Plato on censorship  

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For Plato fiction is untruth and unworthy of a philosopher, see Plato on censorship

This page Plato on censorship is part of the mores series. Illustration: Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books") of the Catholic Church.
This page Plato on censorship is part of the mores series.
Illustration: Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books") of the Catholic Church.

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Censorship is the subject of several dialogues in The Republic, the major work of Greek philosopher Plato. His stance is perhaps summarized in Book II of The Republic by the phrase that "literature may be either true or false", i.e. true stories and fictions, Plato objects to the fictions as false.

In book Book II of The Republic Plato expresses his concern on the effect of these fictions on the young person:

And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?
We cannot.
Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded.
Of what tales are you speaking? he said.
You may find a model of the lesser in the greater, I said; for they are necessarily of the same type, and there is the same spirit in both of them.
Very likely, he replied; but I do not as yet know what you would term the greater.
Those, I said, which are narrated by Homer and Hesiod, and the rest of the poets, who have ever been the great story-tellers of mankind.
But which stories do you mean, he said; and what fault do you find with them?
A fault which is most serious, I said; the fault of telling a lie, and, what is more, a bad lie.
But when is this fault committed?
Whenever an erroneous representation is made of the nature of gods and heroes,--as when a painter paints a portrait not having the shadow of a likeness to the original.

Poets should not tell objectionable stories such as the story of the castration of Uranus.

... that greatest of all lies, in high places, which the poet told about Uranus, and which was a bad lie too,--I mean what Hesiod says that Uranus did, and how Cronus retaliated on him. The doings of Cronus, and the sufferings which in turn his son inflicted upon him, even if they were true, ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence. But if there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a chosen few might hear them in a mystery, and they should sacrifice not a common [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; and then the number of the hearers will be very few indeed.

Poets cannot say that God is the author of evil, "God is not the author of all things, but of good only":

And if a poet writes of the sufferings of Niobe--the subject of the tragedy in which these iambic verses occur--or of the house of Pelops, or of the Trojan war or on any similar theme, either we must not permit him to say that these are the works of God, or if they are of God, he must devise some explanation of them such as we are seeking; he must say that God did what was just and right, and they were the better for being punished; but that those who are punished are miserable, and that God is the author of their misery-- the poet is not to be permitted to say; though he may say that the wicked are miserable because they require to be punished, and are benefited by receiving punishment from God; but that God being good is the author of evil to any one is to be strenuously denied, and not to be said or sung or heard in verse or prose by any one whether old or young in any well-ordered commonwealth. Such a fiction is suicidal, ruinous, impious.

In Book III[1] we read that authors should be expurgated if the need is felt:

And we must beg Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we strike out these and similar passages, not because they are unpoetical, or unattractive to the popular ear, but because the greater the poetical charm of them, the less are they meet for the ears of boys and men who are meant to be free, and who should fear slavery more than death.

Book VIII mentions the actual expulsion of the poets from the ideal state[2]:

And therefore, I said, the tragic poets being wise men will forgive us and any others who live after our manner if we do not receive them into our State, because they are the eulogists of tyranny.

Further comments are given in Book X of The Republic, in the metaphor of the three beds, which again explains why poets and artists are of very little value, because what they do, making a representation of an ideal form, makes them three steps removed from the truth.

See also

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