Images of Excellence: Plato's Critique of the Arts

Images of Excellence: Plato's Critique of the Arts

Images of Excellence: Plato's Critique of the Arts

Images of Excellence: Plato's Critique of the Arts

Synopsis

This original new book argues for a reassessment of Plato's challenge to the arts. Plato was the first great figure in Western philosophy to assess the value of the arts; he argued in the Republic that traditionally accepted forms of poetry, drama, and music are unsound. While this view has been widely rejected, Janaway argues that Plato's hostile case is a more coherent and profound challenge to the arts than has sometimes been supposed. Denying that Plato advocates "good art" in any modern sense, Janaway seeks both to understand Plato's critique in the context of his own philosophy and to locate him in today's philosophy of art, showing how issues in aesthetics arise from responses to his charges.

Excerpt

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 inflatedly, 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 naïve 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 . . .

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