My first blog post. To those throngs of people hanging on my every word, please be patient with me while I mess everything up and delete everything and rewrite everything, as I’m doing now.
I’m currently working on a philosophical novel based on Plato. While researching contemporary philosophical novels, I came across these statements from people who are in the business of literature and philosophy and should know better:
“Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy.”
“In the search for Platonic reality, art does not have a place…Art is beautiful and brings out emotions, but does not teach us anything.”
Now some of you reading this are familiar with the history of Western philosophy, and that means you have read that dry, analytical writing that came after Plato. Which means you are well aware of the painful, chuck-the-book-against-the-wall endeavor it is to read Kant or Heidegger. And that means you know the relative pleasure and ease of reading Plato, who was a masterful poet.
I’ll say that again, just to be sure: PLATO WROTE FICTION.
Very rarely since have philosophy and fiction been so elegantly combined.
There’s the cave metaphor that everyone latches onto in their Intro to Philo course, the tale of the lost city of Atlantis in the Timaeus, the chariot example in the Phaedrus, the mythic creatures in Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium. There’s the fact that Plato wrote in dramatic dialogue form, not to mention the character of Socrates, an historical figure whose portrayal differed depending on the author…need I go on?
Plato’s censorship in the Republic was not an all-out rejection of ALL poetry. If it were, he’d be rejecting his own writing.
Plato disproved of uninformed poetry.
But, you might object, does that mean The Philosopher King Big Boy club gets to decide what I read and watch?
If we lived in a perfect world with real Philosopher kings, then yes, it does. But we don’t. And Plato knew that.
The images on the cave wall partake in reality to a small degree. After all, shadows are shadows of something. When used properly and with the aid of a teacher, these images point away from themselves, leading one upwards along the continuum of being and knowledge. When the shadows are manipulated improperly, as they often are, they lead nowhere.
The shadows in modern terms are television and Twitter, movies and memes. They are powerful, much more powerful than dry logic, that’s why great care must be taken in their creations. Imagine having one of the most powerful tools in the world, the power of persuasion—the ring of Gyges with words, for example—and having no idea whether what you’re proposing is good or right or just. This blind power is what Plato wants to guard against.
Yes, that means censorship in his perfect city, but the perfect city stipulates a perfect ruler with perfect knowledge of what’s good for everyone in this harmonious polis. The perfect city in the Republic is actually an individual soul “writ large.” So what would censorship look like in this context? I’ll take myself as an example.
Me: Hmm…ice cream sounds good. With potato chips and a Fat Tire and a pack of cigarettes afterwards.
Better Me: You just worked out. You shouldn’t do that.
Some Other Me: Sherlock’s about to start!
Me: Better grab that bag ‘o’ chips—quick. It’s time to get the grub on. Chips! Nom. Nom. Nom.
Better Me: SHUT UP!
Some Other Me: Why? What’d I do?
Better Me: No, not you. But you really should read a book instead.
In a perfect inner polis I would have Brittany Spears’ body, Gandhi’s moral sensibility, and the ability to do math.
Although, Brittany Spears? Okay, whatever. You get the point. Pick whoever you want.
I live in an inner representative democracy where the Better Me is replaced by the Rationalizing Me, who responds to demands with a little pork barrel spending, mostly in the direction of the louder and stupider Me (although some would go to Some Other Me, to keep her pacified) and would say: “Hey, you worked out. That means you’ve upped your metabolism and now you can stuff your face with whatever you want and it won’t count.” This degenerates into anarchy and no one wins. Fiscal troubles. Moral breakdown. General laziness and finger pointing abounds.
Plato was not a stupid guy and probably would not advocate censorship of art in the real world where rulers are far from just, as that power would be no less blind than letting in anything whatsoever. After all, what difference does it make when Rationalizing Me gets to do the censoring? “No, you can’t watch Sherlock. But you can go ahead and ingest bad things until you puke.”
So then back to the main question. What role do the arts—in particular, fiction—play in philosophy? Do they and should they inform each other?
Another quote from the same unnamed source:
“The more novels I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered.”
This is probably the way most people feel, which is why they aren’t flocking to The Critique of Pure Reason as they are to the Harry Potter books. Again, the power of fiction—muthos, stories—at work. But to write a philosophical novel, to be the informed creator of the images on the wall, Plato would say there’s no skipping the dry stuff.
Now that’s all Plato. I think these “images” in the form of your philosophical novel should lead readers to want to read that dry stuff, or at least to think critically—logically—about higher meaning. The novel is the carrot on the end of the stick.
The two forms of writing are necessary in the search for truth and are mutually beneficial, not mutually exclusive. Reason without rhetoric is blind, rhetoric without reason is empty.