Plato excludes poets, yet he is a poet. It’s an old problem. Schindler ( Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason: On Goodness and Truth in the Republic , 304ff) argues that it’s a mistake to see it as a contradiction. Rather, there is an ambivalence (two-sidedness) to Plato’s treatment of images and poetry.

For starters, Schindler argues that Plato roots both appearances and being in the good, and he also argues that for Plato the good is absolute only insofar as it is also relative. Thus, “it follows that not only is the difference between being and appearance not bad, but it is intrinsically good and desirable .”

What then makes the philosopher different from the poet? The poet remains as poet in the midst of appearances. The philosopher transcends. True, but if that’s all, then why doesn’t the philosopher simply transcend? Why use images at all?

Schindler answers, “To avoid this contradiction, we have to see the other side of the difference between the philosopher and the poet, which is typically neglected by commentators: because the philosopher has transcended appearances, he is in a position to descend back into them, to relate to them, that is, in the mode of a descent, which means to affirm them from the perspective of being and the goodness of being, a possibility that is not given to the poet because of the absence of transcendence in mere appearance.”

This gives us a very different Plato than the Platonists do:

“the recognition of the absoluteness of the good puts the philosopher in a better position to affirm the goodness of image and appearance than even the poet himself. The poet can produce images, but does not have the distance, as it were, to see how the distance of images is good. In this respect, from a merely poetic perspective, images are not, as such, mediators of reality. But the philosopher, knowing the difference, can see images, not as opaque ‘things,’ but as radiant manifestations.” Far from undermining poetry, philosophy lends it a new dignity.

As a result, “it is no longer necessary to excuse the philosopher’s use of imagery . . . . Instead, we can say that images turn outto perform a properly philosophical function that abstract reason alone cannot.” Plato ultimately concludes that “Poetry makes philosophy better as philosophy . . . . this does not compromise in any way Plato’s customary insistence on the mind’s absolute purity in its intercourse with being. It simply integrates this purity into a more comprehensive whole, an integration that purity itself requires. In other words, a grasp of the good as the principle of knowledge implies both that things like writing and poetry are inadequate and thus dangerous, and also that they make philosophy better. Goodness gives sense both to Plato’s unequivocal condemnation of poetry and his use of it.”

That’s probably as good a Plato as one can get, but he isn’t good enough. Poetry (and hence writing, speech, all forms of communication that do not involve “pure” contact of mind with being and the good) is inadequate and dangerous. But why should that be? Even this Plato is haunted by as sense that sensible being is tragic being.

Earlier, Schindler quotes Martha Nussbaum (286; from an essay in On Beauty, Wisdom and the Arts ), and it seems to me Nussbaum’s point withstands Schindler’s rebuttal. She associates, in Schindler’s summary, “Plato’s theory of knowledge and metaphysics with a psychological need for purity.” In Nussbaum’s own words: “we must now concede that Plato’s will toward appearance was never unqualifiedly good. The mood of recantation in the Phaedrus, its acceptance of limits, and its restoration to goodness of much in our nature that we associate with our finitude are connected, nonetheless, with a deep nostalgia for purity whose expression was never more moving than here. The complexities of the person are given greater respect; but Plato’s deep discontent with our bodily nature, his sense that the body is a trap, a shell, are strongly present even in the speech of recantation (esp., 250bc). Disembodiment is a good even for the complex person (whose appetitive soul is taken, oddly to be separable from its bodily vehicle). Images of lightness, loftiness, clarity, and purity are used to characterize the soul’s excellence. The person looks to this lightness as to a possible good; and, beyond this, he or she looks, as an impossible dream, to the imagined life of the pure divinities, drinking from the springs of unblemished understanding.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart