The most notable element of Plato's theory of art, or at least the most memorable, is his censorship of poetry from the ideal state (Republic III: 398; X: 607). However Plato's argument is construed, it is enlightening to note the domestication to which it is invariably subjected. Since Aristotle's theory is eminently more amenable to our contemporary appreciation for art, and, in one form or another, is judged more central to the history of Western literature, Plato's attack is dispensed with after due characterization as ironic, unmanageably ambiguous, valid only in a most limited context, or excusable in the light of the extraordinary circumstances peculiar to Plato's profession, day, and society (his philosophic loyalties, didacticism as a norm, and the decadence of Athenian literature). Now we could dispense with the assertions that his ban was an ironic gesture or innocuously hypothetical by pointing out that while the Republic Plato envisioned, in earnest or not, was never realized, the attack on art he espoused was tangible enough in its repercussions. And as for the argument that the extraordinary circumstances of Plato's day preclude the validity of the theory it fostered, it must be remembered that later philosophers were not indifferent to the role of art in man's moral and intellectual development, classical Athens was far from the least aesthetically sophisticated of societies, and literature of that period was neither significantly more subversive nor more edifying than our own. (And obviously these circumstances did not predetermine the conclusions of Plato's famous student.)

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Copyright © 1991, Pennsylvania State University Press. This article first appeared in Comparative Literature Studies 28:2 (1991), 121-136.

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