BMCR 2004.02.47

Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic

, Exiling the poets : the production of censorship in Plato's Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xv, 189 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226567273. $27.50.

Naddaff sets out to offer an “original interpretation” of the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy. “The censorship of poetry, I argue, is a foil, a cover, to produce literature, to produce philosophy, and to produce a reciprocal need between the two” (xi). This surprising thesis converts censorship into something salubrious from Naddaff’s perspective, at least for the goals of Platonic/Nietzschean philosophy — more about that below.

She asserts that Plato does not wish to do away with poetry but to learn from it, in the process strengthening philosophy. The talk about censorship in the Republic calls for rethinking, according to Naddaff, since dialectic, by its nature encourages openness. “This openness to all discourses, however, is unconditional; indeed it is the condition of the possibility of the dialectic itself when it examines a nature alien to its own” (133). At this point, Naddaff sounds downright Gadamerian in her allegiance to the openness of dialogue, and fully philosophical in describing poetic discourse as “alien.” That allegiance to openness dissolves rapidly when a few sentences later Naddaff endorses the analytic view of philosophy as an endless agon, a view she inherits from Nietzsche (a strange but telling source of inspiration for Naddaff’s book). Naddaff tells the reader that “philosophy risks losing its own individual identity and individuality when it engages with and incorporates the object of its discourse…. This risk stages the agon necessary to the ongoing dialectical definition and redefinition of the philosophical enterprise…” (133). Philosophy’s battles — sometimes called dialogues by its acolytes — are “necessary” ones for its own continued domination. Naddaff does not attempt to hide philosophy’s assimilatory desires.

The book contains an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion, with chapter four (“The Death of Poetry, The Poetry of Death”) as the hinge for a key part of her interesting and detailed interpretation. The pincer movement of “death” in the chapter title should not be underestimated. Working out the role of the thumoeidetic [ to thumoeides ] is the success of that chapter, because Naddaff claims that Plato points to reason’s lack of self-sufficiency for the elite guardians; they need spirit as well — along the lines that “alien” discourses were needed above. On Naddaff’s reading, the tripartite soul — reason, spirit, appetite — cannot banish appetite and spirit, leaving only the “best” part of the soul, to logistikon (97). Somehow, pure reason on its own lacks “resistance and force” (108), which it can obtain through an alliance with spirit.1

Likewise, according to Naddaff, either literature or philosophy on its own would be problematic. How literature would exist in isolation from all other forms of discourse is not explained. “Just as poetry without philosophy was inadequate to its own task, so too is philosophy without poetic image and myth” (xiii). Thus, the mutual “need” of each, as mentioned in the thesis (xi). The evidence piles up for this particular claim about philosophy’s need(s). For instance, Naddaff is able to cite passages from the Republic in which Socrates talks about something missing from the conversation. Socrates: “I think we omitted some things that we must now discuss” (603d9-e1). However, Naddaff and some contemporary philosophers make the case for poetry’s need of philosophy. Poetry is not allowed to speak for itself. Simonides, a key poet who does receive some attention in Exiling the Poets, does not express poetry’s wish to become more philosophical. Neither does Homer. Plato makes readers aware that poetry precedes the discipline of philosophy and has captivated the public without philosophy’s endorsement. On the scene prior to the establishment of a border called Platonic philosophy, poetry had no need to defend itself and furthermore no “reciprocal” need.

One means to the end of producing Platonic philosophy’s political desires, at least insofar as they are expressed in the Republic, is censorship, and it is the interesting claim of Naddaff’s book that this censorship ought to be seen not in the usual negative ways, as it might be by those subjected to, and silenced by, it. Rather, Naddaff, the champion of Platonic/Nietzschean philosophy, writes: “In the primary educational program that Socrates constructs for the elite future guardians, poetry retains its traditional paideutical role, but it does this — here is the paradox — only insofar as it is censored” (12). This is the price poetry must pay for a particular achievement to which Naddaff points later in her presentation. “Socrates transformed poetry into a form of philosophical logoi” (67). Censorship is one of the means by which philosophy can control poetry’s otherness, poetry’s leaking out over boundaries, its capacities for taking possession of people, its transgressive qualities. Philosophy justifies its censorship, in part, by claiming that “poetry aggressively trespasses on philosophy’s terrain” (23), even if that terrain happens to be carved out of a space occupied initially by poetry. It should also be noted that Platonic censorship is not meant to be unlimited. As Ruby Blondell notes: “Some poetry is always allowed in Kallipolis”.2

In order to make philosophy’s usurpation palatable, Naddaff accepts some warping of reason. “One can read, as I do in the following chapters, the infamous action of competition in the Republic, namely, the poets’ exile and ostracism, as an attempt to break down the poets’ exclusive control, their totalizing cultural, social, and literary power” (6). How could philosophers exert the power of censorship if the poets have “exclusive control” and “totalizing” power? How is it that those with omnipotence are forced into exile? Of course, the Republic is about a forthcoming world, one in which the philosophers have figured out ways to displace the poets. Among other things, the Republic is a map for philosophy’s making its way in the world, gaining the political upper hand, a topic that was much on Plato’s mind, as we know from the Seventh Letter, though this upper hand might not come about by placing philosophers in political office.3 Gaining that upper hand would not come about so crudely, so exoterically, say, in open warfare. Naddaff bypasses some places where Plato reveals the militaristic side of the plan, such as a passage Naddaff cites in which Socrates speaks of the time when “we first undertook the education of our soldiers” (398a; cited on 64). See as well 543a5.4

To her credit, Naddaff is aware of this usurpation, resulting in a small amount of inelegant blatancy: “Socrates’ interpretations emerge, however, from his interested ideology” (16). Another consequence of the usurpation is that philosophers become tainted by the same vices attributed to poets. “The language of the poets must resemble the language of the philosopher, who we soon find out, both lies and creates fictions” (34). The difference between these lies and fictions is that the philosophical ones are “necessary fictions,” according to Naddaff, due to another of philosophy’s needs — the need to create a separate identity for philosophy (7).

Establishing philosophy’s identity requires censorship, according to Naddaff, even if it means constructing sentences that sound as if they could be in Orwell’s 1984. “Censorship increases rather than diminishes the ethical and educational effects of Homer and Hesiod. Eliminating a select group of stories adds to the essential and traditional power of literature as a cultural practice that shapes behavior, beliefs, aspirations, and desires. Subtraction, as it were, is addition” (25).

For a number of reasons, some explained, some enmeshed in deeper unacknowledged levels of causation, Naddaff accepts censorship as a political solution, without feeling the need to receive edification from the stories of poets, ancient (e.g. Ovid) or modern (e.g. Whitman), who have suffered censorship. Has Naddaff so quickly forgotten Salmon Rushdie? Readers need not assume that the provocative issue divides simply into whether one is pro- or anti-censorship, for means other than censorship exist for a community to establish a dominant discourse or a dominant set of texts. One of those means might be called canon-formation. Canon-formation operates sometimes in quite different ways that allow the “alien” discourses or texts to continue on parallel to the canonical ones (a non-assimilationist view of things). One explication for the absence of non-assimilationist views in Exiling the Poets is that Naddaff emphasizes repeatedly that she is on the side of philosophy in this narrative of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy. The final sentence of the conclusion cements the bias: “The philosopher of the postcensorship age cultivates the desire to imagine all images of what philosophy is and could be” (134).

What goes unimagined in Naddaff’s book, more importantly, is a set of alternative scenarios that do not transform the community into corpse-admiring stoics. With Nietzsche as her guide from the outset (5) and Leo Strauss in the background, Naddaff embraces a kind of philosophical necrophilia. Using specifically Nietzschean phrasing, Naddaff writes about a “transvaluation of values” when “we” identify with corpses (114). “Philosophy as the love of wisdom is the true practice of death” (127). “Socrates returns to the imperative to practice philosophy, to practice being dead and immortal in life and in body” (132). This message is on the same wavelength as Nietzsche: “You must learn during your life to be dead”.5 If this is what exiling the poets brings about, Naddaff might want to consider opting for the life-affirming poets she is prepared to silence on behalf of a Platonic philosophy committed to fashioning a necropolis.


1. Chris Bobonich has recently made the case that the Republic is not the last word on Plato’s political intentions. See Bobonich’s Plato’s Utopia Recast: His Later Ethics and Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002). His book might have come along too late for Naddaff’s consideration, but Bobonich’s discussion of the tripartite soul leads him to conclude that non-philosophers (e.g. poets) can be part of Plato’s city of words.

2. Ruby Blondell, The Play of Character in Plato’s Dialogues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 243.

3. See Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Dialectic and Sophism in Plato’s ‘Seventh Letter,'” in Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980): 93-123; see especially footnote 10. It might be possible to conjecture that the Republic is meant as a thought-experiment, something not designed to have real-world implications. Gadamer himself asserts that view: “This state [in the Republic ] is a state in thought, not any state on earth” ( Dialogue and Dialectic, p. 48). The Seventh Letter and its endorsement of esotericism would seem to put paid to the issue of whether Plato’s writings are mere philosophical thought-experiments. Naddaff’s inclusion of Leo Strauss in her book suggests that she might be aware of Platonic/Nietzschean esoteric designs — then, now, and in the future — on the exoteric world. Naddaff is convinced that a particular philosophy alone has the capacity to save the state.

4. Naddaff has been co-opted by Nietzschean ideology as described in Geoff Waite’s Nietzsche’s Corps(e): Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, Or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996). See especially the section on “incorporation” (8-26). See also his essay, co-authored with Stanley Corngold, “A Question of Responsibility: Nietzsche and Hölderlin at War, 1914-1946” in Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? On the Uses and Abuses of a Philosophy, edd. J. Golomb and R.S. Wistrich (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002): 196-214.

5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke Nietzsches, edd. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967ff): 7 / I:57.