John Koethe, “Book X”

1. The last book of Plato’s Republic confuses me too. Why does it critique imitation and poetry? What I understand of the Republic I understand in relation to its characters. Glaucon, who wanted a proof that justice is good for one, falls in love with the city in speech. The guardian class – stronger, more disciplined, smarter than everyone else – is his fascination. To create the guardians, poetry had to be cleaned up in a much earlier book (Book 2).

Between that book and the last book, a number of things happen that don’t seem to concern poetry at all. Justice is found to be “minding your own business;” a philosopher-king must rule the city; philosophy is discussed with the famous images of the sun, line and cave; a long digression on the decline of various regimes follows where democracy is one degree away from tyranny. How any of this adds up is an open question. But especially mysterious is bringing up imitation, the basis of poetry, and critiquing it in the last book.

Two things strike me as worth noting. First, “imitation” is related to images, particularly that of a couch. That recalls the city of pigs which Glaucon rejected; it lacked couches, yet everyone lived happily there because there was no ambition. Second, the myth of Er the Republic ends with is ultimately how Glaucon is moderated. Glaucon asks a serious question in wanting justice to be simply good. But we know from Xenophon – from a passage I’m writing on, in fact: Memorabilia III.6 – that Glaucon was a glory hog who thought going to war for every last penny was the most amazing thing ever. Socrates, in the myth of Er, brings forth the possibility of judgment in an afterlife.

2. Some might look at Koethe’s meditation and wonder if he has the wrong problem. After all, he hasn’t sufficiently established the context of Book X. I think that trivializes his concerns. He’s turned to Plato because he’s wondering about the power of truth. What does it mean that one can make something utterly ridiculous – Achilles fights a river in his rage – and it can speak to the human condition? Are we ever really speaking to the human condition, or just dealing in images?

I’ve been wondering about this myself, especially from the notion that certain “ridiculous” things just work from an aesthetic standpoint, while others don’t. For example: I’m playing League of Legends right now. Among the Sir Steroid knights and ninjas that all look super serious, there’s a character called the “Sad Mummy.” He literally cries and slows other champions down with his area of effect attack. Then he uses his bandage attack and wraps up and opponent and headbutts them. League of Legends obviously does not speak to the human condition. But it is fun. And a talented writer might be able to do something with the backstories of the champions that turns out to be compelling and thoughtful.

Koethe moves to two other issues. In contemporary poetry, we give voice to who and where we are. We’re a part of a whole that is a part. There is nothing automatically truthful about this which makes poetry legitimate. In fact, it depends on perspective – we’re back to images. Ask us questions about who we idolize even in our best moments and we get awfully corny. Koethe initially doesn’t go this direction; he treats the knowledge of/from identity as knowledge simply. He’s forced to something like my reasoning when asking about whether people in other ages thought differently.

Thus he wonders about consciousness. Consciousness leads to his most powerful and yet too reductive line: I write the way I do because I want it to exist. Poetry, for him, ends up in self-doubt. The poems of today might be more philosophical in trying to give voice to various experiences – that’s at least what I infer from the social, “factive” description of knowledge. His quoting of the Phaedo, where Socrates has conscious experiences of physical numbing before he dies, makes Socrates and Plato less poets and more people who want to confront reality, who are literally sensitive to the changes around them in their physical, worldly being.

3. I don’t typically take this “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” thing too seriously. I don’t really think it exists for Plato – he is writing dramas of a particular sort, after all – but now that Koethe’s brought it up, I think the surface of the text has to be given its full due. To be clear: the genres we write in, the way we investigate things, what we relate to – that’s all at stake when we want to find possibilities of meaning or give voice to ourselves or someone else. Plato did want a philosophical drama of sorts to displace some of the most thoughtful and interesting work to come from Athens (Aristophanes in particular). It isn’t enough to be thoughtful. One has to be right and one has to advance a good. For all its problems, philosophy as Socrates conceived it is clear about where we will end up.