Monday, March 9, 2009

Stories and Reality

In Plato's Republic the poets were ejected because their art compromised the search for truth. Since much of our modern distrust of stories finds its roots in Plato, it is worthwhile to revisit the issue there. Plato believed in absolute truth. A simple example will illustrate this. Consider the mathematical definition of a triangle. It is an abstract mathematical object with three sides. The sum of the internal angles is 180 degrees. That is a pretty good definition. It includes all triangles and excludes everything that is not a triangle. Further, with that precise definition we can deduce further truths about triangles without even having to consult individual triangles. But, this ideal form of a triangle does not exist in the material world. All the triangles we have are imperfect copies. So, where does this ideal triangle exist? Plato posited a World of Forms where all ideal objects reside. This World of Forms is the world of absolute truth. The material world in which we live is merely an imperfect copy. And herein lies the wrinkle with poets.

I am going to switch from using the word 'poets' to using the word 'writers' because our modern understanding of the word 'poet' is different and a little misleading. Writers construct imaginary scenarios from real experiences and through those imaginary scenarios explore questions regarding the meaning of our experiences as humans. So, writers, like philosophers, are concerned with a search for truth. However, from Plato's perspective, the material world in which we have our experiences is an imperfect copy of the ideal world and hence once removed from the truth. The world constructed by writers is an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy moving us, yet, further away from the truth. Due to their sins of imperfection and the dilution of the absolute truth, the poets and writers were banned from the ideal republic. The questions are - did Plato really believe this? and it is true?

First, the question of whether or not Plato actually believed this is unanswerable since Plato has been dead for millennium and we cannot interrogate him. However, looking at his body of philosophical work it would be hard to conclude that he really did believe this. First, his dialogues are all written in a story form. If he really believed that stories took us further away from the truth then why did he use stories to convey the truth. Second, within these stories are numerous mini stories used to illustrate specific points and subtlties. Again, if Plato really believed that stories moved us away from the truth, why did he rely so heavily on them in his pursuit of truth?

Second, the question of whether stories move us toward or away from truth is too big an issue to be taken up at the end. So, I will pick that up next time.

No comments: