Criticism and Theory I
Class 3: Gorgias and Plato
Analyze Gorgia's "Encomium of Helen"
Analyze Plato's arguments against poetry in various excerpts
Respond to Chrissy Augur's and Micheal Taber's reports on the Allegory of the Cave
The readings for this week take us to the beginnings of Western thought and the foundational
arguments. We will explore the competing views of rhetoric (good or false), the conflict
between poetry and philosophy. For each consider the questions that will guide our explorations this
semester: how does each define poetry (or rhetoric for Gorgias)? What is interpretation in these
paradigms? Also what reasons might these arguments pose for the fear and trivialization of what we
now call poetry or the arts? (Following Perloff's reasoning, I am trying to avoid the use of the term
literature, both because it is more modern than the texts we are considering this semester, and because
as a category it seems raise unanswerable questions, such as "what counts as literature?")
Notes and Discussion Questions:
Gorgias, "Encomium of Helen"
What is the subject of Gorgia's speech? What is its purpose? What point does he make?
Evaluate Gorgias's arguments in terms of rhetoric. What assumptions does he make about rhetoric?
What role does audience play in this piece? That should be considered both on the level of auditor
in his argument and the audience for his speech.
According to Gorgias, what properties does speech have and how might that conflict with a didactic
goal or interpretation?
Is it possible to do a feminist critique of Gorgia's "Encomium"? What might it look like?
How does this excerpt answer the question: what is poetry? What is Ion's relationship to poetry?
What is the relationship between poetry and knowledge here?
Plato's "Republic II and III"
In this argument for the proper education of the guardians, what objections to poetry are expressed? What
are the implications in terms of the role or effect of poetry on the audience?
What is the goal of education here? What do grace, goodness, beauty and love have to do with this?
Plato's "Republic Book VII"
The Allegory of the Cave is fundamentally about the process of acquiring knowledge. Can you interpret the
allegory? To what extent might you
trace evidence of the conflict between philosophy and poetry in it?
Plato's "Republic Book X"
This text constitutes one of the most damning condemnations of poetry in Western thought, and many writers later
will confront it directly or indirectly. It is essential that you understand it.
What is Plato's theory of poetry? Why is poetry banished from the Republic?
How does Socrates imagine the audience for Homer in Book X? (Is this significantly different from the ideas expressed
in Ion and Book II and III?) What are the auditors capable of? How might you use Plato's arguments here to make a case
for the need for criticism?
Note -- the standard for goodness, fineness and rightness is use. What are the implications of this?
At the heart of this theory lies the fundamental understanding of representation. What is representation?
What does a representer (poet) know? How does 'he' know what to represent?
Plato's attack on poetry has many angles. How might these arguments operate in today's antagonism toward
the humanities? To what extent does the Republic represent alternating fear and trivialization of poetry?
why does Plato maintain that poetry "has a terrifying capacity for deforming even good people" (78)?
Note that irrational grief is only allowed to women, and that with qualifications. In what ways does this
set up gendered values for art and criticism?
On page 79, Plato analyzes the psychology of poetry: "You see few people have the ability to work out that we
ourselves are bound to store the harvest we reap from others; these occasions feed the feeling of sadness
until it is too strong for us easily to restrain it when hardship occurs in our own lives" (79). What
assumptions does this make about the effect of poetry? How accurate is the psychology?
In the end, Socrates raises the possibility that a poet might respond to this condemnation and thus recite an age
old argument between poetry and philosophy. He quickly offers three quotations that might belong to this response.
Can you make an argument from the poet's perspective based on these brief quotations?
Under what conditions would they allow poetry to return to the Republic? Does this open up room for literary
Think about the implications of this argument against writing (and its effect on memory) in terms of writing as
technology. This will return when we discuss the impact of print. How might the argument apply to digital writing?
Plato - General
What are the grounds for censorship that Plato offers in his writings? What specific examples does he use to support
How does the representation of the theory of knowledge change or differ in these writings by Plato?
Do the dialogues present an unambiguous conclusion? What possibilities does the dialogue form open? What
are the implications?
Perloff credits Plato with the foundation of a poetics in which poetry possesses the "potential expression of truth and knowledge" (7).
To what extent do you see this theory of poetry at work and what might be the implications for the reader of poetry?
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