Saturday, January 03, 2009

Plato Would Condemn Soaps

I've talked at length before about Plato and censorship (e.g.: one, two, three). The aim is not to settle questions about freedom and limits of speech but to show that the measures spelled out in the Republic are not completely crazy and, in fact, are reflected in a number of contemporary concerns.

Myles Burnyeat's Tanner Lectures are, I think, really great at showing how Plato's concern is the pervasive effect that society's mass art has on its culture. You have to remember that banning or censoring Homer would not just be like applying such treatment to Shakespeare - Homer was a staple of education, but also part of mainstream culture and entertainment. Burnyeat interprets the allegory of the Cave as a statement about how most people are not only detached from higher reality (the Forms), but enthralled by the shadows and images of poets.

If he was alive today, Plato's concerns would no doubt extend to TV. Bupa has recently condemned soaps that portray characters living unhealthy lifestyles - drinking, smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise - without suffering the likely health consequences. This is a very similar concern to Plato's: he criticizes stories that, essentially, show that cheats prosper, rather than portraying the real effects of injustice - which he likens to an illness of the soul. In both cases, the worry is that members of the public will be led into bad habits by popular media that portray the benefits of vice without the cost.

(I am not, of course, suggesting that Bupa want to censor soaps; merely that they share a similar concern. They suggest that scriptwriters should include stories emphasizing the harms of unhealthy lifestyle; Plato prefers to excise cases where the unjust profit - the result is much the same).

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At 2:40 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How strange, I'd had exactly the same thought on reading that piece about soaps. Burnyeat's Tanner lecture on the subject really is marvellous, but Jonathan Lear's 'Myth and Allegory in Plato's Republic' in Santas, G. (ed.) The Blackwell Guide to Plato's Republic is almost as insightful.

At 5:19 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

OK; Marx and Nozick are both concerned about exploitation in contemporary welfare-state capitalism, so as long as one of them's not crazy about that, neither of them can be. Plato's mad. He's not mad because he worries about the effects of cultural artefacts on those who consume them; he's mad because of the particular effects he is concerned by, and because of the measures he is prepared to take to remove them.

At 11:18 pm, Blogger Ben said...

Thanks for the recommendation Nakul, I'll try to check it out.

Rob: I guess maybe the problem is you calling everyone that you disagree with 'crazy'. I'm not trying to defend Plato as being right or even sensible here. My concern, given that I may be lecturing on this this year(!), is to be able to explain Plato's concerns in a way that are somewhat understandable. If I could show that he differed from many contemporaries only in degree rather than kind, then I think that would be a big step towards making his ideas make sense.

At 11:39 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this piece rather useful as well:

(See the George Steiner quotation for a very eloquent version of the same sort of worry about the effects of the arts on the soul as drives Plato's argument)

At 10:51 am, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I suppose I don't think he does differ only in degree, which I guess is what if - chance'd be a fine thing - I'd try and get across if I had to lecture on him. Also, note that a) I'm now calling him mad, not crazy, and b) I'm calling him mad, not the claim he makes. Usually, I say that the claim is crazy, not the person in question (which is not a defence of doing so).


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