E256 INTRO TO THEORY AND CRITICISM, PLATO QUESTIONS
Assigned: Plato. From The Republic Books VII, X.
The Republic, Book 7
1. On pages 60-61, outline the scene Socrates describes at the beginning of his Allegory of the Cave; what's the initial situation of the cave-dwellers? Where are they and what are they doing? What about the subsection of people who are "on the other side of this wall" (61)? What are they up to? Finally, what seems to be the general atmosphere evoked by this scene, taken all together? Why do you suppose Plato has chosen such an odd way to represent the lives of ordinary humans?
2. On pages 61-63, what happens to destabilize the initial situation? What, that is, happens to one of the cave-dwellers? How does he take this great change in his condition, and then what happens when he returns, both with regard to his own sensibilities and the way his old comrades receive him?
3. On pages 63-64, how does Socrates explain to his dialog partner Glaucon the mechanics and meaning of the parable he has just recounted? Where should we seek the source of reality, and where find truth? Consider, too, Socrates' interest both in the understanding and attitude of those who remain trapped in their cavern and of the man who has seen beyond it. Is the situation at all satisfactory by the end of the story? Why or why not?
4. General question: if you are familiar with Socrates' biography, how might the Cave parable in Book 7 be taken as his disciple Plato's defense of the master's risky philosophical attempts to lead fellow Athenians towards truth? How was Socrates like the man who was taken to the surface to behold the "sun"?
5. General question: does the Parable of the Cave leave you with an optimistic or a pessimistic feeling about people's capacity to get free of comforting illusions, to break forth from habitual ways of perceiving and thinking? Explain the reasoning underlying your optimism or pessimism. For instance, what role, if any, can philosophy or literature play in the upward process Socrates describes? How many people around you, as you go about your life, do you suppose might want to be like Socrates' discoverer of truth? What percentage do you suspect are like the dwellers who are content to live in their cavern?
The Republic, Book 10
6. On page 64, what complexity of feeling does Socrates admit to even as he insists that we must banish all "representational poetry" from the ideal Republic? What seems to be his attitude towards the epic poet Homer and later classical tragedians, in spite of the criticism he levels at the epic bard on pages 67-70? Why might Socrates be a bit anxious about criticizing such great artists?
7. On pages 65-66, 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? Just what is this "real" bed, anyway?
8. On pages 67-72, how does Socrates criticize Homer and other poets or representers? 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.
9. On pages 73-76, how does Socrates reinforce his argument against most poets, this time broadening the net to embrace Greek political life? In the end, what kinds of poetry does Plato permit to remain in his ideal Republic? How much hope does he offer those who love the banned sort that such stuff might be redeemed and allowed in again? How could that happen, if it could: what would have to be demonstrated before he would permit poetry "designed merely to give pleasure" (76)?
10. 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)
11. Socrates' notion in the dialogue Ion (not assigned) 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?
12. 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 assumptions very different from many of today's psychological assumptions?
13. Socrates no doubt hasn't mentioned all the ways in which literature, or the imaginative arts in general, might be regarded by some people as morally corrupting. What other claims along these lines have you come across in your own experience? What would the social and artistic result be if we were to accept those claims and act on them?
14. 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 that be likely to lead him to change any of his ideas about the place of poetry in his ideal community? Why or why not?
Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.