Plato, Aristotle, and Horace in Context

        When reading excerpts from classical philosophy like those we have assigned, you may be puzzled by what the speakers take for granted. Like anything extracted from its origins, these passages will become much less easy to interpret reliably (and more like the "lift the seat" exercise) in those circumstances. Here are some crucial facts about the times in which these three writers were working.

Plato, 4th Century BCE Athens ("Ion," and The Republic, Chapters III and X)

        Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and Plato’s dialogues and "The Republic" purport to chronicle Socrates’ conversations with various Athenians as he pursued wisdom, which he came to define as "knowledge of the good." The dialogues, which were written first, record Socrates in the act of interrogating men from every major social type to expose their ultimate ignorance of "the good." Most of them are limited by their professions, like Ion the rhapsode (we'd say "rock star"), Gorgias the sophist (we’d say "lawyer" or "speechwriter"), or Laches the general (some things never change). The Republic records Socrates’ attempt to lead his pupils to design an ideal city run by "guardians" who are trained philosophers, raised from birth to govern.

        Socrates’ investigation occurs at an interesting point in Greek history. Athens is a democratic city-state, run by the votes of its eligible male citizens in frequent assemblies. No women voted, or participated significantly in public culture, though we have records of some Greek (non-Athenian) women poets from the 5th through the 3rd centuries BCE. Non-Greeks (xenoi or "strangers," and barbaroi, non-Greek-speakers) also did not vote, though they might trade and speak publicly. Thus, the effect of poets (esp. dramatists) on the minds of each individual male voter’s mind was of significant concern to Plato.  In a single day, speakers at an assembly could (and did) persuade the city to declare war, and the next day, another speaker might persuade them to make peace. Athens also was threatened with destruction by the totalitarian empire of Persia, and debates about how to deal with the Persians frequently occupied the citizens. Because of this threat, Athenian battle tactics began to emphasize sea power using ships powered by massed banks of rowers and an expanded reservoir of soldiers drawn from non-aristocratic families.  These men were given voting rights to encourage their military service, but that destabilized the old power structure.  The old aristocrats who used to be the only legal voters now were joined by hundreds of artisans, craftsmen, warship rowers, and others whose participation in the electorate was altering voting patterns and changing the kinds of literature produced in the city.  Words and the truth became overpoweringly important to philosophers like Plato and Socrates.

Aristotle, 4th Century BCE Athens (Poetics)

        Aristotle was Plato’s student, and he took many of Plato’s basic methods for defining literature for granted. However, Aristotle’s main emphasis was on the poet’s craft, and he tended to treat poetry (especially the drama) as having the potential for a very positive, even crucial role in the city’s survival. The poet’s power to sway the citizens’ minds was something Aristotle accepted because he believed poets could control, by art, how audiences received their works.

        The "medicinal" role of literature, especially drama, was one of Aristotle’s great concerns. The Greek city-states often built theaters in complexes with athletic stadia and medical facilities or "Aesculepia" (as at Epidaurus, Ion’s home town), and patients awaiting the healing dreams of the god Aesculepias often viewed dramatic performances (and athletic competitions) to prepare themselves for their healing encounters. Aristotle tried to explain systematically how the tragic drama, especially, brought to bear upon its audience a crisis of identification with the doomed protagonist so that they might be purged, by a combination of pity and fear, of their excesses. Because Aristotle was Alexander’s boyhood tutor, and Alexander’s armies spread Greek culture from the Italian peninsula to India, both Aristotelian thinking and the Poetics’ approach to literature became widely distributed.

Horace, 1st Century CE, Rome (Epistle II.3, the "Ars Poetica")

        Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) was the client of the wealthy Roman businessman and political insider, Maecenus. Horace published famous odes and satires, but among his second collection of poetic letters ("epistles") was this letter to the Piso brothers, a wealthy man’s sons who were interesting in picking up a little poetry to round out their education. Horace’s advice to them concentrates (following Aristotle) on techniques for producing poetry, including drama, which will succeed with its audience.

        Rome, by this time, is entering the greatest age of its empire’s wealth and political security. The male aristocrats who run the empire, with nodding respect for the general population’s opinion, tend to view literature as entertainment. History might be dangerous writing, but lyrics and drama only have power in the sense that they might corrupt the morals of the young. Horace, though not rich himself, must serve the rich to live. He respects the Greeks as previous masters of artistic techniques and sources for plot material, but their values seem somewhat quaint to him. (He’s been in conversations with a stoic philosopher, but he’s too much of a city guy to be persuaded to give up the pursuit of pleasure.) His rules tend to appeal to "common sense," i.e., the norms of the Romans he sees every day, and to maintenance of literary traditions he has inherited from the Greeks. Between Horace and Aristotle, the canon is well on its way to being formed. Horace’s letter became known as the "Ars Poetica" or "Art of Poetry," as an honorific title, suggesting its readers believed it was the ultimate statement of literary criticism.