EXILE OF POETRY
Of many excellences which I perceive in order of our state, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than…the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received…that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them. (Plato 427)
The 10th chapter of Plato’s Republic is mainly an elaboration of why poetry must be banned in a utopian society. It features Socrates and Glaucon’s dialogue regarding the effects of poetry in the Kallipolis, its flaws and the need for it to be abolished.
Ever since the Greek civilization existed, its citizens have relied on poetry-based education. Its utility and beauty (which Socrates called as ‘charm’) evidently affected every area and sphere of this society. But then amidst its success, Socrates viewed it differently. Right then he attempted to exile poetry and did not let it be admitted in a well-run society unless it ‘proves its title to exist’.
Evidently, poetry is a part of every society’s culture. Its influence is extended even upon its moral, spiritual and political spheres. It never fails to amaze every given civilization rising from generation to generation and has always been doing its part even in modernity. Here rises the question: must we agree with Plato’s poetry policy now that we could observe its utility? The judgment had been given and conditions had been set. As Plato proposed:
And we may further grant to those of her (poetry) defenders who are lovers of poetry and yet not poets the permission to speak in prose on her behalf: let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to states and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight. (434)
As regards to this, the author strongly insists that poetry be admitted and not be banned in a well-run state for it proves to be beneficial to its moral growth and political awareness.
Upon establishing the claim, this paper would discuss the nature of poetry according to two viewpoints: the Greeks’, and the contemporary, consensual viewpoint. It would try to look at it according to how the Greeks understood its nature and would discuss how they distinguished it from the other forms of arts. Aristotle’s Poetics would also be briefly tackled for clearer and better exposition of this background. Secondly, the author would discuss it according to how it is defined and understood today. In fact, poetry has a broad definition. There have been many attempts to define thus put a boundary to it (Encyclopaedia Britannica cited that the reason why people put a definition is to take care of the borderline case). Now, we will define and discuss its nature in any way possible, choosing what is important and relevant to the topic. The sequence in this section would first include its historical background, attempts to define it and the subdivisions under it. After concretizing the above facts, the author would then proceed on discussing it according to Plato’s perspective which includes the exposition of its ‘deceiving’ nature and the reasons why he wanted to abolish it. More importantly, we would proceed on refuting his claims using Aristotle’s Poetics and Mill’s concept on Liberty, then we would cite the reasons why it must not be banned and the benefits it gives to the society. The author, in this section, has included Aristotle’s claim (which we could encounter in his Politics ) regarding moral inculcation so as to intensify the argument in this part of the paper. These benefits, moral growth and political awareness, would also be defined and elaborated so that the readers would see their importance and further understand them.
The author of this paper aims to achieve the following objectives: a concrete refutation of Plato’s poetry policy; an understanding of the nature of poetry in Greek and contemporary context; a knowledge on its effects on the society; and an appreciation of this certain form of art.
NATURE OF POETRY
Poetry in Greek context
According to Wikipedia, Poetry comes from the Greek term ‘poiesis,’ which means ‘making’ or ‘creating.’ Great Books of the Western World added that “this root further signifies that poetry covers all forms of art or human productivity.”
Poetry, along with painting and philosophy, is an activity that was flourishing in ancient Greece. We can say that it was considered as such due to these reasons:
First, it was being used in the education of the state. Ever since, the state has implanted love of poetry among its citizens, and Homer, the “greatest of poets,” (Plato 433) “first of tragedy writers” (433) and the great captain and teacher of the whole poetic company, (430) has contributed a lot in this education .
Secondly, it was a part of their daily activities. Poetry was manifested in public performances and during special occasions.
For the Greeks, every form of art is a form of imitation. This is where the term ‘mimesis’ comes in. Mimesis, or imitation, is something a person does by impersonating a character or a thing. Dancers could imitate how birds fly, or painters could paint a plant which really looks similar with the original one. For Aristotle, Poetry is mimesis, and a poet may imitate by (1) narration or (2) presenting characters as living and moving (On Poetics 682). It is a form of art which imitates by language alone; an art which relates to hearing (681).
Great Books characterized Greek Poetry, then, as manifested and performed in (1) narrative, (2) Homeric, and (3) dramatic forms. The narrative form is a storytelling method with or without dialogue at all; Homeric is where a story is told through actions and speeches of characters; and dramatic is a form where the story is represented through dialogue alone (323).
Every performance could either be comic or tragic, containing two kinds of characters: the noble and the ignoble.
Poetry distinguished from other forms of arts
We have seen how poetry was manifested then and in what forms were they ‘heard.’ Let us then proceed on how it was distinguished from the other forms of arts.
Though its root covers all forms of art or human productivity, it still has its own properties different from them. Plato then distinguished it from painting or drawing by citing that they are concerned with sight and poetry is concerned with hearing (432). It has been distinguished from music, a form of art which also relates to hearing. As we can see he then stated that music adds color to the poem being recited:
“You must have observed again and again what a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colors which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose” (430).
Along with the above quote, we could understand that poetry has already been distinguished from prose. Further distinctions were discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics. We have understood what imitation is, and Aristotle made further clarifications regarding it by citing that its modes differ in three ways: (1) by difference of kind in their means of use, (2) by differences in the objects, and (3) by the manner of imitation (681-682). In the first way, imitation or arts is done with the use of aids: colour for painting, rhythm for dancing, rhythm and harmony for music, and language for prose and poetry. In this section poetry was further differentiated from prose. Those who use metre and verse in their works were coined as ‘poets’ by the citizens then (681). Secondly, objects simply pertain to the actions they represent: the noble and the ignoble (as we have already cited). Lastly, the manner is how they are presented: through narration, dialogue or combination of them.
Poetry as an appeal to emotion
After having discussed poetry as imitative in nature and distinct from the other forms of arts, we will then discuss poetry as that which appeals to emotion.
Back then, they considered poetry as that which stirs the emotions. Homer and the tragedians’ performance usually represent “a pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in long oration (433).” According to Plato, this form of representation produces a great impact in the emotions of the audience. He asserted that the poets inject emotions in the work as they prefer to affect the ‘passionate and fitful temper’ (433). This therefore results in nourished and strengthened feelings. Further, he stated that:
“…of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire, and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action—in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions…(433)”
To sum this section up, the nature of poetry in Greek context are: (1) as one that flourished during their civilization; (2) one which was imitative in nature; (3) one which was manifested in certain forms; (4) one which was properly distinguished from the other forms of arts; and (5) one which stirred the emotion.
History of Poetry
In this section, we will come to understand how poetry evolved and how it has come to possess a definite intension which we know of now.
The oldest poetical works, according to Wikipedia, are the Epic of Gilgamesh (3rd millennium BC, Sumer), the Istanbul no. 2461 (2037-2029 BC), the Vedas (1800-1500 BC) and the Iliad and Odyssey (700-500 BC).
These ancient poetic works, which emerged in different genres and forms, have been composed to aid memorization and oral transmission. As ages passed by, ancient thinkers made their efforts to determine what makes poetry distinctive as a form and what distinguishes a good poetry from the bad one. This is where Poetics, the study of Poetry emerged. Shi Jing, one of the five classics of Confucianism, developed canons for the ancient east and Aristotle’s Poetics contributed to the ancient west (Poetry, Wikipedia).
Aristotle’s work became influential in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age and in Europe during the Renaissance. European colonialism and global trade encouraged interaction among the various poetic works and traditions.
Since the beginning of 19th century, modern criticism identified poetry with verse. Poets and aestheticians had distinguished and defined it in opposition to prose. And as the 20th century dawned, debates regarding the definition, distinction from the other genres of literature and form of poetry surfaced. Traditional definitions on poetry and its distinction from prose had been questioned. Some of the poets’ attempt to go against the traditional structure developed, revived and helped poetry gain a new structure.
Attempts to define Poetry
By now, several great thinkers had attempted to define poetry in its vastness. According to Boswell, it is ‘much easier to say what poetry is not than on what it is’ (qtd. In Great Books of the Western World 319). Wordsworth defined it as an ‘emotion recollected in tranquility (319). Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz, a Polish historian of aesthetics, defined poetry as an ‘art based on language.’ Further, he stated: “Poetry also has a more general meaning…that is difficult to define because it is less determinate: Poetry expresses a certain state of mind (Poetry, Wikipedia).”
Divisions of Poetry
Literature is divided into Poetry and Prose. Rich Divided Poetry is divided as such (Types of Literature xxviii):
Poetry ranges from records of historical events in epic such as Gilgamesh, to easy-
reading nursery rhymes such as Georgie Porgie. There are poetries used for liturgical activities and therefore are inspirational in nature (psalms, hadiths, surahs); there are some which are used to stir up the emotions (elegies), etc. (Poetry, Wikipedia)
PLATO’S POETRY POLICY
Plato attempted to ban poetry because of its two major flaws:
It has no claim to truth. For Plato, imitative poetry is ‘thrice removed from the truth’. He cited three categories or descent of reality: (1) the ideal, (2) the ones made by carpenters or potters, and the (3) Mimesis, or the work of a painter or a poet (427-434). For him, the tragic poet is an imitator and is therefore removed from the truth.
The theory of the World of Forms, when applied to objects such as bed, implies that it (the concept of bed) corresponds to only one idea even if we could see such different and varying designs of it. The carpenter ‘makes it for use in accordance with the idea of it’ and on the third level, the poet does his imitation through language. For Plato, imitation is a form of deception. A poet could write a poem which he knows nothing above and yet makes the people believe that his work was that of a genius. He added:
The poet, with his words, and phrases may be said to lay on the colors of the several arts himself understanding their nature only enough to imitate them; and other people who are as ignorant as he is and judge only from his words, imagine that if he speaks of cobbling or military tactics, or of anything else, in metre and harmony and rhythm, he speaks very well—such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have…what a poor appearance the tales of poets make when strip off the colors which music puts upon them (430).
Secondly, poetry appeals to emotion, the inferior part of the soul, and not to reason, the superior part. It had been said that it awakens and nourishes the feelings and impairs reason. Further, he defined feelings as an irrational nature which has no discernment of greater or less. By inserting disallowed emotion and indulging the irrational nature of man, he implants ‘evil’ constitution which results in the corruption of the minds of their followers. Due to these, ‘pleasure and pain’ become the rulers instead of law and reason (433).
REFUTATIONS ON PLATO’S CLAIM
Aristotle on Mimesis
Man is naturally imitative. It is innate for him to copy something or someone. In fact, it is through it that he first learns. It is impossible for children to grow mentally without them imitating something. It is humanly natural for all to delight in imitated works (On Poetics 682).
Poetry achieves much through imitation. First, Britannica stated that it makes us see and feel what occurred then. By imitating a state of mind, it makes us catch the emotion by that time that certain situation happened—it makes us experience the process someone has gone through. (86). Let us take riding on a swing for example:
‘How do you like to go up in the swing/up in the air so blue?….”(The swing)
This human experience could again be felt when we read the poem entitled ‘The Swing’.
Secondly, it makes us see and feel certain aspects we tend to overlook. Through mimicking certain features of a person or an object, we can see and hear things we had not noticed in them before. (Barnet 196). Triumph, and even affliction could be seen and felt in a new and deeper way when imitated through language; even the sound of simple walking, when put into poem, will make us appreciate this certain activity.
Thirdly, it could make something painful or horrible delightful. (On Poetics 682). In painting, snakes, dead bodies and even ghosts become pleasing to the eye when imitated using colors. In poetry, pain, affliction and chaos become ‘pleasurable’ to the mind when imitated through language. Sorrowful or tragic experience woven in words amazes us amidst paradoxically making us cry.
Mill on Liberty
“… to the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received…(427)”
Plato was firm in his conviction to ban from the state all forms of poetry (except the hymns to the gods), otherwise ‘pleasure and pain’ will become the rulers of the state. Mill opposed such act of banning poetry and he provided answers regarding this controversial claim.
He considered liberty as the Ultimate Good and defined individual liberty as freedom from externally imposed regulations or coercions. True freedom is “pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or, impede their efforts to obtain it (Great Books 58).” For him, freedom from government or social coercion is equal to ‘freedom for the maximum development of individuality, which further means ‘freedom as to be different from all others as one’s personal inclinations, talents and tastes dispose and enable one to be’ (58).
He highlighted the importance of the freedom to develop individuality by arguing that it is ‘one of the principal ingredients of human happiness and society’s welfare’ (58).
He promotes liberty for the ultimate good. If the society would totally ban poetry, its citizens would not be able to develop their own individuality and would therefore not attain society’s welfare and happiness. But then, elimination of social coercion has moral implications. If control is absent, a person may do as he pleases. If poetry could serve as a tool for delight and education, it could also be an avenue to promote certain immoral actions. In this present age, songs (poems added with music) which contain obscene lyrics are in the market and are now being patronized by the youth.
Let us be reminded that what we are against of is poetry’s total banning and Mill provided a claim that opposed it. How can we attain the Ultimate Good if we are to prohibit development of individuality through poetry? Just because it contains flaws Plato described, it means we are to totally ban it? This paper opposes Plato’s actions but in the same way considers the moral implications of allowing total freedom of expression. If we are to ban poetry, we would not achieve social welfare leading to the Ultimate Good, but if we totally adhere to Mill’s claim and totally allow freedom of expression, our society would be in danger as to the moral implications it would bring. Mill is right in opposing such actions as Plato’s but is in the wrong of totally allowing freedom of expression. In this case, what we must do is to impose certain regulations upon allowing its admission.
SOCIAL UTILITY OF POETRY
Of all the reasons why poetry should not be banned, social utility holds the highest regard. Specifically, it benefits the moral growth and political awareness of the community. But then, let us define them and state their meaningfulness before we proceed to the main argument.
On moral growth
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘moral’ as relating to or ‘capable of distinguishing between right and wrong in conduct’; or ‘goodness in conduct or character’. It implies ‘living according to the accepted standards of goodness in conduct or character’. Moral growth pertains to the development of conduct or character.
Aristotle cited the importance of education to achieve character development. Aside from training the mind, education of the state involves molding of character (On Politics 544). In his Politics, he acknowledged the use of music as an effective tool for moral instruction, but then he later stated that it could also be applied to poetry (545). It is indeed a fact that young persons will not endure anything which is not sweetened by pleasure (546). Poetry is a great way to train them for it provides relaxation and recreation in the process of learning. It also influences character and soul—it is able to inspire, impart passion and enthusiasm (the ethical part of the soul) and develop sympathy through its imitative nature.
On political awareness
Politics is concerned with the government, state and its affairs (Webster’s New World Dictionary). Being politically aware means being conscious with the affairs of the society. Poetry informs us not just with the activities happening within the state at present, but also with political events that happened long ago in distant places.
Poetry as a source of history
Poetry, whether it be in the form of epic, fable or nursery rhyme, carries with it the identity of the culture and age on which is was made. The poet, in his work, could consciously or unconsciously insert facts which have to do with the current events he had observed, knowing or not knowing that his work could serve as a historical reference in the future.
Through ancient poems inscribed in tablets and stones, we had knowledge of the kind of civilization that emerged then. Knowing the history of a certain nation or civilization makes us understand their present situation. For example, the reason why India embraces the caste system was that their from of social hierarchy was inscribed in their Vedas.
Through poetry, we are not just able to know the facts but rather, as it was stated before, catch the emotion or state of mind at that time that certain historical event happened. Through it we are able to experience the sorrow Jews had gone through when Babylons destroyed Jerusalem (Lamentations); or we were amazed by Queen Elizabeth’s power and prominence found Shakespeare’s poems. And in his time, Poetry has helped a lot in upholding political awareness. What he usually was doing was taking hints in history, inventing characters out of it, writing a poem about them (or scripts) and presenting it to the crowd. Julius Caesar, along with the Roman culture, was then appreciated like never before (Barnet 197).
Lastly, through poetry, nationalism and patriotism were imparted. Who had done that better than Dr. Jose Rizal, who through his poems inspired and spurred the Filipinos to take ownership of their country and be lovers of their own language.
Poetry, in its effect in the society, does not just educate and inform, but also gives pleasure and imparts virtue. Its benefits, moral growth and political awareness, are a great help in society’s advancement as a whole. This conclusion coheres with Mill’s philosophy (which the author had recently stated).
In their freedom of expression, the community was able to receive anything that poets wanted to offer. And these benefits, which are the fruit of the development of their individuality, would eventually lead to the ultimate happiness and welfare of the society (Great Books 58).
Now, this paper was able to establish the nature of Poetry by adopting the perspective of the Greek regarding this form of art, stating its history, giving its possible and necessary definitions and illustrating (through a table) its subdivisions. It has also succeeded on weakening Plato’s arguments regarding its banning using Aristotle’s Poetics and Mill’s Liberty principle. And most importantly, it has elaborated poetry’s moral and political benefits which prove that poetry has a right to be admitted in a well-run state.
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