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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I


Class 3: Gorgias and Plato


Reading Assignment:

    NATC Gorgias, Plato (NATC 29-85);

    At some point prior to reading Aristotle's Poetics students should read Oedipus the King

    Due: Post #2

Class Objectives:

  • Analyze Gorgia's "Encomium of Helen"
  • Analyze Plato's arguments against poetry in various excerpts
  • Discuss Paul Quigley's report on the Allegory of the Cave and Bob Batchelor's response


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 literature (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 literature or the arts?

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 Gorgia'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?


Plato's "Ion"

How does this excerpt answer the question: what is literature? What is Ion's relationship to literature?

What is the relationship between literature and knowledge here?


Plato's "Republic II and III"

In this argument for the proper education of the guardians, what objections to literature are expressed? What are the implications in terms of the role or effect of literature 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, but to what extent might you trace evidence of the conflict between philosophy and literature in it?


Plato's "Republic Book X"

This text constitutes one of the most damning condemnations of literature 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 literature? 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 literary criticism?

Note -- the standard for goodness, fineness and rightness is use. What are the implications of this?

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?

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 literature: "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 literature? 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 criticism?


Plato's "Phaedrus"

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 his ideas?

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?

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