Some thoughts on the Socratic critique of poetry

In this entry I want to discuss the Socratic critique of poetry and how we might want to respond to it. It should be noted that for Socrates poetry includes music, and plays, so poetry has a much wider ambit for Socrates than what we mean by the term. For the sake of simplicity I will use the Socratic meaning of poetry in this entry.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates critiques the poets for being craftsmen of a kind who merely imitate appearances, rather than capturing the fundamental nature of reality. As a result of the imitative nature of poetry Socrates views the influence of poetry as pernicious as it teaches people to value the wrong things and encourages poor dispositions and character.

The Socratic criticism of poetry would be quite powerful if it was correct and it would force us to reassess the role of poetry in our lives. As a result, the question becomes do we have reasons to reject Socrates criticism of poetry. While poetry might have been a purely imitative art during the time in which Socrates was alive, today to refer to poetry as something that imitates appearances would seem to be an odd characterization of it. With the advent of the Romantic, and Modern traditions of the fine arts, creativity has become a central element of poetry.  The good poet is not one who seeks to imitate appearances in the world, but rather to innovate and express something that has never been said before. It would be hard to say how something like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come was a mere imitation of an appearance, as these two creations seems to be forms of art that break through being an imitation of some appearance and have brought to life something entirely new that has not been seen or heard in the world before. Similarly, one might argue many of the Greek tragedies were such an invention, rather than an imitation of an appearance, although this case seems to be harder to make. Consequently, it does not seem to be the case that poetry as a whole can be characterized as purely imitative so it seems that the Socratic characterization of poetry is not wholly accurate. For the sake of simplicity I will refer to poetry that is not purely imitative as creative poetry.

Now, one way of viewing creative instances of poetry which say something that has not been said before is that these are acts of creation that do not reflect or express something but simply create something new. The act of creation is thus not an instance of trying to reflect some deeper truth, but rather to say something novel. This reading of creative poetry seem vulnerable to a revised Socratic critique as creative poetry on this reading does not capture anything essential about reality; it just creates a novel thing. So, from a Socratic perspective if this reading of creative poetry is correct, creative poetry is equally pernicious to imitative of poetry as creative poetry too fails to capture the genuine features of reality.

One other reading of creative poetry is to see it as the expression of some aspect of reality that has not been seen before, such that creative poetry is a vehicle that allows us to uncover hidden truths. On this reading, creative poetry becomes far less vulnerable to a revised Socratic criticism as creative poetry becomes something that helps us better understand reality in which seems to serve the very purpose that Socrates is most committed to. I am drawn to this reading of creative poetry myself as I very much find that both poetry and philosophy help us understand reality, and tend to see them as complementary, rather than opposed arts. For example, I have learned as much from reading Antigone as I have from Hobbes or Locke. As a result this reading of creative poetry seems promising as it is able to recognize the seeming complementary relationship that exists between philosophy and poetry in helping us understand the world. Consequently, this reading of creative poetry seems to provide us with a fairly compelling response to the Socratic criticism of poetry.




4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the Socratic critique of poetry

  1. I think for Plato, imitation is fine so long as it points away from itself to a deeper reality. After all, he did a lot of imitating (the allegory of the cave being a prime example). His criticism of mere imitation was that it leads nowhere, it points to itself only. So I think you’re right—if a creative endeavor simply creates novelties, it’s under fire in the critique. The interpretation in your final paragraph is more what Plato was after.

    • Thanks for the insightful comment. I am inclined to agree with your reading of Plato, but there are a couple of issue that I am unsure about so I wanted to simply address the explicit Socratic criticism of poetry.

      The issue is that understanding the good for Socrates seems to be a nonlinguistic and consequently a nonrepresentational activity. Theoria or contemplation is not the laying out of a systematic representative knowledge, but some sort of nonlinguistic grasp of the whole. If this is the case how do imitations (a form of representation) lead us to a better understanding of the good? It might be that imitations can be used as a part of a process of instruction that leads us to a better understanding of the good, but the imitations themselves would not necessarily uncover the whole of reality, as the whole can never be grasped in terms of representation. On this reading of Plato imitations can be more or less politically harmful based on what they esteem, but they are made subordinate to an overall process of education, rather than being taken as individual artifacts that reflect reality. Imitations are the hammers of education, rather than something that can offer a more or less true image of reality.

      It is not clear to me which reading of Plato is right, but I struggle between the reading of Plato that you seem to present, and the one I presented above, so I was hesitant to commit to a particular reading in this post.

      • I love this discussion!

        I was too simplistic in saying that images point to a true reality. They are a first step in a complicated series. Every step is on a sort of continuum leading to the idea of the good.

        Yes, indeed, the idea of the Good must be grasped in a different way, a nonverbal, supra-rational way (which is in the Symposium as well, but there the Good is called the Beautiful). I take the divided line in the Republic as the key to understanding the place of images (that’s the section that comes before the cave allegory). So here’s the order:

        1) eikasia: picture thinking.
        2) pistis: belief
        3) dianoia: understanding
        4) noesis: reason (dialectic), the idea of the good in this segment

        And then once the idea of the good is apprehended, one goes back down through the levels, but this time each is infused with the good, so they are understood differently, possibly teleologically (that’s my interpretation, but one I’ll readily abandon as I’m just making assumptions). But before the idea of the good, there is no knowledge.

        So images can either lead to the next level, belief, or they can leave one stagnant. It depends on how you look at them. There are certain kinds of images that point away from themselves, and these are preferred in certain circumstances. Images that point away from themselves invoke paradox, but this is a dangerous place to be in. One must be equipped to handle the paradox. Staying stagnant in the realm of belief is even more harmful than being in the realm of picture thinking. A little education can be more harmful than none at all. (This is where Thrasymachus is, by the way). That’s why there’s the controversial censorship of art. Art must be educational in a two fold way: it teaches the ways and habits of the good for those who don’t have the capacity for that knowledge and it pushes some to resolve the paradox and move up to higher levels. The Republic itself can be read on the very basic level, or it can be seen for all of its paradoxes. The implications are that an artist must have knowledge of the good. So yes, in one sense, images are “hammers of education” yet they must also provide a contradiction to the senses. The contradiction, once resolved, leads to a non-visual reality…not necessarily the idea of the good just yet, but simpler things that one realizes are not contained in the image itself.

        Then there are further paradoxes involved in the study of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. The divided line is itself a problem in these realms. Some have concluded that the two middle lines in the ratio are equal, which is paradoxical! I’m working on the implications of that.

        I could write a whole tome on this topic, as many others have! We mustn’t forget that this city in the Republic is actually an analogy for the soul. Censorship might mean something different when taken to the individual level. It might mean moderating that part of ourselves which reacts to art emotionally, letting ourselves be taken for a ride. Something to consider.

      • This is very interesting. I particularly like your breakdown of the divided line.

        I will have to think about this comment because I do not have anything to add at this point. But thanks again for the insightful comment. 🙂

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