David Ryan Morphew
Plutarch and the Non-Rational Soul: A Defense Against the Republic’s Psychological Criticism of Poetry
Plato’s Republic provides some of the most damning criticisms of poetry. In the end, Socrates argues that poetic representations are too dangerous to be admitted into the City of Speech, though he would gladly hear a defense of poetry since it provides such a bewitching charm. In Book 10, Socrates argues that poetic imitations are far removed from reality and feed and strengthen, as it were, the worse parts of our soul, the non-rational parts, against the rational part. Since virtue and the healthy state of the soul depend on the rational part’s rule over the nonrational parts, poetry endangers the internal harmony and receptivity of the soul to virtue. Call this the Psychological Criticism of Poetry. We would expect Plutarch to follow through on these points, either openly accepting the Psychological Criticism of Poetry or challenging it, since he self-identifies as a follower of Plato. Plutarch’s How a Young Man Should Read Poetry, however, argues for the positive use of poetry in moral and philosophical progress without addressing this criticism directly. Why is Plutarch silent on this point?
In this paper I argue that though Plutarch seems to go against the grain of the Republic, his arguments for the usefulness of poetry follow from Platonic arguments on the importance of developmental stages from childhood. Plutarch shows that Plato’s Republic implicitly agrees with his own position. Poetic representations provide a good starting point for moral development. Before children are capable of philosophical investigation, they are able to learn moral lessons and memorize words of wisdom that they come to appreciate and understand later. They are dyed with precepts that are hard-to-remove; the passionate dispositions of the nonrational parts of their souls are made to conform to virtuous action before they understand why.
For Plutarch, then, the defense of poetry lies in the effect it can have in shaping our non-rational dispositions, especially early in life, rendering them well-prepared for the development of a virtuous life. Given the powerful impetus it provides for intensifying desires to become virtuous, it would be a shame not to use the charm of poetry, even as Socrates admits in the Republic.
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