Born c. 427 B.C.E.

Athens, Greece

Relevant Work Republic


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Plato was born in Athens between 427 and 423 BC
  • He is considered one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy and literary theory.
  • His works engage in many questions posed by philosophers: "...the nature of being; the question of how we came to know things; the proper ordering of human society; and the nature of justice, truth, the good, love, and beauty" (NATC 41).
  • His writings addressed philosophical issues in different areas of study, including religion, politics, and poetry.
  • It is believed that he was influenced by the work of Pythagorus of Samos, another Greek philosopher.
  • Some of the particular areas Plato took interest in studying include metaphysics, theory of forms, and epistemology.

From Republic Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Many of Plato's works were written in the dialogue form, a form of which he is considered the master and father. Despite many real-life individuals appearing in his pieces, Plato himself never appears as a character, nor does he break from the established dialogue to directly address the audience in his own voice. This lack of direct contact with the audience has proven to be problematic as it is virtually impossible to attribute any type of direct statement from his works to Plato.

Key Words and Terms Edit

Censorship - Suppression of ideas and their delivery, given particular attention to what should or should not be accessible to children.

Mimesis - Representation or imitation. In relation to poetry: Poetry is nothing but a mimesis of life.

Didacticism - A philosophy that insists that literature and art should teach moral and virtuous values.

Theory of Form - The forms constitute a realm of unchanging being to which the world of individual mutable objects is subordinate.

Key Quotations Edit

"[A]nyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them and thus expose his thought to the envy and criticism of men . . . [W]henever we see a book, whether the laws of a legislator or a composition on any other subject, we can be sure that if the author is really serious, the book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not gods, 'have taken his wits away.'"

"Using the written word to give a distorted image of the nature of the gods and heroes, just as a painter might produce a portrait which completely fails to capture the likeness of the original"

"'How shall we educate them, then? Or is it hard to improve on the educational system which has evolved over a long period of time? This, as you know, consists if exercise for the body and cultural studies for the mind" (45).

"If it's anyone's job, then, it's the job of the rulers of our community: they can lie for the good of the community, when either an external or an internal threat makes it's necessary. No one else, however, should have anything to do with lying" (55).

"A representer knows nothing of value about the things he represents; representation is a kind of game, and shouldn't be taken seriously" (71).

Discussion Edit

Values and Censorship Edit

Plato is very concerned with truth, accuracy, and true knowledge. The character Socrates is invested in constructing perfect guardians—specifically what they should be taught, and what they should or should not be exposed to. One concern is that they should not be exposed to all kinds of stories because some stories could contradict what they want their adult minds to think. One line in the story that stood out was: "The point is a young person can't tell when something is allegorical and when it isn't, and any idea admitted by a person of that age tends to become almost ineradicable and permanent. That is why a very great deal of importance should be placed upon ensuring that the first stories they hear are best adapted for their moral environment" (Republic, Book II, pg. 47). He goes on to discuss virtues and values that need to be portrayed to the guardians and what behavioral characteristics should not be encouraged or allowed. They should not be encouraged to cry, mourn, or laugh. Another high value for the guardians is that "They must rate honesty highly" (Republic, Book III, pg. 55). Ironically, all this is portrayed through Socrates's character clash with the value of honesty. Plato, in envisioning the perfect city and guardians, is describing through Socrates an extremely unrealistic vision. Things that make humans "human" are discouraged while "good" virtues are embraced. It seems that deception is a detestable thing, yet deception is what the teachings are embedded in. Since people have emotions, the ways the guardians would be taught is unrealistic and removes the greatest parts of being human. Plato is contradicting himself through his writing. As the Norton Anthology argues, "Plato's various discussions of poetry is a distrust of mimesis of nature, a copy of objects in the physical world...and are themselves only mutable copies of timeless universals" (Plato, pg. 41). Essentially, Plato is against the literary form, but his literary form is rooted in ideals that seem to be either unrealistic and genuine or sarcastic and satirical.

Leaders and the Greater Good Edit

Plato suggests it is acceptable for community leaders to lie for the greater good of the community. The idea obviously makes sense in a perfect world, but realistic considerations beg the question of who that community leader is and how they earn their position. The notion that philosophers should decide what is and is not moral is flawed and appears biased since Plato was a philosopher. How can people guarantee that those deciding what is right or wrong will have their community's best interest in mind? This is not something Plato addresses at length and may be one of the biggest faults in his text.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit


Plato's Allegory of the Cave conflicts with the "Only teach the good" philosophy. However, ultimately, the cave is a warning to those teaching against the conventional school of thought. The cave shows the dangers of holding fast to traditional ways of thinking because this close-minded stance makes people unlikely to re-evaluate their beliefs. There's the rub - if the prisoner who brings the new thought of Plato's critique of literature seems to only be confirming the actions of the resistant cave dwellers. The Allegory of the Cave and Plato's critique of literature are at odds unless the death of Socrates is figured in and the ironic lesson of questioning critically and skeptically the things we are taught as true and the methods by which these lessons are taught.

Related Works Edit

  • Franco Moretti's "Maps, Graphs, and Trees"
  • Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Volume 1
  • Christine de Pizan's "Christine's Reaction to Jean de Montreuli's Treatise on the Roman de la Rose"
  • Horace's Ars Poetica
  • Edward Said's Orientalism

References Edit

Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.