Things You Can Learn From Studying Theory And Criticism: Plato’s View Of Art- Theory Of Ideas

"The true lover of knowledge naturally strives for truth, and is not content with common opinion, but soars with undimmed and unwearied passion till he grasps the essential nature of things."
Plato (428? BC - 347? BC)


Plato’s view of art is estimably bound up with what he called the theory of ideas. Ideas are as expressed in the Republic the ultimate reality. The things are conceived as ideas before they take practical shape as things.  Therefore, a tree is nothing more than a concrete embodiment of its image idea. The idea of everything is its original pattern, the thing its copy. As the things are the imperfect of ideas from which they spring. Their productions in art must be imperfect. They take men away from reality rather than towards it. At best, they are but partial image of it and they help neither to mould character nor to primo. According to Plato, the artist imitates the things of the sensuous world as they appear to him. The world itself is imperfect in an ideal archetype. It is not real, reality exists in the idea which is absolute, one and unchanging. And thus the artist tries to present a distorted image of reality and tries to make an illusion of reality. Poetry, therefore, is thrice removed from reality. In Republic –III, Plato shows not only tragedy but epic too as a matter of the ‘imitation, or representation, of words and action. Indeed, from the literal sense of mimesis, Plato seems to draw a general distrust of the whole activity of imitating. However that may be epic and tragedy presented obvious dangers for Plato, for the words and actions they portrayed might so easily be immoral or emotional. 

 But it Book X, more esoteric considerations surface as well. In a disastrous though familiar analogy Plato likens poems to pictures. At the top of the hierarchy of beds is the ‘idea’ of the bed constructed by god; next comes the physical example, this actual bed, constructed by a carpenter; lowest of all is the picture of a bed, made by a painter.   

 In the  Republic  Plato makes Socrates represent homer as ‘trying to speak’ of’ wars, strategy, government, education’, and as doing it less expertly than masters of those fields.  

 A through going critic of poetry like Plato fell that epic too was an evil teachers. His quarrel, in fact, was Greek mythology as a whole, with ‘all the tales of how gods war, plot and fight against gods’ and even more fundamentally, with the proposition that ‘god, which is good, is the cause of evil to anyone’.   

Plato is interested in literature, or art, only in so far as its influence is beneficial in moulding the life of the good citizen. None other is to be allowed to contaminate his state. It shall be no argument that a poem or poet is charming, admirable, or even sacr4ed- vain arguments of aesthetics if the teaching is not such as the guardians prescribe.   

Plato launches his attack on homer and Hesiod and the other poets who have followed their example. Plato does so for homer and Hesiod, they misrepresent the gods, and show them as revengeful, or lustful, or cruel, or as waging war among themselves. The tragedians and comedian are condemned because they imitate unworthy objects. In the ideal state there is no place for them. Let them be crowned with fillets- let perfumed oil be poured on their heads-but they must be sent on to another city.    

As a moralist, he has disapproved the poetry because it is immoral. As a philosopher, he disapproved of it because it is based on falsehood. His ideal man as a citizen pursues the moral ideal as an individual; he is intent upon the pursuit of truth. But the arts deal in illusion. 

When a carpenter makes a bed or chair, that bed or chair is not reality, just an appearance of those things. There cannot be more than one real, or ideal bed, for if there were more, each would pre-suppose as the form or idea, which made i6t what it was, an absolute bed behind itself. The carpenter can make no more than an imitation of the reality and the bed he makes is once removed from the truth. But the painter’s bed is twice removed. For, he does not imitate the reality, made by god, but the imitation, made by the carpenter. His work therefore, is no more than an imitation of imitation.    

And in like manner the poet, using not paint, but verbs, nouns and rhythms-appealing to the ear, where the other appealed to the eye-can re-create no more than  a weak imitation of a copy. His subject and method are false. He appeals not to the reason but to the emotions. Homer and Hesiod, then, must be banished. Tragedy and comedy must go. If we permit poetry at all, it must be confined to hymns to the gods, and verses in praise of noble men.