Many people are uncomfortable with the arguments that Plato gives in The Republic for banishing poetry from his ideal state. They think it is obscene to imagine that the best culture should be one in which the poetry of Homer and Aeschylus is not allowed. But these same people often argue for banishing television and video games in our culture. (Or at least feel uncomfortable exposing their own kids to them.) Alexander claims that the argument form is essentially the same in both cases, and you can’t accept it in one while rejecting it in the other. Either Plato was wrong, he says, in which case it ought to be ok to let our kids watch tv; or else it’s ok to banish tv and video games from our lives, in which case Plato was right to want to banish Homer too.
The argument is interesting because all the premises seem true, the reasoning seems valid, and yet its conclusion grates. One is tempted to think that it fails because there is a relevant disanalogy in the two cases, since Homer’s poetry is good and tv is bad. But this won’t do. The only way in which Plato claims Homer’s poetry is bad is that it is not entirely concerned with the truth. And this is hard to deny. Nobody thinks the story about Hephaestus being cuckolded by his wife Aphrodite up on Mount Olympus is literally true. It is the very fact that poetry is imaginative and creative that Plato reviles. But if he is wrong to revile that kind of creativity, then why are we right to revile it in the case of tv and video games?
I myself am inclined to think that Plato was wrong to banish poetry, but not because all creativity is good. Homer’s poetry is not concerned with the truth, in some narrow sense, but it is concerned to demonstrate a certain kind of excellence in human life (and various forms of its opposite as well). I don’t think this is a prerequisite for good art, but I do think that one doesn’t find as much as one would like of it on tv and in video games.
I worry mildly about this criticism, though, since I have a vague memory that Plato considers this option and rejects. But I don’t have time to go look. Anyone want to help?