Pulse Blogger Problematizing Plato’s artistic theories as postulated in the Book Ten of his Republic

Plato’s expressive theories of art could even be more dangerous.

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Art could really be dangerous. Plato’s expressive theories of art could even be more dangerous. Art, certainly, is not as precarious as Plato makes us believe.

In Book Ten of The Republic, Plato, one of the most conflicting figures of the classical period offers specifically his expressive notions of art.

This is regarded as the very beginning of classical literary criticism since many of the later critics found themselves fighting hard to unravel the intellectual puzzle brought about by Plato's ideology of art/drama. Since our focus in this discourse is drama, we would examine his expressive principles of drama. And by expressive we mean Plato's personal, emotional conceptions regarding literature/drama.

Plato denigrates drama as imitation of an imitation. In other words, drama is not real enough to be relied on. If we can have the original why copying the copy? The art of dramaturgy should not have its roots in the porous ground of imitation.

The playwright obeys the laws of mimesis since he only creates from what he sees. There is a reality (world of forms) beyond what the artist/playwright sees and creates from. Even the material world which the artist/dramatist thinks he knows is not well represented in his artistic productions since he faces the problem of appearance and reality. In other words, we see things the way we are not the way things are.

This makes his knowledge limiting and inadequate. Hence, the actor and the playwright are unworthy of Plato's ideal world. The actor appeals to the emotion of the audience and this emotional part is the lower part of the human soul. Drama invokes ‘pity and fear’ and the average human being should be in charge of his emotions, his emotions should not be in charge of him.

The fact that drama is an imitation of the external, and to a degree, internal world of the playwright, gives it the power to sway people's emotions. This swaying is weakening in nature and the ideal state must do away with such productions.

Plato's idea of mimesis is derived from his dualist stance: the world of objects and the world of forms. When he dares to relate this idea to drama, he comes off as very wrong for he opines that drama has no good for the society because it could not handown any sure knowledge to people.

Playwrights cannot therefore teach the society anything good thus, drama cannot be an improvement of society or nature. Plato, as a moralist holds the view that imitation begets immorality as it gradually creates a long distance between people and truth. Aristotle differs in view with this in that the tragic flaw which the hero is said to have is a warning to every member of the society that hubris is the beginning of downfall. The hero of tragedy is also often plagued with sincere ignorance.

This ignorance helps him to run into trouble. Aristotle could as well be warning us that though there is no concrete potion for sincere ignorance, members of the society are enjoined to seek knowledge since lack of it is equally dangerous.

Dramatists are brutally dangerous if allowed to operate within the precinct of expressionism for they would easily deviate from the established order/ laws of the society in their dramatic presentations. And the implication of this is that people begin to think and ask questions.

Subsequently, Plato fears the power of drama as it is able to jab at the thinking faculty of the society. It could make people become seditious. It is no surprise that the only type of artistic production he encourages in the society is the kind that eulogises noble men and gods. Anything aside that is dangerous to the societal psyche. A typical example is found in Sophocles's Antigone.

There is a civil disobedience in Thebes and it happens within the royal household. Sophocles deliberately places Antigone at the centre of the play so that the society can witness a defiance of unbelievable magnitide. If it were a man that goes against the King's injunction, perhaps, the society could have waived it but the city of Thebes witnesses Antigone's revolution against that which the society holds sacrosanct thereby putting a knife to the very traditional fabric of the society.

It is the laws of the gods against the laws of man. Antigone could afford to break the laws of man in order to obey higher laws – the laws of the gods. Tiresias proves this as he tells the king what the gods think of the whole situation. Antigone goes ahead and buries her brother Polyneices against the warning of the king and societal norm. Her brother commits the sin of betrayal against the Thebes and he is thus not worthy of a befitting burial. Antigone would be buried alive for her sin against the king and the laws of the society. Yet, her singular act of deviance already opens the society for further revolutions and questioning of the status quo.

Furthermore, Prometheus in Aschelus's Prometheus Bound is another revolutionary act which will forever change the order of things both in the realm of gods and the world of man. He defies Zeus by giving fire to man. He also claims to have gone further to bless man with architecture, mathematics, art of writing, agriculture, astronomy and medicine thereby making it impossible for Zeus to wipe out human race.

For these many sins Cratus, Bia and Hephaestus are ordered by Zeus to chain Prometheus to a mountain in the Caucasus. One could easily imagine the social reactions generated by the play when first set to stage in Greece. This is exactly what Plato warns against. It is the main reason the kind of art/drama that can ever be allowed in the ideal republic is that which is harmless to the collective psyche of the society; the type which valorises the gods and noble men.

We can still take Plato up on his making gods and noble men the centre of artistic creations. Is he in a way not suggesting the rule of aristocracy? This as we know could lead to autocracy and we would not forget that many kings who have fallen in classical plays have experienced a touch of dictatorship upon their characterisations. A fine example is Creon in Antigone. If he had not grown so autocratic perhaps the evils would not have befallen his household. But can we blame him completely? Is he not trying to be a custodian of the law of the Thebean society? 

Of course Aristotle agrees that the hero should be of noble birth, he goes ahead to define the nobility of the hero who must first of all be a human being. Here, Plato opines that the hero of dramatic production should not be limited to human character but also gods. Aristotle explains why the hero has to first be a human being. If the hero is like any of us that is when he can have our sympathy whenever his human nature which he tags harmatia brings about his downfall.

If the hero were a god as Plato suggests then his fall would not be able to inspire in the audience pity and fear. Plato knows why he puts this up: if the audience is driven to pity and fear then the playwright has put the society on a thinking lane which may significantly alter the society.

Plato is in support of social stability as an instrument of social advancement. This is the reason he would banish any form of art that threatens the foundations of the society. Obviously, drama could cause such social eruptions. But how does the society progress if nobody or nothing challenges the societal norms? Hence, Soyinka would deliberately halt Elesin on his way to death so that questions can crop up concerning what the society holds to be sacrosanct. The delay in suicide enables the white masters to hinder Elesin from killing himself. 

This interruption in the flow of the tradition speaks volume of the revolution which comes to the society as a result of injection of drama as a weapon of change. Soyinka presented The Swamp Dwellers for Nigeria’s independence celebration. When in the days that followed the power of this play weighed heavily on the political class, Soyinka ran away from Nigeria. Why was his life threatened if drama has nothing good in it as Plato tries to make us believe?

Plato asserts the unity of society by division of labour so that the king is left with the duty of administering justice to the people, the warrior is given the responsibility to defend the city against external aggression, and the medical doctor is left to look after the health of the people.

This unity cannot happen if the wrong people are in wrong offices. The artist/ playwright claims to have knowledge of these fields and puts up plays about them. Plato does not understand how this can be. Aristotle however states that there can be unity in society if there is unity of plot and hero in dramatic productions. This is because the artistic productions are very instrumental to the shaping of the society.

In the long run, Plato might have started the discourse on the art of imitation, he is sure not the greatest authority on it. Later critics have better impressions of art/drama. Over the ages, critics have shown the fault in Plato’s belief that literature/ drama is useless on the basis that the artist/dramatist lacks the insight to grasp the higher reality of phenomena and cannot therefore do an adequate representation of it.

In fact, Plato’s argument against art/drama has strengthened several contrary views pontificating about the positive functions of drama in the society. This is more so because the insurrectionary of drama has helped the establishment and development of new and existing societies across global lines.



Omidire, Idowu Joshua is an essayist and a literary critic. He has worked on several literary projects.

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