Republic X: A Brief Look at Plato on Tragedy

Plato Republic X.605c-d:

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

τί δ᾽ οὐ μέλλει, εἴπερ γε δρᾷ αὐτό;

ἀκούων σκόπει. οἱ γάρ που βέλτιστοι ἡμῶν ἀκροώμενοι Ὁμήρου ἢ ἄλλου τινὸς τῶν τραγῳδοποιῶν μιμουμένου τινὰ τῶν ἡρώων ἐν πένθει ὄντα καὶ μακρὰν ῥῆσιν ἀποτείνοντα ἐν τοῖς ὀδυρμοῖς ἢ καὶ ᾁδοντάς τε καὶ κοπτομένους, οἶσθ᾽ ὅτι χαίρομέν τε καὶ ἐνδόντες ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς ἑπόμεθα συμπάσχοντες καὶ σπουδάζοντες ἐπαινοῦμεν ὡς ἀγαθὸν ποιητήν, ὃς ἂν ἡμᾶς ὅτι μάλιστα οὕτω διαθῇ.

οἶδα: πῶς δ᾽ οὔ;

ὅταν δὲ οἰκεῖόν τινι ἡμῶν κῆδος γένηται, ἐννοεῖς αὖ ὅτι ἐπὶ τῷ ἐναντίῳ καλλωπιζόμεθα, ἂν δυνώμεθα ἡσυχίαν ἄγειν καὶ καρτερεῖν, ὡς τοῦτο μὲν ἀνδρὸς ὄν, ἐκεῖνο δὲ γυναικός, ὃ τότε ἐπῃνοῦμεν.

ἐννοῶ, ἔφη.

ἦ καλῶς οὖν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, οὗτος ὁ ἔπαινος ἔχει, τὸ ὁρῶντα τοιοῦτον ἄνδρα, οἷον ἑαυτόν τις μὴ ἀξιοῖ εἶναι ἀλλ᾽ αἰσχύνοιτο ἄν, μὴ βδελύττεσθαι ἀλλὰ χαίρειν τε καὶ ἐπαινεῖν;


This passage, found within Plato’s Republic, is part of his notorious condemnation of poetry, considering it an obstacle to remove in the construction of the ideal state. His key argument is that poetry corrupts the soul, especially at a young age, promoting bad habits within the individual which supposedly prevent them from becoming perfect citizens. The focus of this passage is on tragedy, and why it in particular, is bad for readers.

What’s important to note is that Plato does not appear to consider tragedy bad as a genre – one can appreciate it for what it is. He clearly recognises that the works of tragedians are there to be enjoyed by the audience; that people can ‘enthuse about the skill of any [skilled] poet’. However, his complaint is that this enjoyment is a bad thing: no tragedy is better than good tragedy. His reasoning for this lies in the distorting effects of tragedy on the human soul. Humans are meant to feel grief at bad things, and pleasure at good things. Tragedy, par contra, allows the audience to find pleasure in the ‘hero’s pain’.

This, for Plato, would be a terrible thing to happen to his Guardians of Callipolis. For them to be the best rulers, they must be ruled by reason, and it would be irrational to consider tragedy a positive thing. An examination of mimetic behaviour, using the views of both Plato and Aristotle reinforces this conclusion. Plato firstly believed poetry to be two stages from reality, a representation of the physical world, which in itself is a shade of the world of forms. Thus tragedy is already susceptible to many false ideals which could impede his Guardians’ vision. He further believed that people would seek to imitate this behaviour, so that when the audience see great Homeric heroes displaying grief (a weakness), they themselves would be content to do the same whereas the best behaviour, as he says, would be to ‘endure pain without being upset’. Aristotle too said mimetic behaviour was natural in his Poetics, so children in particular would read tragedy and would thus think it okay to act like said heroes.

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