The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Humanist Art

By Edgar Wind; Jaynie Anderson | Go to book overview

I Θει + ̑ος Άόβος (Laws, II, 671D) On Plato's Philosophy of Art

WHEN Plato sacrifices the rights of the artist to the claims of society, when he demands that the lawgiver should force the artist by threat of expulsion from the city to represent only such subjects as will promote an admiration for heroic deeds and a desire to imitate them, and to employ only such means of expression as will invigorate the soul and not lull it to sleep, when in his anxiety to carry through this programme he wishes to delete from Homer and Hesiod all passages which might endanger the proper education of young men, his rigorous measures leave the modern interpreter rather at a loss. Most of us are not sufficiently open-minded to share the reaction of the American critic who openly confessed that he hated Plato and recoiled from his work because it seemed to him to foreshadow the activities of Anthony Comstock, the notorious Puritanical censor. We may be amused or shocked by the comparison; but how shall we answer him? Will our painfully acquired awareness that things are rather more complicated than this, or what we call, with a pride we ourselves are coming to question, our 'sense of history', enable us to do so? That a Greek philosopher who lived more than two thousand years ago cannot be judged by the same standards as an Anglo-Saxon bureaucrat of the nineteenth century, and that a decision which in Comstock is an indication of provincial narrow-mindedness is in Plato the product of a profound insight, is in general obvious enough. But our historical knowledge does not at once explain the profundity of an insight that finds expression in the subordination of the artist to the state. Nor will it show us how we, who frown on such a verdict when it does not lie in the remote past, can account for Plato's conclusion not merely in historical terms but in a way that is meaningful for us. On the contrary, the more certain we are that Plato's was preceded by, and consummated, an impulse towards dramatic and mimetic representation, the more clearly we recognize from his own writings how difficult he found it to adopt such a verdict, how greatly he valued Homer's poetry before resolving to resist its spell; and the more strongly we sense in the style of his early and middle dialogues the power of that plasticity whose dangers he so vividly portrays, the more extraordinary it seems to us that this man, who evinced such great artistic gifts, should have turned against art.

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"'̔Θει + ̑ος Άόβος. Untersuchungen über die Platonische Kunstphilosophie'", Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, XXVI ( 1932), pp. 349-73, originally the subject of Wind's inaugural lecture as Privatdozènt in Hamburg, with the illustrations and some further references added.

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