Authored by: Christopher Janaway

The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics

Print publication date:  April  2013
Online publication date:  April  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415782869
eBook ISBN: 9780203813034
Adobe ISBN: 9781136697142


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Plato's writings about the arts play a foundational role in the history of aesthetics, not simply because they are the earliest substantial contribution to the subject. The arts are a central, rather than a marginal topic for Plato, and for him the whole of culture must reflect and inculcate the values that concern him. His philosophy of art (as we would call it) is closely integrated with his metaphysics, ethics and politics. From a modern point of view two features are perhaps most striking. First, the arguments Plato gives to the characters in his dialogues contest the autonomous value that we might expect from what we call art, and in the most prominent cases refuse it such value altogether. For Plato the philosophical task is to uncover a metaphysical and ethical order to the world, and the arts can have true worth only if they correctly represent this order or help in aligning us with it. Yet at the same Plato the author often proceeds in an artistic manner: his language and imagery are frequently beautiful and expressive, he writes elaborate myths, and distances himself in sophisticated ways from the dramatic characters he portrays. Long ago Sir Philip Sidney called Plato “of all philosophers… the most poetical” (Sidney 1973: 107), to emphasize the urgency of understanding why he portrays poetry in such an antagonistic fashion. We shall examine in outline the major issues that a reading of Plato is likely to raise for modern aesthetics.

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