Most philosophers have expressed their views on Art as if they were the best qualified to pronounce on the value and quality of artworks. Plato falls into a unique category as he dismissed art despite the fact that his dialogues have been universally recognised as literary masterpieces. But would their author have accepted such a posthumous accolade? As a citizen of Athens, born one year after the completion of the Parthenon in 438 BC, he could not have remained indifferent to the beauty of Phidias’ Athena Parthenos or the majestic proportions of the Parthenon itself. However, Plato, the philosopher, regarded any artistic representation of reality as a poor, ‘artificial’ substitute for the real thing. Furthermore, the emotional involvement of audiences in Greek tragedies and comedies made Plato ill at ease as the power of poetry proved evidently too overwhelming for the mind to control extreme feelings. Yet, Plato himself experienced the power of words at first hand when he fell under the spell of Socrates’ philosophical elenctic or refuting method of enquiry.
The mature Plato of the middle dialogues seems to have detached himself from the deep respect attached to the Greek literary tradition. The tenth book of The Republic is a systematic indictment of the alleged ‘inspired knowledge’ of poets and artists. Plato has already voiced his strong reservations in the pages dedicated to the early education of the future Guardians. His argument rests upon his conviction that the way poets glorify or vilify the behaviour of heroes and gods is morally objectionable. Highly susceptible young minds must be protected from the corrupting influence of such literature and for this reason they must only be exposed to the most inspiring passages taken from carefully chosen and edited works.
Only by being able to contemplate a pure Idea (eidos) can the philosopher capture a mental image which is at one with the very essence of his object of contemplation. Art is a vicarious vision of reality which does not rise above imitation. The same conclusions apply to the visual art as ‘the artist’s representation stands at third remove from reality’, the first stage being ‘God, the author of its nature’, the second being its manufacturer such as the carpenter making a bed, and finally the artist who represents what he personally sees as a bed without having any knowledge of its true nature nor the craft necessary to its making. As Socrates remarks, who would bother dedicating their lives to representing appearances when the ‘real’ and ‘true’ essence of reality can be accessed through philosophical contemplation.