Suspicions & Warnings

Havelock illuminates the enormous tensions and ironies in Plato's work by seeing it against the background of the widespread adoption of writing by Greek civilization. He reminds us that throughout Plato's writings we find themes of education combined with suspicion and warnings about poetry. The Republic of Plato, ostensibly a complex treatment of political philosophy, quickly turns into a treatise on the education of youth and on the dangers of poetry for an ideal city. Plato's writings typically associate education with the dangers of poetry. The key to the seriousness with which Plato repeatedly takes up this theme lies in the fact that in Plato's time the cultural idiom of Greek culture was still predominantly Homeric and preliterate. It is not "beautiful writing" that is the target of Plato's arguments--as though literature should be banned from the Academy. When Plato attacks poetry and the poets, he is attacking the thought idiom of the Homeric tradition; he is attacking the dominance of an oral paradigm for significant communication. The thought idiom based solely on repetitive acoustic patterns and on sharp narrative images strongly reinforces an empathic, tribal emotional dentification (Greek mimesis) with admired cultural heroes.

For philosophy to develop, it was necessary to break with immediate emotional identifications and to fashion abstract concepts capable of subsuming immediate realities under more general ideas. Abstraction is a kind of distancing, a clarity attained so as to fashion connections not altogether evident in the immediate reality. The mental vision, or idea, is an independant act of mind antithetic to the more tribal identifications of preliterate culture. Plato's argument with the poets is then an argument for philosophical thinking and against the dominant idiom of oral traditions. Havelock's thesis establishes a necessary connection between Plato as philosopher and Plato's attack on the use of poetry in education--not on account of some puritanical protest against the pleasure of aesthetic effects or because thought arrayed with fine coverings is alluringly seductive. Rather, Plato's protest against poetry was on behalf of thinking itself, in the philosophical sense, which requires a different paradigm than that offered by oral models.

(Heim 54)

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