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Reading Guide - Plato

Guide to readings from The Republic, Books II, III, VII and X (Ross, pp. 9-44)
Note: read all of this guide, even if I have not assigned all of these pages. It will help you get the sense of what I have assigned.

In books II & III, Plato is concerned with the education of the guardians, those who will be the rulers of his ideal state (the Republic). He wants to be sure that their character is well formed. He thinks that the stories they hear and the music they listen to helps to form their character. He also thinks that they will become like what they imitate. So he recommends a strict censorship of what they are exposed to. They should not hear stories that glorify immoral behavior. And they should not be exposed to music or stories that will encourage emotional excess. The result (displayed in many examples) is that only two of the seven main musical modes are permitted; and "the poets" (i.e., the makers of tragedies and comedies as well as reciters of traditional epics and other poems) are chased out of the Republic.

The Allegory of the Cave, from Book VII of the Republic, is a vivid metaphor for the main ideas of Plato's philosophy. Compare the inside of the cave with the out of doors. Inside all is dark, confused, and full of misleading imagery that is only a faint copy of the originals to be found outside the cave. Inside are the reality shows, outside is reality. The outside stands for what can be understood by the pure light of reason; the inside is what you get when you are confused by passions and opinions. If you want to live a worthwhile human life, you should get as close to the truth as you can. But once you reach that point, you might want to give back a little to those who are less enlightened. Don't expect them to thank you! (When he says that the prisoners in the cave might actually kill the former prisoner who comes back to set them free, Plato is thinking of the example of his teacher Socrates, who was condemned to death by the citizens of his home city of Athens.)

In book X, Plato's main complaint about several of the arts is that they are imitative. The craftsman copies things without knowing what they essentially are, and does not show us the essence of them. Obviously painting and sculpture do this; but so do drama and other poetry. In the imagery provide by the Allegory of the Cave, ordinary experience itself only connects us with flawed imitations of the Real Thing (for example, only faint shadows of real justice, real beauty, and so on). Becasue they skim the surface off things without understanding their essence, artists are one step further removed from showing us the truth. Yet the arts are emotionally powerful, and can motivate and change us. Hence, they should be severely censored or else excluded from the Republic.

Selections from the Ion
Ion is a rhapsode; he recites poems on special occasions. He says he's the best at reciting Homer, but no good at reciting other poets. If Ion has a skill (an art), Socrates can make no sense of this; a skill of reciting should make you as good at other recitations as at Homer. But Ion is not good at other recitations. Socrates concludes that he does not have a skill, but rather a divine gift. Ion is divinely inspired. (Like miracles, divine gifts are not predictable and don't work according to rules; the gods could easily inspire you to recite Homer and not other poets.)

Socrates seems very sarcastic here. But this "divine inspiration" theory became very popular in later Platonism. The artist, in this view, is one who connects us more directly with the essence of things than our ordinary experience would do. In this form. the theory influences medieval and renaissance aesthetics, for which the poet, musician, sculptor or painter should attempt to represent ideal beauty. In fact it continues into the period of high modern art: Mondrian, Kandinsky, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman could all be seen as (neo)Platonists who are trying to connect us with something transendent.

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