On Plato’s Quarrel with Tragic Pity

James F. Johnson

In Books 2,3 and 10 of The Republic, Plato, or rather his principal character Socrates, takes up an ongoing quarrel between philosophers and poets.  In this paper, I will present contrary arguments to Plato’s critique of tragic pity and seek to show the positive side of tragic pity and of the tragedians’ employment of suffering and sorrow in their dramas.  Part of Plato’s objection to epic and tragedy stems from those genres’ representation of reality, a representation that Plato finds deficient in comparison to that of the philosopher.  Socrates explicitly criticizes the expression of grief and sorrow by tragic heroes, and presents four arguments against such expressions (Republic 604b-d).  This paper will treat each of those arguments in turn.

But Plato’s major objection to tragedy relates to what he sees as tragedy’s impact on the character of the spectator.  Specifically, he takes issue with the pity that tragedy arouses in its audience.  He associates this response and the behavior that arouses it with behavior typical of women, especially in what he sees as a potential loss of self-control.  My argument to the contrary will be that Plato’s exclusion (or severe limitation) of tragic art in the Republic means that his ideal state will be deficient in the education of its leaders and citizens.  I will argue that reason alone is not necessarily a sufficient determinant of good, compassionate behavior.  At the same time, I will show that Plato’s dialogues at points seem to prescribe appropriate compassionate action on standard occasions, such as the appearance of a suppliant.  His objections to tragedy, therefore, seem to be with the heroes’ suffering and lamentation on the tragic stage and with the criticism of the gods that sometimes accompanies such suffering. 

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