Taking Off the Gloves: My Time With Plato

Plato, courtesy of wikimedia commons
Sophocles, courtesy of wikimedia commons

As most of you know, I’m an English major.  And right now I’m taking the required “Literary Theory and Criticism” course.  And we’re going way back, folks.  Way back.  To the Greeks.  Where we’re reading parts of The Illiad (which I have surprisingly never read) and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.  We’re going back to the roots of… literature, essentially.  English literature, to be more precise, as I know that England is not the only country in the world, and many groups of people were creating their own literature way before us (China, Ancient Egypt, Japan—the list goes on).

And so now we’re getting into Plato and the philosophers, and…

Ladies and gentleman… this guy did not like literature.

Didn’t like it.

And so I think, “Okay.  Cool.  You don’t have to like it.  Not everybody likes it.”

And then, things got to the point where I wanted to take out my literary gloves and defend my academic area of study against Plato’s argumentative onslaught…

Only to find that I put on the gloves too soon.

In Plato’s Republic, he approaches literature, through his character named Socrates, after his teacher, with a bent to reason and the rational.  He argues that literature should conform the ideal — that the gods should not be depicted as adulterous, violent beings, but as good and perfect.  He believes that the truth is nothing but good, and children shouldn’t be raised with ideas of overtaking their parents (like Zeus did with Cronos) and such.  He believes that poets, painters, and storytellers are deliberate liars, distorting the universal, all-good truth.

And so upon first read, I’m thinking:

Plato.  Dude.  It doesn’t work like that.

First off, the truth is not always good.  Take Oedipus Rex, for example.  He killed his father and slept with his mother, who bore two children for him.  The bad part, or the plague that was threatening Thebes, was Oedipus’s own ignorance to his problem—to the horrible, disgusting, truth of his incest and hubris.

There is even a term in ancient Greek culture for this.  It is pathei mathos, which means that “knowledge is suffering.”  In other words, getting to know the truth can sometimes be a painful experience.  So, even Plato knows this aim for the all-good truth is a lost cause.

Second, there is a difference between being a liar and being false.

Bear with me on this one, readers.  There are two concepts you need to be aware of: pseudos and mendax.  Pseudos means “falsehood.”  Mendax means “lying.”  The worse of the two is the latter.  Lying is the deliberate act of creating falsehoods for your own personal gain, your nefarious purposes, etc.  Being false just means that something is false.  There’s nothing inherently good or bad about it on its own.  It really depends on the context, in which lying comes in, because using falsehoods to create a false impression will ultimately lead your audience astray.  It’s why expository writing is so crucial in that it sticks to the facts rather than sensationalism.

Which brings me to my point about Plato’s method of thinking: Artists are not liars.

When I write a story, I am not deliberate lying to my audience.  While they read it to feel something which they allow themselves to believe is authentic for the moment, my audience knows upfront that my fiction isn’t real.  I’m not writing a story and telling them that dragons are real.  But for a moment, I am creating a reality that is more vivid than the reality of their room, couch, bed, or college dorm.  I’m not telling them that it is reality.  And they know that they can go back to Earth the moment they stop at a chapter.  I mimic reality through language; I don’t lie about it.

When I read those parts of Plato’s Republic, I concluded that he went about this terribly wrong, and that he was nothing more than a math nerd who clinged to his either/or philosophy.

Then I learned about his deep relationship with Sophocles… and my rage went small and quiet.

You see, Sophocles was accused of blasphemy and corrupting the youth with ideas about new gods.  And Plato was one of his most dedicated students.  Rather than be exiled from Athens, where his home was, Sophocles reasoned he couldn’t do it, drank hemlock, and essentially killed himself, which, to Plato, was absolutely heartbreaking.

Thus, Plato wrote the Republic as a means of trying to prevent the so-called lies of literature about the gods from ever doing this again.  He pursues this ideal out of grief, which, to me, is the worst.  He wants to do good, when in fact, he’s only perpetuating the problem by ignoring the harsh reality of both the gods and humanity.

And so, with this, I’ve learned that you can’t even take two-thousand year old dead guys at a first glance — that there is always a methodology to their reasoning.  Even if we know in hindsight, it’s misguided.

With this, I take off my gloves, take my pen, and write on, knowing the world is a cure place, a wonderful place, a sticky place, a tempting place, a dialectic place.

A place where not everything is either/or, and where a sea of rage can turn still and quiet in the night.





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