Plato’s aesthetics is characterized by a fundamental paradox: He warns continually to be wary of the seductive voice of poets and artists, but creates an artistically honed philosophy that is nearly unrivaled in its seductive force. In Plato’s view his own artistic philosophic seduction is acceptable because he is using it in the service of reason. His own artistically expressed philosophy contrasts with the work of the traditional artists, especially of the traditional Greek poets, whose work does not direct us toward to reason but, in Plato’s view, gives expression to the passions.
Plato’s aesthetics rejects above all the traditional views of artists as conduits for the divine mind or otherwise as messengers of truths they understand not themselves. In the “ancient quarrel between the poetry and philosophy” (Republic 607b), Plato is one of philosophy’s strongest spokespeople. His view toward the poets echoes Heraclitus’, who says that “Homer deserves a beating.” The problem, for Plato, like Heraclitus, is the perceived negative impact the poets have on individual moral action and the polity, especially though their depictions of the gods as capricious. In many cases people will imitate what they see in art. As Plato emphasizes in the Protagoras, the youth “are given the works of good poets to read at their desks and have to learn them by heart, works that contain numerous exhortations, many passages describing in glowing terms good men of old, so that the child is inspired to imitate them and become like them” (Protagoras 325-326a). However, much of the work of Homer and the classic poets does not describe good men of old. Rather these poets weave incredible tales, often portraying the gods as irrational and petty, while celebrating vice. The young, however, are also inspired to imitate these images.
It is for this reason that Plato strongly speaks in favor of censoring art in the Republic. The images those in the polity are exposed to should positively influence them to strive for “what is fine and graceful in their work, so that our young people will live in a healthy place and be benefited on all sides, and so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason” (Republic 401c-d). The Republic will thus do well to expose the youth to lovers of wisdom than to “lovers of sights and sounds” (Republic 475d-476b), who perpetuate irrationalism with harmful tales about capricious gods.
Plato knows no place for art for arts sake. Art, for Plato, is fundamentally political or moral because of the fact that is so able to manipulate emotions and influence individual behavior. For this reason, throughout his account in the Republic he especially characterizes its as a threat to the ideal polity that is to be controlled.
Martha Nussbaum claims that in the Phaedrus Plato moves from his earlier strict rejection of poetry (Nussbaum 1986:200-33). Plato does note that “The highest, most worthy soul is that of ‘ a lover of wisdom or of beauty…cultivated in the arts [mousikos] and prone to erotic love” (Phaedrus 248d). But as Christopher Janaway notes, mousikos is not the artist, but the philosophical patron (Janaway, 12). Further, the poets do not rank at all high on Plato’s list of intellectuals: “Sixth in rank, lower than generals, statesmen, gymnasts, doctors and prophets, is ‘a poet or some other life from among those concerned with mimesis’” (Phaederus, 248e).
Plato’s view of art is not entirely negative, but it is entirely cautionary. We can only fully understand his view against the backdrop of his more general metaphysics. The changing world around us is in Plato’s view itself merely a representation of the true world of the unchanging forms. The specific objects of this changing world merely participate in the universal forms — they are copies. Plato, whose understanding of art is limited, imagines art fundamentally as representational — indeed as representations of representations or copies of copies. Art is thus twice removed from the world of forms. It is as if a shadow cast a further shadow.
Art then is rather impoverished. As a form of human expression, it has no capacity, in Plato’s view, to unveil truth directly. Rather, it is more likely to cloud or mask reality than reveal it. In the best case scenario, in Plato’s view, it appears that art could lead us to love philosophy, to embrace reason, and to see that art itself is a form of expression that must remain subservient to its master. It is philosophy, not art, that will lead us even to understand beauty. For the idea of beauty itself is not able to be appropriated through the senses or forms of sensibility, but only through the intellect (Symposium 211d). Art, done well, then will lead to philosophy, which for its part can lead us to truth.
Plato’s views are of course archaic today. In particular, his view of art as mimesis is over-reliant on the Greek art of his time. Much art throughout even our early history has not been representational. His implied view in his writings on art is that imagination is subservient to reason. We would certainly tend, with Aristotle, to ask whether it might not be one vehicle with which to express reason instead? His view of what kind of art has positive effects on the human spirits and his calls for censorship of art have been roundly criticized — the former as false, the latter as repressive. Yet his writings on aesthetics and art raise numerous questions that remain of fundamental importance for philosophy of art: To what degree is all art political? Is censorship of art ever warranted? Does life imitate art? What social responsibilities does an artist have? These are questions that philosophers of art will long continue to ask.