BMCR 2008.04.05

Platone e la Poesia: Teoria della composizione e prassi della ricezione. International Plato Studies Vol. 22

, Platone e la poesia : teoria della composizione e prassi della ricezione. International Plato studies ; v. 22. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2005. 421 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 389665294X €58.00.

[The author apologises for the lateness of this review.]

This thoughtful and meticulous study covers just about every aspect of Plato’s engagement with poetry, from the great themes of mimesis and enthousiasmos, to Plato’s use of poetic quotations and motifs in the dialogues, to the wider question of the role of poetry in Greek society. Much of the material is familiar, but the overall interpretation which emerges from this book is rather radical. Although Giuliano had not completed the final preparation of his text for publication before his untimely death in 2002 (a task which was undertaken by colleagues at the University of Pisa), his vision is nevertheless clear: his is a Plato deeply rooted in the traditions of Greek culture, who, far from being hostile to poetry, would have fully endorsed the sentiment expressed by Diotima in the Symposium (209d), that Homer, Hesiod and the other good poets are to be envied for the ‘children’ they left behind them, spiritual offspring whose value far surpasses that of ordinary mortal children. According to G. the widely held view that Plato is illiberal and authoritarian in his attitudes towards the poets stems from anachronistic conceptions of poetry, which assume that it is a purely aesthetic phenomenon or primarily concerned with self expression. G. sets out accordingly to interpret Plato in his historical context, and on his own terms, insisting that Plato’s theoretical statements about poetry should not be studied in isolation from his practice of incorporating poetic quotations, themes and motifs in the dialogues. If Plato really wished to eradicate poetry from society why did he not practise what he preached and erase all traces of it from his own writings?

The first section of the book centres on mimesis, its antecedents in early Greek poetry and Plato’s theorization of ideas about poetry which are already embedded in Greek culture. In the Republic Plato endorses the traditional importance of mousike in education but shows that not every type of mimesis, not every type of poetry, should be included. G. rightly points out that this is not a question of genre, but of ethics: what matters is that the models to be imitated by putative guardians should be appropriate, regardless of the kind of poetry in which they are represented. Contrary to what is sometimes maintained, tragedy, the most imitative of genres in terms of its form, is not banned tout court, but only certain tragedies, or sections of tragedies, which offer paradigms of men and women behaving badly. As examples of plays containing offensive material G. lists Aeschylus’ Semele, Sophocles’ Ajax, Trachiniae and Philoctetes, and Euripides’ Hercules Furens, Alcestis, Hippolytus and Medea. On the other hand a passage such as that towards the end of Oedipus Rex where the final downfall of the protagonists is narrated in the third person by the messenger would apparently have been admitted (though G. does not explain why). According to G. there is no reason why tragedy should not imitate good men, who are moderate, courageous and self-controlled. Indeed he imagines that this is the kind of tragedy that Plato has in mind in the Laws (817a-d) where it is suggested that tragedians might be ‘granted a chorus’ in the Cretan city provided that their plays conformed to what the rulers required of them. Similarly in the Republic tragedies which offered examples of fine behaviour for the young to imitate and internalize would have their place. But what would such tragedies look like? G. does not specify, though he does say that the dialogues themselves offer the best examples of the good mimesis which Plato advocates. Perhaps, then, as many have suggested before, we should look to Socrates as the true tragic hero. But in that case we are looking at a redefintion of tragedy rather than an incorporation of its essential features into the educational programme of the city.

On the notorious problem of the relationship between the discussions of mimesis in Republic books 3 and 10 G. sees no substantial contradiction since they are based on different perspectives, the one pedagogical, the other philosophical. Mimesis has an important function in the formation of character provided that the right objects are imitated, a theme which is fundamental to the Republic and developed at length in the Laws. Poetry can on occasion grasp the truth, at least in relation to the phenomenal world, and in that sense can be useful in guiding us in the pursuit of knowledge. This idea can be expressed in a negative way (poets merely imitate the world of appearances) or more positively through the concept of inspiration or enthousiasmos. In both cases the poet’s knowledge is imperfect, but, according to G., the end product is not necessarily devalued: a poem can be valuable either because it imitates the right object or because it is divinely inspired, and G. sees no irony at all in Plato’s elaboration of the palaios muthos of poetic inspiration. If Plato seems to oscillate between negative and positive evaluations of poetry, that is not because of any conflict or ambivalence in himself but is inherent in the nature of poetry. Inspiration guarantees quality, but, since inspiration is by definition occasional and transitory, most poetry most of the time is the product of mimesis. Poetry can thus be conceptualized both as a divine gift and as an imperfect human creation, and Plato alternates between these views without difficulty.

As for Plato’s alleged authoritarianism, G. argues that he is merely reflecting the standard practice of his age, in which the state exercised tight control over the performance and enjoyment of poetry. The famous story of how Phrynichus was fined for reminding the audience of their sufferings and reducing them all to tears with his tragedy on the Sack of Miletus (Hdt. 6.21.2) is but one illustration of the penalties that could be imposed on poets whose work was deemed inappropriate, and G. links this account with Plato’s strictures on the emotive power of poetry at Rep. 605c-606c. Further evidence that Plato’s views are not as shocking as modern critics suppose, G. argues, is that many of his criticisms of poetry are anticipated by earlier writers. Xenophanes, for example, is equally critical of traditional representations of the gods in Greek poetry, and Aristophanes’ attacks on the degeneracy of ‘new music’ and the dithyramb in plays such as Clouds, Birds and Frogs are very similar to those we find in Plato. The fact that Aristotle shared these attitudes (see e.g. Pol. 1341b9-18) merely confirms that Plato’s judgements were in keeping with those of the intellectual elite of the period. At the same time his treatment of poetry is deeply rooted in tradition, as we see from the ubiquitous use of poetic quotation in the dialogues, where poetic texts can offer an important starting point for discussions of ethical issues. Socrates is especially fond of interrogating the poets to tease out the true meaning of their sayings, applying logic in his exegeses and showing us how to interpret their words correctly.

Taking theory and practice together G. finds four main areas in which poetry is useful for Plato: for preserving myths about the past, for persuasive purposes, for educating the young, and as a first step in the transmission of knowledge. Plato treats poetry as the basis of paideia because of the culture in which he lived, but he does not regard the poets uncritically as a guide to life, nor does he think that poetry can impart that true wisdom which the pursuit of philosophy can alone provide. Rather the value of poetry lies in the knowledge it can give us of the imperfect world which we inhabit.

No summary can do justice to the detailed working out of G.’s arguments, and I have undoubtedly simplified the subtleties of his analysis. But I remain unconvinced of the general picture he paints of a Plato whose relationship with the poets is unambiguous. It is difficult, for example, to take everything that Plato says about poetic inspiration at face value, given the irony that is so often lurking in his texts. In the Ion the great central speech on poetic inspiration at 533d-534e is prefaced by the image of the magnet which emphasises the interconnexion between the various elements in the chain of communication: Muse, poet, rhapsode and audience. Can we be sure that the undoubtedly ironic picture of the rhapsode’s inspired state should not affect our interpretation of the poet’s? In the Meno (99b-d) poets and politicians alike are said to be divinely inspired. Can we really take this statement seriously? In the Phaedrus, despite the eulogy of the inspired poet in the famous passage on poetic mania at 245a, the life of the poet is nevertheless rated sixth in order of merit after the philosopher, the king, the man of affairs, the trainer or the doctor, and the seer, which suggests that the attitude to poets and poetry in this dialogue is just as equivocal as in the Ion. On the more general question of Plato’s authoritarianism, G. is no doubt right to point to the anachronistic preconceptions of many modern critics (myself included) who object to Plato’s assault on the autonomy of poetry, and it is salutary to be reminded of the conditions in which poetry was performed in classical Athens. But it is one thing to say that poetry was a public art form sponsored by the state, another to say that poets were actually told what they could and could not say. Plato may well have envied Homer the poetry that he left behind, but that did not prevent him from wishing to replace him as the educator of Greece.