A Critique of Plato’s Theory of Art

I spent a good chunk of 2022 reading and pondering Plato’s Republic, the first and perhaps most influential work of political philosophy of all time. Even if you haven’t read the book, it is probable that you have encountered some of the ideas Plato wrote about in The Republic, such as the concept of the Philosopher-King, the allegory of the cave, and his wild and controversial views on the family, private property, and art. Each of these is interesting in its own right, but for our purposes, we will be focusing on Plato’s theory of art.

To understand Plato’s theory of art, we must first understand his theory of the forms. The “forms” are the eternal and metaphysical realities of which everything in the material realm is a mere reflection of, according to Plato. He calls this plane beyond us the world of forms or the realm of forms, but some will refer to it as the realm of ideas, as it is a realm composed entirely of the “ideal” variant of things. For a simple example, there are billions of tables all around the world, all with varying heights, colors, woods, etc., which will all corrode and be destroyed, but there is a single and unchanging “idea” or “form” of a table which spans across time and is not affected by the cyclical material realm, as everything within it is created and everything within it will eventually be destroyed. Moreover, all tables in some way reflect the “form,” table in and of itself. Tables reflect “tableness” to varying degrees. Now, that’s all well and good, but what are the implications of such a worldview?

Plato teaches that, as life is a reflection of the forms, then it must be that art is a reflection of life, and therefore, a reflection of a reflection. Plato writes in his Republic that the ultimate goal of philosophy and society as a whole is an understanding of the forms, or more specifically, the form of the good, which is the source of all that is moral and just and beautiful; it is this “form of the good” which Plato says is the highest truth. If this is true, then philosophy and art, and furthermore, a good society and art are completely incompatible, as art is “twice removed from truth.” But is this really the case? Is art all a lie? Is art incompatible with philosophy?

It is fair to concede to Plato that art is an imitation of something else. Despite this, we cannot accept that art is made entirely to draw your eyes away from truth. Art has a very interesting way of revealing truths that lies beyond what can be seen in material life, and thus, teaches us more about the “realm of forms” in contrast to Plato’s view. Art can, and almost always does, reveal something about the character of the artist, and the art which makes it to the mainstream and becomes immortalized reveals something about the character of that society as a whole. For example, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (two works which Plato also criticizes) were both cherished and loved by the Greeks to the point where they basically served the role of holy texts. The story of the Trojan War was well known to the Greeks, but it was through these works that one could focus their attention on specific figures who fought in these wars, such as Achilles and Odysseus. We see in these works that, even if not explicitly stated, Homer believed that it was through the glory of war that heroes were forged and created. Achilles was not a hero merely because he was a demigod, he was a hero because he fought like a lion. These stories and their importance to the Greeks reveal to us that this was a people who viewed bravery, heroism, and war as being interlinked, and thus, they reveal a greater “truth” of classical civilization which could go unnoticed without the artistic masterpieces of Homer.

Leo & Diane Dillon, The Iliad paperback cover, 1950

Not only does art reveal particular truths of each individual and the society they are a part of, but art can also help one look up to the truth, which Plato seems to think only philosophy is capable of. To see this in action one needs to look no further than the splendid Gothic cathedrals and churches which are found all over western Europe. The grand and open design of these churches is not without purpose, or purely for show. These features are meant to capture the grand and infinite nature of God; to look away from this earth and draw our eyes to Heaven above.

To drive the point further, consider the art of William Blake, an English artist who claimed to have visions of angels and demons and other things of the spiritual realm. Almost all of his art, painting or poems, are based on his visions or Biblical stories. Would it be accurate to say that his paintings, which depict a realm beyond this one, are “two steps down from truth” as Plato says about most art? It is clear the answer would have to be no. The spiritual art of Blake and artists similar to him actually show us another angle of the realm beyond, the “Forms” if you will, in a way that philosophy and observation of the material world simply cannot. Thus, art does not aim to pull us away from the truth but brings us towards it.

Elohim Creating Adam, 1795

One final point. Plato himself expresses the view that there are, without a doubt, gods or a God. Not only this, but Plato says that the gods or God can do NO wrong, and that we should absolutely model our lives after the actions of them. Now, Plato and I would disagree on some pretty fundamental religious principles, him being a Hellenistic Pagan and me being a Christian, but this is one point where we can both agree. If one truly believes in and worships some sort of Supreme Force, they should absolutely model their life after it. So, how does this look in action?

It is obvious that, if there are gods or a God, they must also be creators (or there must be some other, older, creator-god). The Hellenists did not believe that their gods created the universe in the same way that a Christian would, per se, but they still would agree on this point, as even if they did not create the world, they created mankind. This act of creation was the first work of art. In order to model one’s own life after the divine, they must be a creator of art, as partaking in this endeavor is a sacred activity by virtue of imitating God/the gods. Making art, whether it is paintings or poems or music or palaces, is one way we can take part in God’s creation and be creators ourselves. 

All of that being said, it can be concluded that, in the ideal state, artists would not be banished as they were in Plato’s Republic. On the contrary, they would be honored and celebrated for centuries, their names carved into stone, their creations cherished by the civilization that gave birth to them. The ideal state is not one without art, but with a surplus of it, for a civilization without art would have truly lost something special. Art is a mirror to the soul and a mirror to the transcendent, artists can see things that mere philosophers like Plato would never be able to see. It is through art that one can find themself, it is through art that a civilization can find itself, and it is through art that one can see traces of the divine.

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