Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Plato Book II of The Republic On Censorship

Books II and III of the Republic are notoriously difficult to teach.  It seems like it is mainly Plato complaining about Homer and Hesiod, coupled with some very strict views on censorship in the ideal State.  Socrates does not seem very attractive in these sections.  The issue in Book II is the education of the guardians, an inquiry that is supposed to shed light on the larger question of how "justice and injustice grow up in States," which can be roughly translated into a concern for how to make a state (such as Athens) more just.  So the question is whether educational reform that specifically involves greater censorship can make a people or a society more just.  As an American and a political liberal I am not keen on censorship and I am particularly not sympathetic to Plato on this issue.  Of course Plato does make a couple sensible (or at least defensible) points about selection of literature for children.  When dealing with fictional literature he insists that we should not carelessly allow children to "hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons."  This is at least a point that can be defended in a contemporary context.  An interesting recent case is that of Tomi Ungerer, whose children's books were widely censored in the 1970s largely because, as an illustrator, he had another body of work that was pornographic.  Although his children's books contained no pornography they often depicted a scary aspect of life.  For instance, in one, robbers are shown with a blood-red ax and frightened children in one corner.  In an article I wrote many years ago (“Aesthetics and Children’s Picture Books,” Journal of Aesthetic Education  36:4 (2002): 43-54) I defended a more liberal approach to children's illustrated books than is commonly advocated.  So I would disagree with Plato to some extent.  But, at the same time, it is hard to argue against the idea that parents and teachers should select children's books partly in order to teach moral lessons.   Still, that is not the same issue, as one can chose works to teach moral lessons that others would reject for moral reasons.  I would probably select Ungerer's books because they encourage children to deal with their fears and to think for themselves.  Others may not value these books because they value these character traits less than I do. 

More shocking, Plato moves on to attack the great classics of his time, in particular Homer and Hesiod. He attacks them for telling lies.  It turns out that a lie is a story about God, a god or a hero that makes either out to be somewhat less than perfect.  So, proper theology trumps good story-telling.  In effect the premise that a god is, by definition, perfect determines the rest of Socrates' argument.  So Uranus cannot do to Cronos what he did in Hesiod's tales, and so too Cronos to Uranus.  If the story must be told, it can only be told to a select few, and even these must sacrifice a huge and unprocurable pig before doing so.  The principle is that a child or even a young men should never be able to use a story from mythology to justify an action like chastising his own father.  Also, stories about the gods quarreling cannot be repeated, since you do not want to encourage quarreling among citizens (and, again, the gods are perfect, so Homer must lie about their quarrels).  To say that the stories have allegorical meaning is not helpful, Socrates argues, since young persons are not good at judging whether or not something is allegorical or how it should be interpreted if it is.  Socrates goes so far as to claim that since the gods are good they cannot be the cause of anything evil, and so any poetic statement that implies that gods (or God) dispenses evil things as well as good things must be wrong.  He even argues from this that God could not be the author of all things, but only of those things that are good.  Nor can God be seen as being the author of the misery of those whom he punishes.  Rather, we should see those who have been punished by God as benefiting from that.  Really, I find all of this insufferable.  To add to this, the gods cannot be represented as changing their shapes or appearing as mortals.  If you are perfect you cannot change since any change would be for the worse.  More interesting, the gods cannot even deceive us into thinking that they appear in human form, since "no one is willingly deceived in that which  is the truest and highest part of himself, or about the truest and highest matters."  If God deceived us about the highest reality then this would be harmful to us, wicked, and therefore impossible for God.  This would be a "true lie" since it would entail "ignorance in the soul" of the person deceived.  A true lie is far worse than a mere "lie in words" which itself is a mere imitation of the true lie.  The notion of a "true lie" is interesting with respect to Plato's metaphysics, since elsewhere he does not allow for negative Forms (for example in Parmenides) but now he seems to be talking about the Form of the lie.

The upshot of all of this is that God is "perfectly simple and true both in word and deed;  he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision" and if Homer or anyone portrays God or the gods as doing any of these things then they should be censored.  I suppose one could admire Plato's desire to clean up theology by making it more logical, and then tying this to making the State more rational and thus better for the citizens.  But none of this appears to be enough of an argument for censorship at the level Plato recommends. 

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