One of the oldest and most exhausted questions in the history of philosophy is why Plato found it necessary and expedient to deport the poets from his perfect society in The Republic. It’s a question many have hypothesized about although, perhaps, unsatisfactorily. One of the 20th century’s great classicists, Eric A. Havelock, considered the expulsion of the poets in his Preface to Plato, albeit with greater force and satisfaction.
Before we approach Havelock, let’s examine what it means to remove poetry from a society. Poetry, in the conventional sense, is expression in language. A poem is an expression of the poet’s life and world. Therefore, a world without poetry is one without expression or imagination. It is cold and sterile. In a sense, a world without poetry is also void of other human communication like storytelling. To expel poets from a society is to to control how we communicate and to control how we talk to one another and connect.
Plato expels the poets because he wants more control over human communication and connection but poets create something uncontrollable. Poets work with mystery, and they shape it. When Plato expels the poets he expels what he cannot control. He wants to create a society based on knowledge and not mystery. This is because the intellectual paradigm that Plato inherited from history was not scientific or logical but mysterious and poetic. Plato wants logic and science to replace the mystery of poetry.
Plato hopes to incite a cognitive revolution, he wants to replace poetry with science and he knows he cannot do that with the then-current intellectual paradigm as it existed. For example, the history of the world until that time was not a scientific one. Hesiod’s Theogony was not a scientific understanding of the creation of the universe or the order of things, rather it is a poetic comprehension of what Hesiod—and later poets—conceived. Additionally, the history of the Greeks and how and why they lived was crystallized in the work of Homer and other poets.
This is because poetic knowledge is based only upon the imagination of the poet and the poets that he or she respond to. Poetic knowledge is looser than scientific knowledge and it can be built upon assumptions because a poet only seeks to express ideas and not necessarily to question their truthfulness or tease out their implications. This is to say that poetry is not a linear process like the scientific method but an imaginative one. Poetry—although it can provide immeasurable insight into one’s self and one’s world—can be illogical, irrational, and unconnected to physical reality. And, however much Homer is and was a source of incredible insight and beauty, he was the immovable object that Plato found necessary to circumvent in order to create his new society in the image of science.
Havelock titled his work a Preface to Plato, because Homer (as the first recorded Western poet) serves as the introduction to, the preface to, every subsequent thinker. Havelock refers to Homer and to post-Homeric poetry as an “encyclopedia” of inherited or collected knowledge. Which is to say that things you would have learned in ancient Athens not just included but were in fact built upon Homer’s poems. This means that our predecessors provide the knowledge we inherit and that knowledge determines how we live. Put simply, we live what we we know. We are what we read. Plato is seeking to control the encyclopedias of our lives in order to control our very lives themselves.
While Havelock is exhausting in his comprehension of Plato’s expulsion of the poets, this passage articulates it clearly:
The ‘poetic’ or ‘Homeric’ or ‘oral’ state of mind, which constituted the chief obstacle to scientific rationalism, to the use of analysis, to the classification of experience, to its rearrangement in sequence of cause and effect. That is why the poetic state of mind is for Plato the arch-enemy and it is easy to see why he considered this enemy so formidable… He asks of men that instead they should examine this experience and rearrange it, that they should think about what they say, instead of just saying it.
The ideas we consume, the people we talk to, and the experiences we have form and inform our thoughts. And our thoughts form and inform our lives. If we read only Homer, then his verse becomes the foundation of our thoughts. If we consume only epigrams, then we correspondingly build our lives upon those epigrams. Plato, in his cognitive revolution, wants people to question inherited knowledge and to think for themselves. In short, Plato wants to populate his Republic with people who actively think rather than passively receive and, to do this, he has to expel the poets.
We can see this theory at work in our society today. Many people believe the things they “know” simply because they have read them and others believe what they are told chiefly because they are told them. Furthermore, the television, the social media, and the books we consume and regurgitate form the building blocks of our lives. You are what you read.
Plato may have been among the first to recognize that people accept the knowledge provided to them but we have yet to realize his dream of an ideal republic with questioning, free-thinking citizens. Today, for example, cynical politicians are quick to lie and to groundlessly deny the ideas of their opponents. However, what Plato wants to teach us is to evaluate ideas, not to doubt them. Plato wants you to question, not to doubt. This distinction is subtle but important because to accept doubt without question it is the same as accepting knowledge without evaluation.
The difference between a doubting and questioning citizenry is the difference between a tyranny and a democracy. In fact, in the search for modern tyrants, one of the earliest and most identifiable abuses is when a leader blatantly labels the ideas of others as false, casting his opponents into doubt. For example, during the rise of the Third Reich, the National Socialists were quick to label those who disagreed with them and their narrative as liars. The Nazis used the term Lügenpresse (or Lying press) to quickly cast doubt upon those who disagreed with them.
Therefore, if a politician makes a claim or purports an idea that does not correspond to reality in a demonstrable, measurable way, then it must be dismissed. And, if reality itself is called into doubt rather than questioned along linear, logical lines then we must dismiss that doubt. To be a questioning, free-thinking citizenry, as opposed to a doubting one, we must examine ideas for accuracy, we must compare them to real-world or historical examples, and we can evaluate them alongside additional information available.
The purpose of this essay is not pretend that horror films produce horrific people or that everyone who watches Oedipus Rex becomes an incestuous parricide. Rather, it means that it only became possible to doubt Socrates’ sincerity after he was caricatured in Aristophanes’ Clouds and, more so, that Socrates would have been acquitted if his jury was capable of effectively questioning and evaluating the claims of his prosecutors. Additionally, it means that accepting what we hear on television or see on social media prevents us from living earnestly and actively, which is tantamount to living thoughtfully and prudently.
When we live thoughtfully, when we make decisions based upon our own philosophical or scientific investigations, we can make better decisions in our lives and for our society. This is important because because the soul of a democracy is the sum of its citizens’ decisions.