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Philosophy as a Reinterpretation of Poetry in Plato’s Republic

Samuel Flores

In this paper, I redefine the pedagogical relationship between philosophy and poetry in Plato’s Republic as one of interdependency rather than one of antagonism and rivalry. Previous scholarship on poetry in the Republic has noted Plato’s adaptation and rewriting of poetry throughout the dialogue. Naddaff, for example, says that “Socrates does not…radically reject the tradition of poetry as paideia. Rather he mobilizes this tradition as tradition while modifying, revising, correcting, and reperforming its central, essential literature” (Naddaff 2002). More recently, Schultz suggests that Socrates, through the Allegory of the Cave and the Myth of Er, “offers an alternative to the Homeric narratives that he criticizes” (Schultz 2013). My own suggestion is that Socrates does not just correct or revise poetry, but he also provides a defense for poetry’s place in the city through his use and citation of it.

In the first part of this paper, I look at Socrates’ own dependence upon Homer in the Republic, both explicitly through his incorporation of Homer by citation and quotation and implicitly through his allusion to and reworking of Homeric themes, ideas, and narratives. Socrates acknowledges his own Homeric education at the beginning of Book 10, where he is hesitant to continue critiquing Homer because of his own admiration for the poet (595b-c). While he does proceed in giving his critique, Socrates also incorporates Homer into his own storytelling, most prominently in his Odyssean descriptions of the Cave in Book 7 and the Myth of Er in Book 10. Understanding Socrates’ own tales requires a base knowledge of the poets. The alignment of poetry with the first segment of the Line in the Image of the Line (Book 6), the lowest part of the Cave (Book 7), and a third remove from the truth in Socrates’ discussion of Forms (Book 10) shows that poetry can provide a vital first step in the educational trajectory of philosophers.

In the second part of this paper, I examine the interdependent relationship between philosophy and poetry as demonstrated through Plato’s references to Solon, a key figure in Athenian thought. As a poet, legislator, and proto-philosopher, the figure of Solon weaves together poetry, politics, and philosophy in a way that foreshadows the Platonic philosopher. In the Republic, Socrates cites and alludes to Solon multiple times, at times praising Solon (e.g. 599d-e) and at other times criticizing him (e.g. 536d). In his cross-examination of Homer in Book 10, Socrates seems to subordinate Homer to Solon and other famous Greek legislators, citing the specific cities that these legislators benefitted (599d-e). This passage alone, however, does not tell the entire story. By contrast, in the Timaeus, the character of Critias claims that Solon could have surpassed Homer, Hesiod, and the other poets, had he written his epic on the Atlantis myth (21c-d). Solon never did, and the preeminence of Homer and Hesiod lived on. The fact that Solon never surpassed Homer and Hesiod suggests that poets hold a prominent role in the city, a role which Solon never quite attained.

Socrates’ critique and revision of Homer and Solon demonstrates the need for poetry in the ideal city. After his interrogation of Homer, Socrates challenges the defenders of poetry to persuade him, qua founder of a city, that the poets are indeed beneficial for the city. Within the conversation of the Republic, no defense ever comes from his interlocutors. But the dialogue itself, through its incorporation and revision of the poets, provides this defense. Throughout the Republic, poetry provides an impetus for the dialogue’s philosophic conversation, and tales such as the Ring of Gyges, the Allegory of the Cave, and the Myth of Er require prior knowledge of the poetic tradition.

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Philosophical Poetics

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