In the Book X of „ The Republic“, Plato asks Socrates to explain why philosophy and poetry are opposed. They seem to be on different sides of the same issue. According to Plato, philosophy teaches people the way they should conduct their lives and how to be moral and poetry and art, such as painting, only corrupts people. Plato believes that art „ is at the third remove from reality, nothing more than semblances, easy to produce with no knowledge of the truth“ (Plato, 2011, p. 25).
Philosophers offer „ moral and religious guides to the conduct of life“ (Plato, 2011, p. 20), whereas poets and other artist merely corrupt people by addressing their emotions instead of teaching them how to control them, because the only true knowledge can be gained by reason. Human emotions are considered to be trivial because everything human is relative and insignificant according to Plato’s philosophy.
The knowledge of the true values is the main topic. The way to get to know them is important. The only truth is the Form, as Plato calls it and it means the purpose of the object that exists in the terms, as a idea, which corresponds to the truth, as the actual object that can be used, and as the object depicted in a work of art, such as a painting. There is a conflict between these representations, but Plato makes order by significance. What can only be comprehended is the reality and all other representations are images.
An object has to serve its main purpose which happens when it is used and that is why Plato thinks that a painted object, such as a bed is only a mirror-image, and as such, of minor importance. There is no real knowledge of any kind involved in depicting it. A painter doesn’t have to know how to make a bed in order to paint it. It is an illusion and deception and as such it is corruptive.
There is the Demiurge who created the Earth and everything on it, the ctraftsman who can make useful objects and there is the artist whose work has no real purpose except for morally corrupting people and creating illusions. Nobody can sleep in a painted bed.
„ Poetry is like a picture in words, a representation of life. However skillfully executed, it is no evidence that the poet really possessed the knowledge required for the right conduct of actual life“ (Plato, 2011, p. 21). The proper conduct of life is important for ancient philosophers because it is what makes a stable state. Their goal is to have strong citizens who are law-abiding, and that is why the law-makers are praised whereas the artists are unappreciated.
Art copies „ external appearances“ and it „ holds a mirror up to nature“. (Plato, 2011, p. 21). Art is trying to create something as realistic as possible but it is at the same time „ as far as possible from reality“ (Plato, 2011, p. 21).
I think that Plato and Socrates are too rigid when expressing their thought on art because art has the purpose of serving imagination and fostering inspiration. Even serious things, such as state laws have to be written by an inspired person. Also, a work of art convey ideas and ideas cannot be corruptive by themselves. Ideas can be beneficial for humans and for the whole society because they inspire action.
The work of art I have chosen for this discussion is Christ’s Charge to St. Peter, painted by Bernardo Strozzi, painted ca. 1635-1637. It is oil on canvas and its dimensions are 52 1/4 x 39 3/4 in. This work of art from the 17th century, depicts Jesus Christ who is giving the keys of heaven to St. Peter. There is another men, witnessing the handing down of the keys, who is also looking at the spectator of the painting. This panting represents also the situation when Christ told Peter that he would build his church on a particular rock in the vicinity. The man who is the witness is also a disciple and his purpose is to engage the spectators into action.
Jesus gives Peter the key to heaven and it is a message to all the people because heaven is what is promised as a reward to everyone should they behave well in life. This painting is inviting people into doing good and conducting themselves well in earthly life, so that they can remain pure enough to enter heaven.
Both this painting and the philosophical studies have the same intention and that is to inspire people to behave well in their lives and to build strong states and to be law-abiding citizens who take part both in public and private lives. At this point, it seems that philosophy and poetry or other forms of art as well, are not so different in its final purpose.
Christ’s Charge to St. Peter is a religious work, and philosophers were also making religious guides to the proper conduct of life as a way of being a moral citizen. Strozzi was a Capuchin friar, which was a form of Franciscan order. This order had ideals of humility, but they created rich arts of works with religious thematics.
Aristotle’s view on art is interesting and it is different from Plato’s. Aristotle says that „ Poetry and politics, or poetry and any other art, do not have the same standards of correctness“ (Aristotle, 1997, p. 35). By this Aristotle meant that poetry and politics cannot be measured the same, because different standards apply to them. Poetry should be judged separately with different terms, according to Aristotle.
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Aristotle says that „ one difference between him and other animals is that he is the most
imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons“ (Aristotle, 1997, p. 7); This is the counterargument to Plato who thinks of imitation as something worthless because the only serious and real thing is the pure existence which lies on the sphere of ideas. However, a man’s curiosity is innate and he feels the urge to learn through imitating. It is what make gives him pleasure and makes him happy. Imitation is something that comes natural to men.
Men are surrounded by a large number of things in this world and they want to gain knowledge about them. The easiest and most fun way is through imitation. However, according to Plato, artists don’t go further into the world of ideas and that is what makes them of lesser value for the society in general. Plato does approve of going to the theater to watch the actors perform and provoke empathy and pity or other emotions such as joy. That way, the audience develops feelings for what is happening to another human being and not to themselves and they are supposed to behave differently in their own lives.
Christ’s Charge to St. Peter made me feel that I was given a real message that I am a God’s child and that there is a place in heave for me. In order for that to be possible, I have to respect religious guidelines. This work of art is worthwhile because it has a purpose and in invites people to do good. Good actions provoke more good actions and it is perpetual.
Plato. (2011). The Republic. USA. Simon & Brown
Aristotle. (1997). Poetics. UK. Penguin Classisc