BMCR 1996.07.17

1996.7.17, Janaway, Images of Excellence

, Images of excellence : Plato's critique of the arts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 1 online resource (viii, 226 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0198240074. $49.95.

Plato and art—or is it Art? The subject of Christopher Janaway’s new book lies in the very middle of the swampy territory that simultaneously connects and divides the study of philosophy and literature. The author is a philosopher by training, whose previous work has been on Schopenhauer and aesthetics. But he has an excellent knowledge of Greek and of Plato’s cultural world. He strikes a fine balance between lucid exposition of the texts, explanation of standard and alternative views and relevant aesthetic theory, and his own interpretations, which grow out of this carefully cultivated ground. His views are often persuasive, and always interesting, meticulously argued, and worthy of serious consideration. He thus admirably attains his basic goal, to provide “a philosophically informed guide” to “Plato’s writings on poetry, inspiration, and artistic representation,” in which he will “make clear Plato’s philosophical position and what is interesting or important about it” (vii).

Classicists will learn a great deal from Janaway about what philosophers do and how they do it, to art, to ancient texts in general and to Plato in particular. Clarity of argument and (nearly always) of writing make this an valuable exemplar of the methods of ancient philosophy for those intimidated by philosophical jargon. Non-philosophers will also receive a clear and accessible introduction to the theory and history of aesthetics.

Those whose interests lie on the other side of the interdisciplinary swamp are also well provided for. Janaway is well versed in many aspects of Greek culture important for understanding these texts. He gives the Greekless reader useful accounts of various culturally specific terms, explaining, for example, why “art” (9) and even “craft” (39) are misleading translations of techne (Janaway prefers “expertise”). He explains the nuances not just of such obviously relevant words as techne (15, 36-41), kalos (10, 59-61), mimesis (passim), and arete (40), but of kolax (45 n. 30), and aulos (an instrument Janaway likens to the saxophone, 48). (I wish he had also discussed eros, which, like so many others, he translates with the misleading “love”.)

At the same time Janaway’s philosophical analysis is at a highly specialized and sophisticated level. He has something to say about almost all the important Platonic texts on “the arts”: Ion, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Symposium, Republic, Timaeus, Laws, Phaedrus, Politicus, Sophist, Philebus (the “literary criticism” of Protagoras and Hippias Minor is regrettably not mentioned). Each dialogue is taken on its own terms, but at the same time woven into a larger narrative of Platonic development. The last of the book’s eight chapters, “Plato and the Philosophy of Art,” explores Plato’s theories in the context of the subsequent history of aesthetics. This is not a survey of Platonic Nachleben, but a response to the challenge at the end of the Republic (607cde), to provide a defense of poetry. The terms in which Janaway responds encompass a brief history of aesthetics, which serves well to bring out the difficulties of the Platonic position. He offers two principal lines of argument, an “aesthetic defence” and a “cognitive/ethical defence” (192-202).

Overall, this book makes a powerful statement of Plato’s claim to importance in the area of aesthetic theory. One might think it would be obvious to any sensitive reader of Plato that he is both fascinated by the arts and pays them the compliment of taking them very seriously indeed. But it is perhaps unsurprising if Janaway seems a touch defensive on this point, given the commonplace view of Plato as the philistine who drove the poets out of town. In any case, Janaway demonstrates very effectively both that “Plato’s philosophy of art is a monumental contribution to the subject. For if he is wrong, it is scarcely about anything small or easy,” and that “countering Plato’s critique of the arts is an ambitious philosophical undertaking” (202).

One of Janaway’s chief preoccupations is the question of how much room Plato leaves for the romantic and modern concept of “the aesthetic”—a concept he clarifies progressively throughout the book (starting on page 6: “aesthetic value is usually conceived as a value which may obtain independently of all other values”). Janaway’s view is that Plato does understand something of this concept, but that aesthetic pleasure per se is heavily outweighed by other factors (cf. 58). Another preoccupation is the meaning and value of the arts in general, as well as Plato’s views in particular. A more technical matter (if I may so express it) is the question of how far, if at all, Plato allows the arts to enjoy the status of technai. Janaway’s answer: only up to a point. Thus on the Ion (ch. 1), he argues that Socrates “does not deny the common-sense view that being a poet or rhapsode is a form of craft or expertise [ techne ]” but he does deny that this is “the true source of the beauty of good poetry or rhapsody” (16). According to Janaway, Plato retains this view quite consistently (though the Politicus and Sophist do complicate matters [169-75]). This is in tune with the generally coherent picture (despite significant developments) that Janaway sees throughout the corpus. Thus he resists as wishful thinking the attempts that have been made (e.g. in interpretation of the Phaedrus and Sophist) to “save” Plato’s aesthetics by imputing to him some kind of rehabilitation of art.

Janaway’s main focus, understandably enough, is the Republic, which occupies three of his six central chapters. His account is closely argued, highly intelligent and nuanced, placing more emphasis than most on the positive value assigned to the arts in this work (even though this value is instrumental rather than aesthetic). One way Janaway makes his case is by distinguishing mimetic from non-mimetic poetry by “its governing aim or motivation” (100). “[Plato] does not object to pursuing [truth and the good life] using mimesis and poetic diction, but rather to those who either neglect these goals in favor of ‘artistic’ aims, or mistakenly think that to produce fine poetry is already to have reached them” (161). This criterion applies across the discussions in Books 3 and 10, even though Plato’s use of the word mimesis shifts (more or less) from “making oneself like another in form or voice” (126) (Book 3) to representation in general (Book 10). Hence there is no real inconsistency between the two books, despite the appearance of paradox or confusion: “mimetic” poetry is distinguished by its inappropriate goals, yet even a “non-mimetic” poet (who has the right goals) may “use mimesis” for his own ends.

Janaway is right to take seriously the presence of permissible poetry in the ideal city, and right to emphasize the eloquent passage on the educational importance of beauty in the arts which directly follows Book 3’s critique of poetry (400c-403c). He makes the excellent point that we cannot infer “that Plato approves only of what is dull,” adducing such Christian compositions as the sacred works of Palestrina, which “would not be out of place on a similar occasion in the model city” (130). As Janaway observes, “there is no correlation between our regarding something as high art and Plato’s not liking it” (130). But he shrugs off the problem of the mimetic status of these works: “I doubt whether we should press these questions too hard. The truth is that Plato wanders in his descriptions of the poetry he criticizes” (131).

One wishes there were more in the text of the Republic (as opposed to between the lines) concerning “good” poetry. I would dearly like to hear more about Plato’s Palestrina. For while much in Janaway’s account is convincing, he does not, it seems to me, give sufficient weight to Socrates’ discomfort with all dramatic representation, even of the “good man”. He claims that the preferred style “will involve imitation only of one kind of person, avoiding other models, and hence will have to use a large measure of simple narration” (97, my emphasis). Socrates does indeed stipulate that the approved style will have only a small amount of mimesis (dramatic representation) embedded in extensive narrative (396e). But this does not follow from the fact that the “less mimetic” style permits mimesis only of good men. There is no reason why (on Janaway’s view) the ideal state should not permit complete “mimetic” dramas in which only virtuous characters appear. Yet this is apparently unacceptable to Socrates.

Sometimes in reading this book I wanted more than Janaway offers. He might have said something about the few lines of Homer that are cited with approval in the Republic. And he has strangely little to say about Diotima’s identification of kalos and agathos in the Symposium (72). Sometimes a little more aesthetic theory would be useful, for example on the subject of emotional identification, a traditional and fundamental underpinning of ancient Greek aesthetics. (Janaway only touches on some of the issues it raises, in his helpful remarks on Ion’s cognitive state, 21-3.) And I wish that his “cognitive/ethical” reply to Plato had taken on the still widespread view that the arts can indeed corrupt the audience through imitation or identification with the characters represented (again, he just touches on this in a brief comment on Nazi propaganda, 80-81).

But to ask for more is a back-handed criticism. Of greater concern is Janaway’s seeming discomfort with Plato’s own status as a supreme literary artist. Janaway is of course well aware of this status, which he often mentions in passing. He also shows a familiarity with a broad range of interpretive strategies in approaching Plato, including the most recent “literary” methods. Yet this sometimes looks like lip-service. He states at the outset that “Plato’s literariness … is something we must acknowledge straight away” [20f.]), and later declares, “Plato himself uses dramatic mimesis, Socrates is a character, painted in words. Plato ‘hides himself’ much more thoroughly than Homer, and even plays self-consciously with the character who is usually his mouthpiece” (160). But the word “mouthpiece” already betrays certain traditional “philosophers'” assumptions about reading Plato. And just a few lines later Janaway is speaking of “[Plato’s] serious statements of philosophical doctrine” (160-161). Indeed throughout most of the book he speaks routinely of Socrates’ remarks as Plato’s own beliefs, assertions, or even doctrines.

Now I do not doubt that Plato believed at various times many (if not most) of the views he puts in Socrates’ mouth (though I do doubt that he believed them all). But the simple fact of dramatic form means we are not entitled to use this as an interpretive assumption, at least without further argument. For the same reason we must be cautious in speaking of Plato’s philosophy as a whole in developmental terms. Now of course different methods are appropriate at different times and for different purposes, and “literary” concerns do not necessarily vitiate Janaway’s fine interpretations of specific texts. But this is a book on aesthetics and representation. It therefore cries out for further discussion of Plato’s own literary practice.

Janaway is aware of the complexity of these issues, and does pay attention to some of them, particularly Plato’s own use of “myth.” Here he takes the familiar position that the myths are exempt from the Republic‘s criticism of representation because they are Platonically “good” art (159-60). In his final chapter he adds Plato’s representation of philosophical dialogue to Platonic myth as an example of “the right kind of subordination” of literature to philosophy (183). But nowhere in the book has he addressed Plato’s use of dialogue form, though the two (myth and dialogue) raise rather different issues (not least because of the “mimetic” nature of philosophical dialogue). In any case, this kind of claim, though often made, is not without difficulties. It is far from self-evident, for example, that Plato’s dialogues represent only good men, even if we confine ourselves to the figure of Socrates. 1 Janaway’s approach may be defensible, but it can no longer be taken for granted, and thus calls for further support (if only in the form of a statement of method) than it receives in this book.

It is only with the Phaedrus that Janaway seriously addresses any of these concerns, acknowledging that to seek “Plato’s voice” is “a perilous exercise in this dialogue especially” (164). He uses literary and rhetorical context effectively in discussing what some have seen as a contradiction between Socrates’ praise of the educational value of inspired poetry (rather than mere techne) and his allocation of the poet’s life to the sixth level out of nine (162-3). A more “literary” approach might have assisted or enriched his argument elsewhere, and would certainly have changed the complexion of the questions asked and answered. E.g. if Socrates is a dramatic character in his own right (albeit a privileged one), and not necessarily a “mouthpiece,” the status of Plato’s own writings in the context of the Republic starts to look rather different.

Yet despite such methodological concerns, this is a stimulating, enlightening, highly intelligent and well written book. Very rarely is Janaway less than elegant and pellucid (as when he misuses “elide” [95]). The book is also well produced. I noticed only one typo (the Woodruff reference on p. 24, n. 27 should read “(1982)b”), and there are footnotes rather than end-notes (an increasingly rare pleasure). All Greek is translated, and there is a sensible glossary of transliterated Greek words. My only complaint here is the barbarous transliteration of longer Greek phrases in the notes.

  • [1] Cf. M. W. Blundell, “Self-Censorship in Plato’s Republic,” in Virtue Love and Form, ed. T. Irwin and M.C. Nussbaum (Edmonton 1993) 17-36.