If there is a war between reason and imagination, the first volley was fired by Plato, who famously decreed that poets were to be thrown out of his ideal city. This would be understandable if he were speaking only of the Greek equivalent of trashy romance novels; but he prohibits even Homer, who he admits to be a master artist who would deserve much praise—if he were not a danger to the morals of the city.
This ban seems a horrifying mutilation of the imaginative life, and yet it makes all too much sense. As Jessica Moss writes in her wonderfully exciting essay “What Is Imitative Poetry and Why Is It Bad?” (from The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic), “What we call ‘great literature’ is rarely simple: it is complex and varied, rich in detail, in subtlety and even in contradictions. It presents characters who undergo change…, who hold our interest by feeling interest by feeling deep conflict and struggling over what to do, whose human weaknesses allow us to learn from them and whose passions let us sympathize with them” (442). Put simply, ‘great literature’ seems to be beautiful because of its complexity. But to Plato, a complex, changing beauty is a mere appearance, a surface glitter to deceive the undiscerning. His ideal of visual beauty is “something straight or round and what is constructed out of these with a compass, rule, and square, such as plane figures and solids” (Philebus, quoted in Moss 427); his ideal of moral beauty is “stability and uniformity of soul” (Moss 430)—the sort of logical, dispassionate character who is admirable in small doses, but who could not support aesthetic interest alone. Poets cannot be admitted to the perfect Republic, because the beauty they present to undiscerning minds is the converse of true beauty.
How fortunate it is, then, that Plato was wrong about his definition of true beauty. In the latest issue of the Ichthus, Cecelia Raker explored the Christian ideal of beauty in her review of The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics, by Bruno Forte. To the six Christian philosophers whose views are explored in this book, beauty is not found merely in stability and uniformity, because the central beauty of the universe is found in “the Holy One offering to manifest Himself as Jesus, a frail, human fragment to His unfathomable entirety” (Raker 34). Beauty is found in weakness and the complex particularities of history, not just in the strength of a stoic character and the serenity of the eternal forms. The core of the faith is not a set of unchanging moral precepts, but a story, a network of details that has all the conflict and emotion of great literature. Beauty—not Plato’s unemotional excellence, but the devastating beauty that can “steal us from ourselves” (Raker 35)—is not a distraction from true Reality, but is a means to draw us to the true Reality.