by Geordie Carscadden
In The Republic Plato condemns art as a mere imitation of reality, an imitation that does not create in its own sense and morally corrupts humans. I believe that this is a close minded view of art which does not fully encapsulate the potential art has to enhance human morality. Furthermore, Plato’s conception of art discredits the creativity of artists who create works that are not based on any reflection of reality. To provide some background, Plato’s condemnation of art is an incidental outcome drawn from the establishment of his metaphysics which centres around the distinction between reality and appearance. Plato argues that art is merely an imitation of the objects of the world and that the artist is not a real creator but instead a simple imitator.[i] In this essay, I argue that Plato’s description of art as both imitation and morally corrupting falls apart on two fronts. Firstly, it does not account for the truly creative works of artists, such as those during the Surrealist Movement of Europe in post World War I. Secondly, it does not account for the fact that art by its nature can be used to further the morality of humans, as explained by Friedrich Schiller in The Aesthetic Education of Man and his theory of play. Although Plato acknowledges the power of the arts throughout The Republic, he seems unaware of their potential and is too transfixed on their power to corrupt. It is this lack of imagination, I think, that leads to the greatest fault in Plato’s view of artistic representation.
The theory of representation and the difference between appearance and reality are crucial foundational elements to Plato’s philosophy in The Republic. They are the first two layers of truth in his philosophy, where reality is the whole and absolute truth according to God, while appearance is a truth of the second degree.[ii] From this distinction Plato defines imitation, and thus goes on to condemn art. For Plato, the difference between reality and appearance is how it manifests in the physical world. Reality is a perfect “Form,” or more broadly, the concept that exists within our minds. Appearance, on the other hand, is the object in front of us, the imperfect physical representation of that Form. For Plato, there is some sort of essence or identity prescribed to objects by God that makes them what they are. It is described as absolute and eternal; wholly real and wholly intelligible; its value absolute and unconditional.[iii] This level of truth is the perfect and ideal Form of an object. Anything less than this idea of the perfect Form is not reality but an attempt to recreate or capture it. Plato defines this in The Republic in Book X as his pre-context to the development of the argument for imitation stating, “[w]ell then there are three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God, as I think that we may say – for no one else can be the maker.”[iv] So, the Form is the purest version of itself and cannot be created by anyone except God; it is what all other versions of the object are built upon. Appearance, on the other hand, is how this reality presents itself to us through our senses. It is the imperfect reflection of the “real” version that we capture, create and perceive with our senses; and as a copy of the Form, its value is not absolute but instead relative to the need it fills.[v] Plato describes this physical form we interact with during Book X of The Republic stating, “[a]nd the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for us to use, in accordance with the idea… but no artificer makes the ideas themselves.”[vi] In stating this, Plato confirms that appearances are just the physical objects we interact with in everyday life, and these objects are one step away from “reality,” which are the God-created and perfect ideas of Form that exist within our minds.
The final level of reality for Plato is that of imitation. Imitation is a copy of an object from the second order. It has no absolute value, but its value instead depends on the value of the object from the second order, and on how the artist captures and interprets this value.[vii] In The Republic, Plato describes this imitation by stating that “[t]he painter too is… just such another – a creator of appearances is he not?… then if he does not make that which exists he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of it.”[viii] Here Plato explains to the audience how the painter or artist cannot convey something of true existence or reality, and from there it is easy to understand how it can have no inherent value. Art’s imitation of a second-degree truth then leads to moral corruption for Plato, as he states that it is too far away from reality and truth in its first degree and is thus misleading to the human soul.[ix] Art also undermines the beauty and strength of logic and reason through the use of illusion and deception. This ultimately creates a conflict within the human soul, a conflict between pure reason and the senses; and Plato thinks this conflict weakens our morality.[x] Thus, for Plato, art as imitation fails on two fronts. It originates solely in appearance and not reality, meaning that it has no inherent value when judged on its own. Furthermore, imitation directs the soul away from objects of inquiry and solely towards appearances, which potentially corrupts the individual’s soul.[xi] It is within this interpretation of art as imitation that Plato falls short of articulating a complete understanding of the power of art. We can further understand this shortcoming by examining the Surrealist art movement of the 20th century.
Surrealism challenges the Platonic understanding of art as imitation through its establishment of a stylistic movement driven by a desire to express the artists’ internal thought, thus creating form in its own right. Surrealist art was born from the Dada movement in the mid 1920’s in Europe.[xii] Starting out as a literary medium, it rapidly evolved into all areas of art as the producers challenged themselves to further the movement. The first guide to Surrealism and its establishing moment was the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 by poet and writer André Breton, who became the leader of the movement until his death in 1966. In this first manifesto,Breton set the groundworks for the movement, stating that it must draw from a “purely internal mode of expression,”[xiii] meaning that the creation of surrealist works must represent the artists’ liberated inner mind.[xiv] This foundational rule sets Surrealism and the surrealist artist apart from the Platonic idea of imitative art, as the works being created are a representation of nothing from the perceivable world and therefore wholly original in their construction. Even when Surrealism borrows forms from the sensible world—that is, the everyday world that we take in with our senses—they are merely conduits through which the artist expresses their internal world.[xv] The Surrealist movement and its lack of bearing on reality is best exemplified by the work The Eye of Silence by German artist Max Ernst. The work is complicated and robust, full of intricate detailing; however, at no point does it resemble a portion of the sensible world. The work has no clear elements on which the viewer can land to ground themselves. It is an alien scene that bears no resemblance to the world we are familiar with, and instead depicts a world that exists solely within the mind of the creator. This lack of bearing on any sort of reality means that it cannot be a mere act of imitation as Plato would suggest it to be, but is instead an act of creation in its own right.
The work of 18th century German philosopher Fredrich Schiller and his aesthetic theory in The Aesthetic Education of Man (1954)focuses on the use of the arts to cultivate one’s morality. Schiller thus dismantles the second aspect of the Platonic theory of the arts, where Plato believes that the arts corrupt the human soul. Schiller, in The Aesthetic Education of Man, theorises that human nature is split into two basic drives that have been forced into opposition with one another by modern society.[xvi] The two fundamental drives for Schiller are that of the sense drive and the form drive.[xvii] The sense drive proceeds from physical existence, is situated within time and is open to change.[xviii] This drive is purely responsive in nature and does not concern itself with broad rules or universals but instead deals with particulars.[xix] According to Schiller, to be wholly centred within this drive of human nature is to have no individuality, as one would not have independent thought but would instead merely respond to change and the world around them.[xx] This sense drive can be understood as the part of human nature that Plato believes to be morally corrupting as it does not concern itself with logic or reason.[xxi] As Schiller states at the beginning of the thirteenth letter in The Aesthetic Education of Man, the form drive is diametrically opposed to the sense drive. It extends itself from our rational and free nature and it is the imposition of our free will over the flux of change that is familiar to the sense experience.[xxii] The form drive concerns itself with absolutes, laws and broad scale concepts, but does not take notice of individuals or specifics.[xxiii] This form drive corresponds to the rationality that Plato believes to be the divine part of human beings. Furthermore, the form drive is the drive that Plato believes will create a moral society based on rational laws. Schiller, however, believes that if either drive rules in its entirety, it can lead to us to be incapable of experiencing the world in our highest capacity. This then causes a tyranny of the mind, a tyranny that Schiller believes led to the kind of violence exhibited throughout the French Revolution.[xxiv] This conflict between the drives is summarised eloquently by Schiller in the fourth letter of The Aesthetic Education of Man:
Now man can be opposed to himself in a twofold manner: either as a savage, when his feelings rule over his principles; or as a barbarian, when his principles destroy his feelings.[xxv]
For Schiller then, morality cannot come from pure reason as Plato believes, but must instead come from some other source.
This source, for Schiller, is art and the cultivation of the play drive. The play drive brings together the other two drives of human nature into harmony by allowing them to both be fully activated without interfering with each other, and is activated when admiring something “beautiful.”[xxvi] This harmony, as achieved by art, is considered to be “living form”;[xxvii] that is, it is an object that can be described and rationalised by the form drive but also felt and understood by the sense drive, thus appeasing both. For Schiller, it is in the moment of play that a human is at their most human. This is summarised in the fifteenth letter of The Aesthetic Education of Man: “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.”[xxviii] For Schiller, this humanising play drive must be cultivated, as it is at this point of harmony between the two other drives that humans can create laws and moral codes for themselves. These laws and moral codes would in turn be more effective than any created through the use of one drive alone. They would be laws that were felt, allowing them to be instinctively followed whilst still being broad enough to protect society. It would be a morality that feels like an impulse, meaning human beings would willingly live by it without feeling crushed by disingenuous reason. Schiller’s conception of an affective moral society demonstrates the way in which Plato’s impression of arts is short sighted and lacks a complete understanding both of human nature and the nature of the beautiful. Plato believes strongly in reason and although he understands that humans are sensuous beings by nature, he does not understand that this sensuous nature is not something to be crushed for its impurity, but instead something to be fostered. Schiller demonstrates that through the cultivation of both sensuous experience and reason, a human individual is at their most human and is at their most capable of living morally.
To conclude, Plato’s Republic puts forward what I have argued to be a narrow-minded view of the arts and their place in human nature. He condemns art as mere imitation that is not fit to be a part of his Republic, an opinion that I demonstrated can be challenged by both the Surrealist art movement and Schiller’s aesthetic theory. Plato arrives at his argument after first establishing the theory of representation and the difference between appearance and reality. The difference between appearance and reality for Plato is that reality is a perfect world that we try to envision; it is a world we always strive to recreate as it is absolute in its meaning and the basis of all our ideas. From here appearance is the imitation of reality; it is the objects we create in our sensible world derived from the reality we envision. The objects of this second tier have their value determined by how well they fulfill their purpose. This second tier leads into imitation, the third tier of truth, which is occupied by art. Art in this sense has no value as it does not know the truth of its Form and is merely impersonating an already imperfect object. This imitation can then corrupt human morality as it leads humans further from the truth, and through the use of illusion and deception brings about a conflict between the rational mind and the senses of the body. This close-minded view of art falls apart when considering both Surrealist art and the philosophical work of Schiller. Surrealist art challenges the idea that art is merely imitation of second tier objects by instead bringing ideas from the artist’s internal world into the sensible world. Schiller then demonstrates that art actually supplements human morality through play by stimulating both the rational mind and sensory experience. This allows a closer connection between the two and for humans to become their most human, meaning that they follow laws and moral obligations of their own accord rather than from some imposed sense of disingenuous duty. Thus, I argue that by analysing these modern areas of art and philosophy we can see that Plato misunderstood both art and human nature.
Geordie Carscadden is an undergraduate student ambling their way through a Bachelor of Arts with an extended major in philosophy and a minor in music. While they were initially inclined to pursue their interests in music, they have slowly transitioned to focussing solely on philosophy after developing deep interests in aesthetic theory and existentialism amongst other branches of philosophy. In their spare time, they enjoy the outdoors, either mountain biking or climbing as a way of finding escape through embodied living.
[i] Benjamin Jowett, The Republic by Plato (Bedfordshire: Andrews UK Ltd., 2012), 6.
[ii] Jowett, The Republic by Plato, 366-7.
[iii] Robin George Collingwood, “Plato’s Philosophy of Art,” Mind 34, no. 134 (1925): 155.
[iv] Jowett, The Republic by Plato, 366.
[v] Collingwood, “Plato’s Philosophy of Art,” 155.
[vi] Jowett, The Republic by Plato, 365.
[vii] Collingwood, “Plato’s Philosophy of Art,” 155.
[viii] Jowett, The Republic by Plato, 366. Emphasis added.
[ix] Jowett, The Republic by Plato, 370-2.
[x]Jowett, The Republic by Plato, 373-4.
[xi]“Plato’s Aesthetics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,accessed June 10, 2010, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/plato-aesthetics/.
[xii] Michael Robinson, Surrealism (London: Flame Tree Publishing, 2005), 10.
[xiii] Andre Breton, Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Manifestoes of surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 24.
[xiv] Tessel Bauduin, “Introduction: The Occultation of Surrealism,” in Surrealism and the Occult: Occultism and Western Esotericism in the Work and Movement of André Breton (Amsterdam University Press, 2014), 9.
[xv] Robinson, Surrealism, 11.
[xvi] Friedrich Schiller, translated by Reginald Snell, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 50.
[xvii] Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 47-49.
[xviii] “Friedrich Schiller,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed June 10, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/schiller/.
[xix] “Friedrich Schiller,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[xx] Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 47-48.
[xxi] Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 51.
[xxii] “Friedrich Schiller,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[xxiii] Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 48.
[xxiv] “Friedrich Schiller,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[xxv] Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 23. Emphasis added.
[xxvi] “Friedrich Schiller,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[xxvii] Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 55.
[xxviii] Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 57. Emphasis added.
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