On the Danger of Poets and Noble Lies

July 12, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Poet, Minstrel, Muse, 2016

The shadow of Plato's Republic falls long across the imagination of western philosophy, theology, and spirituality. In it, Plato offers a vision of the good society centered in reason. In the well ordered polis, Philosopher-Kings and Guardians, attuned to the eternal forms far above the shadowy things of this material world, govern justly and order life benevolently for all.

In Plato's rationally ordered world, everyone has an assigned place, rank, and function. But curiously, the maintenance of this rationally ordered world also requires what Plato calls "a noble lie," a fiction created by the elite Guardians and taught to the masses to convince them to embrace their socially assigned place as natural, reasonable, and inevitable. The noble lie is a falsehood ostensibly generated and enacted in the interest of a greater good. The noble lie was a kind of propaganda that legitimated social rank and function by appealing to the different kinds of metal allegedly found in one's blood from birth. To step out of one's place was to deviate from one's metallic nature, to bend metal in unnatural and dangerous ways. Thus, the conflation of reason and social power were concealed by this "noble lie" internalized by the masses. [1]

What's also interesting is how suspicious Plato is of artists and poets. The good artists are craftspeople who should merely imitate in their art what they see in the world. Imitation rather than interpretation is the artist's calling. And curiously for Plato (but not for Aristotle after him), perceiving artistic beauty should be free of deep pleasure. Apparently, artists were to leave the heavy thinking of interpretation to the Philosopher-Kings, and all pleasure would eventually trickle down to the rest of us from their lofty heights. [2]

Having successfully house broken the visual artists, Plato turns to the poets and decides it better to banish them from his ideal republic. Poets are energized by the muses, those uncontrollable, mischievous agents of creativity with ties to the gods who disrupt things as they are, ignite the imagination to envision something new, different, and maybe even better. Poets traffic in metaphor, paradox, wordplay, lyric, story, riddle, and song, all of which are fraught with ambiguous meanings not easily wrestled to the ground by reason and good order, even when they are armed with the billy club of noble lies. [3]

When politics and community begin in reason but come to depend on noble lies to prop them up, whether in Plato's time or our own, there is cause for deep concern. Perhaps we in the United States have, in the interest of a reasonable and ordered society, embraced our own noble lie. We have asked women, the poor, people of color, Muslims, queer people, alienated working class white folk, and angry unemployed rural men, for example, to accept their marginalized rank and function as natural, inevitable, and reasonable.  Our rational society demands the ordering of power and privilege found in the status quo. Embracing the noble lie allows us to render invisible the suffering and injustice masked by reason.

The problem with noble lies is that they are always tenuous, and require the multiplication of more lies to secure themselves. And when noble lies are finally exposed, it brings deep turmoil and struggle. Such well-worn, well-told lies always die a slow, tortured death that brings forth hate, rage, and violence as part of the grief of losing them.

Perhaps the danger of the poets and untamed artists is that they will expose the noble lie and the naked pretenses of reason. Wild-eyed, word-slinging poets might fire the imagination of their hearers toward other possibilities. Metaphors without crisp meaning but charged with evocative power might expose the fragility and limits of reason itself and indict the noble lie. Beauty might not be about mere imitation. Beauty might be about subversion, about new and never-before-imagined possibilities seizing hearts and minds and calling forth radical change. Beauty might trangress and erase the well chalked boundaries that demarcated order and privilege in our polis. Beauty might rescue people from the delusion of rational control and its noble fibs, or it might stir people to die trying. Poets fraternize with revolutionaries. They are always among the first to be purged in totalitarian states.

Plato was right. Poets (and undomesticated artists) are dangerous because they represented a volcanic eruption from beyond the world of rational control and noble lies; poets traffic in surprise and wonder, playfulness and laughter, all of which are subversive. They expose the hidden fissures of reason and in so doing challenge the distribution of social power and the structures of privilege often legitimated by appeals to seamless reason and its noble lies. Art touches mystery and transcendence, evokes new imaginative possibilities for the world, and tangles a robust affirmation of the goodness of the world with an equally robust criticism of the falseness that tries to erase it. Artists love to make visible what is invisible. They love to bend the metal found in earthen mines and fleshly veins into new things.

Perhaps this is part of why we need artists and their creative work so desperately in our own current, conflicted cultural moment where fear is driving us to desperate measures to preserve a status quo that seems ever so rational. But as in Plato's Republic, what's rational often needs a well-crafted, noble lie to prop it up. But even well-crafted, noble lies are dissolved by the beauty of artists and poets, because in the end, the Beautiful is always also the True and the Good.

If it is true that in times like these we most need artists and beauty, then its equally true that in times like these both are often least welcomed. In seasons of social turmoil, we convert art into propaganda, enlisting it strategically for our narrow cause. Unlike genuine art, propaganda dictates a one-dimensional meaning, corralling its sheep toward an overly simplified vision demanding unquestioning loyalty. It is reductionist, strategic, and coercive. Its line from art to action is far too straight and direct. It's clean edges stand false against the real world of jagged-edged ambiguity.

And when art and beauty cannot be enlisted for the cause by the propagandist, they are attacked as bourgeois distractions, escapist forms of sentimentality that make us privileged folk feel good while keeping our distance from the fray and struggle for justice. If art cannot be for us in propaganda, then it must be against us as luxurious, bourgeois escapism.

But the line between art and action is never as straight as the propagandist would like it to be. Nor is it so crooked and labyrinthine as to leave us lost in a dream world of illusion and escape.

Genuine art is far more powerful than propaganda or escapism. Genuine art and beauty work their muse-filled grace on the deep structures of our imagination, opening us to wonder, awe, and previously unconsidered possibilities. They awaken longing for and delight in the particularity of what is seen. When we enter meaningfully and briefly into the strange, new world of a poem or other work of art, we find ourselves delightfully lost there for a while. It has absorbed us the way a good story absorbs a listening child, and in so doing we find that we have joyfully given up our desperate grasp on the world, at least for a little while. Art draws us out of ourselves and away from the petty, acquisitive, self-serving, self-justifying egocentrism that all too often governs our actions, even those so easily cloaked in righteousness and reason.

Long before art issues in particular actions, it shapes our identity, character, and our most basic affective and cognitive attunement to all things. Encounters with beauty and artistry can dissolve the false self governed by anxiety, fear, hatred, and control and awaken a new self attuned to its own creatureliness, the joy of connectedness with all Being, and the longing for and delight that comes from participating in the mystery of life through the ordinary things of life. Long before beauty changes our individual actions and strategies, it changes our identities by rewriting the grand narrative that frames all things and grants them larger meaning.

And now we are back to Plato. Plato did fear the poets because they were propagandists or escapists. He feared them not because they changed actions in the short term or siphoned off our moral energies in escapism. He feared them for the right reason. He feared them because traffickers in beauty can trouble the universe as currently known and arranged. Beauty unsettles and transforms us, deeply, radically, and totally but usually gently, slowly, and seductively. New actions, of course, may and usually do follow upon such deep renovations of consciousness, but they are almost epiphenomenal it. What the poets bring is a revolution of imagination long before there is a revolution of action.

In our age of fear and hatred, desperate messianic politics, terrorism, and the weekly slaughter of those strange, unreasonable "others" aimed at preserving "law and order" and rechalking the lines of conventionality morality and social power, perhaps what we most need is to listen to the poets and artists, and to the gods whose bidding they do.

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  1. Plato, The Republic. Trans. By C.D.C Reeve. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), chapter 3, especially pp. 99-100.
  2. Kathryn B. Alexander, Saving Beauty: A Theological Aesthetics of Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), pp. 14-15.
  3. Cecilia González-Andrieu, Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), pp. 18-21.

 


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