In Plato’s perfect world, all the poets would be outside the city gates, rag-ridden and limited to declaiming their harmful verses only to the other degenerate exiles (You know, the painters and actors). The problem is that poets, kind of like your toddler brother, are mimics who repeat everything you say and, when you tell them to stop repeating you, well, you know the drill. Here’s what Plato writes in The Republic, “the tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth.”
So the lying poets must be banished.
The poets who write about virtue, especially virtue such as courage and honor that get the troops fired up for battle, they can stay. The rest? Take your fancy Homeric knowledge and get to walking. Maybe they’ll have a place for you in Sparta digging ditches with the other Helots.
There are a few overlapping theories why Plato takes such a dim view of poetry.
First, and most obvious, is that he sought rational, clear thinking as he got to the heart of truth, virtue, and the way they analogically related to the universal when practiced in the particular. Poets, on the other hand, often appealed directly to emotion. The poet, “with his words and phrases,” is is able to manipulate others by the technique of their craft, “such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have.” Poetry, “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.” In other words, a poet can tell untruths or promote action that runs counter to virtue by disordering the way we process information. This need not always be the case but the simple fact that it’s even possible is enough to drive the scoundrels out with pitchforks. They, like the Sophists, are too dangerous to have loitering around the Agora whispering their honeyed words into the ears of innocent passersby.
Second, the fact that poetry, and other arts, are often imitative is a problem for Plato. He writes, “It seems then that if a man who in his cleverness can become many persons and imitate all things should arrive in our city and want to give a performance of his poems, we should bow down before him as being holy, wondrous, and sweet, but we should tell him that there is no such man in our city and that it is not lawful that there should be. We would pour myrrh on his head and crown him with wreaths, and send him away to another city.” I other words, make fun of him a bit and tell him to GET OUT! Mimesis presents a metaphysical difficulty for Plato. This chair somehow participates in chairness but isn’t quite THE chair, so what is it exactly that we’re imitating when we mimic the particular events and objects found in nature. Although I think that some of this eternal form stuff and idealism in Plato’s work itself is overblown (don’t get me started on the Neo-Platonists, though), there has to be at least a little something to it that offers space for the wedge that a group of crazy, relentless German philosophers at work at thousands of years later hammered away at until they shattered idealism into something monstrously unbalanced. I’ll leave that to better philosophers than me, though.
Third, Plato kind of hated the idea of reading aloud. Nicholas Carr explains in his book The Shallows, “Early in the fourth century BC, when the practice of writing was still novel and controversial in Greece, Plato wrote Phaedrus, his dialogue about love, beauty, and rhetoric.” In it Socrates muses on the propriety of writing, mentioning how some think it improves memory and adds wisdom to those who can read it. Socrates disagrees, saying that only a simple person would prefer a written account to a spoken discourse. Here is where master and teacher find themselves at odds, because it seems that Plato prefers the new technology of the written word. Socrates does, it bears mentioning, see the positive side of writing and certainly by the end of the The Republic is ready and willing to kick the poets out (but he has his other reasons, too). The question is how much he’s being used as Plato’s mouthpiece at that point since he doesn’t actually write for himself. It might also be the case that Plato himself is conflicted, after all he clearly respects Socrates (but maybe not enough to keep from putting his own words into his master’s mouth?). Carr explains the problem with poets that Plato was wrestling with, “Today we think of poetry as being part of literature, a form of writing, but that wasn’t the case in Plato’s time. Declaimed rather than inscribed, listened to rather than read, poetry represented the ancient tradition of oral expression…poetry and literature represented opposing ideals of the intellectual life.” At first, I thought maybe Carr is over-selling his point, but he references a number of other Plato scholars who make the same argument. I also can’t help but think about how, even hundreds of years later, St. Augustine is famously confused by the strange, silent reading habits of St. Ambrose. Even at that point in history, the convention was to read a text aloud and memorize rather than write or silently read. Plato wasn’t simply a fan of new tech, though, he was actually defending his very mode of doing philosophy. The depth of his argument, the rigorous logic he applied, and the analytic nature of his thought was only possible through the written word. Carr writes, “In the subtly conflicting views of the value of writing expressed in Phaedrus and The Republic, we see evidence of the strains created by the the transition from an oral to a literary culture.”
So goodbye, dear poets. If you want to defend yourself, Plato is perfectly happy to hear your argument but only if you make it in prose.