Why Literary Suffering Made Plato Nervous

Raphael, "School of Athens"

Raphael, “School of Athens”

My faculty reading group is currently discussing philosopher Elizabeth Spelman’s very interesting Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering (Beacon Press, 1997). Spelman explores how we respond to suffering and examines Plato’s and Aristotle’s handling of Greek tragedy. It makes sense that the two would focus on literature. Composing stories, after all, is one way we try to make sense of pain.

Spelman identifies three ways that we regard people who suffer. We see them either as (1) the subjects of tragedy, (2) the objects of compassion, or (3) what she calls “spiritual bellhops,” which is to say, people who carry the experience of suffering in ways that others can benefit from. Her book is about the drawbacks of seeing suffering in each of these three ways. In her chapter “Good Grief! It’s Plato,” she talks about how Plato objected to the way that Homer and that Greek tragedy depict people who suffer.

Theater, Spelman notes, makes Plato nervous. He worries that there is a “seductive pull of grief” that can cause people to act irrationally. Plato, of course, wants his ideal republic to be governed by reason and is therefore suspicious of poets, who stir up audience’s emotions on behalf of those who suffer and who therefore, potentially, can prompt them to act emotionally and irrationally. As Spelman points out, Plato wanted to

[d]islodge Homer and the tragic poets—suffering mavens if ever there were—as the educators of Athenians. But he did not try to tell new stories about the old heroes and heroines. He appears, on the contrary, to have tried to get rid of the stories altogether.

Before too readily dismissing Plato here (although ultimately I think we must on this point), we can acknowledge what makes him nervous. Think, for instance, of a pernicious but powerful film like Birth of a Nation, whose gripping story was used to stoke racist fears and contributed to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Plato was suspicious of stories because he understood that they had power. As Spelman notes,

Indeed, when it comes to grief, Plato appears to have been the spoilsport of fourth-century Athens. He seems to have drawn the curtain in front of the grand dramas of human suffering, those almost morbidly seductive tales about human misery and the human species’ indefatigable attempts to make it intelligible. Readers of the Republic are meant to learn that tantalizing spectacles of humans sabotaging themselves [think Oedipus] or doing in their loved ones [think Medea] are bound to trigger grief, for which there is little place in the well-ordered soul and the well-ordered state.

Spelman’s framing of Plato reminds me why I am more attracted to literature than philosophy, having found the latter, at least in its pure state, to be too arid.  Although truth be told, I am for both/and rather than either/or. Rather than banishing poets from the Republic, Plato should have explored ways in which poets and philosophers could work together. After all, reason without passion is as empty as passion without reason.

My sense of Plato, as I read Spelman, is that he is suspicious of the ways that, in weeping for suffering characters, we are actually weeping for ourselves. I acknowledge that this is indeed an area of concern. Here’s Spelman again:

Plato is worried about the powerful, complicated effects such portrayals of grief have on their audiences. On the one hand, he says, audiences tend to react with pleasure: we “feel pleasure, and abandon ourselves and accompany the representation [of suffering and grief] with sympathy and eagerness, and we praise as an excellent poet the one who most strongly affects us in this way” [Republic, Book 10]. The pleasure presumably is due to the audience’s delight not in what the hero finds grievous but in the feeling of sympathy for the aggrieved hero and in the ability of the poet to affect the audience so powerfully.

Instead of connecting with the suffering subject, as Plato sees a distance arising as audience members sink into themselves:

This pleasure seems to presuppose a kind of distance between the hero and the member of the audience: the hero is suffering greatly but the audience is filled with delight. At the same time—and this is why the effects of mimetic poetry are so complex—what Plato finds disturbing about the power of such poetry is that the pleasure produced in the members of the audience strengthens their willingness to yield to their own grief. The pleasure they take in the representation of the pain of another strengthens the part of them that would grieve for themselves. This “plaintive part” of the soul by its very nature hungers for “tears and a good cry and satisfaction”; it shamelessly praises and pities “another who, claiming to be a good man, abandons himself to excess in his grief.” If we take pleasure in seeing another grieve, then we will not restrain our own grief, for we will take pleasure also in our own grieving: “For after feeding fat the emotion of pity there, it is not easy to restrain it in our own sufferings.”

This in turn takes us into dangerous womanly areas:

Such pleasure in our own grieving is dangerous, Plato insists, because the heaving grieving we praise in the theater is “that of a woman”; it is unbecoming for noble men to allow themselves to give in to such grief. It undermines their capacity to “remain calm and endure” when “affliction comes” in their real lifes.

In short the great tragic scenes make grief seductive—even for those who know better—by highlighting and underscoring the pleasures of grief. Members of the audience presumably are not pleased by the sufferings of the hero, but they are pleased by the chance to satisfy their desire to wail and shed tears. Mimetic poets know all too well how to appeal to the part of us that grieves, “that leads us to dwell in memory on our suffering and impels us to lamentation, and cannot get enough of that sort of thing…the irrational and idle part of us, the associate of cowardice.”

Mimetic poets are dangerous because they strengthen the power of this irrational part of the soul over the rational.

If stories were only an emotional bath, then they would indeed pose some of the dangers that Plato describes. Or at least, they would plunge us into our own emotional narcissism. There are plenty of bad stories—I’m thinking of Harlequin romances and vigilante revenge novels—that do exactly this. But great literature (and I include both Homer and the great Greek tragedies in this category) don’t only evoke suffering but also structure the experience in such a way that we can achieve a deeper understanding of it. Plato doesn’t appear to be aware of this. In fact, I would argue that the philosophic understanding goes deeper if has an emotional component. Pure reason will not take us as far.

Plato’s view of grief as womanly shows that his social hierarchy has carried over into his handling of suffering. In his view, womanly emotion must ultimately give way to manly reason. I propose instead a more egalitarian relationship where each makes its contribution.

Spelman defends Plato in one area, however. When we see sufferers as the subject of tragedy, in one regard we do indeed betray them and fail “to live in accordance with our best selves.” As Gerald Manley Hopkins puts it in a poem addressed to a grieving Margaret, “It is Margaret you mourn for.” Crying for ourselves rather for than the sufferer, Plato says, “blinds us to the causes of human suffering, keeps us from doing anything useful about preventing futher occasions of it, and indulges rather than checks or reduces our appetite-like capacity for grief.”

Maybe we could say, it’s good to cry but don’t lose sight to the sufferer.

Tune in tomorrow to see what Aristotle has to say on the subject.

Further thoughts

Last week I taught Euripides’ Bacchae, which could be read as a poetic counterattack on the stifling intellectualism of philosophers like Socrates and Plato (although it appeared 25 years before The Republic). The worship of Dionysus involves ecstatic immersion in the passions–leading the ceremonies were wild women–and Pentheus is punished by the god for trying to rigidly maintain social order and rational control. The seer Teiresias even labels Pentheus’s efforts to control human nature as a kind of madness. What is needed is a balanced respect for both the rational Apollo and the passionate Dionysus. After all, both, as Euripides points are, are sons of Zeus.

Follow-up response:

Barrett Emerick, my philosophy colleague who suggested we read Spelman’s book, had this to say about today’s post:

I really enjoyed your discussion and found especially important your observation that “Plato should have explored ways in which poets and philosophers could work together. After all, reason without passion is as empty as passion without reason.”  For what it’s worth, I really like something philosopher Tom Regan says, comparing philosophy to dancing.  In the latter, all we see is the passion (in the performance); what is left out are the hundreds or thousands of hours of labor that went into it.  He calls on philosophy to take a cue and aim for “disciplined passion,” which I’ve found very useful.  I’ve intentionally, for the last year, been reading poetry with the hope that it would influence my scholarship!  I think that poets and philosophers CAN work together as you call on us to do!  And I think we are in our reading group, for which I’m very grateful.

Follow-up to the follow-up, by Elizabeth Applegate, French teacher and member of faculty reading group

Robin, I’m so glad to see your posts on the Spelman book and on our reading group.  I agree with both you and Barrett that, as scholars and as people, we are better served when we tend to the workings of both reason and passion.  And, as Barrett suggested in referencing Tom Regan, I can’t imagine philosophy without passion, nor literature without reason.  This is why I find Nussbaum’s reading of Aristotle so compelling: Art can teach us about the world and about human nature by awakening our cognitive and our affective responses.  It’s not that catharsis is an overwhelming flood of uncontrollable emotion (as it is often understood to be), but rather that emotional and intellectual attachment to a character can help us to clarify our values and to more carefully make choices that are informed by both reason and passion.  

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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