Violence and the Art
of Keeping It Real
Philosophy seems very old, but the art of poetry (which is central to rap's style and self-understanding) is older still. Before philosophers claimed to be the wisest droppers of knowledge, it was the poets who were celebrated for revealing in captivating rhythm and vivid imagery the traditional wisdom, ideals, and deepest religious beliefs that were embodied in the myths and experience of ancient cultures. To establish philosophy as a rival source of wisdom, Socrates was compelled to show its superiority, which is why he (and Plato after him) fiercely criticized the artists and especially the poets.
Art, they argued (in dialogues like the Apology, Ion, and the Republic), did not convey true knowledge; nor did it improve one's character and ethical behavior. Instead, Socrates and Plato insisted that art distorted reality, stirred up dangerously violent passions, corrupted the soul by appealing to its basest elements, and led people ethically astray. (Some of these charges will probably remind readers of hostile criticisms made against rap music). As philosophy was affirmed as the key to good politics, with Plato advocating the ideal of the philosopher-king, so artists and poets were banned from the Utopian Republic he envisaged. In short, using the double-barreled self-promoting, rival-dissin' style that rap MCs have skillfully emulated, philosophy rose to prominence by vehemently claiming to be number #1 while denouncing the competition as wack.
This “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” as Plato called it, may not seem so severe today, because philoso-