Plato was on to something with that art-hating thing
I'm not saying we have to burn all the books and smash the images, but maybe he had a point.
For the last month I’ve taken a slow drive through Iris Murdoch’s long essay titled “The Fire and the Sun”, which comes with the helpful subtitle “Why Plato Banished the Artists”.
Even after advanced graduate-level work in the subject that he began, I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like about Plato. If you’re like me, your knowledge of his views amounts to a few choice nuggets such as:
He wanted to banish the artists from his ideal city-state
He believed that writing was a ruinous technology corrupting the youth
He argued for such silly notions as ideal Forms that exist in some perfect heaven
He talked about Socrates pestering people about how much they don’t know
In my years of reading the great philosophers, I’ve discovered one enduring truth. Whatever you learn about them in the bite-sized summaries peddled in 101 intro courses will contain just the right amount of truth to completely misrepresent them.
While there is textual evidence in Plato’s dialogues for those dollar-store interpretations, they don’t begin to touch on what is really there.
Iris Murdoch draws attention to an obvious point that isn’t appreciated to the extent it should be:
For all Plato is charged with a desire to banish the artists, the poets above all, he wrote dialogues. By any measure he did a good job of it, too. What do we make of Western history’s most influential thinker, legendary for his mistrust of art and poetry, expressing his ideas in art? Dialogues in which the author, furthermore, never speaks in his own voice?
This piece of trivia throws a whole bag of sand into the clockwork of Plato scholarship. Is it possible to claim that “Plato argues this” or “Plato says that” when the ideas in question are never said by Plato?
This raises the real and fantastic possibility that Plato is having a bit of fun with the reader. Rather than setting out thoughts and arguments in the usual way of reasoning to truth, he’s wandering through the fields like a shapeshifter, trying on this mask and now that, never committed to any of the ideas history wants to attach to him.
This is known as the “esoteric” or “unwritten” doctrine. The idea being, Plato left no written record of his real views. What we have in the dialogues is a sort of dramatic game, a work of fiction that is important less for what it says than for what it means. If so, this gives a different, postmodern edge to the term “Socratic irony”.
Dame Iris isn’t going all the way down that tantalizing road. The picture she paints is of a far more sympathetic, complicated, and fascinating thinker than I’d ever realized.
According to her, Plato’s concern with art is a concern for a moral and spiritual distraction. Recalling the Allegory of the Cave from the Republic, the poet mistakes the light of the Fire casting shadows on the wall for the purifying light of the Sun outside. He has learned to see the shadows but does not know what they are. Using words and images, he can seduce the others with an alluring shadow-play. But this is meaningless, if not corrupting of the spirit.
Artists play irresponsibly with religious imagery which, if it must exist, should be critically controlled by the internal, or external, authority of reason.
The poet can conjure, he can play with image and sound to tug at heart-strings, but he cannot reveal the truth — his work keeps us blind to the truth. Art shows us only shadows.
Murdoch adds a Freudian twist, reading the image of the Fire as a symbol of man’s own ego. To know that the fire exists as a source of delusion and temptation is a hard-won achievement. Yet the flickering flames tempt the firebug inside each of us, and none more than the poet who plays without understanding the significance of the images he makes.
Too great a fascination with the fire and its shadows keeps us from appreciating the higher truths.
As she argues in an earlier essay “The Idea of Perfection”, an inordinate fascination with our own ego is the true barrier standing between ourselves and the world. We cannot see the truth because of our own narcissistic fantasies and petty resentment distort our vision. To see reality as it is means to get the “fat greedy ego” (her words) out of the way. A vision of truth requires a just and loving attention to the world, and that is incompatible with selfish preoccupation. Truth has a moral dimension.
Art is playful in a sinister sense, full of (φθόνος) a spiteful amused acceptance of evil, and through buffoonery and mockery weakens moral discrimination. The artist cannot represent or celebrate the good, but only what is daemonic and fantastic and extreme; whereas truth is sober and quiet and confined.
Fire and sunlight are both sources of illumination. They mediate between the visible object and the one who sees. Only sunlight reveals the world in true clarity without distortion.
The “metaphysical” Plato, the rationalist who believes in immaterial Forms, is in some ways a handwave. These ideas are there in the dialogues, though never set out as any formal doctrine, and they never reach any satisfactory resolution. Plato himself (seems to) attack them in the Sophist and the Parmenides.
Plato’s concern, Dame Iris reminds us, is above all with salvation of the soul. While Socrates did ask how a life goes well, he also told us that the philosopher must prepare for death. The metaphysical remarks and arguments that so preoccupy the modern analytical mind were always rungs on the ladder to the more pressing moral concerns. Art leads us off that path.
Indirectness and irony prevent the immediate relationship with truth which occurs in live discourse; art is thus the enemy of dialectic. Writing and painting introduce an extra distancing notation and by charm fix it in place. They create a barrier of imagery which arrests the mind, rigidifies the subject matter, and is defenceless against low clients.
Words themselves are a necessary evil. We need language to express ourselves, and we could scarcely have thoughts without words as their vehicles. But symbols always intermediate between the individual and the truth. Real understanding happens in flashes of insight when one grasps a thought. Writing down those thoughts freezes them in place, unable to change, leaving them open to misinterpretation and distortion. We come to believe we already know because we know the words, when all we know is a dead copy of living reality.
That’s a provocative claim. I don’t imagine many contemporary literates would find it too compelling.
I’m not quite ready to brush it off so neatly. No, I’m not ready to burn all the books just yet. But I invite you to look past the surface provocation and consider the underlying message. Words and images can distort and misdirect. Thought is alive and active, not carved into a rock-face of concepts and sentences. Art’s symbolic forms can ensnare us with mischievous shadow-dancing and lead us into the worst sorts of temptation and delusion.
It’s hard to imagine a life here in the early 21st century where such warnings would be misplaced.
Plato’s proposed solution is an invitation to transform our ways of seeing, thinking, and, above all, desiring. The figure of Eros, who mediates between love (and there is a decidedly carnal resonance) and the higher realms of morality and divine creativity, symbolizes our desire for good. Erotic love manifests in higher modes as a longing to create and experience beauty.
The importance of what we care about is a paramount topic that, bizarrely, we don’t talk about anymore. And Plato allowed art more latitude in response to that question than the simple caricature of his thought. The experience of beauty is integral to the liberation of the soul from illusion. The vision that frees us from the false life of shadows begins in the desire, even lust, for the beautiful. And that beauty cannot be found so easily here in this world.
Plato’s insights into the freedom and the immortality of the soul — if they are his — are complex and circle back into his criticisms of art. What we yearn for is a vision of the higher realm beyond all the vulgar games of This World. The contemporary secular person will doubtless find all of this implausible and unpalatable. You mean that some crusty old bronze-age writer knows more than The Science, talking about immaterial souls and all that supernatural junk?
Why yes, I do believe that. And I don’t believe that it’s any more ridiculous than the ideas peddled to us under the labcoat-clad authority of The Science.
I don’t need to remind you that we live in a time when headline articles in science magazines tell us that minds are intangible bits of information, when models inside computers have more credibility than the physical objects they supposedly mirror, and sober-minded scientists declare that reality itself might be a grand simulation.
It doesn’t look like we’re that far from Plato after all. If we’re going to own it, then I say let’s own it.
Thanks for reading.
p.s. If you found this valuable, interesting, funny, or it made you upset that you had to use your mind for something besides infinite scrolling, I ask that you do me a favor and share it with just one person.
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