Plato and Poetry

by James P. Quinton

In Plato’s ideal state, The Republic, there is an attempt to eradicate the poets because “poetry has no serious value or claim to truth.” A startling claim that; if accepted, could’ve possibly been the death of poetry. However, Plato announces in the same chapter that if anyone can prove to him that poetry has a place in a well-run society he will allow the poets in. Almost two thousand years later, the English scholar Sir Phillip Sidney wrote A Defence of Poetry (1595). Shelley’s essay of the same title (1821) consolidated much of what Sidney had argued.

Due to the unrivalled craft of poetry, it did have a valid place in society. Why then, in 1996 did Penelope Murray revisit Plato’s ideas on poetry? I think to remind us of the intellectual and economic pressures poets work within. This essay will discuss the arguments from Plato to Murray and provide examples of poetry that reflect its status throughout each period. I will conclude by citing and discussing a contemporary Australian poem that signifies the position of poets and poetry in modern society.

Overall, it appears that intellectual arguments may be driven to the point of being arbitrary, since the act of poetry has never ceased. However, there is a divide between those who believe in poetry’s validity and those who think it is wishy-washy hedonism.

Integral to Plato’s argument attacking poetry and art is the concept of representation or mimesis. Plato claims that reality can be categorised in three ways: the ideal, the real and the representation of the real. The gods create the ideal, for example what everyone understands as being a bed… the IDEA of a bed. The real is what is actually materialised in the object. Hence, the mimesis of the object is twice removed from the ideal: “what [the artist] makes is not “what a bed really is”, but something that resembles “what is without being it.” Here, Plato argues that artists and poets, using the technique of representation, create a false understanding of reality and are therefore decadent to civil society.

In Plato’s, “The Effects Of Poetry And Drama”, he expands upon his argument that poets have no valid role in an ideal state. Plato places primacy on reason and intellect. He accuses the poet of inciting emotions that are normally disallowed in the public domain. Consequently, poetry corrupts the mind whereby “pleasure and pain become your rulers instead of law and the rational principal commonly accepted as best.”

Plato maintains that poetry has two crippling qualities: it represents reality falsely, and it corrupts the minds of the poet’s followers. However, Plato makes the concession that if “poetry written for pleasure can prove to us that they [the poets] have a place in a well-run society, we will gladly admit them.” The implications of Plato’s philosophy in regards to art and poetry were broad and lasting. Critics such as Aristotle, Sidney and Shelley have taken up the challenge of defending poetry as a legitimate craft.

The physical act of poetry continued despite Plato’s attack, but it was the intellectual framework developed by the critics that determined the way people valued poets and poetry. Plato demoted poets to a position lower than servants. Poets had to argue for the legitimacy and value they deserved.

I will now briefly discuss the arguments presented by Sidney and Shelley and provide examples of the sense and style of poetry that existed alongside these arguments at the time.

Sidney begins his defence of poetry by describing that throughout history poets have been ill considered. He points out that many examples of influential literature, such as the Psalms are in-fact poetry. Sidney’s position is stated thus: “I seem to profane that holy name [God], applying it to poetry which is among us thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation.” It is implied that if literature like the Psalms can have a remarkable influence on human behaviour, synthesised with the idea that these examples are poetry, realistically there is nothing to defend. As makers, Sidney then compares poets to other scientists concluding that poetry has value as a thing-in-itself. I shall focus on these two latter points because they relate directly to Plato’s arguments.

Sidney proclaims life to be a learning experience, wherein someone’s chosen field of study or career serves to indicate his or her temperament. He regards the moral philosopher and historian to be the poet’s greatest competitors and then attempts to show that the poet is the “prince over all the rest.” Sidney describes moral philosophers as having contempt for outward things, that they are driven by vices, ignore passions and teach virtue as a duty, rather than a pleasure. His treatment of historians is similar, he complains they are concerned with the past, using “old mouse eaten records”, which are at odds with philosophy and are concerned only with setting an example. Here Sidney concludes that the poet is the moderator of both historian and philosopher within the life-school of learning. What emerges is a picture of the poet whose craft draws from all the other sciences. The poet is capable of describing the present, the future and the past through empirical judgement or through the divine intervention of his or her muse. According to Sidney it is because of the poet’s rare skill and power that he should be considered worthy of the highest regard.

In context, Sidney’s defence of poetry delivers newfound confidence and reverence to all those who attempt the craft. The value of poetry is not only cemented in his critiques, but also in his poem Astrophil and Stella:

Loving in truth, and faine in verse my love to show,
That the deare She might take some pleasure of my paine:
Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pitie winne, and pitie grace obtaine,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe.

Here we see Sidney not only articulating the foundations for the rest of the poem but also making reference to the value of poetry as a thing-in-itself. The double meaning of the line ‘reading might make her know’ is a strong example of this. Moreover lines such as this serve as subtle indicators of the intellectual framework that Sidney is working within. Hitherto, he defends poetry through prose and poetry, which is more than Plato required (a defence in prose). Nevertheless, Sidney’s conclusion is not as convincing as one would expect. He asks us to believe him rather than constructing his defence as a waterproof argument. An example of this sentiment is where he says: “I conjure you all that have the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toil of mine.”

Shelley’s argument has the luxury of standing against the background of Sidney’s defence and therefore carries a greater sense of confidence. After announcing that all those who speak are in effect poets, through the use of language, Shelley clarifies and simplifies Sidney’s message when he states: “but poets, or those who imagine and express the indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers.”

Evidently, there is no question of the worth of the poet, it is said succinctly and confidently. In the tone of Shelley’s argument, Plato’s claims seem removed to the point of being irrelevant.

At this point Shelley argues for the significance of poets throughout the world. Redefinition of the word poet is a necessary stimulus in the context of every society due to the dynamic nature of the society and therefore of the art form. Shelley outlines a direct relationship between poet, the community and nature, a relationship that is integral to the intellectual and spiritual advancement of mankind. “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Based on these claims, the ideological formulation of poet as a truth bringer directly contrasts Plato’s position, it outshines Platonic ideas of reality: the position of ideal, real and mimesis. Here’s an example of the aforementioned intellectual paradigm from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things

Evident immediately is the interconnectedness of man (society), lands and deserts (nature) and passions expressed (art/poetry); a shift from the three fold Platonic sense of reality. The final line exemplifies the importance of poetry as an immortal craft or eternal truth. Shelley shapes the functionality of poetry in two ways; it creates new materials of knowledge, power, and pleasure; and it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange these powers in a positive manner.

Shelley’s conclusion rebuts not only Platonic ideas of poetry as decadence and false knowledge, but also serves as an uplifting reminder of the beautiful possibilities of poetry during times of social decay. Quality poetry according to Shelley is not subsumed within periods of social decay, that is, it does not subscribe to the present contextual drama without imagination. It is the quality crafting of imagination that provides the reader with an avenue to transcend all present dramass and therefore understand the principles that give rise to meaning and to look with hope towards the future.

These last points, I contend, are the reasons why we need reminding of the importance of poetry, not necessarily in a milieu of decay, but in a rapidly dynamic age susceptible to confusion. This is the where Penelope Murray’s re-evaluation of Plato’s arguments (concerned primarily with mimesis and poetic inspiration) takes on greater significance. Her essay, Plato On Poetry, not only serves as a medium to redefine Platonic ideas within the context of modern scholarship, but also as a reminder of the arguments of Sidney and Shelley lightly touched upon within this present study. Let me now briefly discuss Murray’s argument.

Murray confines her study to the ancient Greek notions of mimesis and poetic inspiration. In regards to mimesis Murray concludes that Plato defines it “either in terms of the object imitated (whether they are good or bad), or in terms of the quality of the imitation (how good the likeness is).” Either way poets corrupt the mind of the listeners and should therefore be banished. Murray, argues that if the oscillating rationality of Platonic ideals is accepted then this would be “the death of poetry as we know it.” In this light, it appears that poets will always be forced to defend their craft as intrinsically valuable.

If the value of the poet in a social hierarchy is questioned, the craft of poetry itself must necessarily come under scrutiny. A poets writing is based on instinct and inspiration, it does not contain the rationality demanded by Plato in The Republic. Murray concludes therefore “P.’s reluctance to grant poets the status of even skilled craftsmen… must surely be seen against the background of the increasing professionalism of the poet’s vocation in contemporary society.” Why? In part because of the existing economic pressures and the shift in rationale from religious, moral, or pure reason to economic value. In order to determine the craft, skill, technique and overall worth of poetry means to develop a clear understanding of mimesis and poetic inspiration. The inability to gauge the value of the creation and craft of poetry (regardless of the outcomes it produces) means that those allocating funding to poets must decide whether or not mimesis and poetic inspiration are as valuable as the techniques of other professions for instance. It is possible to argue that the value of a poet can be registered in regards to sales, but the subjective nature of poetry renders this problematic. An example of this problem can be seen in the John Forbes poem, Monkey’s Pride:

‘Soon’ the grape goes on
‘new technology will detach me
& I’ll be employed on a rowing boat
mounted in a park,
the one the avenues lead to
because society has elected me / to decorate
its falling apart
with a useless panache
& I will,
despite my vocation
to become a labour-saving device, opening
cans by remote control
in the kitchen of your heart / bottling the vegetables
you grow in your own backyard.

This extract beautifully typifies the plight of a ‘professional poet’ in today’s world. The line, “society has elected me to decorate its falling apart”, conjures Shelley’s ideas relating to the role of poet in times of decay. Stylistically and knowingly, Forbes allows himself to be caught in the drama of the times, although he reaches out of it through the use of imagination. Forbes questions the role of the poet as someone who generalises the collective emotions of individuals within society. He believes it to be presumptuous to attempt to uplift people in the confusing milieu of the present. The poem ends by alluding to the way most poets of today are forced to live: through a combination of manual labour and writing.

The value of the craft of poetry is, and perhaps always will be, brought into question by the economic and intellectual mechanisms of those in power. In an Australian society driven by sport and business, the intangible worth of poetry means that it will always be required to defend itself. A defined approach to the defence of poetry beyond the value systems of economic rationalism and Platonic rationalism must be sought. Governments may avail themselves of Platonic arguments concerned with the validity of mimesis and poetic inspiration. The arguments by Sidney and Shelley go some way to show the intrinsic worth of poetry as a thing-in-itself. However, as Murray’s study shows, we need reminding of these historical arguments in order to gain a greater understanding of the pressures exerted on a modern poet to subvert them. There is no doubt that poetry will continue, whether or not poets are given the freedom and legitimacy under the dominant thought system remains to be seen.


Forbes, John. Collected Poems, 1970 – 1998. Sydney: Brandl and Schlesinger, 1998.

Leonard, John. ed. Seven Centuries of Poetry in English, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2001.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry, English 340 Course Reader: UWA, 2002, pp60-69.

Sidney, Sir Philip. A Defence of Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Murray, Penelope. Plato On Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Plato. The Republic, London: Penguin Books, 1987.



5 thoughts on “Plato and Poetry

  1. Quinton,

    Its been a while. Think last time we caught up was after soccer a month or two ago. i’d like it to have been the time my corolla got yellow stickered by the cops and you dared me to drive it off the freeway and into a pile of yellow sand. you were drunk and i wasn’t up to that particular challenge on the night. my car is now at the wreckers and you and me are still here. so yay to me for not rising to your drunken prodding. though can’t help feel it was an opportunity missed. could have been a breakthrough moment for both us. sort of a jeff bridges, fearless kind of a thing.

    jimmy i liked your essay very much. am reading it from from my friend’s air conditioned office in banda aceh. piggy-backing off the free wi-fi. funny timing because i was thinking and writing in my journal about plato the other day and his particular dislike for poets.

    the trigger for the thought process was reflecting on how tight-fitting and limiting indonesian (well, lets call it even and say, my indonesian) feels this time around. i realise in the intervening years since last time being here how much i’ve come to rely on that kind of frontal lobe wordplay as a fuel for imagination and daily creative energy. when you’re operating in a second language, it can just cut out your access to the body of cultural knowledge that makes for interesting ideas and conversation. This, for me, has ramifications for all kinds of things from intuition, risk taking, and general mood levels and drive. Operating in a second language can just really blunt all of that freely associative thought activity that can make daily activity interesting.

    To quote me, I wrote:

    “Plato, fond as he was of reason, had about as much time for metaphor as he did for the poets who wielded it. Metaphor, with its ability to confound reason and tap the vein of divine madness from which profundity and pith fall freely from the cosmos, had no place in Plato’s world of cool, calm reason. Where reason as logos runs in a few set, pre-determined directions metaphor runs out along the synapses in all directions opening up vistas of imagination in a way that logos just cannot. I guess if one includes mathematical functions logos is given a wider repotoire but is still no match for metaphor’s abundance (association, connotation).”

    I just wonder if Plato disliked poets not only because they were engaged, as you say, in the practice of representation (two orders removed from the Ideal), and because they incited unseemly emotions in the public domain, but because they dealt in paradox, contradiction, irony and mythos – revelling in the tropical aspect of language rather than in its logical function.

    As a ‘words’ guy, i’m gonna stick up for metaphor and wordplay as at least equally important aspects of language as rationality and reason. I’m gonna wave the flag for mythos over logos. I reckon I tend towards loving langugae far more for its historical, cultural, and mythic baggage than i do for its capacity to facilitate rational thought.

    i might regret saying that.

  2. hi liam,

    good to hear from you.

    i tried to steer clear of the mythos logos arguments and focused more on attempting to outline platos arguments as they are, without digressing into the said arguments.

    i agree with you though about metaphors abundance.

    in another aspect though, logos and mythos feed off of one another in a symbiotic way. like extreme left and right wing politics going full circle and becoming indistinguish able. alternatively, mathmaticians and physicians claiming their theorums are poetic in its simplicity and completeness.

    to quote you:

    when you’re operating in a second language, it can just cut out your access to the body of cultural knowledge that makes for interesting ideas and conversation. This, for me, has ramifications for all kinds of things from intuition, risk taking, and general mood levels and drive.

    this is really interesting and look forward to hearing more of your thoughts in the future.

    take care mate


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