Political Technê: Plato and the Poets

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
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Plato’s treatment of poetry is usually discussed without reference to other contemporary reception of Greek poetry, leading to divergent political or aesthetic accounts of its meaning. Yet the culture of the Greek polis, in particular Athens, is the defining context for understanding his aims. Four distinct points are made here, and cumulatively an interpretation of Plato’s opposition to poetry: on the basis of other evidence, including Aristophanes’ Frogs, that Plato would quite reasonably understand poetry to claim the craft of looking after a city (political technê); that Socrates makes a rival claim that philosophy is the pursuit of this skill; that Plato considers the poets, owing to this rivalry, to aim to exclude philosophy from Athens; and finally, that Plato’s exclusion of poetry from the theoretical just city of the Republic is part of his defence of the possibility of philosophy in Athens.1

Political Technê: Plato and the Poets

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought




K. Dover (ed.)Aristophanes: Frogs (Oxford: Clarendon Press1993) ad loc.


See recently D. Carter (ed.)Why Athens? A Reappraisal of Tragic Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press2011) in which many of the scholars mentioned below reappear along with others; in this volume M. Griffith Introduction Pt 1 ‘Twelve Principles for Reading Greek Tragedy’ pp. 1-7 indicates just how extensive contemporary disagreement is making a virtue of necessity by stating each separate principle he annunciates as a conjunction of two more-or-less contradictory claims and cf. Carter Introduction Pt 3 ‘The Purpose and Shape of This Book’ pp. 10-16 at p. 14: disagreement among the contributers is ‘a faithful reflection of the state of the debate’.


M. HeathThe Poetics of Greek Tragedy (London: Duckworth1987) p. 11 dubs his view ‘emotive hedonism’ but rejects Aristotle’s analysis in the Poetics; cf. similarly J. Griffin ‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ Classical Quarterly 48 (1998) pp. 39-61 pp. 55-61 and see p. 55 n. 48 on Heath and also J. Gregory Euripides and the Instruction of the Athenians (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1991) p. 4 n. 6 (on p. 13) and cf. N. Croally ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’ in J. Gregory (ed.) Blackwell’s Companion to Greek Tragedy (Malden ma: Blackwell 2005) pp. 55-70 pp. 55-6.


See A. MicheliniEuripides and the Tragic Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press1987) and P. Easterling ‘Form and Performance’ in P. Easterling (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997) pp. 151-77 at pp. 170-2. J. Lear ‘Katharsis’ in A. Rorty (ed.) Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992) pp. 315-40 categorises four distinct recent types of interpretation of the Poetics: the purificatory the purgatory (for both of which see D. Lucas (ed.) Aristotle: Poetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1968) Appendix ii) the now dominant clarificatory-educative theory (see next note) although Lear attacks this strongly and his own ‘innocently vicarious indulgence’ theory.


E. HallInventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press1989) and E. Hall Theatrical Cast of Athens: Interactions between Greek Drama and Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2006) ch. 7; also F. Zeitlin e.g. in her ‘Playing the Other: Theater Theatricality and the Feminine in Greek Drama’ in J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin (eds.) Nothing To Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1990) pp. 63-96; cf. E. Asmis ‘Plato on Poetic Creativity’ in R. Kraut (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992) pp. 338-64 at p. 339 and for further bibliography see now Carter ‘Plato Drama and Rhetoric’ p. 47 n. 10.


S. GoldhillThe Poet’s Voice: Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1991) p. 174 here following J.-P. Vernant and P. Vidal Naquet Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece (New York: Zone Books 1988; French original 1973-1986). N. Croally Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1994) and cf. Croally ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’ attempts to work out in detail such a theory. P. Rhodes ‘Nothing To Do with Democracy: Athenian Drama and the Polis’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003) pp. 104-19 resists overemphasis of ideology.


R. SeafordReciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City State (Oxford: Clarendon Press1994); S. Goldhill ‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology’ in J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin (eds.) Nothing To Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1990) pp. 97-129 pp. 126-8; see also e.g. P. Easterling ‘A Show for Dionysus’ in Easterling (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997) pp. 36-53. Seaford is criticised by Griffin ‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ pp. 52-4. The Dionysiac approach is applied to Aristophanes by X. Riu Dionysism and Comedy (Lanham md: Rowman & Littlefield 1999); and of course there is an equivalent range of other interpretations of old comedy too (for Silk it is literature for Henderson Sommerstein and others serious comment on contemporary politics for Slater performance criticism of political technique for Bowie a reflection of cult and myth for MacDowell apparently just plain fun and so on).


A. Sommerstein (ed.)Aristophanes: Frogs (Warminster: Aris & Phillips1996) p. 14. By contrast see R. Lauriola ‘Aristophanes’ Criticism: Some Lexical Considerations’ aion (Annali dell’Università degli Studi di Napoli ‘l’Orientale’ Sezione filologico-letteraria) 32 (2010) pp. 25-61 at p. 32 n. 32 denying Aristophanes practices literary criticism and p. 48 asserting that he treats poetry and drama as essentially pedagogical.


A. FordThe Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press2002) p. 3 and cf. his ch. 8.


FordThe Origins of Criticism p. 209; cf. p. 226.


I. MurdochThe Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (London: Chatto & Windus1977) p. 81.


E. SchaperPrelude to Aesthetics (London: Allen & Unwin1968) p. 13.


C. JanawayImages of Excellence: Plato’s Critique of the Arts (Oxford: Clarendon Press1995) p. 3.


JanawayImages of Excellence p. 7 (his emphasis).


S. Halliwell‘The Importance of Plato and Aristotle for Aesthetics’Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy5 (1989) pp. 321-57 at p. 321.


Halliwell‘The Importance of Plato and Aristotle’ pp. 329-36.


Cf. F. GiulianoPlatone e la poesia: teoria della composizione e prassi della ricezione (Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag2005) p. 289 who rightly states ‘Platone infatti dà chiari segni di avere dato alla sua riflessione sulla poesia il medesimo senso e il medesimo fine della sua intera riflessione sullo Stato’.


W. Verdenius‘The Principles of Greek Literary Criticism’Mnemosyne36 (1983) pp. 14-59 pp. 31-5; cf. J. Herrington Poetry into Drama: Early Tragedy and the Greek Poetic Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press 1985) pp. 70-1 (‘The Poet as Interpreter of Life’) and R. Harriot Poetry and Criticism before Plato (London: Methuen 1969) pp. 105-9; on the evolution of poetic self-interpretation see G. Ledbetter Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2003) and more plausibly Kannicht The Ancient Quarrel pp. 7-19; cf. R. Naddaff Exiling the Poets: the Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2002) pp. 19-24 for a composite account based on French scholarship.


J. HolzhausenPaideía oder Paidiá: Aristoteles und Aristophanes zur Wirkung der griechischen Tragödie (Stuttgart: F. Steiner2000) pp. 34-8.


Sommerstein (ed.)Frogs p. 250 (on vv. 1053-6); cf. Gregory Euripides p. 2 and n. 4 on Aristophanes’ ambiguous use of the term didaskalos.


O. Taplin‘Tragedy and Trugedy’Classical Quarterly33 (1983) pp. 331-3 argues that the use of the word trugôidia and cognates to refer to comedy with the primary aim of insinuating a parallelism with tragedy means that at Acharnians 500 τὸ γὰρ δίκαιον οἶδε καὶ τρυγῳδία implies that while it is common knowledge that tragedy addresses political problems Aristophanes’ claim that comedy too does so is unusual. Lauriola ‘Aristophanes’ Criticism’ p. 29 is more sanguine (Aristophanes’ comedies are pervasively political and the seriousness is inseparable from the humour) and cf. pp. 31-2 on Frogs as political education.


Dover (ed.)Frogs pp. 73-5 Sommerstein (ed.) Frogs pp. 21-3 Goldhill The Poet’s Voice pp. 203-4.


Sommerstein (ed.)Frogs pp. 13-14 and n.b. his n. 60.


Cf. HeathThe Poetics of Greek Tragedy pp. 66-71.


Rhodes‘Nothing To Do with Democracy’ p. 119.


See Griffin‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ p. 54 for doubt as to the possibility of any political policy being applied by the archon in ‘granting a chorus’. Plato’s criticisms suggest that there was no normal regulation of poetry in Athens beyond its facilitation (although see Herodotus 6.21.2 for the reaction to Phrynichus’ Sack of Miletus and S. Halliwell ‘Comic Satire and Freedom of Speech in Classical Athens’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 111 (1991) pp. 48-70 and J. Atkinson ‘Curbing the Comedians: Cleon versus Aristophanes and Syracosius’ Decree’ Classical Quarterly 42 (1992) pp. 56-64 for debate whether there was ever a law prohibiting personal attacks in comedy.


Longo‘The Theater of the Polis’; but Griffin ‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ pp. 41-3 singles out this view for particularly severe criticism.


GoldhillThe Poet’s Voice pp. 172-3.


Goldhill‘The Great Dionysia’ p. 114 (cf. p. 124); cf. Vernant and Vidal-Naquet Myth and Tragedy p. 33: ‘In this way [the city] turned itself into a theater. Its subject in a sense was itself and it acted itself out before its public. But although tragedy more than any other genre of literature thus appears rooted in social reality that does not mean that it is a reflection of it. It does not reflect that reality but calls it into question. By depicting it rent and divided against itself it turns it into a problem.’ See Griffin ‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ pp. 47-9 for critical discussion of Goldhill’s position here.


Cf. similarly Carter‘Plato Drama and Rhetoric’ p. 61 with n. 41.


Thus Griffin‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ p. 42 doubting that e.g. performance of Medea could enhance Athenian social cohesion – yet perhaps it does suggest Athens’ greater ability than other cities to contain the barbarian and support the requirements of Greek civilisation. Cf. R. Friedrich ‘Medea apolis: on Euripides’ Dramatisation of the Crisis of the Polis’ in A. Sommerstein et al. (eds.) Tragedy Comedy and the Polis (Bari: Levante editori 1993) pp. 219-39.


Cf. Griffith‘Twelve Principles for Reading Greek Tragedy’ p. 2 Item 3. R. Lauriola Aristofane serio-comico: Paideia e geloion (Pisa: Edizioni ets 2010) pp. 122-6 with ns. 26 and 31 argues that Aristophanes rightly attributes the pedagogical power of theatre to mimêsis: yet this would not explain the intended role of negative models the presentation of ideas comic attacks and criticism or tragic catastrophe; but see also S. Sauvé Meyer ‘Legislation as a Tragedy: on Plato’s Lawsvii 817b-d’ in P. Destrée and F.-G. Herrmann (eds.) Plato and the Poets (Leiden: Brill 2011) pp. 387-402 at pp. 396-7 on the sense of mimêsis in Laws.


Verdenius‘The Principles of Greek Literary Criticism’ pp. 20-24; cf. Harriot Poetry and Criticism pp. 109-11 on poets as professionals and ch. 5 ‘Poetry as a Craft’ esp. pp. 92-7.


GregoryEuripides p. 1 and n. 1; similarly Croally Euripidean Polemic (and cf. his ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’) and Meier The Political Art of Greek Tragedy.


See similarly G. WalshThe Varieties of Enchantment: Early Greek Views on the Nature and Function of Poetry (Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press1984) p. 90 n. 32 (on p. 156) and pp. 90-97 generally and Lauriola Aristofane serio-comico pp. 115-6; cf. Halliwell ‘Learning from Suffering’ pp. 397-8 and Gregory Euripides pp. 1-4. Kannicht The Ancient Quarrel p. 27 argues for Aristophanes’ originality here and cf. P. Pucci ‘Euripides and Aristophanes: What does Tragedy Teach?’ in C. Kraus et al. (eds.) Visualizing the Tragic: Drama Myth and Ritual in Greek Art and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007) pp. 105-26 at pp. 115-17 and 123-5.


See Sommerstein (ed.)Frogs pp. 204 and 242 on these Athenians.


Cf. I. Lada-RichardsInitiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes’ Frogs (Oxford: Clarendon Press1999) esp. pp. 289-93 and cf. ch. 7 and Sommerstein (ed.) Frogs p. 241 (on v. 959).


Cf. Griffin‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ p. 44 n. 16.


Cf. GoldhillThe Poet’s Voice p. 217 Harriot Poetry and Criticism p. 150 or S. Beta Il linguaggio nelle commedie di Aristofane (Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei 2004) pp. 114-5.


See WalshThe Varieties of Enchantment pp. 85-90 and N. O’Sullivan Alcidamas Aristophanes and the Beginnings of Greek Stylistic Theory (Stuttgart: F. Steiner 1992) ch. 1.


HeathThe Poetics of Greek Tragedy p. 41.


See S. LevinThe Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry Revisited: Plato and the Greek Literary Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press2001) pp. 135-43 for a defence of the claim that the Republic treats philosophy i.e. knowledge of the Forms of the virtues in particular as a technê; although she does not refer to political technê as such Levin argues that Plato here and in earlier dialogues treats philosophy and poetry as rival claimants to technê generally with detailed discussion of earlier scholarship on the general question of technê in Plato (see ns. 26-35).


GoldhillThe Poet’s Voice pp. 167-9.


See esp. K. Dover (ed.)Aristophanes: Clouds (Oxford: Clarendon Press1968) pp. xxxii-lvii reprinted as K. Dover ‘Socrates in the Clouds’ in G. Vlastos (ed.) The Philosophy of Socrates (Garden City ny: Anchor Books 1971) pp. 50-77 S. D. Olsen (ed.) Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007) pp. 227-55 C. Carey ‘Old Comedy and the Sophists’ in D. Harvey and J. Wilkins (eds.) The Rivals of Aristophanes (London: Duckworth 2000) pp. 419-436 and e.g. Beta Il linguaggio nelle commedie pp. 118-22 168 264-5 and Lauriola Aristofane serio-comico pp. 128-32.


OlsonBroken Laughter p. 234 referring in the passage quoted to Eupolis fr. 286 Callias fr. 15 and Telecleides fr. 41 (= Olson F1 F3 F5); cf. generally similarly Carey ‘Old Comedy and the Sophists’ pp. 428-30.


See e.g. G. KerferdThe Sophistic Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1981).


Cf. Goldhill‘The Great Dionysia’ p. 108 rather than his view cited above; and similarly Zeitlin ‘Playing the Other’ p. 90. Ferrari ‘Plato and Poetry’ pp. 98 138-9 emphasises that the conflict in the Ion and Republic is ethical not aesthetic; but note the ethical is here a public matter not separate from the political although politics introduces the transformative questions of inclusion exclusion and power: see further below.


See K. Dover‘The Freedom of the Intellectual in Greek Society’Τάλαντα7 (1975) pp. 24-54 [reprinted in his The Greeks and their Legacy (Collected Papers 2) (Oxford: Blackwell 1988) pp. 135-58] who discounts evidence for a general intolerance of intellectual freedom in Athens but cf. Rhodes ‘Nothing To Do with Democracy’ p. 119 n. 114 for subsequent discussion.


S. RosenThe Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry (New York: Routledge1988) ch. 1.


See Dover (ed.)Frogs p. 295 (cf. pp. 21-3) and Lada-Richards Initiating Dionysus pp. 284-5.


I reject the view of Schwinge‘Aristophanes und Euripides’ pp. 41-2 that Dionysus fails to decide on the criteria raised previously and this shows that no actual decision about which poet to revive is possible so that the chorus’ explanation is merely a rationalisation prompted by their emotional attachment to Euripides. Not only does this fail to take into account the chorus’ criticism of Euripides here it overlooks their general role as mediators of the poet’s meaning and the fact that their explanation is consistent with the criterion of poetry as political technê.


See Dover (ed.)Frogs pp. 73-4 and Sommerstein (ed.) Frogs pp. 21-3.


Carey‘Old Comedy and the Sophists’ p. 430.


See e.g. R. AélionEuripide héritier d’Eschyle (Paris: Les belles lettres1983); Michelini Euripides and the Tragic Tradition.


See e.g. LauriolaAristofane serio-comico pp. 119-20 and 131-2 on Aristophanes’ interpretation of the content of Euripides’ plays.


See Pucci‘Euripides and Aristophanes’ pp. 109-113.


Cf. Griffin‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’ p. 47 n. 27 on the equivalence of explanations offered for the origination of the City Dionysia under either Peististratid tyranny or democracy and (pp. 51-2 with n. 47) on the political irrelevance of the dramatic opposition between tyranny and democracy found in some tragic contexts.


See D. NailsThe People of Plato: a Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics (Indianapolis: Hackett2002) pp. 89-90 arguing that this is Charmantides of Paeonia i (c. 500-420 bc) against the view that it could be his grandson on the grounds that not all present are said to be young while Charmantides ii (who performed liturgies around 370) would very probably have been much too young to have been conceivably present at the dramatic date. Nothing further of interest is known of Lysias’ and Polemarchus’ brother Euthydemus also mentioned as present at Cephalus’ house (see Nails p. 151).


See NailsThe People of Plato pp. 288-90; there is however no positive evidence for even this.


Asmis‘Plato on Poetic Creativity’ pp. 348-9 identifies the poet banished at 398a as Homer and suggests ‘Homer’s banishment may be viewed as an ironical counterpoint to Socrates’ execution’ but note the poet is only banished from a theoretical city. On whether all or only some poets are excluded from the perfect city see e.g. Levin The Ancient Quarrel pp. 253-67 and A. Nehamas ‘Plato on Imitation and Poetry in Republicx’ ch. 12 in his Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999) pp. 251-78 pp. 254-5 who claims that in Bks 2-3 some imitative poetry is retained (cf. Bk 5.460a) while Bk 10 argues for complete exclusion; by contrast Ferrari ‘Plato and Poetry’ pp. 124-5 cf. 116-7 following Belfiore ‘A Theory of Imitation’ pp. 126-8 argues that only indiscriminately imitative poets are excluded and similarly Asmis ‘Plato on Poetic Creativity’ p. 350 with n. 27; cf. my use of the term ‘autonomous poetry’ above and below. For references to this and other related debates on the Republic see conveniently Naddaff Exiling the Poets pp. 2-3 with ns. 3-5 and 8 (on pp. 135-6) and G. Richardson Lear ‘Mimesis and Psychological Change in Republiciii’ in Destrée and Herrmann (eds.) Plato and the Poets pp. 195-216 and Jera Marušič ‘Poets and Mimesis in the Republic’ in the same volume pp. 217-40.


Cf. Zeitlin‘Playing the Other’ on the veracity to audience experience here and Ferrari ‘Plato and Poetry’ pp. 108-9 134 and 141 (who follows Nehamas ‘Plato on Imitation’ p. 252 with n. 2 in finding just one continuous argument against imitative poetry in Bk 10) for its moral interpretation; although not mentioned the defence of tragedy in Nussbaum The Fragility of Goodness seems to be his target.


See e.g. Ferrari‘Plato and Poetry’ pp. 120-2 and 128 and Lear ‘Inside and Outside the Republic’ pp. 191-2 and Giuliano Platone e la poesia pp. 289-90.


MurdochThe Fire and the Sun p. 85 and cf. p. 86 a statement of democratic artistic sensibility.


Nehamas‘Plato on Imitation’ p. 268; cf. Levin The Ancient Quarrel pp. 158-62 165-6.


Cf. Gadamer‘Plato and Poetry’ pp. 65-6 a praise of praise.


Ferrari‘Plato and Poetry’ pp. 141-2 148 (cf. 145) and cf. Nussbaum The Fragility of Goodness 129-35 for a detailed albeit pedestrian contrast between the formal features of a dialogue and tragedy with p. 122 n. 2 (on pp. 452-3) for earlier scholarship.


FordThe Origins of Criticism p. 224.


MurdochThe Fire and the Sun p. 82 and cf. Gadamer ‘Plato and Poetry’ p. 46.


Cf. also MurdochThe Fire and the Sun pp. 65-7.


Gadamer‘Plato and Poetry’ pp. 47-8.


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