Philosophy Weekend: Everybody Please Stop Giving Plato Shit About Music and Poetry

Not the New York Times too!

A recent essay titled Plato’s Pop Culture Problem, and Ours by Princeton professor Alexander Nehamas reinforces a tiresome cliche about the great Athenian thinker that has been spreading, meme-like, for years. I’m talking about the idea that Plato advocated censorship of poetry and music.

Nehamas mainly uses Plato as a foil in this New York Times opinion piece about video game censorship in California, an article that begins with a strained attempt at relevance:

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a case that may have the unusual result of establishing a philosophical link between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Plato.

The case in question is the 2008 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down a California law signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2005, that imposed fines on stores that sell video games featuring “sexual and heinous violence” to minors. The issue is an old one: one side argues that video games shouldn’t receive First Amendment protection since exposure to violence in the media is likely to cause increased aggression or violence in real life. The other side counters that the evidence shows nothing more than a correlation between the games and actual violence. In their book “Grand Theft Childhood,” the authors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson of Harvard Medical School argue that this causal claim is only the result of “bad or irrelevant research, muddleheaded thinking and unfounded, simplistic news reports.”

The issue, which at first glance seems so contemporary, actually predates the pixel by more than two millennia. In fact, an earlier version of the dispute may be found in “The Republic,” in which Plato shockingly excludes Homer and the great tragic dramatists from the ideal society he describes in that work.

First, as Nehamas well knows, Plato didn’t advocate anything. He wrote dialogues featuring his mentor Socrates talking to other Athenians about ethics, politics, truth, knowledge and metaphysics. Plato does not speak for himself anywhere in his entire body of work.

This objection might seem like a technicality, since Plato clearly admired Socrates and can be assumed to be on Socrates’s side. But the dialogue format provides a uniquely open, airy tone to all of the arguments recorded in great works like The Republic, The Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Protagoras, Gorgias and The Symposium. It’s Socrates’s process and style of argument — friendly but structured, good-humored but intense — that gives these books so much life, and makes them so timeless. Conclusions may or may not be reached in a typical Socratic dialogue. The reason the dialogues are valuable is that they train us in the Socratic method, and point to the importance of philosophical investigation.

Here’s a Socrates quote worth remembering: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Various conclusions are reached, or suggested, in Plato’s various dialogues, but no case is ever sealed, and no conclusion is ever considered final. It’s an absolutely significant fact, and a key to understanding Plato’s body of work, that Socrates died talking.

There are long sections in the early chapters of The Republic in which Socrates suggests censoring poetry and music as part of the project of constructing an ideal society. Every reader should freely interpret these sections as they wish, but I’ve always understood Socrates to be leading the conversation in various hypothetical directions in order to lay out the full range of possibilities for this ideal society, this republic they are attempting to build. I’ve also always understood this book’s political project as a metaphor for a psychological project: by the end of The Republic it’s clear that Socrates is not only talking about the construction of the ideal society, but also about the construction of the ideal self.

Censorship of music and literature is a burning-hot issue around the world today — in Iran, in China, in America — and we can only hope that the various idealized societies (Islamic fundamentalist, Communist, Christian fundamentalist) that currently advocate censorship of any kind will enrich their internal debates by reading the works of Plato. They won’t find any easy answers in these books.

The idea that either Plato or Socrates advocated an exclusionary, restrictive or prudish position on education, arts or any other topic really cheapens the amazing legacy of these classic texts, which have been entertaining and enlightening readers for two and a half millennia. Can this offensive meme really threaten the future of Plato’s reputation? I googled “plato poetry music” and was led to a really bad (and poorly written) essay from, a site designed for students looking for texts to copy. Here’s the final paragraph from this piece about Plato’s alleged call for censorship of music and poetry:

Plato’s views may be deemed narrow-minded by today’s society, but one must remember that Plato lived over 2000 years ago. He probably wrote Republic with the best intentions for the people of his time. While his views on censorship and poetry may even seem outlandish today, Plato’s goal was to state what he judged to be the guidelines for a better human existence. The merit in Plato’s arguments is demonstrated by the fact his philosophies on poetry are still studied by scholars around the world today.

Apparently, even students cribbing mediocre essays from the web are now being instructed to apologize for the great, great work of the author of The Apology.

Socrates, a humorous soul above all, would have relished the irony.

9 Responses

  1. Levi, I agree with you and
    Levi, I agree with you and Professor Nehamas. Philosophy, like every other human field, has to be taken in historical context. It’s true that Plato’s Republic outlines a restricted and highly regimented version of democracy. In context, however, it was quite progressive in many ways, even including a sort of gender equality (but only for the elite, Guardian class). I think when we take philosophy out of context we throw out the baby along with the bath water (like dismiss all of Aristotle, just because aspects of his philosophy are blatantly sexist and racist by today’s standards). Of course, the opposite logic applies as well: because philosophy includes some of the prejudices of its day, it shouldn’t be accepted dogmatically. Maybe we should apply the Aristotelian mean between two extremes in our attitude towards Platonic philosophy:).

  2. Well said, Levi.
    Gotta love

    Well said, Levi.

    Gotta love our (modern society) ability to take comments and ideas from the past and twist them to validate our own arguments (i’m talking to you repubs who claim MLK was a conservative).

    I love the title of the post btw.

  3. Levi,
    I’ve said it before:


    I’ve said it before: where else can you get interesting philosophical discussions that are not jargon-laden? Thank you again.

    That said, I did want to comment on one point. You write, “First, as Nehamas well knows, Plato didn’t advocate anything. He wrote dialogues featuring his mentor Socrates talking to other Athenians about ethics, politics, truth, knowledge and metaphysics. Plato does not speak for himself anywhere in his entire body of work.”

    I think I may be too much of this time and place, but I think this point goes a little too far. It’s a kin to the argument journalists make about objectivity. For me, the act of writing is argumentative because even if you are trying to capture “reality” the things you include (and don’t include) come out of your own biases. That said, even if Plato were just simply trying to report the facts, just the facts, mam, he still had to edit and paraphrase and make editorial decisions. Also, and I think this is worth pointing out, Plato always makes his guy the winner in the end. Maybe you could say that Socrates is the best thinker on the block, but do we really know that, or does Plato stack the deck in his favor? Even in the Apology, though Socrates dies, he does so clearly as the winner, at least by the rules and taste of the work’s author, Plato.

    Maybe I’m being a little too picky here. The main point about censorship shouldn’t get lost. I’m really supportive of the idea that there should be as little censorship as possible, regardless of what a man, albeit a great man and thinker, thought over 2000 years ago.

  4. Thanks for the feedback and
    Thanks for the feedback and compliments, TheTaoist. Well, I did anticipate your point when I said that “this objection may sound like a technicality”. But I want to emphasize that there are really two layers of indirection here. The first is that Socrates, not Plato, is speaking — but yes, as you say, we all do know that Plato was implicitly endorsing Socrates’s point of view.

    But the second layer of indirection, the more important one, is that Socrates was speaking of an ideal society without music and poetry in a very hypothetical and possibly ironic way. When I read the long conversation about music and poetry in Chapter 3 of The Republic, it feels to me like Socrates is setting up a “reductio ad absurdum”. It does not feel to me that Socrates really believes it would be a good thing to censor music and poetry as a step towards improving society.

    It might be that Socrates believed that in an ideal world, music and poetry would be revealed as mere “imitations” next to the true harmony of the universe. That seems to be what he’s getting at in Chapter 3 of The Republic. But this belief has very little in common with a belief that existing societies should begin practicing censorship of music and poetry.

  5. It’s been a while since I’ve
    It’s been a while since I’ve read Plato, but if you would allow me one more comment on this. If I read your reply correctly, it seems to me that you might be taking the whole notion of the Platonic ideal a bit too loosely. I think Socrates (via Plato) had a sense that metaphysics should affect the physical world. You can correct me here, but I think what Plato puts forth as an ideal is not the ideal in the sense that we use the word. He may not think it’s attainable, but if it were, he’d want it to play out in society.

    In other words, ideal is not an option because people don’t see things as they should see them (think Allegory of the Cave) not because it’s something that’s nice to think of theoretically but never to be put into practice. If the Philosopher Kings had their day, the society he lays out in the ideal sense would be in line with the real.

    Wouldn’t you say?

  6. Happy to keep hashing this
    Happy to keep hashing this out with you, TheTaoist.

    Well, yes, I should accept Plato on his own terms and admit that he must have meant his idealistic philosophy to be taken seriously and literally. Agreed.

    In that sense, I believe Plato was declaring a goal of constructing a society so perfect, virtuous and harmonious that music and poetry would become unnecessary, would have no place. It’s as if he’s describing a heaven on earth. The music and poetry of the spheres would supersede the music and poetry created by mankind.

    If that’s what Plato was saying — and it seems that it is what he was saying — than I will admit that it’s an alien notion for me, simply because I love music and poetry and cannot wish for a society so ideal that it would exclude the arts. And critics of Plato would be correct to call him out on this rather alarming belief.

    But, this is still a far cry from criticizing Plato for advocating censorship of the arts as a practical step towards reaching that ideal world. I may believe that I will go to Heaven after I die, and that in Heaven I will no longer have to eat food to nourish my body. But this is different from believing that I should stop eating food now, before I go to Heaven. Likewise, there is no evidence that Plato or Socrates believed that they were close to constructing an actual ideal society in Athens, or that they wanted music or poetry to be outlawed in Athens. It’s nearly impossible to believe that they would have taken that position.

    It’s also an important point that there’s no supporting evidence that Plato or Socrates advocated censorship on any practical level. In fact, such a position would seem very inconsistent with everything we know about Plato, Socrates and the rest of their circle. The evidence in the various dialogues shows that they lived easy, relaxed lives, that they enjoyed good music, good theatre, good sex, good drink and good food, and that they had tolerant and democratic personalities. So, again, this newly popular meme that maps Platonic philosophy to modern-day fundamentalism or prudishness still strikes me as completely wrong, completely inaccurate.

    And, finally, I want to mention again that, according to one popular interpretation of The Republic (which I personally agree with), the entire purpose of the Republic was not actually to construct an ideal society, but rather to describe an ideal society as a metaphor for an ideal individual soul. This is what the final chapters of the Republic do — they say that, now that we know what an ideal society would be, let’s see what type of individual personality corresponds to this society. So, if you accept this interpretation (as I do, though others may not), it’s that much clearer that Plato was not in any sense trying to prescribe censorship of the arts as a political move — at best, one could claim that he was trying to prescribe a disciplined detachment from the arts as an ideal personal trait.

    Does that make sense? Thanks again for responses.

  7. This was fun, and I will cry
    This was fun, and I will cry uncle. Thank for letting me have my say. I appreciate the time and thought you put in to your responses. And though I can’t get behind your reading of The Republic (you knew I had to stick that in), I really can get behind your patience with me and your knowledge of Plato.

  8. I do not think that Plato was
    I do not think that Plato was designing an ideal republic. I think he was warning us. I think he was showing us what a true tyranny looks like. His rational arguments, voiced by Socrates, lead down an ever-constricting hole into hell.

    The world that Plato’s Socrates describes is one that I would want to blow up.

    I’ve always felt that the smartest people in Plato’s works are the ones who ask the stupid questions. The troublemakers.

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