Plato: Art & Morality


There are many different views on what Morality is, and on what Art is, as well as on how far the two relate and interact with each other. There are so many possible interpretations and versions of these concepts that for the sake of efficiently meeting its requirements, this essay will narrow its discussion of them to only encompass arguments within the sphere of western academic recognition.

 For the same reason, this essay will define morality simply as the rules and value of conduct; and art as representations and objects with aesthetic value.

 Traditionally Plato stands at the head of all arguments of the morality of art. In book two and three of his Republic Plato argues that art can affect the education, development, and character of individuals, especially young children, by impressing upon their minds different ideas and values.

 He argues “some tales are to be told, and others are not to be told to our disciples from their youth upwards, if we mean them to honour the gods and their parents, and to value friendship with one another.” Here Plato is arguing that in order to positively shape the character of young minds so that they become the ideal citizens, only certain art that encourages morally acceptable behavior should be allowed in society.

 Plato goes on to argue a parallel point that art and “artists are guilty of making the gravest misstatements when they tell us that wicked men are often happy, and the good miserable; and that injustice is profitable when undetected, but that justice is a man’s own loss and another’s gain –these things we shall forbid them to utter, and command them to sing and say the opposite” Here Plato is arguing that art that encourages immoral behavior should be banned from society. A modern application of this idea might be a ban on Gangster Rap that glorifies criminality, violence, intoxication, and many other forms immoral conduct. In this example Plato would argue that if young minds are exposed to, or allowed to sing gangster rap, even though the criminal activity might be fictional, by “imitating any kind of illiberality or baseness they may become what they imitate, because the imitation becomes a habit of mind and speech”.

 In both the arguments to compel artists and art to “express only images of good, and to prohibit them from exhibiting the opposite forms of vice and intemperance and meanness and indecency” the main moral concern is the affect of art on minds and development of the character of citizens. That a society where morally bad art is allowed the “soul’s of men are corrupted” and in a society where morally good art is allowed then its educating effect will “draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason”.

Plato makes another closely related, but much broader point about how all art in general, appeals to and encourages dangerous and violent emotions that disturb the mind. For Plato, good conduct equates to rational conduct, and so Morality is very closely allied with Rationality. For Plato “our guardians should not to be given to laughter. For a fit of laughter which has been indulged to excess almost always produces a violent reaction… (Fear of death inducing poems) may very possibly afford some amusement, but they do not conduce to temperance. And therefore they are likely to do harm to our young men.” Here Plato is arguing that emotionally disturbing art is immoral because it subverts the rational mind by inciting unhealthy emotions, and so all art is generally immoral.

 To this Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student has traditionally countered an opposing view in his Poetics. Aristotle argues that poetry, and art in general, in the context of being a representation and imitation, “springs from causes lying deep in out nature”. The first cause he gives is the instinct to imitate, which is how individuals “learn their earliest lessons” and feel the pleasure of learning. Aristotle makes an important point when he argues that “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” Here he seems to be arguing that even art that exhibits base or immoral things have an educative function: essentially that all forms of imitation, and so art, contribute to our education, regardless of how moral or immoral they maybe. Coming back to the modern example of Gangster Rap, Aristotle would argue that even Gangster Rap Artists serve to educate in what immorality actually is, and would perhaps argue, that they bring into greater relief what morality actually is.

 This argument goes some way to undermine Plato’s arguments for a ban on immoral art, but the power of Aristotle argument here, comes into bear when it is view in the context of Aristotle’s theory of morality. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he makes a case that morality equates with happiness and what is needed for happiness, which he argues is virtue, which he defines as the flourishing of an individual’s essential nature and the fulfilling their true function: ultimately the flourishing of their individual characters. For example a violinist’s happiness depends on her fulfilling her essential function and allowing her character to flourish, so if she didn’t develop her skills as a violinist, even if she trained and worked as a nurse or a nun, she would be acting immorally. In this context what is moral is what allows the character of an individual to flourish and develop its own essential virtues. In this light when Aristotle argues that all forms of imitation and art contribute to our learning, and so the development of our character, he is arguing all imitation and art is moral. When Plato defines moral value as that which aids the development of a certain type of social character he is effectively ignoring all the other types of character there are. In this way can this argument of Aristotle be seen to completely undermine Plato’s definition of moral value.

 Later on in his Poetic’s Aristotle makes another point that opposes Plato’s third argument that emotionally disturbing art is immoral because it undermines the rational mind. When Aristotle comes to speak of Tragedy, as an art form that inspires and excites the strong emotions of “pity and fear”, he defines it as having the integral principle of “Katharsis”: “effecting the proper purgation of these excessive emotions”. In essence he is arguing that emotionally affecting art, enables the individual appreciating to achieve and purge or purification of excess emotions; and that this an essentially positive effect on the individual. That the cathartic release of pent up tensions and emotions, such as unresolved grief, fear, hatred, etc re-balances the emotions of the individual. Aristotle seems to argue that rather than suppressing and ignoring out emotions to remain in rational control ourselves, it is better to embrace and actively engage them to keep them in balance. Intuitively this approach is a much more beneficial for the flourishing and development of character than simply suppressing those aspects of our character that are perhaps not the prime virtue of the individual. A modern example of the psychological benefit of catharsis to character development and the rebalancing and resolution of unresolved emotions is the practice of Family Constellation, where in actors are used to play out emotional scenes using the characters and issues pertinent to the unresolved emotions of the audience. Though strictly speaking Family constellations is a therapy technique and not aesthetic art, it is a form of imitation, and arguably the creation of specific art designed to induce catharsis in the specific individual that appreciate it.

 Besides Plato and Aristotle; who alternatively argue that Art has either a positive or negative moral value, there are more contemporary philosophers, such as Stolnitz and Kant and who argue moral value should not be taken into account when appreciating art.

 Kant argues that when we appreciate an experience or an object aesthetically we adopt an “aesthetic attitude”. For example when we are adopting an aesthetic attitude when we appreciate the beauty of a view from a mountain, of a grass valley, where vast flocks of sheep seem to drift in unity over distant hills, drifting higher and higher from the valley floor to catch the last rays of the fast shrinking sun patch cast by the setting sun as it slowly ducks and disappears behind western mountains to make the west face of snowy eastern mountains glow red. Crucially Kant argues that when we adopt such an aesthetic attitude, we perceive without motive; that is to say rather than having any intention or purpose that would interest us and focus our attention to find particular things that are relevant to those interests, we are appreciate the experience without narrowing our focus of it.

 Stolnitz explains this in his work the aesthetic attitude in terms of categories: that depending on the particular interests we have in the world, experiences, and objects, we have different ‘attitudes’ towards them.

Stolnitz claims when we look at something and we are interested judging its moral value, then we are adopting a moral “attitude”. For example a Christian reading the bible with an interest in the moral value of its content, is not fully aesthetically appreciating the bible, his attention is narrowed by his moral attitude.

Stolnitz claims when we look at something and we are interested in analyzing it, to find out facts and information about, then we are adopting a “cognitive attitude”. For example a detective looking at bronze statuette used as a murder weapon is interested in the facts of the object that could help find the murder, rather fully aesthetically appreciating the statuette.

 Stolnitz claims when we look at something and we are interested in assessing its functionality, its worth, its utility, we are in fact adopting a “practical attitude.” For example when Native American hunt and kill a beautiful deer, they are adopting a practical attitude in assessing how it can feed their tribe, rather on appreciating the grace and beauty of the creature itself.

 In all three cases when we have a practical, moral, or cognitive attitude we are assessing the particular details and qualities of a thing; selectively filtering our experience to see the details we are interested in: for example the phrase justice is blind, means that when an individual is being assessed by a judge in court, than the judge is adopting a strictly judicial attitude towards the individual and will actively ignore the individual details of the individuals gender, race, or class.

 In this way when Kant and Stolnitz argue when we adopt an aesthetic attitude so we can aesthetically appreciate something we are actually suspending all our others attitudes, they are arguing that moral judgments about art are not only irrelevant to its appreciation, but actively disrupt the appreciation of art.

 In conclusion it can be seen in Plato and Aristotle’s debate that Morality and Rationality are very closely linked, where as art and imagination are tied to the more emotional aspect of the human mind. Both Morality and Art are products of the human mind, and are things we have created to express our humanity; to critic one in the context of the other, is to lose this sense of them as originating from the same source, as different aspects of the same spectrum of human intelligence; where as to appreciate on in light of the other as reflections of our humanity, is to appreciate our own humanity, which I feel is all appreciation can mean.


 Aristotle. Niomanchean Ethics Translated by W. D. Ross 350BC

 Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher, 350BC

 Kant,  translated by James Creed Meredith 1790

 Plato. Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett 360 B.C.E Book 2,3.

 Stolnitz Jerome, ‘the Aesthetic Attitude’, in John Hospers, ed. Introductory readings in aesthetics. London: free press, 1960, pp.17-27

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