Posted: January 24, 2005
amona Naddaff's reading of Plato's Republic explicitly challenges two simple but nevertheless common, and therefore powerful, objections to the treatment of poetry in this dialogue. First, there is the liberal objection virtually every teacher of the Republic encounters from one or more students: Socrates advocates censorship of poetry, and censorship is bad. Socrates and his proposals for the reform of the "feverish" unjust city are therefore also bad. Naddaff, a professor in the Department of Rhetoric at University of California, Berkeley, agrees with these critics that censorship should be decried. Nevertheless, she points out, Socrates' treatment of poetry in Books 2-3 of the Republic recognizes the power of poetic discourse to shape the characters (or souls) of those who listen to it, as liberal toleration of every form of speech does not. In "disciplining" that power by expunging all the elements that work against the inculcation of the virtues of courage and moderation in the guardians, Socrates' "censorship" actually results in a purification of Homer that makes epic poetry, better and less ambiguously, serve its traditional aim of fostering the heroic virtues.
Naddaff crosses swords more directly and unqualifiedly with philosophical commentators like Francis Cornford, Benjamin Jowett, Paul Shorey, and Julia Annas, who suggest that the discussion of poetry in Book 10 adds nothing essential to the argument. Rather than an irrelevant addition, she argues, the reincorporation of poetry in the "myth of Er" at the end constitutes a new definition of philosophy. Because it takes a "myth" to arouse the desire that animates and sustains philosophy as a search for wisdom, poetry and philosophy are necessarily intertwined. After attempting first to restrict and then to negate the power of poetry, Naddaff argues, Socrates finally produces a new form of philosophical-
Following the course of the conversation in the dialogue, Naddaff identifies three stages or moments in this "production": 1) the purification of poetry in Books 2-3, on the basis of its traditional educative goals and function; 2) the more radical, because more complete, expulsion of poetry in Book 10, when poetry and its power are reconsidered in light of what has been said about the character of the human soul and its relation to the eternal, unchanging truth of the ideas in Books 4-9; and 3) the complete reincorporation of poetry in a new open-ended, dialogical form of philosophy in the final myth of Er. With this "myth," Naddaff concludes, Plato "subverts" his own apparent teaching about the relation between poetry and philosophy by showing that "philosophy is an art of living that requires poetic images and myths." Instead of the passive contemplation of abstract concepts or theoria, "philosophy has become what it always was and always should be: a striving to know."
In striving to obtain knowledge, she observes, dialogical "philosophy assumes that there is no answer in advance." Unlike uncensored poetry, such philosophy does assume "that there is something to be known." Such philosophy becomes poetic, however, when it inquires into the ability of language or logos to represent what can be known. "All forms of symbolization—poetic, rhetorical, mathematical—are granted a hearing...to see whether they propel philosophy forward in its quest to cultivate the desire to know and to represent this knowledge and desire." At the end of the Republic, readers thus see that "poetic myth...satisfies the philosopher's need to keep his desire for absolute philosophical knowledge alive and urgent, even if ultimately impossible and illusory."
Like Nietzsche, Naddaff emphasizes the contest or agon between poetry and philosophy in the Republic. Unlike Nietzsche in Birth of Tragedy, however, Naddaff does not seem to see the way in which Plato has made poetry subservient to philosophy, the way philosophy itself later becomes auxiliary to theology. Although she suggests that by the end of theRepublic, Plato has, in effect, transformed philosophy into a form of poetry, she does not pay attention to the "poetic" characteristics of Plato's own work. She does not account for the characterizations of Socrates' interlocutors, the action of the dialogue, or the fact that "Plato's" primary "philosophical" teachings about the ideas are explicitly presented in Books 6 and 7 in the form of poetic images. (If she had, she would not have been able to restrict her analysis primarily to the three "moments" or argue for a Hegel-like synthesis of poetry and philosophy only at the end.) Following Foucault, she emphasizes the way in which the attempt to repress, if not control, poetry results in the "production" of a new kind of poetry (if not knowledge). But, in contrast to Foucault, she seems to ignore the political implications of the "production" she describes. Although she recognizes, as almost any reader of the Republic would, that poetry is explicitly judged on the basis of its power to shape (or reform) the psyches of the "citizens" (or subjects) of the city, she remains curiously silent about the obviously political context in which Plato presents the "ancient quarrel" between philosophy and poetry.
Naddaff shows that the relation between philosophy and poetry in the Republic is much more complex than either the liberal or the philosophical critics have admitted, but her contribution to Platonic scholarship is limited by the fact that she treats the "ancient quarrel" almost entirely in terms of "discourse." Apparently believing (like the "uncensored poets") that there is nothing outside or beyond words, she fails to identify or address the substantive content of the conflict between Socrates and Homer. As a result, her analysis of the differences between poetry and philosophy and of their final conjunction remains fundamentally formal and, consequently, empty.
As Naddaff sees (though through a glass darkly), the quarrel between the poets and philosophers presented in the Republic ultimately has to do with the significance of human mortality or death. She recognizes that the "myth of Er" constitutes a kind of re-telling (or re-writing) of the tale Odysseus tells King Alcinous about his trip to Hades, but she does not even ask about the differences between Homer's account and Socrates' substitution, much less explore the significance of those differences.
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Nevertheless, these differences are important. In Homer, death is shown to be horrible. Odysseus talks to psychai in Hades, but these souls are able to converse only after he has given them blood to drink. As "shades," they do not appear to be able to think or communicate with others. Minos is said to be judge, and some
souls (of tyrants like Tantalus and Sisyphus) are shown to be suffering unending punishments. Only Heracles appears to have been rewarded with an immortal life with the gods on Olympus. There is no suggestion of reincarnation or rebirth.
In the "myth of Er," souls are first judged, rewarded or punished, and then brought to a field where they can contemplate the intelligible order and beauty of the cosmos—the orbits of the planets and the resultant harmony of the spheres. Although the three "fates," said to be daughters of necessity, keep the spheres in motion, they merely seal the choices the individual souls make concerning their future lives. Neither the gods nor the intelligible order of nature determines the shape and outcome of human lives. On the contrary, individual souls choose the form of their future life on the basis of what they have learned or failed to learn, what they have cherished or hated, in their previous existence. According to the "myth of Er," both the learning and the rewards thus take place in this life, not the next. Both the learning and the results are, moreover, the individual's own responsibility.
At the end of his myth, Er reports: "By chance Odysseus' soul had drawn the last lot." Nevertheless, "from memory of its former labors, it had recovered from love of honor, so it looked for a long time for the life of a private man who minds his own business, and with effort found one." Despite the differences between the two accounts of Hades, at the end of Er's myth it thus looks as though Homer and Socrates fundamentally agree. The hero of the Odyssey had learned through his travels to be just, as Socrates and his interlocutors had defined justice.
Homer shows that Odysseus, by going to Hades, had learned that the most important thing in human life is the sympathetic understanding of another. Rather than accept the nymph Calpyso's invitation to live with her in sexual ecstasy forever, a chastened Odysseus chose to return to his mortal wife Penelope. He did not return to Ithaca merely to be reunited with his family, however. He also tried to take vengeance on the young men who had tried to supplant him. He would have destroyed the entire population of Ithaca in a civil war, if Athena had not stopped him. Socrates, in the myth he relates, introduces a new understanding of justice with a basis in a rational order and drops any reference to Odysseus' desire for revenge or the need for the gods to restrain it.
Naddaff does not pay attention to what Socrates retained or dropped from Homer's tale, because she reads Homer more traditionally than Plato did. In Homer she sees only the praise of the heroic virtues. In commenting on Socrates' censorship of Homer in Book 3 of the Republic, she thus describes Achilles simply in terms of the alternatives Zeus gave to his mother: either he will die young and become famous or he will live longer, but obscurely. Naddaff does not observe that in Book 9 of the Iliad Achilles emphatically states that no honor or wealth can compensate for the loss of his life. He therefore plans to withdraw from the battle and go home to live in obscurity—until Hector kills his beloved Patroclus. Achilles then changes his mind. He re-enters the battle, knowing that he will lose his life. He does so not to seek glory, however, but to avenge his friend. But Achilles cannot find satisfaction in relentlessly torturing Hector's corpse. Instead of simply praising the heroic quest for honor, as Naddaff (like many other readers) seems to think, in both his epics Homer shows that the most precious thing in human life is the understanding and loyal affection of others. Because that understanding and affection are rooted in a shared, distinctively human experience of living in the face of our own inevitable death, the immortal gods do not have and cannot provide it. But the same knowledge of the inevitability of human death that makes us cherish our loved ones while they last also gives rise to rage and despair. There is nothing that can compensate us for our inescapable losses. Both of Homer's heroes are thus shown trying to achieve justice by wreaking unlimited vengeance on those who have wronged them. Order is restored in both poems only by a deus ex machina.
In his "myth of Er" Socrates thus points both to a deeper reading of Homer than is usually given and to an even deeper disagreement with the epic poet. Socrates does not censor the parts of Homer's poems that show death to be terrible or that display heroes acting immoderately, merely because these scenes provide the future guardians with undesirable models of behavior. He attempts to show that the poets are wrong when they suggest that there is nothing lasting, eternal, or intelligible in human existence. Explicitly admitting that human beings are mortal and therefore imperfect, Socrates nevertheless insists that real improvement in human life is possible, but only if human beings can discover some eternally unchanging, intelligible principles to guide them. It is not possible to satisfy "the philosopher's need to keep his desire for absolute philosophical knowledge alive and urgent," any more than it is possible to establish a just political order on the basis of a "myth," if the mythical form of the discourse indicates, as Naddaff suggests, that the satisfaction of the philosopher's desire for knowledge is "ultimately impossible and illusory." The "ancient quarrel" between the philosophers and the poets is not a matter merely of form or "discourse": it concerns the character and meaning of human life and death.