Plato, Poetry, and Video Games

My friend and former colleague Alexander Nehamas wrote a column recently for the NYT’s new philosophy series The Stone.  The article revives an old issue about Plato and television.

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?

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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13 Responses to Plato, Poetry, and Video Games

  1. Paul says:

    When I was an undergrad philosophy major studying Plato, my sister directed me to Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, which to my mind (and hers), offered a compelling alternative account of Plato’s attack on poetry.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read the book by here’s my recollection of his argument. Essentially he argues that what’s at stake in the Republic is in fact the battle between two ways of conceptualizing the world. The first, a fundamentally oral culture, is the way of Homer and the poets. Knowledge is transmitted through memorization and repetition, and in accepting one’s concepts from the exemplars provided in oral culture. By contrast, Socrates (and Plato) are explicitly arguing for a culture that is based on writing, and conceptual analysis, where conceptual constructs are examined for their consistency. The argument is that a written culture is better able to examine the hidden assumptions underlying our use of concepts and come to a better understanding of the world. So for Havelock, it’s not that Plato is arguing against poetry in the way that we are imagining it, but rather he’s arguing against poetry as a way of inculcating people into a way of understanding the world.

    So in that sense, the relationship with the modern debate over video games is a bit of a disanalogy, unless one argues that video games are “displacing” written culture. But given that the Internet is actually increasing the amount of text we read, I’m not sure how convinced I am by that argument.

    Incidentally, I went on to study psychology in graduate school, and continue to find Havelock’s account of acculturation in written v oral cultures to be very compelling as a psychological story as well.

    Love the blog, glad to have something to contribute!


    • Britt Z. says:

      Doesn’t Plato actually associate writing with the sophists? I think you might have it backwards…I’m just thinking of Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy,” interrogating the privilege of speech (truth) over writing, coined as logocentrism.

      • Paul says:

        I don’t think so. The sophists were derided as vapid speechmakers. I don’t believe they were associated with writing, as opposed to written culture, but I could be wrong. Derrida may not be the greatest source as far as “getting the author right” is concerned… 😉


      • Britt Z. says:

        The Phaedrus dialogue harshly disapproves of the logographos, sophists that would write and sell their speeches for others to deliver. Plato’s privilege of speech over writing is made clear in section 276a. Oh, and lets keep the Derrida bashing to a minimal lol…

      • Paul says:

        See here:
        for a discussion of Havelock’s argument.
        The sophists were known for making speeches and in particular for their memorization (as in not writing things down):
        The Memory Art of the Ancient Greek Sophists

        “The major contribution to our understanding of the Simonidean [i.e. Sophist] tradition came from Frances A. Yates, an historian of the Renaissance. She demonstrated that by about 500 B.C.E., the ancient Greek orators and sophists were making use of a mnemonic technology that grew out of the formulaic system of the poetic tradition. This was the “art of memory” invented by Simonides. It was based on a technique of impressing on the mind a series of “places” and “images” (τόπoι and εικόvες in Greek, whence our words “topics” and “icons”).[5] Knowledge of this system was passed on to the Romans (the method of loci and imagines in Latin). It came down through the European tradition as a part of rhetoric, and also as a branch of ethics, where it was organized around a scheme of virtues and vices. The technology for remembering involved mentally picturing a spatial structure – such as a theater, a building, a park, or a geometric figure – as the background “places.” This scheme was then used as the representational format for encoding information into memory. Items to be remembered were converted into mental images and then set into the “places” in this imagined background. While the ancient orator gave his speech, he walked through the background space in his imagination, visiting each of the places in turn, re-collecting the images he had set in them. By this system, he was able to deliver long speeches from memory with complete accuracy. ”

        To the broader point of Plato on speech versus writing, here is a summary of Havelock’s argument:
        “Eric Havelock – who was a visiting scholar at University of Toronto – brought together Rhys Carpenter’s evidence for the late introduction of the alphabet, Milman Parry’s findings on oral-formulaic patterns, and Plato’s pronouncements on the nature of epic poetry, to support his theory concerning the impact of the alphabet on Greek culture and education.

        Following Carpenter, Havelock pointed out that early Greek culture was “wholly oral” and after the invention of the alphabet, there was “a long period of resistance to the use of letters,” so that literacy was not achieved in Athens until nearly three hundred years later.[1] Greek “society became literate only by slow degrees” (1986: 29). Oral habits of communication and instruction “persisted long after the alphabet had theoretically made a reading culture possible” (1963: 45-46). Between Homer and Plato, argued Havelock, the method of preserving the culture began to change as Greek education became alphabetized. Even up to Plato’s time, he said, the introduction of the alphabet made “little practical difference to the educational system or to the intellectual life of adults” (1963: 38). Since Plato’s writings are prose dialogues and not works of epic poetry, Havelock placed “Plato near the end of the great transition from oral to literate habits of communication” (1963: 97). Plato describes a cultural situation “in which oral communication still dominates all the important relationships and valid transactions of life.” He concluded that “it is only too likely that Plato is describing a situation which was on the way to being changed as he wrote” (1963: 41).”

        Finally, to the specific content of the Phaedrus; I don’t think you can claim that Plato privileged speech over writing in that dialog. He does criticize writing in that dialog; its true…however he does so in writing. It’s not clear to me that you can conclude though that Plato had said beliefs. He also criticized the theory of forms in Parmenides… perhaps it might be more correct to say that he contained multitudes or recognized some of the difficulties in his own positions. Perhaps the views expressed in Phaedrus don’t prima facie cohere, but I’m not sure that’s a damning critique.

  2. Britt Z. says:

    I’m not sure you can make the leap and categorize/classify video games with poetry. Can Chutes & Ladders be held up to Milton? It seems like the very argument for video games as art is an effect of leveling. Or, at most, it’s the attempt of some to legitimize their activity by diverting away from the child-like connotations of “playing video games.” I think, philosophically, this is a gross error, and the “play” element of video games should be embraced, while the insistence on art abandoned.

    In The Republic, video games, as games, would fall under the discussion of paidia. The discourse focuses on the shared root of “paidia” (play, game, sport),”paideia” (education), and “paides” (children). Proposing a pedagogy (paidagogia) that approaches learning as a type of play, Plato questions which types of play and games are helpful to the education of children. The concern then becomes categorizing the types of play that are simply lighthearted amusement and those that are serious with concern for excellence, education, and the Good (4.424, 7.539). In this case, it comes down to the particular video game itself. As Plato shows, not all games and play are bad, in fact, they are essential for the ideal society–play with serious intent, like the imaginative Myth of the Cave. If our current understanding between the distinction of work and play was not so narrow, it’s doubtful the desire to classify games as art would ever need to arise.

    • It’s an interesting point that there might be a disanalogy between tv and video games, with the first properly associated to poetry but the second not. But even if this is right, I don’t think it gets at the heart of Alexander’s argument. It’s enough of an inconsistency it works in the case of tv.

      • Britt Z. says:

        In the article, Alexander writes

        “To be realistic is to seem to present the world without artifice or convention, without mediation — reality pure and simple. And popular entertainment, as long as it remains popular, always seems realistic: television cops always wear seat belts. Only with the passage of time does artifice become visible.”

        I think this observation is being challenged by postmodern “meta-” concepts and devices, which are leaking more and more into popular entertainment. Works employing these devices, “breaking the fourth wall,” making the suspension of disbelief impossible, etc, inhibit, whatsoever, any passage from representation to reality. Sean, can Plato’s critique handle postmodern metafiction/film/theatre/tv? Would he object to a fiction that made a point to clearly let the audience know that it was a complete masquerade, by means of revealing the structures working in all fictions? (Sorry, this might be off topic, but I find it interesting.)


  3. JSE says:

    I recently met a philosophy graduate student who objected to novels on the grounds that texts about non-existent people were by nature less truthful and thus less good than texts about real people. I assumed he was kidding, but are you saying he might not have been?

    • Oh, I’d be willing to bet he wasn’t kidding. Philosophers don’t usually joke about important issues like this! Even so, there’s a pretty good chance that he takes seriously the logic of possible worlds (many philosophers do). Since Fictionalism about possible worlds was heavily in vogue a few years ago, you might press him on the point.

      See this entry on Modal Fictionalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for some background.

  4. Iain Thomson says:

    In Only a Promise of Happiness, Nehamas says that he thinks the best TV shows (his examples include the Sopranos and Hill Street Blues) are as great as any other work of art that has ever created by human beings. I think he’s probably right (just not about those shows), and that our anxiety about this is sociological (having to do with class distinctions). I myself defend comic books (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is an amazing work — talk about polytheism and resacralization…), but don’t think nearly as highly of video games (despite playing a lot of them and knowing about some that are closer to conceptual art). Plato’s rejection of Homer bears thinking about, but seems ultimately like to high a price to pay for a shot a utopia engineered from above. Let a thousand artworks bloom.

  5. starres says:

    I’m not sure the argument works anyway. Of course, if you accept the argument in the case of poetry, you have to accept it for video games too. But if you reject Plato’s case – if you think that being fictional is no argument against poetry or against gaming – you might still think there are other, different reasons to be against video games. It’s not like you have to take Plato’s argument as the only one here… it’s possible to consistently separate the two on other grounds.

    Also I think Britt has a really interesting point! If the bad thing about traditional story-telling is that it’s not concerned with the truth, is a postmodern novel, one that makes clear that it’s a fiction, better? I think it would be, if Plato’s problem is that fiction is deceptive, in using the same forms of language (declarative sentences or whatever) as factual claims, but not actually making claims about reality. (I don’t know enough Plato to know if that’s the case.) Of course the next question is whether a postmodern novel could ever completely do that. Personally I’m not sure if having a narrator intervene really obviously makes the story more “honest”.

  6. I’ve never been able to be objective about Plato in The Republic. As a professional Mathematician I delight that the population is 7! = 5040. As a professional Poet, I resent being excluded. And then I became a father, and faced the issue of whether or not to over-rule my son’s TV and movie choices. To make matters worse, he now has a double B.S. in Mathematics and Computer Science, has published poetry professionally from the age of 8, and has a J.D. from USC’s Law School and very much wants to build an ideal society. Okay, I’m out of the loop. It’s his conundrum now.

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