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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 34-48

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The Poetics of Plato's Republic: A Modern Perspective

Dorrit Cohn

As everyone knows, in Plato's Republic Socrates banishes Homer and the other poets from his ideal city. This proposal has prompted Hans-Georg Gadamer to write: "Probably nowhere else has a philosopher denied the value of art so completely and so sharply contested its claim . . . to reveal the deepest and most inaccessible truths." 1 Socrates' shocking proscription has tended to blunt the echoes that sound for an attentive modern reader from the arguments on which it depends in Books III and X of the Republic. My intention in this essay is to focus less on his proscriptive than on his descriptive poetics, with a view to assessing in what ways it anticipates certain theoretical positions applied to literature in our own time: first those variously associated with narrative theory; then those of a psychoanalytic approach to literary reception; finally those related to modern anti-aesthetic tendencies.


In Book III, when Socrates passes from objecting to Homer's content to objecting to his form, he introduces the terms logos and lexis: "So this concludes the topic of tales [logôn]. That of diction [lexeôs], I take it, is to be considered next. So we shall have completely examined both the matter and the manner of speech [kai hêmin ha te lekteon kai hos lekteon]" (392 C). 2 It is hardly surprising that at this point his interlocutor is unable to follow him--"And Adeimantus said, 'I don't understand what you mean by this.'" For Socrates has just done something that had never been done before: he distinguished the "how" from the "what" of narration. [End Page 34]

This distinction was not drawn again for more than two millenia--not until the early twentieth century, when the Russian Formalists introduced the fabula-sjuzhet dichotomy. Partitioning the realm in this manner became an essential conceptual tool for the modern poetics of narrative, with all formalist-structuralist approaches importantly based on the separation between the events presented by a text and the way these events are presented. Nowadays what Socrates called logos and lexis in the passage quoted above goes by the names of histoire and narration (for Gérard Genette and other francophone critics), "story" and "discourse" (for Seymour Chatman and other anglophone critics).

How important the logos-lexis separation is to Socrates at this moment of the Republic may be gauged from his reply to Adeimantus' puzzlement: "Well, . . . we must have you understand" (392 D). Indeed it is on his auditor's clear comprehension of the different manners in which the same events can be told that his entire upcoming rationale for excluding certain kinds of poetry from the ideal city will depend. What he now explains to Adeimantus is that there are three alternative ways of telling a story: "by pure narration [haplêi diêgêsei] or by narrative that is effected through imitation [dia mimêseôs], or by both" (392 D). He illustrates this by referring to the famous beginning of the Iliad--the scene where the priest Chryses entreats Agamemnon to release his daughter--and by then proceeding to retell this scene in a different way: whereas, in the Homeric text, the poet speaks "as if he were himself Chryses" (393 B), in Socrates' retelling of the same scene the poet speaks "still as Homer" throughout (393 D). He effects this change by rendering Chryses' entreaty not directly (as in Homer), but indirectly, so that "without imitation simple narration results [aneu mimêseôs haplê diêgêsis gignetai]" (394 B).

The kind of paradigmatic textual experimentation here practiced by Socrates became a favorite demonstrative device for modern narratologists. One of them, Gérard Genette, features this passage from the Republic in his Narrative Discourse, where it introduces the section entitled "Distance." Genette's categories under the heading "Narrative of Words" in fact closely follow the Socratic dichotomy of "pure narration" versus "narrative that is effected through imitation," except that he...


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