Republic’ itself would be removed from the republic. And I suppose the best argument against censorship is the fact that we simply don’t know what effects art has on us and can thus scarcely judge for others. But I still wonder if the censorious Socrates doesn’t have a much greater respect for the power of art than those of us who think it’s all the same in the end.
1. There’s much to The Republic- next I’d like to discuss the soul, and how the distinction between Being & Becoming is elaborated here. Fans of Being or Becoming should tune in. (‘Same canonical time, same canonical station!’)
2. * I’m still amazed at the things my parents let me watch as a child. I distinctly remember watching this unspeakably disgusting scene of a “possessed” woman regurgitating her own intestines when I was about 7. Well, of course, I would remember watching that. My parents were fine with that- they just didn’t want us to see Flashdance due to it’s positive depiction of stripping!