What Would Plato Say?

Posted on August 29th, 2010 by

Renowned Plato scholar Alexander Nehemas, writing for the New York Times philosophy blog ‘the Stone,’ wonders what Plato would have to say about the current debate over the impact of tv, movies, and video games on society. Plato’s Pop Culture Problem, and Ours.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a case that may have the unusual result of establishing a philosophical link between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Plato.

The issue is an old one: one side argues that video games shouldn’t receive First Amendment protection since exposure to violence in the media is likely to cause increased aggression or violence in real life.  The other side counters that the evidence shows nothing more than a correlation between the games and actual violence.

Plato knows how captivating and so how influential poetry can be but, unlike us today, he considers its influence catastrophic.  To begin with, he accuses it of conflating the authentic and the fake.  Its heroes appear genuinely admirable, and so worth emulating, although they are at best flawed and at worst vicious.  In addition, characters of that sort are necessary because drama requires conflict — good characters are hardly as engaging as bad ones.  Poetry’s subjects are therefore inevitably vulgar and repulsive — sex and violence.  Finally, worst of all, by allowing us to enjoy depravity in our imagination, poetry condemns us to a depraved life.

Both Plato and Arnheim ignored the medium of representation, which interposes itself between the viewer and what is represented.

This very same reasoning is at  the heart of today’s denunciations of mass media.

…to compare the “Iliad” or “Oedipus Rex” to “Grand Theft Auto,”, “CSI: NY,” or even “The Wire” may seem silly, if not absurd.  Plato, someone could argue, missed something serious about great art, but there is nothing to miss in today’s mass media.  Yet the fact is that Homer’s epics and, in particular, the 31 tragedies that have survived intact (a tiny proportion of the tens of thousands of works produced by thousands of ancient dramatists) did so because they were copied much more often than others — and that, as anyone familiar with best-selling books knows, may have little to do with perceived literary quality. For better or worse, the popular entertainment of one era often becomes the fine art of another.  And to the extent that we still admire Odysseus, Oedipus, or Medea, Plato, for one, would have found our world completely degenerate — as degenerate, in fact, as we would find a world that, perhaps two thousand years from now, had replaced them with Tony Soprano, Nurse Jackie, or the Terminator.

And so, as often in philosophy, we end with a dilemma: If Plato was wrong about epic and tragedy, might we be wrong about television and video games?  If, on the other hand, we are right, might Plato have been right about Homer and Euripides?


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  1. […] out the latest entry on the Classics blog. At issue: should violent video games be protected under the First […]