If you believe Plato, then the answer is “yes”. If all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then the artists have been subordinated to the philosophers for about 25 centuries. According to Plato’s Republic, especially the last section, the artists present a danger to society and to your soul. Two of my favorite thinkers disagree with Plato and Socrates on this point. Friedrich Nietzsche and Robert Pirsig both make a case that there is something terribly wrong with this Platonic legacy. In one of Nietzsche’s earliest works, The Birth of Tragedy, he asks us to consider the consequences of the Socratic idea that virtue is knowledge, that all sins arise from ignorance, and only the virtuous are happy. As a consequence, Nietzsche says, the “virtuous hero must henceforth be a dialectician” because virtue and knowledge are necessarily connected such that “Truth” is the highest good.
“[E]ver since Socrates the mechanism of concepts, judgements and syllogisms has come to regarded as the highest exercise of man’s powers, nature’s most admirable gift. Socrates and his successors, down to our own day, have considered all moral and sentimental accomplishments — noble deeds, compassion, self-sacrifice, heroism, even that spiritual calm which the Apollonian Greek called sophrosune — to be ultimately derived from the dialectic of knowledge, and therefore teachable.” — Nietzsche
We can see this attitude throughout Plato’s dialogues wherein the Sophists, the rhetoricians, the rhapsodes are pressed by Socrates to give an account of their know-how. Socrates’ demand for intelligibility works its magic and each kind of artist is chopped up into little pieces. Gorgias the Sophist is compared to a pastry chef who panders to our child-like appetites, for example, and poor Ion the rhapsode is more or less reduced to a blithering idiot. What was Plato’s motive for this condemnation?
As Pirsig sees it, “Plato’s hatred of the rhetoricians was part of a much larger struggle in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than in the other.”
The fact-value distinction is, I think, one of the more recent consequences of this Platonic legacy. As difficult as it might seem to achieve agreement as to the facts, it’s still pretty easy compared to gaining a consensus on values. These days, common sense and the dictionary both tell us that “sophistry” is a dirty word and anyone who engages in it is just some kind of manipulative bullshitter. This is what we might unkindly say about advertisers, politicians, talk radio hosts and other types of crass button-pushers. Mere “spin” doesn’t count as art by anyone’s standard and nobody would be crazy enough to defend anything like that, right?
“And the bones of the Sophists long ago turned to dust and what they said turned to dust with them and the dust was buried under the rubble of declining Athens through its fall and Macedonia through its decline and fall. Through the decline and death of ancient Rome and Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire and the modern states – buried so deep and with such ceremoniousness and such unction and such evil that only a madman centuries later could discover the clues needed to uncover them, and see with horror what had been done…” — Robert Pirsig
As Nietzsche paints it, the new Socratic hero of the dialectic “opposes Dionysiac wisdom and art; tries to dissolve the power of myth” and instead “believes that the whole world can be corrected through knowledge and that life should be guided by science”. In the process of establishing the supremacy of Truth, these dialecticians and logicians inadvertently killed something precious and wild. A clean, well lighted order was imposed on everything, taming the passions and training the affective domain of consciousness as if it were a dangerous animal, the dark side of the soul. Dionysus, the god of mystic union becomes the god of drunks and Apollo, the god light and order, becomes an obedient prude. For Nietzsche, this is “the vortex and turning point of Western civilization.”
“It was Socrates who expressed most clearly this radically new prestige of knowledge and conscious intelligence when he claimed to be the only one who acknowledged that he knew nothing. . . . From this point of view, Socrates was forced to condemn both the prevailing art and the prevailing ethics. Wherever his penetrating gaze fell he saw nothing but lack of understanding, fictions rampant, and so was led to deduce a state of affairs wholly discreditable and perverse. Socrates believed that it was his mission to correct the situation.” — Nietzsche
It’s not just a coincidence that Nietzsche and Pirsig both present their work in an unusual style. In both cases, their artsy form is consistent with their rebellious content. There is no pretense of logical rigor or objectivity and instead enjoy a sense of power and intimacy in their work. Nietzsche talks like a poet and a prophet and Pirsig’s philosophy is quite deliberately tangled up with his own biography and presented in the form of novel. In both cases, they are practicing what they preach.
Maybe it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway; their criticism of the dialecticians does not mean that we ought to abandon intellectual standards or that we ought to live by gut-feelings alone. As I read them, they are denying that philosophy is better than art. But they’re not exactly saying that art is better than philosophy either. The idea, I think, is that philosophy is a form of art – if you’re doing it rightly.
“It’s been necessary since before the time of Socrates to reject the passions, the emotions, in order to free the rational mind for an understanding of nature’s order which was as yet unknown. Now it’s time to further an understanding of nature’s order by reassimilating those passions which were originally fled from. The passions, the emotions, the affective domain of man’s consciousness, are a part of nature’s order too. The central part.” — Robert Pirsig