E491: History of Literary Criticism

Plato Study Questions

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Ion (circa 390 B.C.E.)

1. What analogy dominates Socrates' discussion of the relationship between the poet, the rhapsode, and the audience? What conclusion does this analogy illustrate about the true source of poetic inspiration and power? (41, 43 for example, general question)

2. Why does Socrates say that rhapsodes and poets do not speak "by mastery" of any art, as Ion insists? How, on 41, does Socrates characterize poets? (40-41)

3. What must the poet first lose, according to Socrates, that a poem might be composed? (42)

4. Why does Socrates call the poets "interpreters" and the rhapsodes who recite them the "interpreters of interpreters?" (42)

5. Defend Ion the alazon (wanderer or dupe) against the arguments of the eiron (ironic, clever character) Socrates: what argument can you make against the claim that poets and rhapsodes are not masters of any art? What possibilities is Socrates ignoring here? (general question)

The Republic, Book 2 (circa 375 B.C.E.)

6. What is Socrates' notion of childhood? Why is it so important to shape a child's experience? (49-51)

7. According to Socrates, what is the worst "defect" or fault in the work of poets such as Hesiod and Homer? When and how is this fault committed? To what is this fault compared? (50)

8. What are some of the "unsuitable" fictions about the gods to which Socrates objects? (50-52)

9. Why does Socrates argue that "God [...] cannot be responsible for everything"? What kind of attributes do Socrates' Gods (or his God) have instead of the ones given them by Homer and ordinary Greek mythology? (51-52)

10. Why must impious stories, either about gods or heroes, be excluded from a "well-regulated" commonwealth? Is it simply a matter of their lack of truth? Explain. (52-53)

11. Especially around pages 53-55, Socrates calls for considerable censorship, effectively limiting artistic choices and audiences. Is this kind of demand ever justified? If so, when, and regarding what audience and what images or ideas? If not, why not? (53-55, general question)

Republic, Book 3

12. Socrates says that the Republic's rulers may, if they find it necessary, tell lies, but the citizens cannot lie to them. Does this diminish his utopian ideal? Why or why not? (58)

13. What sorts of cultural education or activities does Socrates say should be offered, and to whom? What sorts of behavior and attitudes should be discouraged, and why? (56-58)

14. What inferences can you make about the relationship Socrates would like to see between religion, the State, and education? (general question)

15. Do you think that education today is simply about learning or arriving at truth, or is it part of the political power structure, the class structure, and so forth? Explain. (general question)

Republic, Book 7

16. What is the basic point of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave"? Outline the story and then explain what Socrates is arguing about where we ought seek Truth or the source of Reality. (64-67)

17. If you are familiar with Socrates' biography, how might this allegory be taken as a defense of his risky philosophical attempts to lead fellow Athenians towards truth and away from error? (general question)

18. Does the Allegory of the Cave leave you with an optimistic or a pessimistic feeling about people's capacity to get free of comforting illusions, habitual ways of perceiving and thinking? Explain your response. For instance, what role, if any, can philosophy or literature play in the upward process Socrates describes? (general question)

Republic, Book 10

19. What complexity of feeling does Socrates admit to even as he insists that we must banish all "representational poetry" from the ideal Republic? And how, more generally, can the author Plato make his character Socrates banish poetry when he himself (Plato) is a maker of fine dialogues--texts surely not devoid of artistic ability and form? (67-68)

20. In explaining his views on representation, Socrates uses as his example the making of a bed. What does he mean when he says that there are "three different kinds of bed"? Who are the three different makers of those beds, and which is furthest removed from the "real" bed? What is this real bed"? (69-70)

21. How does Socrates criticize Homer and other poets? For example, how is the imitative poet's product like "illusory painting" and "sorcery"? To what part of human nature do poetry and such practices appeal? Summarize Socrates' criticisms of poetic imitation. (74-77)

22. How much hope does Plato offer us that poetry may be saved from complete banishment? What kinds of poetry might Socrates permit in his Republic? What would have to be demonstrated before he would permit poetry "designed merely to give pleasure" (80) in his state? (78-80)

Phaedrus (circa 370 B.C.E.)

23. What criticism does Thamus make of Theuth's invention, writing? Do you find Thamus' objections plausible? Why or why not? (81-82)

24. How, according to Socrates, is writing like painting? And how is it dangerous with regard to its potential for dissemination to a broad public? (82)

25. What opinion does Socrates venture regarding whether a philosopher ought to write? What characterizes the speech and writing of a true philosopher? (84-85)

26. You've heard Socrates on the differences between speech and writing. How do you relate the two? (general question)

27. Plato's argument about the need to censor and control artistic production and distribution has been called "the contagion theory of art": people will want to do what they see on a stage or read in a book. Is there any truth to this kind of claim? What loss of value for literature do you run if you dismiss it too easily? (general question)

Extra Discussion Questions

28. In discussing with Ion who might be the better judge of certain passages in Homer, does Socrates seem to admit the applicability of only one kind of judgment? Is there another kind of judgment about poetry which Socrates does not consider?

29. Might Ion have been better able to reply to Socrates if he had made a distinction between form and content? Explain.

30. Socrates' notion that the true source of poetry is divine inspiration suggests, at the very least, that man's reason is hardly enough for the production of a good work of art. Can you think of other theories about the source of art which stress its a-rational, even irrational, origins? Do these theories justify a distrust of art? Do they, on the contrary, make art seem more valuable?

31. Socrates never seems to tire of imagining ways in which literature can morally corrupt people, especially the young. Does Socrates ever strike you as naive in his conception of the relationship between the literary work and its audience? How is Socrates' ethical suspicion of literature derived from his psychological assumptions? Are those psychological assumptions very different from many of today's psychological assumptions?

32. Has Socrates mentioned all the ways in which literature, or the imaginative arts in general, might be regarded as morally corrupting? Does this question offend you?

33. Suppose that Socrates abandoned the idea of literature as imitation and instead embraced the modern notion of poetry as the expression of powerful feelings. Would Socrates therefore change any of his ideas about the place of poetry in his ideal state?

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.