Plato; Poetry and the Formal Structure of the Republic

M. A. R. Habib

It is only toward the end of the Republic that Socrates mentions “an ancient quarrel” between philosophy and poetry (Republic, 607b). Yet this conflict clearly emerges in the opening pages not only as Plato’s starting point but also as a structural premise of 24 his text. Before Socrates offers his own account of justice he is made to hear a number of other, more popular, definitions. In characteristic dialectical strain, the Socratic version is cumulatively articulated as a refutation of those popular assessments, finding its very premises within their negation. Hence what is at stake is not simply an impar- tial pursuit of the meaning of justice argued directly from first principles, but rather a power struggle, where the historical claims to authority of philosophy and poetry clash. Through this dialectic, the status of poetry as usurper of the throne of wisdom, and especially of popular wisdom, is cumulatively exposed.5 The claims of the individual speakers emerge as mouthpieces of poetic authority. Socrates is arguing with a man called Polemarchus over the definition of “justice.” Polemarchus invokes the “wise and inspired man” Simonides in arguing that justice is the rendering to each his due. This provokes Socrates into saying that it “was a riddling definition of justice . . . that Simonides gave after the manner of the poets” (331d– 332c). It is Socrates himself who makes the connection between his immediate ant- agonists and poetic lore, saying to Polemarchus: “A kind of thief then the just man it seems has turned out to be, and it is likely that you acquired this idea from Homer. For he regards with complacency Autolycus, the maternal uncle of Odysseus, and says, ‘he was gifted beyond all men in thievery and perjury.’ So justice, according to you and Homer and Simonides, seems to be a kind of stealing, with the qualification that it is for the benefit of friends and the harm of enemies” (334a–b, emphasis added). Hence Socrates explicitly attributes Polemarchus’ erratic notion of “justice” to a poetic tradition. Even this is only the prelude to a more comprehensive assault on the entire Hellenic store of poetic wisdom. At the beginning of book II Socrates affirms that justice must be loved not only for the results it engenders but also “for its own sake” (358a). We have here, perhaps, the first hint in the Republic of a distinction between reality and appearance, between the self-subsisting Forms as ultimate ends of knowledge and action, and the more immediate or proximate ends of worldly activity. Socrates argues that poetry has failed to examine justice “in itself” because poetic knowledge is confined to the world of appearance. This fact is further evinced through the argument of another speaker Adeimantus, who reinforces Socrates’ critique of poetry. Adeimantus says that what is popularly considered praiseworthy is not justice itself but the good reputation arising from it. Again, Adeimantus invokes Homer and Hesiod – whom he misreads – in support of his position (363a–d). Adeimantus pro- ceeds to survey the overall shortcomings of poetry in expressing justice, thereby pro- viding a context of received wisdom against which philosophy’s “true” search for justice can emerge as a refutation. Against the “language about justice and injustice employed by both laymen and poets,” he brings four charges: laymen and poets acknowledge sobriety and righteousness as honorable but unpleasant; they view licentiousness and injustice as not only pleasant but also as “only in opinion and by convention disgrace- ful”; they hold that injustice “pays better” than justice, and do not scruple to honor the wicked if they are rich and powerful; and, strangest of all, they portray the gods both as assigning misfortunes to good men and as easy to propitiate or manipulate by sacri- fices, spells, and enchantments. “And for all these sayings,” continues Adeimantus, “they cite the poets as witnesses” (364a–c). Once again, poetry is equated with popular wisdom; it is also associated with the sophistic view that beliefs, laws, and practices plato (428–ca. 347 bc) 25

part i: ancient greek criticism claim only conventional rather than absolute validity (a charge to be repeated in book X); and its vision of the gods is deemed morally incoherent. The ground has now been prepared for the emerging hegemony of philosophy. Poetry, concludes Adeimantus, teaches young men that appearance “masters” reality and that seeming just is more profitable than being just. It is this pursuit of a phantom, this honoring of dissemblance, which has led to social corruption whose symptoms include the organization of secret societies, political clubs, and the sophistic teaching of “cajolery” whereby the “arts of the popular assembly and the courtroom” are imparted (365a–e). Adeimantus now offers his crucial observation that no one, in either poetry or prose, has adequately inquired as to what justice is “in itself” (366e). Hence the starting point of Socrates’ inquiry is finally arrived at through a complex strategy whereby (1) poetry is held to be the repository of received popular wisdom concerning justice; (2) as such, poetry is a codification of the rationale of individual self-interest and desire, a rationale which makes necessary the imposition of laws to constrain selfishness; (3) in consequence, such “wisdom” is morally incoherent, furnishing a divine and human apparatus for the greater prosperity of the unjust man; (4) most fundamentally, the poets’ account is confined to the appearance of justice, not real justice or justice “in itself.” This “poetic” account, according to Socrates, confuses justice with its effects, its material results, the reputation it engenders, and its psychological motivation. The implicit charge is that poetry fails to abstract justice itself from its contingent sur- roundings and conditions, failing to apprehend its essential, universally applicable, unity. Poetry can perceive only an incoherent multiplicity, only particular appearances, and is intrinsically unable to see these as part of a larger totality. The aim of philosophy emerges cumulatively, then, from this series of negations: in pursuing the real nature of justice the philosopher will, on the one hand, isolate its essence by abstraction from particular circumstances and, on the other hand, will apprehend its coherent par- ticipation in a totalizing system of knowledge. Hence the assault on poetry, in all of its guises, is moved inexorably forward by Plato’s most fundamental strategy, that of hypostatization, or the treatment of a concept as if it had a fixed essence: justice is viewed as a unity, having a single essence (479a). Moreover, the commentary on poetry furnishes the major elements which philosophy sets out to overcome: popular wisdom must be controverted by the higher knowledge of a specialized elite; the ethics of indi- vidualism and desire must be displaced by the predomination of state interest; justice must be shown to be more profitable than injustice; and the gods must be assumed to be just. In these crucial ways, the significance of poetry defines the very purpose and method of the Republic.

M. A. R. Habib 2005.A History of Literary Criticism From Plato to the Present BLACKWELL PUBLISHING

1 Komentar

  • Alvian Arief Munawar

    Oct 13, 2010

    "Poetry is as usurpers the throne of wisdom, and especially the popular wisdom, the cumulative" Why can say so, Sir? and whether the causal connection than that?


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