Literature Theory Term Paper

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Plato, Marx, And Critical Thought

David Richter's book is absolutely indispensable, as it is one of the few anthologies willing to acknowledge the existence of and include well-chosen examples from the long history of critical thought and how it helps us understand what we read, why we read, and what we value.

The greatest strength of Richter's work is that it simply starts at the beginning of classical literature and moves forward until about the mid-19th century, charting a course through what is aptly termed "the critical tradition." This movement provides a broad context in which one can more usefully engage contemporary thinkers. Present-day debates over representation, for example, and the dangers thereof, weigh a great deal more when one is familiar with the long history that underpins this debate, from Aristotle to Horace, Plato to Marx

The critical tradition in Richter is shaped in such a way to choose the contemporary essays well. They're selected and organized in such a way as to give a sense of a debate taking shape. This not only helps the readings speak to each other more directly, but it also forces the reader to keep in mind that the critical tradition is never a finished product. This paper will examine the ideas of Plato as defined in the "Republic," and compare them to Marx's "Communist Manifesto." These two men's ideas regarding the nature of society and the ideal structure for society arise from their ideas of the nature of man. If man is a moral creature, who has a natural bent toward the greater good of his fellow citizens, and society in general, then either of these two philosophers could have penned the outline for a perfect society. However, in a final analysis, this paper will propose its own ideas of the nature of man. If the finally proposal is accurate, the flaws of both Plato and Marx will be glaringly apparent. In doing so, this paper will propose reasons behind the failure of both writer's philosophies.

Plato's republic attacks the mimetic arts. He believed that these arts were only copies the natural realities around them, and therefore did not contribute to the betterment of man. Plato's belief was that art is fundamentally based on imitation. It was this imitation factor which made art inferior, combined with the unsuitable moral content of some art. Plato's condemnation of art is seen by some as too rationalist, and in striving for a pure idealism Plato was depriving art of its charms, and value to simple improve life because of its pleasantness, and beauty. Modern objections to Plato's theory of art assert that he failed to discover the specific nature of artist creation. In the creation of art, the process of imitation is necessary: creating a new reality from an artist's own imagination. Did Plato really intended imitation to mean a slavish copy, or is there intrinsic value in the process of imagining a world that is better than the one which we possess?

In Plato's rush to judgment on the mimetic arts, he seems to have rolled through an important stop sign. Didn't Plato himself participate in the very art he condemns? Plato's writings, in particular the Republic, are his copy of the ideal society, put to pen and ink. His ideal did not exist, nor were all his theories practical. He contributed to the theories behind which the common man could become a more ideal man. But this idealic vision of reality did not exist. This approach to literature is identical to the sculptor's approach to his clay, as he seeks to sculpt the perfect human bust. His purpose in describing the perfect society in which men and women worked with pure motives to create the perfect functional society was no different than the stage actor's goal to capture the perfect passion, or emotion as they portrayed life as they saw it.

On poetic inspiration, Plato says in the "Ion": "God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these words of great price when they are out of their wits, but that it is God himself who speaks and addresses us through them." Plato's presupposition is that as a man seeks the higher ideal which abide deep within a man, he will move from the self seeking vulgar realities of life to a "higher plain" of consciousness, one which only seeks the good of self, others, and society in general. Thus, the man would begin to speak with the mind of God himself.

This contradiction, into which Plato steps with full force, is one in which he only partially sees, and which Plato only partly resolves: "We can only conclude that the artist himself is to blame for confusing the inspiration of the Muse" (Verdenius) thus the artist is not in a state of total possession by the Muse and the artist's own feelings and character influence the work of art. Plato realizes the dependence of the artist on the Muse; hence he calls the artist the Muse's "interpreter." As the muse, to the Greek mind, was one of the gods, the person therefore was an interpreter of the gods will. In Plato's mind, since the goal of man was to create the perfect society, only when the man got out of the gods way would he be able to work toward a perfect republic, and therefore a perfect world.

In the process of inspiration, the divine element is filtered by the artist. Plato calls the poet a less able "maker" than his Muse. Any criticism by Plato of art must be based on the human element of its production which can only interfere and confuse the work of art: this is as much inseparable as essential, a message that is lost in the language of the interpreter. For this reason, Plato seems to see art like an instruction manual containing errors -people reading poetry should similarly be aware of the sometimes erroneous knowledge to be derived from it.

Plato picks several examples here drawn from mythology -examples of gods behaving in morally perverted ways. Plato fears that this will encourage vice in the people who read or see this. Plato was the first real advocate of the "closed society" -i.e. censorship, with no freedom of thought and discussion. Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Porphyry thought that their task was to address the perennial problems which beset human beings in their attempt to live the just life and to obtain happiness. (Addey, 1997)

From the other end of the political spectrum, Carl Marx was essentially working from the same hypothesis as he wrote the communist manifesto. Marxism was originally formulated to analyze stress and contradiction within the society. Just a Plato used literature as his chosen vehicle to guide and influence society, the Marxist also sees literature as intimately linked to social power. For this reason their literature is linked to larger social questions. However, Marxist criticisms are against materialistic nature of men, as opposed to the carnal nature which Plato tries to identify. Marx has more in common with theories that focuses upon how literature functions within political and economic structures, than it does with theories that focus only on the social environment of man. Marx believed that in a perfect political and economic system, the social conditions would also evolve toward utopia.

Marx believed that capital was not personal, but social power and product." Therefore by controlling the capitol and economic engines of a society, so would social power be controlled, and diverted toward the benefits of all men. Carl Marx was the first to say "from every man according to his ability, to everyman according to his need" Perhaps one of the most influential philosophers in history; Marx is widely remembered for the revolutionizing ideologies he presented in the Communist Manifesto. Marx was certainly a man of great intelligence and vision. His many visions about capitalistic development are constantly reflected in today's society. To most people work rather than happiness is the meaning of life; nothing is ever enough -- everyone wants more. The bourgeois are running things, as a large portion of the world's resources and wealth is in the hands of a select few.

It is toward this tendency that Marx hypothesized that if every person worked toward the benefit of the common good, and the money and power were held in the hands of the government system, which was also in place to serve the common good, then he believed that the common good and betterment of society would be the goal and aim of all levels of society. In this utopia, man would give to man without regard to personal reward, or personal cost. The reward would be his fellow citizens well being.

The immediate question that then comes to mind is whether this is advantageous to society. To correctly answer this deep question, one must look…

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