Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.35

Stefan Büttner, Die Literaturtheorie bei Platon und ihre anthropologische Begründung.   Tübingen and Basel:  A. Francke Verlag, 2000.  Pp. 408.  ISBN 3-7720-2754-7.  EUR 49.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew Ford, Princeton University (
Word count: 1767 words

B(üttner) aims to dispel a fundamental contradiction he discerns between Plato's rejection of poetic mimesis as inherently deceptive and his numerous remarks in praise of poets for inspired, truthful utterance. To reconcile "mimesis" with "inspiration" he reconstructs a Platonic "anthropology" of human knowing that is not limited by modern tendencies to separate reason radically from feeling. This anthropology has a space for inspired wisdom and allows B. to give Plato a consistent theory of literature. Moreover, this theory -- far from being hostile to poetry -- held that a special form of knowledge could be embodied in "inspired" literature, in which Plato would have included his own texts.

This ambitious project may persuade others more than me. (I requested it under the misapprehension that it would shed light on Plato's mysterious relation to Democritus.) It is clearly written, painstaking, and extensively engaged with current scholarship and the history of ideas; it will offer specialists close readings of a wide array of Platonic texts. Yet I found Plato's consistency was exaggerated by seeing the Republic everywhere; nor was it established that his remarks on poetry and prophecy add up to a conception of "literature" comparable to our own; and the recuperation of enthusiasm as a kind of knowing fell down before the obvious texts. It is impossible to engage B. on his own level of close paraphrase, but three main blocks of the case may be discussed in outline: his revised account of Plato's psychology, the elaboration of a Platonic conception of literature that grows out of this, and finally his account of inspiration and how it works in good writing.

The first 130 pages (chapter 1) propose an alternative to the modern (from Descartes to Kant: 37-64) split in Western theories of art between formalist poetics and subjectivist aesthetics. Basing his analysis on the work of Arborgast Schmitt (16 n. 47), who directed this 1999 dissertation, B. argues that Plato (and Aristotle) recognized "knowing" (Erkennen) in any spontaneous act of discrimination (krinein ti), including even the perception of particulars (26-27, 70). In denying that Plato regarded emotions as irrational, B. prepares for the rehabilitation of inspiration as a way of knowing. Since the Republic says the highest part of the soul wills and desires (580D), the lower parts may be said to be engaged in "acts of knowing" (Erkenntnisakte) in their way. Taking this distinction between three ways of knowing as fundamental, B. reviews many passages which seem to make a simpler (more "modern") distinction between reasoning and unreasoning parts of the soul (logistikon and alogistikon). He brings them into the fold by finding an implicit division in the alogistikon (111-121) and by insisting that the body is only the means by which the soul knows (66-68).

Those well versed in these thorny questions (18 n. 1) will be able to track the discussion through an excellent index locorum. I found the argument often amounted to, "nothing forbids us to assume" the tripartite model, even where it did no philosophic work. More generally, B.'s dogmatic approach neglects Plato's explicit tentativeness about his tripartite model (Rep. 435D, 504A-C), and indeed about any image of the soul (611A-D; cf. Tim. 72D).

The second part of the argument (chapters 2-3) synthesizes Plato's conception of literature (131-43) and the criteria for evaluation it entails. Once again, the Republic proves to be a "central dialogue" (20, 226-35). Literature is a form of mimesis (verse is inessential), the production of images with speech as its medium; its object is characters in action, and its art is to synthesize such actions into a unified plot (Gesamthandlung, 132). On B.'s view, literature is not bad simply because it produces images (178): since literature can represent heroes, it can go beyond copying externals; and since it can represent gods, it may give expression to Intelligibles. Here B. brings in (152, 176) the distinction in Soph. 235C-36A between two arts of image-making (eidôlopoiikê): a good "eikastic" form, which preserves the qualities of the original, and distorting, "phantastic" representations.

It follows that the criterion to apply in evaluation is to ask whether the poet has correctly correlated character, action and outcome. Everything depends on the composer's state of knowledge (Erkenntnishaltung) in regard to virtue (209). If most mimetic artists remain at a third remove from Truth, nothing prevents writers with a higher Erkenntnishaltung from producing valuable mimeseis with correct opinions about gods, heroes and mortals

Contrary to most commentators, B. argues that such criteria are compatible with Plato's rejection of "as much poetry as is mimetic" in Rep. 10 (595A5: 185, 194-5). Determined to preserve the Republic and its Er-myth as good literature (176), B. understands "mimetic" here as "traditional" literature that copies superficial resemblances (184-9). Even on this narrow interpretation conflicts remain: "as much of poetry as is mimetic" is not what was thrown out in 2-3. As for what is left behind, B. takes the old line that Plato retains "hymns and encomia" as templates for good literature (174, 186). I agree with commentators that Plato's "austere, unpleasing poets and tale-tellers" (398A) hardly provide anything worth calling literature or poetry.

More fundamentally, one can object to B.'s slide from the term "poetry" to "literature" and "writing." (Schriftsteller revealingly mistranslates poiêtai on pp. 216 and 317.) He construes a notion of "literature" from Socrates' willingness to dispense with meter in Rep. 2 and get down to the poets' logoi and muthoi. But this move is precisely a way of looking past conventional classifications of discourse: even tales mothers tell children are to be scrutinized. A scholar who knows Baumgarten's Aesthetica should appreciate that the concept of literature, qua verbal art distinct from other forms of writing, is a modern concept. Symptomatic of the ill accord between this modern category and Plato's concerns is the way B. has to labor to include myths (132-33) and similes (167) under Plato's conception of "literature." They are adduced as representations in images of what passes beyond perception, but they are also, suspiciously, the most "literary" aspects of Platonic writing.

The final chapter (255-365) calls the prevailing view of Platonic enthusiasm as an irrational state a modern and Romantic error (264-71). Anthropology defines inspiration as a unique kind of Erkenntnisakt (371), a super-rational apperception called divine because the most godlike part of the soul is active in us. Applying terms from the Divided Line, B. holds that all Plato's descriptions of inspiration imply an active use of the intellect (nous), even if reason (dianoia) is not present to justify the insight. The inspired poet remains a thinking poet, and so Plato can legitimately praise (inspired) literature for its valuable truths and positive moral influence while criticizing (superficial) literature in the Republic. B. adds, in Platonic fashion, a hierarchy of forms of writing according to Erkenntnisakt, with the philosophical writer (Plato) on top and traditional writers, lovers of opinion, on the bottom.

Making this case proves roundabout and uphill. A long discussion (274-306) of Aristotle on enthusiasm is needed to establish that it involves knowing (268). And because Aristotle's remarks on inspired orators and poets (311-13) are sketchy, B. focuses on a discussion of prophecy in Eudemean Ethics 8.2. Prophecy also bulks large when B. turns to Plato, since he located prophetic dreams in the logistikon (Rep. 571D-72B).

B.'s case founders on well known passages that he admits prima facie describe inspiration as passive and irrational (348). Though usually a careful reader, B. forces his concerns onto these texts, as in expounding Laws 719C-D in which the poet sits on the tripod of the Muses, not in his wits (emphrôn) and lets his poetry flow: "since his entire art is mimesis, he is compelled to render contradictory utterances without knowing which is true." B. endows this poet with reason by taking the Muses as "the possible contents of literature" and the poet's (tekhnê) as a knowledge of how to "represent character" (i.e. moral agents: 350-51). This is not an immediately convincing gloss on Muses, and the art in question must rather be a facility for simply producing affecting imitations, since it leaves the poet unable to make moral discriminations. In this section (353-9) B.'s determination to 'interpret Plato from Plato' proves costly: in discerning intellectual activity in poets "plucking" flowers from the Muses' meadow in Ion (358), he should have noted that drepomenoi is a word plucked from Hesiod's Muses (and he might have well said what, on this view, Plato would have said was the Erkenntnishaltung of Euripides' Agave.)

I would like to conclude by pointing to some big issues that B. has right. We cannot indeed understand Plato's thinking about poetry in isolation from his "anthropology." And Plato was consistent in denying that aesthetic satisfaction could be a sufficient basis for judging poetry. But Plato could subordinate aesthetics to ethics without making sensation cognitive. I believe Plato conceded more autonomy to sense experience than B. allows (e.g. our natural pleasure in the pure, unmixed colors of Philebus); but poetry is by nature (by definition) sound mixed with mimesis, and so gives a picture of the world that can be (after being detached from the irrational appeals of form) held to philosophical standards of knowledge.

B. is also right that poetic "enthusiasm" and "inspiration" are not empty figures of speech for Plato but named the inexplicable luck by which poets, prophets and politicians sometimes got things right (as determined by subsequent experience or by philosophically educated judgment). The explanatory theory that B. reconstructs in terms of grades of knowledge and faculties of the soul (allowing that it is never fully expressed: 361) may be in line with current approaches to the Poetics that stress the cognitive bases of the emotions. But we may wonder whether the centrality of Erkenntnishaltung reflects Plato's concerns or B.'s insistance on asking what is going on in the poet's head, even when Plato is silent on the matter (337). But to call happy poetic expressions "inspired" may rather be a way of putting further speculation into causes on hold while turning to the pressing question: what are we to do with texts that sometimes counsel well and sometimes err? Mimesis and inspiration are indeed not in conflict, but reflect different questions that may be asked of poetry. Finally, I do not doubt that Plato -- he is explicit on the point -- thought his own writings better fare for future philosophers than the texts routinely supplied in schools. But I do not think Plato would thank B. for taking the sting out of his outrageous, provocative attacks on poetry, nor for removing all pathos from good writing.

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