Plato’s ambivalence towards tragedy: influence and rejection.

Tragedy in the context of a biographical anecdote

In his biography of Plato, Diogenes Laertius (III. 5) informs us that young Plato was a composer of dithyrambs, lyric poems, and tragedies. His acquaintance with Socrates, however, was so decisive that made him admit the worthlessness of his poetic work, and cast it in fire at the age of twenty – just before his participation in a dramatic competition in the theatre of Dionysus.

This story is probably a posterior invention of no historical value. Its symbolic significance, however, is indisputable. The antagonism between poetry and philosophy is a recurring theme in many Platonic dialogues. Its culmination is located in Book X of the Republic (607b), where Socrates refers to the (notorious henceforth) “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (παλαιὰ μέν τις διαφορὰ φιλοσοφίᾳ τε καὶ ποιητικῇ).

In this account of the quarrel, poetry is presented as being on the aggressive side, and philosophy on the defensive. For all that, it is Socrates who banishes the poets from his ideal city (389a-b, 607a), and Plato who aimed at substituting (traditional) poetry with (avant-garde) philosophy, and who set the philosophers at the prominent position thus far occupied by the (commonly held) wise educators of the Greeks, i.e. the poets.

Poetry in the early dialogues

From the beginning of his literary career, Plato was seriously concerned with the following question: is poetry a form of valid knowledge, and are the poets experts in the issues they take up, or not? In the Hippias Minor, the starting point of the discussion about honesty between Socrates and Hippias is a comparison of the basic heroes of the Homeric epics to each other: Achilles vs. Odysseus. Here, the Iliad and the Odyssey provide the stimulus of a conversation on an essentially moral issue. In the Ion, by contrast, poetry is the only issue: Socrates claims that the whole admirable phenomenon of poetry (epic, lyric, tragic) cannot be attributed to human knowledge; for it is induced by the divine influence of the Muses: their dispensation takes hold of both the poets and their audiences.

Tragedy in Books II and III of the Republic

In his inquiry about the ideal constitution, Socrates contents, in Books II and III of the Republic, that poetry in general, and tragedy as its most popular form, commits two crucial mistakes. On the one hand, it portrays the gods in a morally hazardous way as unjust, envious, malevolent, and ultimately responsible for the misfortunes that strike human life. On the other hand, by depicting heroes who are carried away by contradictory passions, tragedy arouses the inferior parts of the souls of the audience, i.e. those parts which involve immoderate impetuses, irrational passions, and excessive emotions. What Socrates aims at is to demonstrate that the traditional belief in the educational value of poetry for the adult citizens is radically false, and that the entertainment of poetry should, accordingly, be replaced by the study of philosophy which is exclusively based on reason.

Tragedy in Book X of the Republic

Socrates reverts to the topic of tragedy in Book X. Homer is repeatedly presented as the initiator of tragedy, and thus the first tragic poet (595c, 598d, 605c, 607a). To be sure, Socrates does not naively muddle up two distinct kinds of poetry; on the contrary, he deems that epic poetry and tragedy are essentially linked on account of the power of deception that both the tragic poets and Homer hold.

The basic arguments that Socrates deploys against tragedy are the following:

a) A painter, who depicts a table or a bed on the fabric, imitates the thing that the carpenter crafts by looking unto the ideal Form of the Table or the Bed. By analogy, the tragic poet imitates in his words the sensible resemblances of the Forms. Thus, the poet is twice removed from the level of Truth and Being (597e).

b) Both visual arts and poetry depict their objects as they appear and not as they truly are (598a-c). Thus, the painter is compelled to portray only one side of the object he paints. Likewise, the poet presents only restricted perspectives of the human behaviour.

c) A painter, who depicts a craftsman equipped with his tools, gives the impression that he himself has knowledge of how to use these tools (598b-c). In the same manner, the poet, who describes a doctor or a general at work, appears to have knowledge of medicine or generalship – although he is completely shorn of any such knowledge (599c-d).

d) As opposed to well-known legislators, philosophers, and sophists, whose contribution to the moral and intellectual progress of others is granted, poets have never benefited one single man. All they know to do is imitate images of virtue, rather than putting virtue itself in practice (600e).

e) The fact the poetry is conveyed in meter and rhythm, while it is often accompanied by the charm of music, hypnotizes and deceives the audience. This would not be the case if the words were deprived of the aesthetic adornments of meter and musical harmony (601a-b).

f) The poets, being subjected to the demands of their audiences, conjure up fake or specious stories, which are nonetheless amusing to the ear of their ignoramus audiences (602b).

g) A consequence of the previous point of criticism is that poets address the inferior parts of the human soul, thus adulating and rendering them dominant. Therefore, the conflict that takes place in our soul between reason and irrational affections is intensified to the point of a complete defeat on the part of reason and law (602c-606d). With these arguments, and especially with the last, which is also the lengthiest, Socrates infers that all genres of poetry, except for the hymns to the gods and the eulogies to good people, must be banned from Callipolis (607a). Hence, tragedy is condemned to annihilation. In the same vein, Socrates claims that there is an ancient and remarkable quarrel between poetry and philosophy. By inventing this quarrel, Plato wants to illustrate the incompatibility between two distinct ways of life. To the “poetic”, “theatrical” and “tragic” life of passions and emotional turmoil, the tempered and quite life of philosophy and moral stability is juxtaposed.

An appraisal of Plato’s relation to tragedy

Plato’s ambivalent stance towards tragedy betokens the implicit but profound impact tragedy had on his work.

Even though Socrates, as Plato’s mouthpiece, explicitly banished the poets from his ideal city, Plato himself composed dialogues, whose dramatic form –an element of great importance for their proper understanding – is comparable to that of the best ancient tragedies. Had it not been for the growth of the Athenian tragedy, Plato might not have been the literary genius, whose subtle irony, exceptional study of manners and morals, and incomparable psychographic acuteness, we so much admire in his dialogues.

On the other hand, the force of Plato’s assault against tragedy, and the world-view it represents, indicates his own sensitivity towards the charm of poetry. His dialogues can be construed as a new form of theatrical discourse in which the protagonist roles are held by the (more or less) rational arguments of the interlocutors, and the plot is made of the dialectical confrontation of those arguments. A rather implausible testimony comes in support of this assumption: Diogenes Laertius (III.56) claims that Plato published his dialogues in tetralogies, i.e. in the same form in which ancient tragic performances were staged (with three tragic plays succeeded by one satyric drama).

The legacy of Plato’s relation to tragedy in antiquity

Plato was fascinated by the power of tragic poetry to stimulate emotions and drive the audience in an deeply-felt identification with the heroes on stage. He was the first to conceive the notion of imitation (μίμησις) as the pertinent characteristic that differentiates poetry, and tragic poetry in particular, from every other kind of discourse. In Book III of the Republic, the meaning of mimesis is confined to “theatrical representation”; in the final Book it becomes almost a synonym for “art” quite generally.

The notion of imitation, already negatively coloured by Plato (on account of his belief in the Theory of Forms), has followed a long and complex course in the history of literary criticism. The first who employed it positively was Aristotle in his Poetics. (It is ironic that the Platonic dialogues are there classified as imitative and poetic works since they are subsumed under the so-called “Socratic discourses”, a sum of prose dialogues which Aristotle considered to constitute a particular kind or genre of poetry). A comparison between the Aristotelian Poetics and the relevant Books of the Republic asserts the great influence that Plato willy-nilly exerted in the subsequent development of literary criticism.

Plato’s denouncement of tragic poetry did not bear fruit in the subsequent tradition of Platonism. Neoplatonism, in particular, turned its back to a literal understanding of the Platonic ban on poetry. On the contrary, Neoplatonists regarded poetic myths as symbolic images of the intelligible reality, and thought of poets, such as Homer and Orpheus, as being on a par with Plato. In the fifth and sixth treatise of his Commentary on the Republic, Proclus takes on the task to reconcile the specious contradiction between (i) Plato’s explicit critique of tragic poetry and its myths, and (ii) the fact that Plato composed dramatic dialogues with fictional plots, many of which include myths invented by Plato himself.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Herrmann, F-G, Destrée, P. eds. Plato and Poets. Leiden-Boston, 2011.
  • Havelock, E. A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge MA, 1963.
  • Murray, P. Plato on Poetry (Ion, Republic 376e-398b, Republic 595-608b). Cambridge, 1997.
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