On Plato’s Republic, 14

Index to this series

In the tenth and final book of Plato’s Republic (Stephanus 595–621), with the help of Glaucon, Socrates does three things:

  1. Confirm and strengthen the ban on imitative poetry carried out in Book III.
  2. Prove the immortality of the soul.
  3. Tell the Myth of Er about how best to make use of that immortality.

Bernard Picart
Glaucus Turned into a Sea-God, 1731
“Just as those who catch sight of the sea Glaucus would no longer easily see his original nature because some of the old parts of his body have been broken off and the others have been ground down and thoroughly maimed by the waves at the same time as other things have grown on him – shells, seaweed, and rocks – so that he resembles any beast rather than what he was by nature, so, too, we see the soul in such a condition because of countless evils” – Republic 611d

Here is a finer analysis, as part of a general table of contents for this post.

  • Prologue
    • A Translation Issue. How you translate Book X depends on whether you believe Socrates has a theory that all art is imitation. I have gathered sixteen translations of a diagnostic passage that Collingwood highlights in The Principles of Art (1938).
    • Imitation Elsewhere – that is, in Books II, III, V, and VI, as well as in the Phaedrus.
  • Book X
    • Imitation
      • What It Is. It is at a third remove from reality.
      • Homer and the Tragic Poets – did you ever hear that they had
        • given a city its constitution,
        • led a successsful military campaign,
        • invented something useful,
        • been revered as private teachers, as Pythagoras was and sophists want to be?
      • The Three Arts involving a thing:
        1. Using it.
        2. Making it.
        3. Imitating it.
      • Parts of the Soul – the best part is the calculating part, which can avoid the confusions that imitations subject the worse parts to.
      • Imitation Is of the Worse – our worse aspects, not the good and decent ones.
      • Imitation Makes Us Worse by bringing out shameful feelings for others that we suppress for ourselves.
      • Philosophy and Poetry – they have an old quarrel, but philosophy is willing to listen to an argument on behalf of poetry.
    • Immortality – the soul must have this, because only its specific evils could kill it, and these are the opposites – injustice, license, cowardice, and ignorance – of the virtues identified in Book IV. They do not in fact kill the soul, at least not directly.
    • Myth of Er – a Pamphylian, son of Armenius, he died in battle, but rose again on the twelfth day, having learned that, unless condemned to hell, we are going to choose our next life, after a spell in heaven or purgatory, depending on how we have lived our current life; thus we had better be ready to choose wisely.

Quoted in this post are

  • James Adam, commentary on the Republic
  • Aristotle, Poetics
  • R. G. Collingwood
    • “Plato’s Philosophy of Art”
    • “Roman Britain”
    • The Principles of Art
  • Diogenes Laërtius
  • Homer, Iliad
  • Plato, Phaedrus and Republic (obviously; in one case in many translations, otherwise usually in Bloom’s)
  • Paul Shorey
  • Strabo
  • Suda


A Translation Issue

In a section of The Principles of Art called “Plato and Aristotle on Representation,” Collingwood warns against confusing imitative poetry with poetry in general; for confusing them can lead to

  • thinking that all poets are banned from the city in Book III of the Republic;

  • misinterpreting the pronouns in the passage below in Book X, which begins the section that I am heading “Imitation Makes Us Worse” (605c).

With one phrase transposed, here is Shorey’s translation of the passage in question, along with the original.

But we have not yet brought our chief accusation against it.
Its power to corrupt even the better sort,
with rare exceptions,
is surely the chief cause for alarm.

Οὐ μέντοι πω τό γε μέγιστον κατηγορήκαμεν αὐτῆς.
τὸ γὰρ καὶ τοὺς ἐπιεικεῖς ἱκανὴν εἶναι λωβᾶσθαι,
ἐκτὸς πάνυ τινῶν ὀλίγων,
πάνδεινόν του.

Shorey does not replace Socrates’s pronouns with any presumed antecedents. However, the gender of a Greek pronoun can convey more information than that of an English pronoun. Euclid relies on this feature, as I discussed briefly in “Abscissas and Ordinates” (Journal of Humanistic Mathematics 5, 2015). Plato can do the same, and this seems to be the point of James Adam, who, in his 1902 commentary on the Republic, says for the first line of our excerpt,

αὐτῆς. That is, τῆς ποιήσεως. Cf. VI 503 E note.

Evidently Adam thinks the feminine form of (the genitive case of) the pronoun αὐτος shows that the antecedent is the feminine noun ποίησις “poetry,” even though that word has not been used lately in the text. The Greek word happens to be the source of our “poesy”; the root sense is of making. In any case, μίμησις “mimesis” is also feminine; moreover, as Collingwood points out, the phrase ὁ μιμητικὸς ποιητής “the mimetic poet” has been used recently.

Where Shorey has “Its power to corrupt,” we might say more literally, “The being sufficient to corrupt,” using “sufficient” for the adjective ἱκανός, which is used in the feminine form, presumably for the same reason that αὐτός is.

In the chronological order of their first editions (if I can identify them), here are a number of published translations of the passage in question, mostly from the Internet Archive, but sometimes from my personal paper library, or elsewhere on the web. I make bold any translators’ interpretations of Socrates’s αὐτῆς. According to the 1906 Introduction, by Richard Garnett, to the Everyman’s Library edition of Harry Spens’s translation, this was the first one in English and had no competitor till Thomas Taylor’s version of 1804. From what I have looked at, Taylor copied Spens almost verbatim.

Spens (1763):

But we have not however as yet, at leaſt, brought the greateſt accuſation againſt it:
for that is, ſome how, a very dreadful one
that it is able to corrupt even the good,
if it be not a very few excepted.

Taylor (1804):

But we have not however as yet brought the greateſt accuſation againſt it:
for that is, ſomehow, a very dreadful one,
that it is able to corrupt even the good,
if it be not a very few excepted.

Davis (1869):

Still we have not yet brought the greatest accusation against it:
for that is, somehow, a very dreadful one,
that it has the power of corrupting even the good,
except only a very few.

Jowett (1871/1892):

But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our accusation:
– the power which poetry has of harming even the good
(and there are very few who are not harmed),
is surely an awful thing?

Davies and Vaughan (1892):

But still, I continued, we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our indictment. For that poetry should be able to damage the great majority even of good men, is, I conceive, a crime of the deepest dye.

Lindsay (1908/1923):

But we have not yet stated our mightiest accusation against imitation.
For its power of corrupting even the good,
all but a few,
is surely most terrible of all.

Shorey (1937):

But we have not yet brought our chief accusation against it. Its power to corrupt, with rare exceptions, even the better sort is surely the chief cause for alarm.

Cornford (1941):

But, I continued, the heaviest count in our indictment is still to come.
Dramatic poetry has a most formidable power
of corrupting even men of high character,
with a few exceptions.

Lee (1955/2003) – called “lucid and accurate” by Angela Hobbs on the Five Books site:

The gravest charge against poetry still remains. It has a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters, with very few exceptions.

Rouse (1956/1984):

But we certainly have not come yet to the strongest accusation against imitation.
For it is surely monstrous
that it is able to corrupt even the decent people,
with very few exceptions.

Bloom (1968/1991):

However, we haven’t yet made the greatest accusation against imitation.
For the fact that it succeeds in maiming even the decent men,
except for a certain rare few,
is surely quite terrible.

Grube (1974):

We have not yet, however, brought the most serious charge against imitation,
namely that it is able to corrupt even good men,
with very few exceptions,
and that is a terribly dangerous thing.

Sterling and Scott (1985):

But the gravest indictment remains to be discussed.
The poet’s power to corrupt even the best men –
with rare exceptions –
is surely the most serious cause for alarm.

Reeve’s revision of Grube (1992):

However, we haven’t yet brought the most serious charge against imitation, namely, that with a few rare exceptions it is able to corrupt even decent people, for that’s surely an altogether terrible thing.

Waterfield (1993):

However, we haven’t yet made the most serious allegation against representational poetry. It has a terrifying capacity for deforming even good people. Only a very few escape.

Badiou (translated from the French by Spitzer, 2012):

The worst thing is poetry’s ability to wreak havoc on the minds of the most decent people. Very few can avoid it, and probably neither you nor I could.

Badiou has already made it clear that Socrates’s argument is with mimetic poetry, or poetry in “its mimetic aspect”; I have not checked all of the other translations on this.

Collingwood mentions “a recent translation by a high authority” that starts translating the passage in question with, “we have not yet brought our chief count against poetry.” Unfortunately I have not found this translation; a search of the web for the passage yields only Collingwood’s quotation of it. Collingwood thinks people make such mistakes because

their own minds are fogged by a theory – the current vulgar theory – identifying art as such with representation. Bringing this theory with them to Plato’s text, they read it into that text in spite of all that Plato can do to prevent them.

The mind of Collingwood was so fogged, thirteen years earlier, although then he thought others’ minds were fogged in a different way. In “Plato’s Philosophy of Art” (Mind, n.s. xxxiv [1925], 154–72, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/XXXIV.134.154), Collingwood says, refering to the first (namely Stephanus 595–608) of the three parts into which I have analyzed Book X,

The current misinterpretations of the passage are based on assuming that when Socrates speaks of copying he means that kind of activity by which a carpenter makes a chair resembling another chair, or an artist paints a picture resembling another picture.

Collingwood corrects this – reasonably enough, I think:

A copy, as the word is used in this passage, means not a facsimile or replica … but an object of a wholly different order … Thus the carpenter copies the form of a bed. He does not, in doing so, produce a second form of a bed …

However, he goes on to say what he will later think better of:

The definition of art given in the Republic is that in art this same process is repeated at a further stage. As the percept copies the concept, so the work of art copies the percept.

This copying is done, not by art as such, but by imitative or representational art. In The Principles of Art, noting the opinion that Aristotle thought all art was representational, Collingwood denies it, saying,

He makes it clear at the beginning of the Poetics that he did not. He there accepts Plato’s familiar distinction between representative and non-representative art; main­taining, for example, that some kinds of music are representative but not all.

Perhaps Aristotle is not crystal clear, but what he says at the beginning (1447a) of the Poetics (in the translation of S. H. Butcher) is,

Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however, from one another in three respects, – the medium, the objects, the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.

With the understanding (apparently called scalar implicature) that, in ordinary speech, one makes the strongest assertion that one conveniently can, we can infer that

  • other kinds of poetry – presumably lyric poetry – are not to be understood as imitative;
  • since in most of its forms, music for the flute and lyre is imitative, in some forms it must not be.

After reading, at my request, what Collingwood says about poetry for Plato in The Principles of Art, David Bolotin suggested to me that

  • the best poetry is imitative;
  • Socrates knows he is banning the best;
  • the Platonic dialogues themselves are imitative poetry.

It may then be worth pointing out that the dialogues are not in verse. Socrates himself suggests that the distinction is important.

  • In Book III (392a–b), as we shall observe also later, Socrates says, “I suppose we’ll say that what both poets and prose writers (καὶ ποιηταὶ καὶ λογοποιοί) say concerning the most important things about human beings is bad.”
  • In Book X (607d), he says of poetry, “surely we would also give its protectors, those who aren’t poets but lovers of poetry, occasion to speak an argument without meter on its behalf (ἄνευ μέτρου λόγον ὑπὲρ αὐτῆς εἰπεῖν).”
  • Near the beginning of the Phaedo, he tells of being commanded in a dream, “Make music and work at it (μουσικὴν ποίει καὶ ἐργάζου)” (60e).
    • He thought at first that he was already doing this, just by doing philosophy (61a).
    • Then he “composed a hymn to the god whose festival it was” (61b).
    • Finally, because a poet “must compose myths and not speeches (ποιεῖν μύθους, ἀλλ’ οὐ λόγους),” but he himself was not a “maker of myths (μυθολογικός),” he “turned into verse (ἐποίησα, from ποιέω)” Aesop’s Fables.

Imitation Elsewhere

What Collingwood says in The Principles of Art about Plato is a guide to what the Republic says about art, both before and in Book X:

Most modern writers on aesthetics attribute to Plato the syllogism ‘imitation is bad; all art is imitative; therefore all art is bad’, where imitation means what I am here calling representation. Hence, they go on, Plato ‘banishes art from his city’. I will not document my assertion. There is no need to pillory a few offenders for a crime that is almost universal.1

1 I am involved in it myself; see an article on ‘Plato’s Philosophy of Art’, in Mind, n.s. xxxiv, 154–72. It is especially an English error, and goes back at least to Jowett’s translation of Plato (1872). Outside England it has infected Croce; I suspect, through Bosanquet’s History of Aesthetic.

This Platonic ‘attack on art’ is a myth whose vitality throws a lurid light on the scholarship of those who have invented and perpetuated it. The facts are (i) that ‘Socrates’ in Plato’s Republic divides poetry into two kinds, one representative and the other not (392 d); (ii) that he regards certain kinds of representative poetry as amusing (ἡδύς) but for various reasons undesirable, and banishes these kinds only of representative poetry not merely from the schoolroom of his young guardians but from the entire city (398 a); (iii) that later in the dialogue he expresses satisfaction with his original division (595 a); (iv) reinforces his attack, this time extended to the entire field of representative poetry, with new arguments (595 c–606 d); (v) and banishes all representative poetry, but retains certain specified kinds of poetry as not representative (607 a).

The process of banishing at least some poets starts in Book II, where Socrates tells Adeimantus about how what reaches the ears of children must be censored (377b–c):

First, as it seems, we must supervise the makers of tales; and if they make a fine tale, it must be approved, but if it’s not, it must be rejected. We’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell the approved tales to their children and to shape their souls with tales more than their bodies with hands. Most of those they now tell must be thrown out.

Socrates goes on to tell how the censorship applies to supernatural things; he concludes in Book III (392a),

It has been stated how gods must be spoken about, and demons and heroes, and Hades’ domain.

It remains to say how human beings shall be spoken about. Obviously, the unjust must be depicted as unhappy, and the just, happy – right? Trick question! We don’t know who the just and unjust are in the first place. As Socrates puts it, the original question or surmise is as follows (392a–b).

I suppose we’ll say that what both poets and prose writers say concerning the most important things about human beings is bad – that many happy men are unjust, and many wretched ones just, and that doing injustice is profitable if one gets away with it, but justice is someone else’s good and one’s own loss. We’ll forbid them to say such things and order them to sing and to tell tales about the opposites of these things.

By approving of what Socrates says, Adeimantus implies that he already knows what justice is. He doesn’t, as Socrates reminds him.

Adeimantus goes on to admit confusion, not about justice, but about Socrates’s next topic, namely τὸ λέξεως or alternatively ὡς λεκτέον (392c); this is

  • diction or the manner of speech, for Shorey;
  • style or how something is said, for Bloom.

The important distinction is going to be between what we call today direct and indirect in speech. Tragedy consists entirely of the former, but its precursor, the Iliad, is a mix. As Socrates tells Adeimantus (392d),

Isn’t everything that’s said by tellers of tales or poets a narrative (ἡ διήγησις) of

  • what has come to pass,
  • what is, or
  • what is going to be?

Adeimantus replies, “What else could it be?” Here I interject that we are going to hear about past, present, and future in the Myth of Er, where it is said of the Three Fates, who are the Daughters of Necessity (617c),

they sing to the Sirens’ harmony,

  • Lachesis of what has been,
  • Clotho of what is, and
  • Atropos of what is going to be.

Meanwhile, Socrates continues about the poets’ work:

“Now, don’t they accomplish this with a narrative that is either simple or produced by imitation, or by both together?”

“I need,” he said, “a still clearer understanding of this …”

“I seem to be a ridiculous teacher, and an unclear one,” I said. “So, just like men who are incompetent at speaking, instead of speaking about the whole in general, I’ll cut off a part and with it attempt to make plain to you what I want. Tell me, do you know the first things in the Iliad …”

Perhaps Socrates’s distinction is indeed not so clear, since when Homer is “simply” narrating in the Iliad, rather than directly quoting or “imitating,” he still might be seen as imitating some other narrator, as chorus of a tragedy are going to do, when this poetic form is developed. As an actor, Homer takes on many roles: Chryses, Agamemnon, Achilles – and Narrator.

Socrates proceeds so show how to replace direct speech in the Iliad with indirect. He will still allow direct speech, in the poetry of the city under construction, when that speech is of

  • a good man, especially when he is at his best;
  • any man, if he is doing something good.

Here is how Socrates puts it (396c–e):

“In my opinion,” I said, “when the sensible man comes in his narrative to some speech or deed of a good man, he will be willing to report it as though he himself were that man and won’t be ashamed of such an imitation. He will imitate the good man most when he is acting steadily and prudently; less, and less willingly, when he’s unsteadied by diseases, loves, drink, or some other misfortune. But when he meets with someone unworthy of himself, he won’t be willing seriously to represent himself as an inferior, unless, of course, it’s brief, when the man does something good; rather, he’ll be ashamed, both because he’s unpracticed at imitating such men and because he can’t stand forming himself according to, and fitting himself into, the models of worse men. In his mind he despises this, unless it’s done in play (ὅτι μὴ παιδιᾶς χάριν).”

“It’s likely,” he said.

This recalls to me Mansfield Park, in which, in the absence of Thomas Bertram, the young people of his household start preparing to put on a play; they must call it off when he returns, since he finds acting unseemly for his class. He does not find it beneath him to enslave people on his plantations in Antigua, and perhaps Jane Austen wants us to notice this, as Plato wants us to notice his use of poetry to condemn poetry.

In the Republic posts before now, I mentioned Jane Austen only in the context of the former part of Book VI, where the philosopher-king governs the city the way the artist governs a work in progress, constantly looking between it and a pattern.

The Republic as a whole is Plato’s imitation of Socrates, who in turn, by reporting a dialogue, is imitating himself, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the others. Perhaps Socrates is only being playful. Shorey finds significance in Socrates’s allowing of the playful imitation of bad men, in the passage last quoted:

Plato, like Howells and some other modern novelists, would have thought somewhat gross comedy less harmful than the tragedy or romance that insidiously instils false ideals.

On playful words, should also mention the Phaedrus, where Socrates says, here in the Loeb translation of Fowler (276b–d):

Would a sensible husbandman, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis, and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement (παιδιᾶς τε καὶ ἑορτῆς χάριν)?

The gardens of letters he will, it seems, plant for amusement (παιδιᾶς χάριν), and will write, when he writes, to treasure up reminders for himself, when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age, and for others who follow the same path, and he will be pleased when he sees them putting forth tender leaves.

Meanwhile, the dialogue in Book III of the Republic continues (396e):

“Then, won’t he use a narration like the one we described a little while ago concerning Homer’s verses, and won’t his style participate in both imitation and the other kind of narrative, but there’ll be a little bit of imitation in a great deal of speech? Or am I talking nonsense?”

“That,” he said, “is just the way the model of such a speaker must be.”

Could Adeimantus, or we, produce an expurgated version of the Iliad that would meet Socrates’s standards? The Odyssey might be more difficult, given the many dissimulations of Odysseus (as to the Phaeacians, to Polyphemus, and to his household back in Ithaca).

Concerning the imitative poet in Book III, the conclusion is to ban or banish him, at least if he is excessively imitative (398a–b):

Now, as it seems, if a man who is able by wisdom to become every sort of thing and to imitate all things should come to our city, wishing to make a display of himself and his poems, we would fall on our knees before him as a man sacred, wonderful, and pleasing; but we would say that there is no such man among us in the city, nor is it lawful for such a man to be born there. We would send him to another city, with myrrh poured over his head and crowned with wool, while we ourselves would use a more austere and less pleasing poet and teller of tales for the sake of benefit, one who would imitate the style of the decent man and would say what he says in those models that we set down as laws at the beginning, when we undertook to educate the soldiers.

“Indeed that is what we would do,” replies Adeimantus, “if it were up to us.”

At the headword “Imitation,” Bloom’s subject index has a list, intended to be complete, of all uses in the Republic of μίμησις and related words. I am not reviewing all of these uses here. Not on Bloom’s list is the passage I mentioned in the former part of Book VI, where the philosopher-king is like an artist. However, as I am reminded by the list, in the former part of Book V, in the Second Wave, Socrates refers to rulers as imitating laws (458b–c):

I suppose that if the rulers are to be worthy of the name, and their auxiliaries likewise, the latter will be willing to do what they are commanded and the former to command. In some of their commands the rulers will in their turn be obeying the laws; in others – all those we leave to their discretion – they will imitate (μιμέομαι) the laws.

It sounds as if the rulers must act according to Kant’s categorical imperative

Walkway down to a formal garden, and beyond it the sea
Yıldız Parkı
Istanbul, December 11, 2021

Book X


What It Is

At the beginning of Book X, Glaucon has been the interlocutor since early in Book IX. Socrates recalls and approves of the earlier banning of imitative poetry (595a–b):

“And, indeed,” I said, “I also recognize in many other aspects of this city that we were entirely right in the way we founded it, but I say this particularly when reflecting on poetry.”

“What about it?” he said.

“In not admitting at all any part of it that is imitative (μιμητικός ή όν). For that the imitative, more than anything, must not be admitted looks, in my opinion, even more manifest now that the soul’s forms have each been separated out.”

The forms of the soul were first separated out in Book IV. Socrates explains further (595b):

Between us – and you all won’t denounce me to the tragic poets and all the other imitators (οἱ μιμητικοί) – all such things seem to maim (λώβη εἶναι) the thought of those who hear them and do not as a remedy (φάρμακον) have the knowledge of how they really are.

I note the use of the nouns

  • λώβη, cognate with the verb λωβάομαι that appears in the later passage, at (605c), that we looked at many translations of earlier;
  • φάρμακον, which is what writing is described as in the Phaedrus, in the passage (275a) that I quoted in Hypomnesis, where Thamus tells Theuth, “You have invented an elixir (φάρμακον) not of memory (μνήμη), but of reminding (ὑπόμνησις).”

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the remedy for being corrupted by poetry is to have it in writing?

Asked to explain himself, Socrates continues, albeit with the pose of wanting not to offend Homer (595b–c):

A certain friendship for Homer, and shame before him, which has possessed me since childhood, prevents me from speaking. For he seems to have been the first teacher and leader of all these fine tragic things. Still and all, a man must not be honored before the truth, but, as I say, it must be told.

Socrates now asks Glaucon a hard question. I paraphrase (595c–6a):

What is imitation (ἡ μίμησις εως)?
As if I would know!
You could; the dull may see things before the sharp.
I won’t show my ignorance around you.

Perhaps Socrates is a bad teacher, if his students do not want to explore their ideas with him. As we recalled above, Adeimantus did not initially understand the distinction between simple and imitative narrative. Now Glaucon has no idea about imitation, at least none that he wants to try out in front of Socrates. He could say – but doesn’t – “Well, Socrates, as you told us earlier, imitation is what Homer engages in when he doesn’t just tell us what Chryses did and said, but speaks as if he were Chryses.”

As it is, Socrates starts talking about forms and ideas, not mentioning imitation for a while.

He starts in particular with what has become a standard example for people indoors: tables and chairs. Strictly, he uses the couch (ἡ κλίνη as in “recline”) rather than the chair (ὁ θρόνος as in “throne” or τὸ ἕδρα as in “cathedral” or “polyhedron” – for the adjective πολύεδρος ον, Liddell and Scott have a single reference, to Plutarch’s “Life of Pericles”: τὸ δ᾽ Ὠιδεῖον … ἐντὸς διαθέσει πολύεδρον καὶ πολύστυλον “The Odeum … was arranged internally with many tiers of seats and many pillars”). There are many tables, and many chairs, but in either case only one idea, which the craftsman (ὁ δημιουργός) doesn’t make, but only looks to in doing his work.

There seems to be no conception of creativity or invention on the part of the artisan, although, a bit later, concerning what “they” say about Homer, Socrates will ask (600a),

do they tell of many ingenious devices for the arts or any other activities, just as for Thales the Milesian or Anacharsis the Scythian?

Here is what I have found about Anacharsis. Bloom reports, without source, that “Anacharsis was said to have invented the anchor and the potter’s wheel.” Diogenes Laërtius says the same thing: “According to some he was the inventor of the anchor and the potter’s wheel.” Strabo says even more, but critically (7.3.9):

And when he calls Anacharsis “wise,” Ephorus says that he belongs to this race, and that he was considered also one of Seven Wise Men because of his perfect self-control and good sense. And he goes on to tell the inventions of Anacharsis – the bellows, the two-fluked anchor and the potter’s wheel. These things I tell knowing full well that Ephorus himself does not tell the whole truth about everything; and particularly in his account of Anacharsis (for how could the wheel be his invention, if Homer, who lived in earlier times, knew of it? “As when a potter his wheel that fits in his hands,” and so on); but as for those other things, I tell them because I wish to make my point clear that there actually was a common report, which was believed by the men of both early and of later times, that a part of the Nomads, I mean those who had settled the farthest away from the rest of mankind, were “galactophagi,” “abii,” and “most just,” and that they were not an invention of Homer.

The Homeric reference is to the Shield of Achilles, Iliad Book XVIII, line 600; here are lines 590–602, in Caroline Alexander’s translation:

And on it the famed crook-legged god made a patterned place for dancing,
like that which once in broad Knossos
Daedalus created for Ariadne of the lovely hair.
There the unwed youths and maidens worth many oxen as their bridal price
were dancing, holding each other’s hands at the wrist;
and the girls were wearing finest linen, and the youths wore
fine-spun tunics, soft shining with oil.
And the girls wore lovely crowns of flowers, and the youths were carrying
golden daggers from their silver sword-belts.
And now the youths with practiced feet would lightly run in rings,
as when a crouching potter makes trial of the potter’s wheel
fitted to his hand, to see if it speeds round;
and then another time they would run across each other’s lines.

Herodotus says of Anacharsis only that he was from Scythia (4.46) and that, having travelled the world and showed his wisdom, passing through the Hellespont on his way home, stopping at Cyzicus on the Anatolian side and seeing the celebration of the Feast of the Mother of the Gods, he tried to observe the rite in Scythia and was killed for it (4.76); it is only a vain Greek legend that the King of Scythia actually sent Anacharsis to learn Greek ways (4.77).

Coincidentally, in his 1925 Mind paper, to make a point about imitation, Collingwood quotes (in Greek) the last two of lines 541–9 of the same book of the Iliad:

And on the shield he made a soft fallow field – fertile worked land
broad and thrice-plowed; and on it many plowmen
were driving their yoked teams of oxen turning up and down the field.
And when they came to the furrow end, after turning around,
then would a man come up to give into their hands a cup of
honey-sweet wine; and they would turn back along the row,
eager to reach the turning place of the deep fallow field.
And the earth darkened behind them, like land that has been plowed,
made of gold though it was; a wonder indeed was that which was wrought.

By Collingwood’s argument, the field in the shield is only an imitation, because its material – gold – is not that of the original.

Socrates says there is a craftsman who can make everything that each individual χειροτεχνός “manual artisan” (596c) does. Glaucon could do the same thing, with a mirror (596d); but also a painter does it (596e). There is now a sequence of couches and their makers (597b):

  1. Ὁ θεός (God).
  2. Ὁ τέκτων (carpenter).
  3. Ὁ ζωγράφος (painter).

Finally Glaucon feels able to say what an imitator is; for the painter is only an imitator of the carpenter (597e).

Socrates adds that if the maker of tragedy is also an imitator, he likewise is at a third remove from the truth. Also, the painter imitates not the thing itself in nature, but the work of the craftsman; and not such as they are, but such as they look (580a).

Homer and the Tragic Poets

We look at “tragedy and its leader, Homer,” since they are thought to know all arts and everything about virtue and vice (598d–e).

If you could make both the thing and its imitation, you would be more concerned about the thing (599a); for as Glaucon says, the honor and benefit from them are unequal (599b).

Let’s not ask then whom any poet has made healthy, as Asclepius and his students have done; or about the other arts (599b–c); but

about the greatest and fairest things of which Homer attempts to speak – about wars and commands of armies and governances of cities, and about the education of a human being – it is surely just to ask him and inquire …

Thus we ask:

  • Good governance has been given by
    • Lycurgus to Lacedaemon,
    • Charondas to Italy and Sicily,
    • Solon to Athens;

    by Homer to whom? Nobody (599e).

  • Neither is Homer known to have caused a war to be well fought.
  • Neither has he been like Thales and Anacharsis, mentioned above (600a).
  • Neither has he been cherished for private teaching, as Pythagoras was, and as Protagoras and Prodicus now are or at least want to be (600a–c).

I think Socrates will not praise sophists without irony; so it’s not a bad reflection on Homer if he is not like them.

Between Pythagoras and the sophists, Glaucon interjects an obscure comment about Creophylus, who, as a friend of Homer, would be more ridiculous in his person than in his name of Meathead if it is true that Homer was neglected in his day – Shorey says neglected by Creophylus, but Bloom leaves it open.

If Homer could teach virtue, nobody would have let him or Hesiod wander about as rhapsodes (600d).

Homer and the like are imitators of phantoms of virtue (600e). A painted shoemaker knows nothing about shoemaking.

Poets seem to speak well, by use of meter, rhythm, and harmony (601a). Strip those off, and what is left is like a boy who has lost the bloom of youth (601b).

The Three Arts

Involved with reins and a bit for a horse for example (601c), there are three persons:

  1. User.
  2. Maker.
  3. Imitator (601d).

The flute-player can tell the maker what a good flute is (601d–e); the imitator cannot (602a). In sum, Socrates tells Glaucon (602b):

it looks like we are pretty well agreed on these things:

  • the imitator knows nothing worth mentioning about what he imitates;
  • imitation is a kind of play and not serious; and
  • those who take up tragic poetry in iambics and in epics are all imitators in the highest possible degree.

Parts of the Soul

The same things can look

  • straight and bent (as when being immersed in water);
  • concave and convex.

Taking advantage of these possibilities are such arts as

  • ἡ σκιαγραφία – literally “shadow painting,” as Bloom has it, but apparently meaning scene painting, because it paints shadows to create an illusion of depth;
  • ἡ θαυματοποιία (602d) – literally “doing wonders”: Liddell and Scott call it “juggling, conjuring,” referring to this very use, but Bloom has “puppeteering.”

The calculating part of the soul, which is the best part, can overcome illusion by means of measuring, counting, and weighing (602d–3a).

By the Law of Contradiction, already used in Book IV to distinguish three parts of the soul, imitation must affect the parts of us that are φαῦλος (η) ον (603a) – “ordinary” for Bloom, “inferior” for Shorey. Thus

painting and imitation as a whole are far from the truth when they produce their work; and that, moreover, imitation keeps company with the part in us that is far from prudence, and is not comrade and friend for any healthy or true purpose.

Imitation Is of the Worse

Our actions can be

  • forced or voluntary;
  • done well or badly, by our own judgment;
  • painful or enjoyable.

Imitation imitates us in these things (603c).

Struck by personal tragedy such as the loss of a son, a man who is ἐπιεικής ές “decent” (603e) bears it better than others do. He suffers pain, but fights it, as argument and law advise him (604a), even though pain impedes deliberation (604c).

The decent person, now the prudent and quiet character, is not easily imitated or understood (604e).

Thus again we are right not to let the imitative poet into the city (605b).

Imitation Makes Us Worse

Imitation not only neglects to imitate the decent man, but with few exceptions makes him worse (605c). For we enjoy seeing the lamentations of the person playing a hero on stage, even though we would suppress any lamenting on our own behalf (606a). Thus imitative poetry counteracts our education, be it by argument or habit; for (606b),

only a certain few men are capable of calculating that the enjoyment of other people’s sufferings has a necessary effect on one’s own. For the pitying part, fed strong on these examples, is not easily held down in one’s own sufferings.

Likewise for laughter (606c), and sex and spiritedness (606d). Therefore (607a),

when you meet praisers of Homer who say that this poet educated Greece, and that in the management and education of human affairs it is worthwhile to take him up for study and for living, by arranging one’s whole life according to this poet, you must love and embrace them as being men who are the best they can be, and agree that Homer is the most poetic and first of the tragic poets; but you must know that only so much of poetry as is hymns to gods or celebration of good men should be admitted into a city. And if you admit the sweetened muse in lyrics or epics, pleasure and pain will jointly be kings in your city instead of law and that argument which in each instance is best in the opinion of the community.

Philosophy and Poetry

Philosophy thus rejects most poetry, because “The argument determined us” (607b) – and philosophy is guided by argument. However, poetry has already rejected philosophy, as Socrates apparently means to show with some quotations:

yelping bitch shrieking at her master,
great in the empty eloquence of fools,
the mob of overwise men holding sway,
the refined thinkers who are really poor.

It seems scholars have not identified these, although Shorey passes along the conjecture of Wilamowitz that they are from Sophron. In his article on Plato, Diogenes Laërtius says,

Plato, it seems, was the first to bring to Athens the mimes of Sophron which had been neglected, and to draw characters in the style of that writer; a copy of the mimes, they say, was actually found under his pillow.

The entry on Sophron in the Suda reads,

Of Syracuse, son of Agathocles and Damnasyllis. He lived in the era of Xerxes and Euripides. And he wrote Mimes to do with men [and] Mimes to do with women; they are in prose, in the Doric dialect. And they say that Plato the philosopher always read them, so as to be sent into an occasional doze.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica confused these two passages, attributing the pillow story to the Suda; the error was carried over to Wikipedia, but now I have corrected it there.

The lines that Socrates quotes are just signs of “an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” Nonetheless, we should be glad to receive “poetry directed to pleasure and imitation” back from exile, if only it could argue why it had a place in our city (607c) – that is, if poetry could become philosophy!

It is even acceptable for the argument to be made by προστάταις (607d) – “protectors” (Bloom) or “advocates” (Shorey) – who love poetry, but speak prose. By Collingwood’s account in The Principles of Art, Aristotle steps forth as one of these protectors, a “champion,”

and the Poetics (or rather, that small part of it which is something more than a set of hints to amateur playwrights) is offered as the prose speech Socrates asked for.

The Poetics is therefore in no sense a Defence of Poetry; it is a Defence of Poetry for Pleasure’s Sake, or Representative Poetry … Tragedy generates in the audience emotions of pity and fear. A mind heavily charged with these emotions is thereby unfitted for practical life … Plato proceeds at once to his conclusion: therefore tragedy is detrimental to the practical life of its audience … Aristotle inserts one further step in the analysis. The emotions generated by tragedy, he observes, are … discharged in the experience of watching the tragedy. This emotional defecation or ‘purging’ (κάθαρσις) leaves the audience’s mind, after the tragedy is over, not loaded with pity and fear but lightened of them. The effect is thus the opposite of what Plato had supposed.

Collingwood’s notion is that while Aristotle may have the better analysis of amusement (as distinct from art proper), he doesn’t feel as Plato does, the central problem that motivates the Republic:

the decadence of the Greek world: its symptoms, its causes, and its possible remedies. Among its symptoms, as Plato rightly contended, was the supersession of the old magico-religious art by a new amusement art … He thinks that the new art of the decadence is the art of an over-excited, over-emotionalized world; but it is really the exact opposite. It is really the ‘art’ of an emotionally defecated world, a world whose inhabitants feel it flat and stale. The art, in fact, of a Waste Land.

Having grown up in the waste land, Aristotle does not see it. Collingwood comes back to this later, in a section of The Principles of Art called “Amusement in the Modern World,” describing the first chapter of an imagined “history of amusement in Europe”:

Plato’s error on this point [about what happens to “the emotions generated by amusement art”] led him to think that the evils of a world given over to amusement could be cured by controlling or abolishing amusements. But when the vortex has once established itself, that cannot be done; cause and effect are now interlocked in a vicious circle, which will mend itself wherever you break it; what began as the cause of the disease is now only a symptom, which it is useless to treat.

I would say rather that, in the Republic, Plato creates characters whom Socrates can lead to believe, or at least to agree in speech, that controlling or abolishing amusements is desirable and even (remotely) possible. It is not clear that Plato himself believes this or expects his readers to believe it.

In Greco-Roman society, says Collingwood,

The critical moment was reached when Rome created an urban proletariat whose only function was to eat free bread and watch free shows … When that had been done, it was only a question of time until Plato’s nightmare1 of a consumer’s society came true: the drones set up their own king, and the story of the hive came to an end.

The footnote has three references, the first being to 573a–b in Book IX, concerning the life of the tyrannical soul:

when the other desires – overflowing with incense, myrrh, crowns, wines and all the pleasures with which such societies are rife – buzz around the drone, making it grow great and fostering it, they plant the sting of longing in it. Now this leader of the soul takes madness for its armed guard and is stung to frenzy. And if it finds in the man any opinions or desires accounted good and still admitting of shame, it slays them and pushes them out of him until it purges him of moderation and fills him with madness brought in from abroad.

The third reference is to what Collingwood says in “Roman Britain,” namely the former part of Roman Britain and the English Settlements (1937), the first volume of the Oxford History of England:

The towns of the first and second century had been the privileged vehicles of Roman civilization. The third century saw that privilege destroyed. Whether it was destroyed by the envy of the unprivileged peasantry, as Rostovtzeff thinks; or because of the helpless rapacity of ephemeral rulers who had no way of supporting themselves except by plundering those whom it was easiest to plunder, the simple and superficial explanation of the historical materialist; or because the deep-rooted Celtic tradition of life, which had in it no place for the town, was not to be overborne by the most earnest efforts of Roman governors; this, at any rate, is certain, that the Britons of the fourth century had given up their earlier belief in, and desire for, the kind of civilization which they had inherited from the Graeco-Roman city-state. The first attempt to romanize British life, by imposing upon it the civilization of the town, had failed. It was when its failure was most complete that the second attempt, based on the spontaneous development of the country house, began to display its most brilliant successes.

The second reference is to Rostovtzeff. Meanwhile, says Collingwood in Principles,

The vortex revolved, through manifestations now wholly forgotten except by a few curious scholars, until a new consciousness grew up for which practical life was so interesting that organized amusement was no longer needed.

One might suggest that an organized church was needed. One might also ask what Plato contributed to the Christian consciousness, by having Socrates teach that

  • doing injustice is worse than suffering it (as I wrote in “Doing and Suffering”),
  • the soul is immortal, as we see next.


As I sketched the argument at the top of this post, the soul is immortal, because injustice doesn’t kill it. Indeed, says Glaucon, injustice wouldn’t be so bad if it did kill you, for it would thus be self-limiting (610d).

Glaucon’s surmise is an argument against the death penalty. If you are a criminal, the best punishment is to make you live with yourself.

If the soul is immortal, then there must always be the same number (611a). However, the way Socrates talks, the argument so far has shown only that the number of souls cannot go down.

That the number cannot go up takes another argument, that if it did, then the new immortal things would have to come from the mortal things, and eventually everything would be immortal. What would be wrong with that? It makes no sense for something to become immortal: if it is immortal now, does this not mean it was always immortal?

Socrates does not want to dwell on the invariance of the number of souls (611b):

let’s not suppose this – for the argument won’t permit it – nor that soul by its truest nature is such that it is full of much variety, dissimilarity, and quarrel with itself.

Now look back at what Socrates said at the beginning of this section (608d):

οὐκ ᾔσθησαι ὅτι ἀθάνατος ἡμῶν ἡ ψυχὴ καὶ οὐδέποτε ἀπόλλυται;
Not have-you-perceived that deathless our the soul and never is-destroyed?

One soul is referred to as belonging to all of us; Socrates does not say that our souls are immortal. How can there be many souls anyway; if there are many, are they not all copies of a single idea, and yet is the soul not an idea in the first place? Socrates is not getting into all of this, since the question of immortality in the human soul is new for Glaucon, whose reply Socrates describes:

And he looked me in the face with wonder and said, “No, by Zeus, I haven’t. Can you say that?”

“If I am not to do an injustice,” I said. “And I suppose you can, too, for it’s nothing hard.”

“It is for me,” he said. “But I would gladly hear from you this thing that isn’t hard.”

Immortality as such is not new, since the gods have it. Also gods (male and female) mate with humans; however, the offspring, such as Achilles, are generally mortal, though Hercules may be an exception. Perhaps it is blasphemous to suggest that each of us humans already has immortality. Glaucon does not seem to be worried about this though. His wonder may prefigure, so to speak, the wonder that will attract converts to Christianity in a few centuries.

Socrates goes on to mention a mortal who is supposed to have become immortal: Glaucus (611d).

Just as those who catch sight of the sea Glaucus would no longer easily see his original nature because some of the old parts of his body have been broken off and the others have been ground down and thoroughly maimed by the waves at the same time as other things have grown on him – shells, seaweed, and rocks – so that he resembles any beast rather than what he was by nature, so, too, we see the soul in such a condition because of countless evils.

Philosophy somehow lets us come clean. Justice is best for us, regardless of whether we wear a cloaking device such as

  • the Ring of Gyges that Glaucon introduced in Book II;
  • the Cap of Hades mentioned in Book V (line 844) of the Iliad, worn by Athena so that Ares cannot see that she is helping Diomedes, whose spear she guides into Ares’s belly.

Glaucon is in debt to justice, having postulated in Book II what, for its absurdity, I likened to the Trolley Problem: that somebody could be thoroughly just while seeming to be the opposite (612c).

The Latin postulatum translates the Greek τὸ αἴτημα ατα, which means a demand. Euclid makes five demands of his readers, and he pays the debt in demonstrations of theorems and problems.

Glaucon should pay his debt by restoring the reputation of justice (612d). Socrates gives an account that sounds like karma (612e–3a):

“And won’t we agree that everything that comes to the man dear to the gods – insofar as it comes from gods – is the best possible, except for any necessary evil that was due to him for former mistakes?”

“Most certainly.”

“Thus, it must be assumed in the case of the just man that, if he falls into poverty, diseases, or any other of the things that seem bad, for him it will end in some good, either in life or even in death. For, surely, gods at least will never neglect the man who is eagerly willing to become just and, practicing virtue, likens himself, so far as is possible for a human being, to a god.”

“It’s quite likely,” he said, “that such a man isn’t neglected by his like.”

Not only is justice good in itself, but it gets you good things (613e–4a) – and when it doesn’t, there is always an explanation! I’m not sure whether to assess this as a theorem, a postulate, or even an absolute presupposition (discussed in “Nature”) – not a demand, but something we already grant, perhaps unawares, so that the burden of the Republic is to make us aware.

Myth of Er

The story of the son of Armenius shows how justice brings you good things after death. Perhaps it thus serves philosophy, as good poetry should do.

Er having died, his soul travels with others

  • εἰς τόπον τινὰ δαιμόνιον “to a demonic place” (614c),
  • είς τὸν λειμῶνα “to the meadow” (614e) – Bloom also calls it a “plain” (616b).

There are two openings in the earth below, two in heaven above. Judges send a soul either up to the right or down to the left. Souls return from the other openings after a thousand years, having been paid back ten times for what good or bad they did in life. What happens to the souls of persons who lived but a short time is “not worth mentioning” (615c). The worst souls – usually of tyrants, but not always – think they are coming back to the surface, but the lower mouth roars, and, treated like wool being carded on thorns, they are sent to Tartarus. It is not clear to me whether Tartarus is where they have already been, or a new place.

The free souls journey to the Spindle of Necessity, around which turn the planets (or something like that), a Siren attached to each. From the lap of Lachesis, a spokesman takes lots and patterns – more patterns than lots. The lots are cast, and a soul takes the one nearest. According to the number associated with one’s lot, one chooses a pattern for one’s next life. There is a remark (618b),

An ordering (τάξις) of the soul was not in them, due to the necessity that a soul become different according to the life it chooses.

Perhaps this is to distinguish the patterns from the lots, which are ordered. The main point is that there is no obvious way to choose a soul (618b–c):

Now here, my dear Glaucon, is the whole risk for a human being, as it seems. And on this account each of us must, to the neglect of other studies, above all see to it that he is a seeker and student of that study by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those that are possible.

It sounds like what I remember of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, that you must get ready in this life to choose a good next life, because when you are in between, in the bardo, it is hard to decide. From proper study, says Socrates, a person draws a conclusion; and then (618e–9a),

He must go to Hades adamantly holding to this opinion so that he won’t be daunted by wealth and such evils there, and rush into tyrannies and other such deeds by which he would work many irreparable evils, and himself undergo still greater suffering; but rather he will know how always to choose the life between such extremes.

The extremes would seem to be doing great evil and suffering it.

During Er’s visit, the soul who gets first choice of a pattern for the next life has come from heaven; however, the person had earned heaven not by philosophy, but by happening to have good habits. For the next life he chooses the pattern that looks best, not noticing that it will have him eating his children.

Other examples show that you can change species and sex:

  • Orpheus does not want to be born to woman, because he hates women: he will return as a swan.
  • Thamyras chooses a nightingale.
  • A swan and other musical animals choose humans.
  • Telamonian Ajax (who has the twentieth lot) chooses a lion, because he hates humanity.
  • Agamemnon chooses an eagle for the same reason.
  • Atalanta choses an athletic man.
  • Epeius son of Panopeus chooses an artisan woman.
  • Thersites, nearly last, chooses an ape.
  • Odysseus, dead last, having got over his love of honor, manages to find βίος ἀνδρὸς ἰδωτου ἀπράγμονος (620c), which for Bloom is “the life of a private man who minds his own business,” and similarly for Shorey, as if echoing the account of justice found in Book IV; but the idea now is not of doing ones own (τὸ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν) nor of not being a busybody, that is, not doing a lot (μὴ πολυπραγμονεῖν); but of not doing anything.

Since we normally do not remember our past lives, there must be an explanation. Before returning to life, souls must drink a measure from the river of Ἀμελητής – “Forgetfulness” or “Carelessness” – in the plain of Λήθη “Oblivion” (621a). The imprudent drink more than they need. Er is special: he gets away with drinking none at all, so that he can tell his story.

Cat on a wall, surrounded by greenery
Yıldız Parkı
Istanbul, December 11, 2021

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  1. By On Plato’s Republic, 1 « Polytropy on December 13, 2021 at 6:52 pm

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  3. By Plato and Christianity « Polytropy on January 11, 2022 at 9:33 pm

    […] with the Myth of Er in Book X. […]

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