Events Worth Sharing – Plato and the Arts, by Prof. Joe Friggieri

The Classics always fascinated me, probably since reading ‘Percy Jackson’ which instigated my liking towards certain areas of it, especially mythology. A few months ago, my mother informed me about a course the Malta Classics Association were doing during summer, which, without hesitation, I applied for, simply for the fun of it. Simultaneously, at school, I took philosophy as an intermediate subject with the encouragement of my father, which I have been grateful for ever since. Recently, an event appeared on my Facebook feed: the Malta Classics Association hosting a Platonic lecture regarding his theories on the Arts, delivered by Prof. Joe Friggieri.

I immediately hovered my cursor over the ‘Going’ icon, and clicked it, since this was the best hybrid of my two most favourite subjects, in which I knowingly lack a lot of knowledge. This was an opportunity to learn more and I took it.

Upon arriving at the Malta National Library in Valletta, I was rather impressed. Unfortunately, I had never been there, and I was taken aback by the beauty of this accumulation of dusty knowledge and history in one place. When I was young I dreamt of having an old-fashioned library in my own house with the walls plastered with books, sitting next to each other, like I had probably read of in some Enid Blyton book. Admittedly, it is quite a far-fetched dream, however, this temporarily quenched my desire.

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A few minutes after sitting down, surrounded by written walls of intellect and intellectuals themselves, I felt evermore overwhelmed, being self-aware of my ignorance and inferiority. However, the point of this lecture was precisely to counteract this ignorance and attempt to replenish this lacuna as much as possible. Prof. Joe Friggieri, the epitome of intellect in such areas of knowledge, and one of the most famous Maltese philosophers, delivered a highly interesting speech. Despite his voice being rather muffled and having to crane my neck, as my ears struggled to catch every single word he said, it was extremely enjoyable and enlightening.

The focus of Prof. Friggieri’s speech was Plato’s ‘The Republic’ as he discussed how Plato scorned the fine arts, a subset of what the Greeks called techne (τέχνη), especially poetry and painting. This is rather paradoxical, as Plato himself engaged himself in poetic, beautiful writing as he wrote his works. Hence, if for Plato speech was superior to writing, one might say he contradicted himself, up to a certain extent. One must keep in mind that Plato’s work is heavily influenced by Socrates, or rather, a lot of the dialogues he wrote were in fact Socrates’ spoken words that Plato recorded. Socrates, in fact, never wrote any of his work himself and all that remains of him is through the writing and word of others.

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A particular reason why speech is superior, according to Plato, is that when writing, one cannot contradict, ask or form a dialogue with the absent author. Furthermore, he believed that the youth in particular should rely on their memory, not writing notes. Writing is the enemy of memory, as he stated in The Phaedrus.

Friggieri later briefly mentioned the story of the god Theuth, or Ammon, who offers the king Thamus the gift of letters, in the attempt to make the Egyptians wiser and less forgetful. However, this does not happen, as writing “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves”, states King Thamus to Theuth.

In The Republic Book 1, it is emphasised that for the construction of the ideal state, the guardians or leaders of the city must be philosophers. In Book 10, he bans all poetry for there to be good rulers and justice. He believed in the concept of ‘one man, one job’. Hence, if rulers were to be philosophers for a society to succeed, they had to stick to philosophy and not deviate and focus on poetry as well. He believed poets were deceivers, defying the purpose of a good ruler who would rid the state of its problems.

To Plato, poetry is a means of catharsis of emotions, or a strong portrayal of it. Emotions and passion are the opposite of reason – a quality necessary for the guardians who would after all rule the state. The Allegory of the Chariot presents this well, as the chariot – reason, controls the wild horses – emotion. Theatre and poem recital is condemned by Plato, as they pass on emotions to the viewers and the actors themselves. Instead of controlling emotions, we invent and intensify our passions.

A crucial part of the training of the guardians was poetry recital, especially Homer. During this process, they impersonated the characters’ gestures and emotions. Even the gods’ vices were portrayed, which sets a bad example for the enjoyers of literature. The gods who are supposed to represent a better version of human beings, acting in such adverse ways, would certainly influence whoever is knowledgeable in literature, particularly the impersonator of such immoral characters, risking the emulation of vice in their actual lives. Literature can, thus, pervert the perception of morality.

As Plato develops his Theory of Forms between Books 3 and 10, his attack on the fine arts becomes more violent, since the World of the Senses is a bad copy of the Realm of the Forms. What our senses portray are a shadow of the perfect qualities that the Realm of Forms contains. In this world, we can never find the perfect form of justice, poetry, courage and so on. If such human versions of these qualities are so imperfect, then what the artist creates is a copy of the copy of the perfect thing, taking two steps back from perfection, from the truth, instead of one. The example Plato uses of the bed explains this well.

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Further emphasising the deception of artists, to Plato, the artist is metaphorically holding a mirror, reflecting reality and reproducing it through another means – the mirror which represents his medium of art. This is because he produces an illusion of reality through his art.

Moreover, Plato believed that poets are not experts of what they write, making them imperfect tellers of their stories. For example, Homer who wrote about war in the Odyssey and the Iliad was not a warrior or involved in war himself. How could he, hence, recount such stories without experiencing them first handedly himself? To Plato, such artists convey messages that they did not even know much about, since true knowledge comes from experience.

Conversely, what Plato seems to ignore is that poets, painters and artists don’t simply emulate reality. They use skill and creativity to interpret all that is around them in their own perspective. Different painters will interpret a landscape in different ways, as they focus on different parts of that environment, using different colours and techniques and much more.

The aforementioned point brought about the conclusion of Friggieri’s lecture. We were later invited to share a glass of wine together and encouraged to join the Malta Classics Association to participate in similar events within the near future.

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This event was an enthralling and fulfilling one, which I encourage those interested to attend so that such knowledge is kept alive and not within dusty books in libraries, but within the hearts, souls and minds of forthcoming generations.

Written by: Michaela Pia Camilleri

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