Aristotle's Critique of Plato

The arts are seen to play a positive role in the lives of many people. Across cultures, times, places, and class-divisions, people sing, dance, decorate, enact, represent, narrate, and express, in conventionalized ways, to audiences who enjoy and participate in these activities, and often care about them deeply. It seems natural, if not highly informative, to call such practices 'artistic'. Many of them may also be religious, commercial, therapeutic, political, or educational in their motivation--but there is usually a fairly clear distinction between pursuing such ends artistically, and doing so in other ways. We tend to assume that the arts, however in the end they may be defined, are in general a good thing. Some artistic productions are better than others, some are good for one reason, others for another--but artistic productions as a whole are something it is better to have than not to have. More inflatable, we think that the ability to engage in them is valuable because it is deeply entrenched in, or essential to, our being human. Such thoughts are often extremely vague. So what can philosophy do? Socrates tells us that 'the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being' ( Apol. 38a5-6). Many of us live with the arts with few qualms--philosophy tempts us to step back out of that security and ask what account can be given, in a general way, of the nature and value of the arts.

The first attempt at such an examination in western philosophy is that of its great ancestral figure, Plato. Although Plato's thinking about the arts of his culture cannot really be described as a systematic theory, he has consistent preoccupations from his earliest to his latest writings, which reach a peak in the best-known work of his middle period, the Republic. We find a body of arguments addressing central questions about the arts, and engaging with themes that are centrally Platonic. If Plato initiates western philosophy's ethics and theory of knowledge, then--as part of the same project--he initiates its examination of the arts in an equally powerful way. Following Socrates' example, he asks naive questions: Is poetry good for us? Why do we enjoy tragedies? What does Homer really know about, and what does he teach us about? The combination of his blunt, unflattering answers and the brilliance of the literary medium in which he conveys them give Plato's critique of the arts its unique flavor.

Today's writers on the philosophy of art often discuss Plato's views, or allude to them while in pursuit of their own ends. Such mentions are not always unfavorable or dismissive; 1 nevertheless, Plato has been dubbed a philistine, his arguments have been pronounced bad, his critical attitude to art one-sided and prejudiced. I believe that this is too harsh a picture. Plato's arguments are by no means flawless, but they are not stupid. The claim of philosophy's pre-eminence over the arts, though perhaps too rigid, is there for good reasons. Most of all, as I hope to show, Plato was far from being a philistine--he did not lack appreciation of the arts, nor of their claims to importance. In his most extreme moment he wished to eliminate the chief forms of poetry from the city-state and from the republic of the soul, but not for philistine reasons; rather because, as his examination convinced him, they were incompatible with a life devoted to truth and the good, and hence, in his view, incompatible with what it was to be a human being in the noblest and healthiest of ways. This was an argued position whose premises were central to his whole philosophy. If we consider that philosophy worth studying and think it worthwhile to have a view about the value of poetry, music, and the like, we cannot lightly bypass Plato's critique of the arts. ...

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