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 FreeEssays.cc, 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.