Plato and Aristotle on Art / by Chris Hall

Raphael da Urbino, The School of Athens (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Raphael da Urbino, The School of Athens (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Plato is not a big fan of art, and his works, particularly The Republic, are rife with complaints against it.  Plato thought all art was an imperfect imitation of nature, and that our perceptions of nature (remember that we are in Plato's cave, viewing the shadows of what is real on the wall) was already skewed and imperfect.  This makes art twice removed from perfection.  He did respect, however, the power art has in shaping people's thoughts and feelings, but he takes this respect to a dark place when he suggests that art should be regulated and censored by the wisest members of society, a ruling class of Philosopher Kings.  And what if these “wisest members of society” become corrupt?  And who decides who is the “wisest.”  Plato is in dangerous territory, and I can not follow him there.  I may distrust the masses, but I distrust the government and authority figures even more.  

Now, let's contrast Plato's perception of art with that of his student, the liberal Aristotle.  Aristotle thought art had the power to improve upon nature.  Aristotle also admired art's ability to persuade.  He thinks that art has the ability to convey universal truths, and that it can help us better understand our purpose and predicament.  If performed masterfully, Aristotle thought art could be a tool useful for inspiring people, for enlightening them on the consequences of foolish behavior, and that it could foster moral growth and the improvement of society.   No where in his writings does Aristotle promote censorship. 

Like Plato, I do believe that the wrong kind of art can be harmful for society, just as good art can be a benefit.   Because of the fallibility and subjectivity of human nature and aesthetic tastes, however, I can not ever support censorship.  And when used by the state, censorship can be an abusive tool for repression of political and personal freedom.  For these reasons, I will follow Aristotle's approach.