In book 10 of the Republic, Plato goes on one of his more extended rants against artists. His final target appears to be Homer. His first issue is that artists are always three steps from the truth. They make copies of copies. So, a painter paints a chair, but he doesn’t know how to build one. A chair builder builds a chair from an image in his mind. So we move from (#1) ideal image to (#2) chair builder to (#3) artist making a copy of a copy.
Worse yet, artists are often exploring unseemly ideas and the dark corners of human life. We watch someone accidentally kill his father and marry his mother on stage. In life, we would be disgusted to hear about such a thing if a person was actually telling us this. Sometimes artists explore comic issues too. We go to the theatre and are greatly amused by “jests which you would be ashamed to make yourself” and are “not at all disgusted at their unseemliness”.
Well, Plato, it had a good beat, so I wasn’t really paying attention to the lyrics.
Artists are crafty and dangerous folk, and people working on setting up an orderly society are quite right to be concerned. For Plato, art tended to emphasize “pleasure and pain” instead of “law and reason”. Exposing yourself to public displays of art made it more difficult to control your own “pleasure and pain” and more difficult to follow “law and reason”. This is where he brings up two points that I find fascinating and relevant today.
He says, “Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves.” It is quite easy to dismiss this today. We can argue that some old-school, stuffed-shirt Republican is getting all worked up over the N.W.A, and that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. The danger here is in how you make the argument. For me, the people that crusade against certain forms of artistic expression have at least one fantastic thing in their favor. They believe in the power of art to change lives. So, when some defend the N.W.A. by saying, “It’s no big deal,” I tend to disagree. It is a big deal. Art is always a big deal. I disagree with the censors, but not with their belief in the power of the work. Fortunately, I do not have the power of censorship. If so, there would be some things quickly banned. 1. The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber 2. Jeans skirts 3. The color yellow would not be available for advertisers to place on streets. That’s just a start.
A second passage that I find incredibly intriguing goes to the “people love crap” argument that I hear so often. Plato says that when artists are imitating (that is making a copy of a copy), they find that it is much easier to imitate terrible things. It is easier for an artist to present lust, greed, anger, cruelty etc. It is harder for an artist to present a “wise and calm temperament” because it is harder to imitate, and it is harder for a “promiscuous crowd” that is “assembled in a theatre” to appreciate it because “the feeling represented is one to which they are strangers.” There’s the rub! Peoples are nasty things, and they never felt no good, rational, and law-abiding feelings ‘fore now. So when they sees um, they jes don’ know how t’ relate.
Hmmm. Plato knows lots of stuff. At least he had a good handle on what people would be arguing about for the next 2500 years. I’m thinking that he should have written a play about a philosopher that became a playwright and was kicked out of his own Republic. We could get Kenau Reeves to play Plato and Justin Bieber could be a young Aristotle running around trying to save him.
Plato seemed to buy into his own rhetoric, that there is an ideal form of man and we are but paltry copies. I have my doubts about many of his conclusions or at least the logical extremes thereof. He seems too much troubled by the unseemly aspects of humanity, our violence and lust, our desires if you will. I am not sure I agree that these elements within us are fundamentally bad. At times they have been necessary for our survival. I think the problem with our emotional complexities is that we are not always capable of expressing them properly, therefore anger or disappointment become violence, attraction and affection become lust, need for security becomes greed. The baseness of our natures is due to personal and societal restrictions that interfere with our ability to learn and develop our emotional character.
I agree with Plato in part on your point one, that others' evil can be communicated, at least in part, to one's self. And I agree about the trans-formative potential of art. One might argue that, by exposing an audience to these less savory aspects of their own humanity, an artist or their art may begin the a metamorphosis of humanity away from these "undesirable" elements of human psyche. Art becomes the genesis of evolution.
As far as the "people loving crap" point, it is true, but the definition of crap must be so broad that it includes everything people love. Much of my favorite music is repellent to you. Most of my coworker's music is equally so to me. However, what I deem crap has real emotional resonance with him, the music has the power to trigger joy and peace and love, whatever, within him and therefore is crap of the highest power. Just not for me.
I am officially stealing "crap of the highest power" and adding it to my vocabulary. I'm now considering all the different exponents we might use. "Um, sorry, that's only crap of the third power, and I have some crap of the 16th power over here."
So when God created man, did he have an idea of a man?
An interesting thought, Jim. Here is where my thoughts have landed of late on that one. There is a long tradition of comparing what artists do to what God did in creation. I'm a little suspect of that analogy. Speaking something into being out of nothing is really different than manipulating a given set of materials. Theologically, I find that suggesting that God had an idea and then created that idea is stating more than I know about the process. Maybe, but it puts a lot of room for motion between the idea and its execution. So, I don't much like a theology that says that God has some attribute like love and then has to invent ways of expressing that love. With God, attributes are immediately in motion as action. There is no difference between the thought and the execution because the attributes aren't separable from the being like they are with us. Love is the very stuff of which God is made – if one can say it like that. So, I guess I'm saying, no. I've never really considered it in earnest though. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
I don't think that He did. We were made in His image, which means that God, who knows all things, has a conception of himself, and that we are reflective in some measure of his being. God is not Platonic in that He would not be bound by some external standard to the "idea" or Platonic "ideal" of a man. He is the measure of all things and is not constrained by any external standard.
He had an "idea" of man in the sense that He ordains all things. His ultimate "idea" of a man was Christ, the perfect man, the "firstborn over all creation," who was "with God in the beginning." But the Biblical expression of God is far more personal and concrete than it is Platonic. He is the God who creates man and reaches out to him. Indeed the "idea" of man is so closely bound to God that he has sealed humanity to himself by becoming man in the flesh. As best as I can tell,from the Scripture, Jesus Christ, having been born of a woman, will remain as man for all eternity. If, therefore, one puts on one's Platonic goggles, and looks at the Scripture's identification of the Father and the Son, one sees that it is hard to separate God's "idea" of man from Himself.