Taking on Plato: Does the Theatre have a Role to Play in a Democracy?
Updated: Jan 1
This essay will consider at length Plato’s charge that dramatic poetry is not a holder of truth but an agent of corruption. This charge shall be construed in consonance with Plato’s overall critique of democracy to make clear how theatre figures in his ontological indictment of democracy.
Image Graphics by Team Geostrata
This critique shall be undone by arguing why democracy is the best regime. Building on this, a defence of the theatre shall be built by drawing upon examples from contemporary Indian politics. Importantly, the basic premise of Plato, that wisdom reins superior to passion, shall be kept intact and made the central plank of this counter argument.
Firstly, Plato’s tripartite division of the soul needs to be laid out to understand Plato’s critique of democracy. Plato provides a tripartite distinction between three fundamentally different varieties of desires: ‘appetitive desires’ for food, drink, sex, and the money with which to savour them; ‘spirited desires’ honour, victory and good reputation; and ‘rational desires’ for knowledge and philosophical truth (437b, 580d). These desires, Plato argues in Book IV, are located in different parts of the soul: rational, spirited and appetitive.
One of these part’s determine one’s fundamental psychological type by ruling over the soul. The whole soul aspires to satisfy the desires present in this part, because it believes that a fully good or happy life consists in the satisfaction of these desires, which it privileges over the other desires.
Since virtues are defined in terms of happiness or the good (352d) in Book I, money-lovers, honour-lovers and philosophers have different understandings of virtue. Plato argues that only one of these understandings (and practice) of virtue is correct; that only the philosopher’s understanding of virtue is ultimately credible, as per Book IX (571a-592b). This conclusion is sourced from the argument in Book V, that only philosophers, whose soul is in service of the rational part, have understanding of the real good because only they have knowledge of the ‘form’ of the good, as illuminated by the rational part (473d-480).
Only by knowing the real good—illuminated through rule of the rational part—can one be truly virtuous, i.e., be wise, just, moderate and courageous. No one can achieve these qualities without knowing the form of the good: the true nature of all things. This knowledge, as per Book VII, can only be attained through dialectic philosophical reasoning (537d-540a).
Plato plugs his conception of the types of political regimes into his conception of the hierarchical, tripartite division of the parts of the soul. As per book VIII, the pleasures one cannot keep from and whose satisfaction benefits one rightly are categorised as necessary, whereas those which induce no good, or are even inimical to virtuous living, are labelled unnecessary (559e). These pleasures (or desires) are concomitant with Plato’s hierarchical ordering of the soul’s parts. Now, Plato has the theoretical tools to evaluate the supposed merit in democracy.
Beginning his charge against democracy, Plato argues in Book VIII that the democratic man subdues the rational and spirited parts to the appetitive, as one would have their slaves sit on the ground (224d). He is notoriously calculative and will not employ his reason to anything other than plotting how to extract maximum wealth from every endeavour. Neither will he let the latter part value any ambition but the acquisition of wealth.
Plato defines democracy as a regime which is associated with an insatiable desire for the “unmixed wine” of freedom (562d). This regime distributes legal equality and an inalienable right to freedom to both equals and unequals alike (558c). He is equally liberal in his desires: he denies to acknowledge any normative distinction between evil and good desires. He declares that all pleasures are equal and must be valued and satisfied equally.
Having no access to real virtue and truth, the citadel (uppermost part, housing reason) of his soul lies devoid of knowledge, virtuous ways of living and words of truth, which are the best “watchmen” and “guardians,” delivering one from moral corruption (560b). Thus, the appetitive part reins supreme and breeds a multitude of desires, producing a multi-coloured democratic man. Essentially, Plato claims that this extreme freedom in a democracy leads only to extreme slavery (564a).
For the individual, slavery entails incessant proliferation of desires and neglect of moderation. This disrupts order in a democracy, as self-interested, desirous people fail to coordinate and work towards mutual interests. Eventually, the democracy descends into an anarchy brought about by a tyrant (dictator), who blinds the people by indulging them in excessive, aesthetic freedom, such as by announcing debt cancellation and redistribution.
These aesthetics of granting freedom chip away at people’s political liberties by centralising power in the tyrant, eliminating dissent and squandering the state finances to keep the indulgence supplied (566a). Ironically, the people, who in a democracy are supposed to be masters and the leader their slave, fall into the ignominious pit of having the supposed leader-slave as their master, with cruel desires unchecked by either law or reason (569c). The best regime, as per Plato, can only be a philosophical monarchy, instantiated by reigning ‘philosopher kings’ who are both virtuous and wise (590c-e).
Plato counts dramatic poetry or theatre as one of the elements contributing to the demise of democratic order in his ontological critique of democracy. In Book X, Plato’s prime charge is that poetry is an imitation and not real in itself. If appearances are approximations of the real, i.e., the form of thing, then paintings, being appearances of such approximations, are “third” or far removed from the truth (268e).
A poet is hence an imitator who uses indulging words and phrases to “paint coloured pictures” of the real crafts, such as carpentry. The poet is himself ignorant of the real issue that he imitates (601c). Furthermore, he composes poems for an equally ignorant audience, who revel in words and think that they constitute revelation, whereas they really are imitations. Plato chides poets by declaring that if we strip poets’ works of rhythm, metre and harmony, they will resemble the faces of young boys past their bloom (601b). He asserts that emotions such as grief and excitement prevent us from rational deliberation in needful circumstances (604c).
While we should accept events as they happen and arrange subsequent affairs as dictated by reason to find the cure, poetic imitation glorifies the opposite emotions, simply because they are easy to imitate and readily appeal to the appetitive part, which is otherwise suppressed by the rational part. Thus, poetic imitation excites and establishes the appetitive part as the soul’s ruler (606d).
Plato provisionally denies admission to poets in his ideal city, precisely because they nourish the inferior part of the soul and destroy the rational one, with the concomitant implication that they strengthen the vicious citizens of the city while destroying the better ones by corrupting their souls (605b,c). As per Book VIII, poetry’s “false and boastful” words (560c), which flow as freely as actions in a democracy, incapacitate people’s reason and render them devoid of the truth, thus corrupting their minds.
This essay shall now argue for the admission of poets into Plato’s ideal city. Our basic counter to Plato’s critique of democracy, which itself is an advocacy in favour of rule by philosopher-kings, is that philosophical discourse in a mass-based ecosystem is inherently more richer, more wiser and thus more virtuous, than in an monarchy punctuated by the sole thinking of the philosopher-king. The wisdom of a democracy lies not in the correctness of its outcomes but in the existence of the democratic scope to correct such outcomes through trial and error. Through this fact, democracy hands out an ability to work on our cognitive capacities and aspirations.
To discern the truth from the false, we must, as Plato himself suggests, engage in a dialectic argument. This practice in argumentation must be anchored in the best evidence and reasons accessible to us. We inevitably enrich our argumentation by depending on our fellow reasoners in a democracy. We rely on others to formulate their reasons, articulate their ideas, as well as challenge our own.
Hence, to ensure that one achieves wisdom, one must ensure that everybody achieves wisdom. But to ensure this, we must necessarily share with others a common political and social world where arguments, reasons and information pertaining to trial and error can flow freely and openly exchanged. This condition can be best satisfied in a democratic political order.
It is the political expression of one’s pursuit of wisdom by reason, evidence and calculation. A democracy is thus best suited to wisdom and virtue. With this established, we turn to how poetry, when practised in a democracy, furthers the cause of rationality and wisdom rather than thwarting it. We look into poetry penned with the express purpose of influencing the levers of politics in the contemporary Indian democracy.
During the landmark 2020 farmers’ protests against the farming legislations rammed through the Indian parliament, Pal Sandhu, travelled on a cycle from Faridkot in Punjab to Tikri, the protest site. Here, he read out the revolutionary poem titled ‘Sab Ton Khatarnak’ (The Most Dangerous), written by Pash, a visionary folk poet of Punjab who opposed injustice in his poems. He also wrote verses of the poem on the placards he was carrying:
The most dangerous is
being filled with deathly silence
to bear everything quietly
to leave home for work
and to return home like routine,
The most dangerous is the death of our dreams.
The poem became a constant melody and slogan amongst the protesting farmer folk, keeping their hearts aflame through the cold wintery nights of December. We can observe that this poem, with its dramatic imagery, invigorated the people to think on their own feet using their reason, and not giving in to the appetitive urge for rest by simply trusting what the political leaders feed them.
Similarly, during the 2019 protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Faiz’s iconic poem “Hum Dekhenge,” came to be intensively recited and sung, becoming a pivotal symbol of the struggle against the government. A group of art students staged an artistic protest at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. The student-cum-artists wrote lines from “Hum Dekhenge” onto sheets of paper folded into boats, laying them out in the shape of a heart.
The space for aesthetic expression in the Indian democracy thus did not corrupt the protesting people’s souls into giving in and letting the alleged communal divide take root. Rather, it ennobled them to devise innovative methods of protesting and rallying around the shared symbol of Faiz’s poetic lyrics:
There's a connect between India and me
Who the hell are you
Why should I tell how deep it runs
Who the hell are you
Hence, the tool of poetry in the Indian democracy bestowed upon the people a shared space to articulate their views. It motivated them to ponder the plausible consequences of an Act of Parliament which differentiated between people based on their religious identification. Clearly, the people were not relishing in the vacuum of the poem per se. They were rather abiding by the rational part of their souls in embracing police violence and litigations, for their rationality dictated them to protest against the Act.
Were their appetitive parts to have ruled over their rational parts, they would not have dared to venture out on the streets and protest against the mammoth state which would obviously hurt and suppress them to quell dissent. The poem became rather a stimulation to their rational parts, or better still, it became a strong instrument of the rational part with which to attract the protestor’s allegiance away from the appetitive part and towards the rational part.
Thus, the freedom of words in a democracy enables the people to either endorse or oppose different moves by the elected government and representatives. The theatre makes the dictates of the rational part more palatable and thus endurable: it motivates and, in a good way, captivates the person to not give in to the appetitive part but carry out the dictates of reason to every article.
In a democratic political order, poems act as vehicles for the exchange and transmission of different ideas, which sometimes support while at other times challenge the dominant ideas and force them to consider alternative ideas. In this free poetic exchange, the chord of wisdom is incessantly plucked as people support and oppose different actions. They come at such mass conclusions upon being stimulated by the theatre to ponder with reason and finally abide by it. In this light, theatre in fact serves as a vehicle for the dissemination of truth.
Plato fails to consider this essentialist aspect of poetry and aesthetics. He only considers the corrupting aspects of particular poetry which play up one’s emotions and are really meant for the appetitive part’s consumption. However, this is no reason to discount the power of poetry to make the enforcement of the rational part’s dictates easily enforceable among the people.
Thus, while a democratic political order challenges and nuances one’s quest to wisdom and virtue, poetry facilitates that quest by enabling all the others to ponder plausible outcomes in a democracy and strive for them as dictated by the rational parts of their souls. Thus, theatre in a democracy compliments the philosophical quest for virtue by making possible access to evidence, which in turn enables the rational part to judge the best reason and thereby dictate the person to act as per it.
Nonetheless, Plato might object that poetry still can blind individuals by striking at their basal emotions and giving them cheap and ready comfort. This would eventually destroy democracy because people would be led by the appetitive part into, as aforementioned, an ignominious pit of shame: a tyranny. However, I counter argue that poetry itself provides a cure to this.
When the government would attempt to capitalise upon the people’s supposedly unlimited appetitive desires, poetry by relatively enlightened poets and thinkers would stimulate the people’s rational parts, making them judge the destructive potential of the government’s move, forcing them to come out in protest against it.
This judgement shall be lacking in Plato’s ideal city, where poetry is banned. In such a city then, the common people shall not have the capacity to judge whether the philosopher-king is enacting sound or destructive policies. Neither will the philosopher-king know or be forced to acknowledge the wrongness of some of his actions, as mass dissent and opposition would be lacking in such a polity.
Thus, we have successfully argued for the merit of democracy as a facilitator of wisdom and virtue. We have also defended poetry as the stimulation to the rational part. Further, we have established that the common folk in a democracy would have a judgement that people in Plato’s ideal city would lack: given the ban on poetry and its rationally stimulative potential. Hence, Politics must allow poetry and poets into a ideal city.
BY ASHISH SINGH
Asish Singh is a rising sophomore pursuing Political Science
and International Relations at Ashoka University.