Study Guide

The Republic Book X

By Plato

Book X

Imitation and Painting

  • Reflecting on their construction of the republic, Socrates thinks that the most important thing they did in the city was to not allow any imitative poetry (you know, pretty much all poetry).
  • Now that they've outlined the organization of the soul into three parts, Socrates thinks that it's even clearer than before that composing or listening to such poetry will degrade the soul.
  • At first, Socrates is hesitant to say more about poetry because he loved the poetry of Homer since he was little kid.
  • But, since the truth must shine through, Socrates agrees to go forward.
  • First, Socrates wants to define the concept of "imitation" again, this time using the example of a couch and a table.
  • Socrates explains how in the world, there are many different types of couches and tables, but there is still only one idea of a table. You might think of it as "tableness"—the thing that unites all tables as tables and doesn't let any couch pass as a table.
  • A craftsman, building a couch or a table, clearly starts with the idea of it already in his mind; he doesn't come up with the very idea himself.
  • Socrates imagines a kind of super-craftsmen who doesn't just make tables and couches but can make animals and plants, too.
  • Glaucon thinks that's impossible, but Socrates says it's actually easy: all you need to do is go around the world with a big mirror, and you'll be "creating" all these things.
  • Glaucon says that that isn't actually making these things; it's just representing them.
  • Bingo, says Socrates: it's just representing them. He says a painter is just like this mirror-guy because, in some way, he "makes" tables and couches when he paints them.
  • Socrates then goes a step further and says that even a craftsmen who makes couches is still making a representation because he isn't able to create the actual true idea or form of couchness; he just makes one particular couch.
  • So, they can rank three kinds of couch-makers: 1) a god, or nature, who makes true "couchness," 2) the craftsmen, who makes a version of the true couch, and 3) a painter, who makes a representation of a version of the true couch.
  • The couch made by nature is always only one, whereas the couches made by craftsmen are necessarily many.
  • But the painter? Well, it's actually a bit of a stretch to even call him a maker of a couch, so Glaucon suggests that instead they call him an imitator of couches.
  • It seems that this imitator is also the furthest away from nature, since he produces something two steps removed from the actual idea—and this is true of poets as well as painters.
  • Furthermore, because painting is about appearances (says Socrates), it is primarily concerned with imitating simply what the couch looks like. It's concerned with just a small part of the couch; it doesn't care about what the couch's true, inner idea is like.
  • Another problem with painting is that if a painter is too skilled at imitation, he might produce a picture that would fool silly people and children into thinking that they were seeing the real thing.
  • In fact, it's probably a good idea to be suspicious of anyone who claims to know everything, because it probably means they've only encountered imitations of everything, not the real truth.

Imitation and Poetry

  • All right. So now Socrates decides to seriously consider the question of imitation in terms of tragedy and the poetry of Homer.
  • Socrates points out that Homer and his poetry are often read as a repository of all wisdom, so they need to figure out if this is actually true. Can poetry lead to wisdom? Or is this, in fact, the consequence of mistaking imitation for reality?
  • Socrates says that everyone would agree that the more important thing is to actually accomplish something, not just to talk about accomplishing something.
  • So, has Homer ever accomplished anything? Even though everyone praises his poetry for its portrayal of warfare and leadership, there isn't a city anywhere in the world that can claim that it has benefited from Homer's leadership, nor has any war been won under Homer's rule.
  • Furthermore, if Homer were so wise and smart, why didn't he found some kind of school or academy? Why doesn't he have any devoted followers? (This seems like a problematic line of reasoning to us, but we're just the messengers.)
  • So, it seems they've decided that Homer doesn't actually know about virtue; he just imitates virtue.
  • Poets just imitate things like color and harmony to give their creations charm, but what they really lack is substance. If you saw a poem stripped of all its charm, it would look like a boy who's no longer youthful.
  • Socrates says that a painter imitates, say, the reins of saddle, but doesn't know how to use them. However, he imagines that even the smith who actually makes reins doesn't necessarily know how the reins work, either. The only person who actually understands how to use the reins would be a horseman.
  • So Socrates claims there are three kinds of people: 1) people who use things, 2) people who make things, and 3) people who imitate things.
  • Socrates goes on to claim that what something is meant to be used for is the most important quality it has.
  • So, obviously, the person who uses things is the most knowledgeable and the person most about to tell the maker which things are good and bad, just as a flutist would best be able explain to a flute-maker the most important things that can make a flute play well.
  • The flute-maker will know how to make something well because he's being advised by the flutist, but the imitator of a flute won't know anything about how to make one better or worse; all he cares about is how a flute looks.
  • To sum it up: 1) imitators don't know anything about what they imitate, 2) imitation is play and not something serious, and 3) tragic and epic poetry are both forms of imitation.
  • They've also agreed that imitation is concerned with something the furthest away from truth, since it relies on the unreliability of appearances. How are appearances unreliable? One example: a straight object looks bent in water, but it's just because the water makes it appear bent.
  • The only way to truly understand things is to measure and calculate them, and that's an activity associated with the highest part of the soul—the rational part.
  • The part of the soul that contradicts the conclusions of the calculating part is obviously lower.
  • Imitation, as a result, has nothing to do with what is true, just, or virtuous. It's mostly concerned with what is ordinary, and it produces ordinary things.
  • Now, to make sure that what they've been saying about imitation's place in the soul applies just as much to the visual (painting) as it does to the aural (poetry, since in Socrates's time people listened to poetry), Socrates defines imitation (again) as an imitation of an action that produces a feeling of having done either good or bad.
  • Socrates then reminds everyone that they agreed that the soul doesn't have one single desire, but many, sometimes conflicting desires.
  • Socrates imagines that a sensible man, if his son died, would feel torn in two directions: he'd want to remain composed in public, but he would want to give way to his grief and pain in private.
  • So, Socrates says this shows that there are two distinct impulses in such a man: 1) his rational part, which draws him to understand that grief doesn't accomplish anything and prevents us from analyzing a situation, and 2) his desiring part, which draws him to indulge in his grief.
  • Imitation, therefore, is drawn to imitate the desiring, angry, sad, irrational, passionate part of the soul, because it's way easier—and more entertaining—to see that part imitated than to see an imitation of the quiet, reserved, sensible, and contemplative qualities of the rational part.
  • Therefore, it looks like poets are in the same sitch as painters (hint: not a good one). They won't be allowed in the city, either, since they appeal to what's lowest in humans and create ghosts of the truth instead of going after truth itself.
  • But the biggest problem with poetry is how effective it is at appealing to even super duper sensible, rational people. Everyone, Socrates included, admits to having been totally wowed, won over, and left in tears after hearing about something sad in Homer.
  • Why does this happen? Well, it's because poetry appeals to the base part of the soul that most rational men don't often appeal to. When this part hears something appealing, it goes crazy.
  • Even though people might be too embarrassed to do what they are hearing described (like a great hero crying) themselves, they think it's okay to be moved by it because it's happening to someone else.
  • Jokes work the same way: plenty of people laugh at jokes they would never tell.
  • But, says Socrates, letting yourself be affected by others still affects you and the virtuousness of your soul. The same goes for sex and ambition, too.
  • What you need to keep in mind, then, is that even though you might agree with someone when he or she says that Homer is lovely, and even if this person goes on and on about how wise Homer is, Homer still wouldn't be admitted into the city.
  • Besides, Socrates reminds everyone that there's an "old quarrel" between poetry and philosophy, suggesting that the two have always been somehow incompatible.
  • But if poetry wants to construct a really good argument to show that it does deserve to be part of a good city, and if its argument is convincing, they'll totally let it back in the city. These guys do like poetry, really; they just can't ignore the truth
  • Frankly, even if they did listen to these arguments, they'd have to be very careful not to be charmed by it again, remembering how much they loved it as children.
  • Socrates warns everyone that they need to take this stuff very seriously, because it's a question of good and evil.
  • In fact, speaking of good and evil, something else important about the soul is that it is immortal—unlike a single person's life, which, in the grand scheme of things, is quite short.
  • Glaucon is flabbergasted. The soul is immortal? He must hear more.

The Myth of Er

  • Once upon a time, there was a strong man named Er, who seemingly died in a war.
  • Just as Er is about to be burned on a pyre for his burial, he comes back to life and tells everyone about his experience in the underworld.
  • When he first got to the underworld, Er saw how those people who were judged to be just were sent up to heaven with a record of their good deeds, while those who were judged to be unjust were sent down to hell with a record of their bad deeds.
  • When it's Er's turn to be judged, the judges decide that he needs to be a special messenger to the living people on earth, one who can explain to them what actually goes down after death.
  • So, Er watches everything very carefully.
  • Er sees how some people are actually returning from heaven and hell, looking exhausted, because after being judged, they had been sent on a very long journey.
  • Everyone's gathering in a meadow, kind of having a big party, and they start sharing their experiences about their lives and afterlives.
  • The ones who had been sent down to hell weep about how difficult their experience has been, while those who had been in heaven couldn't stop talking about how gorgeous it is.
  • It turns out that the unjust have to pay for all the people they were unjust to... times ten.
  • That's bad news if you were unjust to a whole city.
  • It also turns out that the gods don't much appreciate it when you dishonor them, or when you dishonor your parents, or when you murder people.
  • One guy, Adiaeus the Great, was a tyrant, and he has done so many horrible things that he's stuck in hell forever, where he is continuously flayed alive over thorns (yikes).
  • After everyone parties for four days, they're off again to finish their journey.
  • This takes them to an amazing, kind of psychedelic center of light in heaven. It looks like a huge, eight-level spiral that gets narrower and narrower as you go down.
  • Each level turns in an opposite direction and is guarded by a fierce siren.
  • Brain bite! A siren is a fierce, female monster in Greek mythology who is most known for looking—and sounding—beautiful and seductive from the middle up. She's horrible and monstrous from the bottom down, though. Bummer, right? The most famous incident involving sirens takes place in Homer's Odyssey.
  • Now, this whole area is ruled by the goddess Necessity and her daughters. They instruct everyone to gather around a pick a number.
  • Based on the number you pick, you get to pick the next life you want to lead.
  • Now, here's where Socrates interjects and reminds everyone that it's just this kind of (big) decision that philosophy prepares you for.
  • If you don't understand what a truly good life looks like, you might make a terrible choice.
  • Get a load of that guy who picked tyranny, for example. He wasn't a bad guy in his previous life. He was just kind of ordinary, he got overly excited about all the flash and cash, and all that has led him to choose the life of a tyrant.
  • Unfortunately, after he examines the life he's chosen a little more closely, he notices some serious drawbacks: eating his children, killing people... yeah.
  • The only foolproof way to make it through this process is to stick with philosophy.
  • As Er watches these people choose their lot in life, he sees some big-name famous dudes, who all tend to choose their next life based entirely on their previous life:
  • Orpheus, for example, ends his life being torn apart by women, so he chooses to be a swan (the Greeks thought, weirdly, that swans weren't born from females).
  • Er also sees Thamyras (another arrogant singing type), Ajax (a big Trojan War hero), Agamemnon (ditto), Epeius (a cowardly Trojan War hero), and Thersites (a ridiculous Trojan War hero).
  • Er finally sees good old Odysseus, who, not surprisingly, chooses a life of peace and quiet.
  • Once everyone has chosen their life, the Fates spin out their thread to show how long they let each person live.
  • Finally, each person has to drink from the Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) in order to forget everything they have experienced before, in their previous life. Some foolish people drink from the river of Carelessness, too, because why not, right? Before they know it, they're off, well, being born.
  • And so, folks, that's the end of Socrates's story, which he hopes has made its moral very clear: be just and philosophical in this life so that you'll glide through the perils and problems of the afterlife.