republic (books 6 - 10)
awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and im-
pairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to
have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the
soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil
constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no
discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at
one time great and at another small--he is a manufacturer of
images and is very far removed from the truth.
But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in
our accusation: the power which poetry has of harming even
the good (and there are very few who are not harmed), is
surely an awful thing?
Yes, certainly, if the effect is what you say.
Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we
listen to a passage of Homer or one of the tragedians, in which
he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows
in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast--the best
of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in
raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings
Yes, of course, I know.
But when any sorrow of our own happens to us, then you
may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality--
we would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and
the other which delighted us in the recitation is now deemed
to be the part of a woman.
Very true, he said.
Now can we be right in praising and admiring another who
is doing that which any one of us would abominate and be
ashamed of in his own person?
No, he said, that is certainly not reasonable.
Nay, I said, quite reasonable from one point of view.
What point of view?
If you consider, I said, that when in misfortune we feel a
natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping
and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under con-
trol in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the
poets; the better nature in each of us, not having been suffi-
ciently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic ele-
ment to break loose because the sorrow is another's; and the
spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in
praising and pitying anyone who comes telling him what a good
man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks
that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious
and lose this and the poem too? Few persons ever reflect, as I
should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of
evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sor-
row which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes
of others is with difficulty repressed in our own.
How very true!