Artistic Oppression in Plato’s Republic

Although Plato’s vision of the perfect state may seem highly functional and productive, he fails almost completely to recognize the arts as a staple of our cultural experience and shuts down freedom of expression. Ironically, Plato states in book three of Republic that musical education is crucial for the cultivation of the soul, and places it before physical education because in his opinion, the cultivation of one’s soul sets a strong precedent for the cultivation of any other aspect in one’s life. However, when Plato begins to discuss the censorship of harmonies according to one’s place in society, it seems as if he defeats the purpose of the soul in music altogether.

How can one adequately channel one’s “soul” through music if it isn’t treated as a form of expression, but more of a device for conditioning members of society to better fulfill their rolls? How can one’s thoughts and feelings be translated if they aren’t allowed to utilize the vocabulary that will help them best do so? One of the many problems with Plato’s interpretation of the arts is that they are much too analytical and free of any concept of abstract thought. On the subject of lamenting harmonies, Plato asks, “Shouldn’t we exclude them, then? After all, they are even useless for helping women be as good as they should be, let alone men.” (P.82) Although the scales could be seen as lamenting, artistic expression isn’t as straightforward as Plato takes it to be– after all, the harmonies they discuss are the basis for the majority of Sweet Home Alabama”, which is hardly considered a lamenting tune.

But the question of why Plato underplays the arts in Republic remains unanswered; does he not understand its abstract nature, or does he view its purpose as a waste of time? It would be strange to view Plato as a completely concrete thinker; much of his work revolves around the idea of a “soul”, which of course is a very abstract idea, especially for his time. One cannot see the soul, yet Plato still argues for its significance and rests many of his ideas on an assumption of its existence. On the other hand, Plato’s views on music seem to be contradictory to the idea that he sees the arts as a waste, as even he requires musical training before one enters the gymnasium. However, one could easily infer from his writing that Plato may be afraid of the arts and their power rather than dismissive of them. “A change to a new kind of musical training is something to beware of as wholly dangerous. For one can never change the ways of training people in music without affecting the greatest political laws.” (P.108) Who is to say that Plato’s republic is repressive of expression for fear that it could be the downfall of the polis he has outlined? This would surely make sense of his categorization of musical harmonies by social occupation, as well as his ideas on censorship of poets’ portrayals and impersonations of the gods and various other figures unless met with his criteria. Not only does Plato seem to want to cultivate only the finest individuals, but wants them to disregard any thoughts of change, not to mention a different way of government, lest they rest within the bloodlines of the elite. It seems as if unless one is born with gold in their blood, Plato’s republic is where ideas go to die.

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