Plato and Truth in Fiction

Some believe Plato condemned fiction as a lie, but in fact his dialogues prove that he believed fiction can bring us closer to the truth.

Nota Bene: I originally published this post back in 2012, and it has been one of the most-read posts on this blog ever since. In fact, it sums up pretty well my defense of the necessity of literature—an apologia pro literatura, if you will.

SOME TIME AGO, I lamented the fact that people—even allegedly “educated” people—these days are reading less and less; and I began to explore the question of why this fact should alarm us. Isn’t reading just one of many ways to amuse ourselves in idle moments? Why should reading novels, say, be any better than watching movies or playing video games? After all, all three require us to enter into an imaginary world, not of our own making.

Good Fiction Is Interested in Truth

It’s true that some reading material exists only to provide escapist pleasures—such books are what C. S. Lewis would classify as “bad” books, according to the criteria he proposes in An Experiment in Criticism, because they require little of the reader and they repay that little effort poorly. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone engages in such reading, although I would be concerned about anyone who made a steady diet of such fare. I won’t spend much time discussing that sort of thing here, because it simply doesn’t warrant deep attention (except, perhaps, insofar as these “bad” books are actually “bad for you.”

What I am more concerned about is the reading of well-crafted fiction that treats carefully the kinds of “universal” questions that Aristotle refers to in his Poetics, where he called such stories “philosophical,” i.e., capable of making us wiser. Greek culture in Aristotle’s day deeply acknowledged the importance of epic poetry, which was the predominant kind of literary fiction in that age. In fact, the narrative poetry of such poets as Homer and Hesiod, which told of the interactions of gods and men, was regarded with great reverence, and they considered such literature to be absolutely essential to education.

Plato, who was the great teacher of Aristotle as well as being the most influential disciple of Socrates, in his great dialogue on justice, called The Republic, suggests that the “lying poets” would have no place in the ideal society. Now, in modern times, people have sometimes misunderstood this assertion, interpreting it to this mean that Plato was against what he called poetry (what we might call “fiction”). Many of those same people offer a common, but simplistic and erroneous, characterization of the differences between Plato and his equally famous pupil, Aristotle:

  • Plato is interested in transcendent truth while Aristotle is more interested in “real life.”
  • Plato is focuses on the theoretical and abstract while Aristotle is concerned with the practical and concrete.
  • Plato says poetry is a dangerous pack of lies while Aristotle says poetry can be “philosophical” and make us wiser.

Like many over-simplifications, this one is misleading. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what Plato really did say about poetry (or at least poets) in The Republic. If you do so, you will find that he does not object to storytelling per se, nor does he dismiss fictional literature as just so many lies. In fact, what he objects to are the poets’ (e.g., Homer and Hesiod’s) depictions of the gods as being no better—and often much worse than—us mere mortals. It wasn’t the fiction he despised, but the lies. In fact, he could not (and would not) have written The Republic—his most famous and enduring philosophical work—if he did not believe in the powerful ability of “fiction” to show us truth.

The Myth of the Cave is all about learning to see the truth.

Plato’s Socratic Dialogues Are Works of Fiction

I make this claim because Plato chose a “fictional” format for virtually all of his philosophical treatises. Every one of them is written in the form of a dialogue, depicting fictionalized versions of Socrates and other real people as participants in a discussion of whatever the topic might be: justice, beauty, etc. These dialogues are like the real conversations in which Plato really participated when the real Socrates was still alive—but they are by no means transcriptions of real conversations. They are as carefully crafted as any poem. Why teach in this way? Partly because Plato wanted to pass on what he had learned from Socrates, who famously claimed that he had no wisdom of his own but hoped to become wiser by discussing things with others. The dialogue format allows and invites the reader to become a participant in the discussion, much as a young Athenian called Plato had listened in on such conversations himself.

I believe Plato wanted his students to learn the way he learned from Socrates. That is why his philosophical dialogues are modeled on the kind of discussions that Socrates regularly engaged in in real life. Typically, they portray the philosopher and his friends trying to get at the truth of some concept by starting with their own assumptions and then putting these to the test to see if they hold water. True to life, this method does not lead directly to a clean, clear view of the truth of the matter; rather, the dialogues often reach a point at which the interlocutors find themselves at loggerheads, unable to reach an agreement, but not really sure why. (If you’ve had a college philosophy class, you may recall that this kind of impasse is known, in Greek, as aporia). Some of Plato’s early philosophical dialogues end at precisely this point, leaving the reader to figure out why the discussion came to an unsatisfactory end or how the dialogue might have advanced had it been allowed to continue. The dialogue format, in other words, gets the reader imaginatively engaged in the discussion at hand, in such a way that s/he is likely to continue mental rumination after the reading has come to an end.

I remember the first time I read Plato’s Euthyphro, in which the title character is discussing with Socrates the nature of piety. Socrates almost succeeds in nudging Euthyphro to reach a good general definition of piety, when Euthyphro gets frustrated and throws in the towel, just a moment too soon. Reading that, I’m sure I must have groaned with frustration, because I knew he had quit at just the wrong moment—I wanted to shout after him as he walked away, “Come back! You were almost there!” At that moment, I could see what piety was, even if Euthyphro could not. (Don’t ask me—read the dialogue!)

By the time he wrote The Republic, Plato seems to have refined his use of the dialogue as a way to get at philosophical truth. Here, when Socrates’ interlocutors reach aporia, or deadlock, about the nature of justice, he doesn’t let them throw in the towel. Instead, Plato has Socrates say, “Well, why don’t we look at this another way . . .” They have been trying to define “justice in the soul” (i.e., how the individual can behave justly) when it becomes clear that they aren’t making much headway, so, to provide a fresh perspective, Socrates suggests that they widen the focus and try envisioning “justice in the city” (i.e., what a just society would be like).

Even here, the young interlocutors’ first attempt to create a just “city of words” (a made-up city that exists only in their imaginations) is not very good. But Socrates isn’t willing to let the matter go unresolved—these young men are, after all, the future civic leaders and need to have some idea of what a just society should look like. Therefore, to get them to give the matter more thought, he begins to suggest several features that such a just city would need to have in order to function. At each new suggestions, he waits to see if he can get his conversational partners to agree with each new idea before he moves on.

In this process of creating this imaginary “just city,” Socrates makes the startling assertion that the poetry of such literary giants as Homer and Hesiod should not be allowed to pollute the minds of schoolboys (a suggestion that Greeks of his day would have found very shocking). His reason is that such poets portray the gods behaving so unjustly that they make poor role models for young men destined to become the leaders upon whom the city will have to depend for its safety and good order.

Plato makes it pretty clear that the objection Socrates raises is not that all poetry corrupts but that lying poetry corrupts, by deforming our imagination. In other words, poetry (fiction) should lead the imagination closer to truth, should hold up models for us to emulate and present images that reflect truth. The Republic is not only a “made up story” itself, but also shows Socrates proposing many “made up stories” in order to get his points across. For instance, the famous “myth of the cave” (mythos being simply the Greek word which means “story”) is a kind of parable or analogy that Socrates uses to help his young friends see something that they were having trouble envisioning earlier—to see that “real life” can give us glimpses (but only glimpses) of ultimate truth.

The thing about parables, though, is that they are not necessarily self-explanatory. This is why Socrates tells them his parable and then explains what it means—much as Christ did with his own followers when he taught them in parables (see, for instance, Matthew 13). In other words, the made-up tale (or “myth”) is a way of conveying a truth that the young men could not grasp directly with their minds; another way of saying this is that they are not yet able to contemplate the truth (in the sense that Plato used that term), so he had to create an illustrative tale.

There are other instances of Socrates in The Republic using parables or “noble fiction” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, often translated “noble lies”) in order to instruct those who can’t grasp certain kinds of verities with their naked intellects. In each case, the fiction is meant to convey truth, and is intended for those who are not yet (and may never be) capable of grasping the truth with their unaided intellects. Aristotle undoubtedly, as a student of Plato, learned the value of these stories, and perhaps they helped shape his belief that poetry (fiction) can be “philosophical” (help its audience become wise).

Socrates and Plato were “red-pilling” people millennia before The Matrix.

We Will Always Need “Noble Fiction”

I think it is a great pity that our schools and universities no longer teach literature as a way of grasping universal truths about human nature, as presenting models from which we can learn. As a consequence, young people (and adults as well, for that matter) now have little or nothing to form their moral imaginations, while the culture at large feeds them a constant stream of images of violence and brokenness with no censure implied, intended, or allowed. We have lost the idea that truth is beautiful, or that the beautiful is true; instead, popular reading material (as well as television and film) is often tawdry and shallow, at best and full of ignoble lies—darkness, despair, and depravity—at its worst. “Realism” is offered instead of truth, and stories that show good people triumphing while wicked ones suffer are deemed “unrealistic” and untrue. And, sadly, flickering images on screens (like those in Plato’s “myth of the cave”) often substitute for books as modern people look for entertainment rather than edification or enlightenment.

Is there no one left to tell us “noble lies”? There are a few writers who still take seriously the challenge to write stories that embody great truths rather than mere realism or comfortable lies, but perhaps too few to woo potential readers away from the glowing screens that captivate their interest. I know that I myself often find that I return to the great (and the merely “good”) books of the past rather than waste time reading the trash that sells so well today.

If you know of a contemporary writer who writes good books—stories that are not only well-crafted but also morally enlightening—please leave a mention in the comment box below.

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