Academic journal article PSYART

The Philosopher and the Beast: Plato's Fear of Tragedy

Academic journal article PSYART

The Philosopher and the Beast: Plato's Fear of Tragedy

Article excerpt


In the second half of the fourteenth century, a few decades before the reintroduction of the complete text of the Platonic dialogue Republic in Western Europe (in Latin), the Italian humanist and poet Giovanni Boccaccio could still safely claim that Plato's attack on poets and poetry was only meant to expel some admittedly obnoxious comic poets, and that he certainly had not intended to banish great literary artists such as Homer or Hesiod from his ideal city.1 However, when the first translation of the Republic appeared in 1402, it was clear for all to read that it was indeed artists of the caliber of Homer and Hesiod who were under attack.

The re-availability of the text of the Republic did not resolve the dissatisfaction with Plato's views on literature. No less than in the fourteenth century, it is still hard to accept that perhaps the greatest literary philosopher ever to exist would order the removal of Homer, "the most poetic of poets and the first of tragedians,"2 from his commonwealth. This is all the more strange since every so often Homer or other poets are invoked in the dialogues in support of a philosophical argumentation. Apparently Plato sees no harm at all in using literary works to his own advantage.3 Yet banishing all "pleasure-indulging literature, whether in the form of epic or drama"4 is what he explicitly and repeatedly recommends, and there can be no doubt that he means it.

To be sure, Platonic literary theory is a complicated matter. Small wonder that there have been misunderstandings. Some decades ago it was not unusual for scholars to say that Plato's treatises on poets and poetry were confused.5 However, the philosophical difficulties of Platonic aesthetics are hardly insurmountable. With a little effort they can be overcome. In the second section of this paper I will summarize Plato's views on the function and the essence of art, including literature. As will be made clear, these views form a logically coherent and perfectly comprehensible theory that fits well with Plato's overall philosophy.

The real problem with Plato's view then is not so much a matter of logic, but should be located elsewhere. In the third and final section I will formulate some depth-psychological observations pertaining to Plato's position on art and artists, because, even though its philosophical coherence and relevance are much less problematic than is generally thought, Platonic art theory does have some characteristics that may be called eccentric and require additional, psychological explanation. Thus I do not agree with the general tendency in classical philology to object to psychological analysis with regard to Plato and Platonism on the grounds that this type of research "will hardly satisfy anyone who is convinced of Plato's having a well-balanced personality".6 To this typical remark many replies are possible, of which the most important is perhaps that depth-psychological explanations are not necessarily at variance with the value and dignity of their object, be this a theory or a person. Secondly, at least from a common-sense point of view it cannot be denied that Platonic philosophy, including Platonic art theory with its rigorous censorship and suppression of free speech, is somewhat unbalanced, if not weird. While acknowledging that psychological explanations should of course never serve as an excuse to neglect accurate research of what Plato attempts to convey philosophically, I think it is worthwhile to look into some of the more peculiar aspects of his philosophy from a Jungian perspective. In our investigation we will pay special attention to the question why it is that Plato turns so vehemently against dramatic art forms.

II-Platonic Art Theory in a Nutshell

In what follows only a brief and simplified account of Platonic art theory can be presented.7 Incidentally, I find this ancient art theory rather brilliant, but this by no means implies that I share Plato's opinion concerning the desirability of art censorship. …

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