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.