The ancient Greek philosopher Plato had a strong influence on western culture and philosophy. He started the foundation on which western philosophy and science are built. Plato was highly influenced by his teacher Socrates, who inspired him to abandon his burgeoning career as a writer of tragedies. Plato also used Socrates as the main character in most of his dialogues. Other sources of influence included Zeno and Parmenides. Apart from philosophy and the arts, Plato also had an interest in mathematics. When Socrates died, Plato began his school of philosophy known as The Academy. This school became the premium standard in old Athens and produced one of the most famous scientist cum philosopher on earth, Aristotle.
Plato had little or no regard for aesthetics or art. It seemed like he had a type of love-hate relationship with aesthetics. Before meeting Socrates, he was a literary critic, wrote plays, and was one of the finest story-tellers in his era. Moreover, some of the greatest literary masterpieces in history have been credited to him. In spite of this strong background in the arts, he still found it threatening.
In this article, we seek to understand why Plato held such a view about aesthetics:
Before we delve fully into what Plato’s views are on aesthetics or arts, we need first to understand the type of philosophy he practiced.
To Plato, our physical world with its ever changing nature was just a poor and decaying copy of an original world that is changeless, perfect, logical, and eternal. He cited examples of a flower’s beauty, tropical scenery, a love affair, or a piece of music as a mimic of Beauty itself. He asserted that sometimes we might get a glimpse of what true Beauty is but that due to the changing appearances of our world, those glimpses would not linger for long. Similarly, those scenes were never here to stay. They just appear to point us to the perfect Beauty that characterizes the eternal.
Apart from Beauty, Plato also applied this logic to Essences like Justice and Geometric Shapes. Using Justice as another example, everyone knows that the chance of getting real and well-deserved Justice in our corrupt society is almost non-existent. So we are left with imitations of what real Justice looks like.
With Geometric Shapes, Plato was of the opinion that no matter how you carefully draw a circle, it would still appear irregular on closer inspection. If a line, point, or any other geometric shape was used, this logic still applied. These examples of Beauty, Justice and Geometric Shapes were referred to as Forms or Ideas. Plato called these Forms “the Really Real” because even though they are perfect, they were also more real than physical things.
To Plato, the world where Forms exist is unchanging and logical. This view was in stark contrast to our physical world which is always changing and illogical. And the only reality the physical world has is the extent it can go to mimic the world of Forms successfully. While our body and its desires exist in the physical world, our mind or soul resides in the world of Forms. Therefore, the only way we can have the best life is to understand and imitate the Forms world as accurately as possible.
Even though there is a lot more, the above explanation of Plato’s philosophy will suffice to enable us to understand his views on aesthetics.
Plato had two theories on aesthetics, and they are as follows:
- Art is an Imitation of an Imitation: Plato believed that art merely copies but can never replicate life scenes correctly. In his work, The Republic, he posited that the purpose of art is to imitate things and events in our everyday lives. This statement only means that any work of art is just a copy of a copy of an Idea or Form. To him, a work of art is just an illusion. By this, Plato saw the arts as a form of entertainment and a dangerous delusion. He also believed that individuals who liked these poor imitations and cheap knockoffs do not have the capacity to enjoy the real thing. To him, beauty is only found at the first level. After that, everything else is second rate and not worth chasing.
From these, you can see that Plato had little or no regard for imitation of any sorts in art. One of his beliefs was that imitating a part will only lead to the actor taking on characteristics and traits synonymous with the part. For instance, an actor who plays the role of a coward in a drama could turn into a coward even after he is done with the character. This reason was why he encouraged only the imitation of good characters and banned the mimicking of mean and vicious characters. In addition to these villains, Plato discouraged the imitation of animals, slaves, gear and pulley, women, musical instruments, and sounds of water.
- Art is compelling and therefore dangerous: Adding to his view of art being an imitation, Plato regarded art as a powerful weapon that is harmful at the same time. Over the ages, arts have influenced us both in character and behavior. We have our favorite music, movies, poetry, and art work that can stir up deep emotions inside of us and also move us. It is because of these reasons Plato proposed that all art forms should be included in the educational syllabus of young citizens in an ideal republic. He also wanted these art works, especially music, to be strictly censored to present only the good side to the public first. Later on, the more promiscuous or evil sides would be released as a means to test the strength of the young citizens’ character.
Even though we might see this as tyranny, to Plato it made no difference. He firmly believed that there should be limits to the freedom enjoyed by the citizenry. According to him, unlimited freedom with improper training would only lead to the rise of evil deeds in the society. Also, citizens who have no boundaries can easily be enslaved, manipulated, or deceived by a tyrant.
Plato has a massive influence on western arts. In spite of all his good works in the arts, he still viewed it as a necessary evil. To Plato, an art is good only if it can embody a form of eternal beauty.
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