Nature of Socrates’ Opposition to Poetry

Note: The following question was assigned to me in one of my undergraduate Philosophy classes at the University of Toronto.

What is the nature of Socrates’ opposition to poetry? Does he succeed in convincing you that it builds up the wrong parts of the mind? Refer to the Allegory of the Cave.

Below is my response to this inquiry.

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite. – Paul Dirac (1902-1984)

Thus, Dirac stated that the exact nature of poetry is confusing in a sense that even though it discusses known phenomena, people are still unable to grasp the true meaning. This idea conforms to Plato’s discussions in Chapter 13 of “The Republic.” Socrates, Plato’s teacher, believed that representational poetry is merely a distorted representation of the reality, and thus it should be banned in his ideal community. By providing the analogy of the bed and the bed-maker, Socrates defined three types of creations and craftsmen. The Progenitor is the genuine creator and only the objects created by Him, like the bed, are genuine. He can thus create not only the only real objects but also the actual form of the objects, which is the underlying meaning that determines an object’s existence. The manufacturer or the joiner can make objects only after he has learned or understood this underlying idea of the true form—note that learning is not always equivalent to understanding. The objects thus created by the joiner are representations of the true form. Socrates referred to the third type of the craftsmen as “the representator of other’s creations.” This craftsman provides a representation of the objects that belong to the visible realm only. Since his work lacks the understanding of the true form, the truth is manifested in a distorted manner. In my opinion, not all representators lack the understanding of the true forms. For instance, a poet might have understood the true meaning of reality and then chose to describe this meaning through poetry. But, still the meaning of reality, as perceived by the poet, cannot be conveyed to the readers since poetry stirs imagination by providing multiple ways of interpretation. Yes, there are some poets who don’t understand the meaning and try to write about it, and thus they end up distorting the true form. And then there might be some poets who have actually understood the true form but were unable to describe it. The point I am trying to make here is that there is something about the way poetry is written that somehow distorts the meaning of the phenomena discussed. This has nothing to do with the fact that poetry involves metaphors or complicated literary devices; this has more to do with the fact that for every poet, there is a fundamental challenge to take the experience of the self and jot it down into a piece of paper.

Let’s go back to the Allegory of the Cave:

AND now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled sudcavely to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he now

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Not all in a moment, he said.

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

Certainly.

Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

Certainly.

He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Certainly, he would.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, – and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming sudcavely out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

To be sure, he said.

And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

Source: Allegory of the Cave

Now, I am going to discuss my understanding of this allegory. The prisoners represent those individuals who cannot understand the truth. The people behind the wall are thus the painters or the joiners who haven’t understood the form but have only learned it or they may have some understanding of the true form. The puppets made by the poets are the “representations of the others’ creations” and thus can be regarded analogous to the poetry written by poets. But the puppets made by the joiners who reside in this area of the cave can be considered analogous to faulty objects made by bad manufactures. The shadows casted by the puppets are analogous to the distorted meaning conveyed by the poetry. The deficiency or the lack of understanding thus prevents these people from reaching the surface. They will remain there until the passionate part of the mind forces them to try to locate the source of the true form. The people at the surface are those joiners who have actually understood the form. The objects made by them are most nearer to the true form. And the Progenitor is the one who created them all—the visible realm including the objects and the people—and also created the true forms of every existing object— the intellectual realm. Thus, according to my interpretations of this particular allegory, the works of the poets or the bad joiners do not provide enough motivation to the people who can’t understand. Even, if these prisoners were able to see the surface while they were imprisoned, they still would have remained ignorant of the truth. The only motivation that can actually set the prisoners free can thus come if the Progenitor wills it so or if people from the surface come to their aid. Just simply viewing the truth can’t help one to understand the true form. You have to be actively involved in the process of learning to understand the true form. There are still some people who may choose to remain ignorant even after understanding.

According to Socrates, the painters and poets are representators of others’ creations and are thus two generations away from reality. Their work thus doesn’t lead to the understanding of the true form. It is only a manifestation of the appearance—the visible realm—and not that of the true form—the intellectual realm. Thus, Socrates categorized painting and poetry as that part of the visible realm that is made up of images and can be understood by conjecture. It should be noted here that he didn’t specifically say the poets or painters should be classified here. Thus one can safely conclude that some poets and painters might have some understanding of the truth, but their work can only represent the appearance of the objects and not the idea of the truth. Socrates is of the view that even the work of the joiners is not fully real. “…wrong to attribute full reality to a joiner’s or any artisan’s products, doesn’t it?” (597 a, pg. 346). Also note that Socrates decided to ban only representational poetry and not all poetry. Socrates’ implied view is that only representational poetry distorts the truth. But, I think that other types of poetry, those which do not distort the truth, still can’t convey the idea of the truth as effectively as other types of education can. According to Socrates, poetry doesn’t actually benefit any class of the community. He is implying that it is in reality a recreational tool and not an educational one. Even though some forms of poetry are good enough to be read, excluding representational poetry, the only purpose that can be served by them is psychological satisfaction. But this psychological satisfaction doesn’t turn the mind upward. Poetry, especially representational poetry, is only an illusion. It can satisfy only the desirous and thus the most rebellious part of the mind. It provides no education for the rational part of the mind and gives wrong education to the passionate part of the mind. Thus, the passionate part may become subservient to the desirous part of the mind. However, I tend to disagree with Socrates here as well. Proper representational poetry may stir the passionate part as well as the rational part of the mind. Originally, while studying Socrates I felt compelled to agree with him but today after writing poetry myself, I feel differently. I think representational poetry is a strong educational tool if used properly. True, poems about love and romance won’t do anyone any good, except for stirring some imagination. But deep poems like war poems are likely to motivate the readers to act in a beneficial manner. Yes, poetry is just another shadow of the cave where the prisoners are held, but it is strong enough to motivate them to struggle towards the light.

Copyright © by Arzoo Zaheer. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s