9.2 Art and Social Wellbeing: Plato and Aristotle


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The way in which ancient Greek philosophers focused on the social value of the arts.
  • Why Plato distrusted poets and artists.
  • How Aristotle saw the arts, particularly tragic theater, to have a healing effect on society.

In this section we will look at two theories from ancient Greece, those of Plato and of Aristotle, to see how they understood the social value of art. Not surprisingly, we will see that Aristotle saw the value of art differently than did his teacher.


Plato’s views on art were complex and often critical. In Book 3 of the Republic, we see his Socrates lamenting the immortality of the gods and heroes as depicted in the ancient Greek classics.

Then we will once more entreat Homer and the other poets not to depict Achilles, who is the son of a goddess, first lying on his side, then on his back, and then on his face; then starting up and sailing in a frenzy along the shores of the barren sea; now taking the sooty ashes in both his hands and pouring them over his head, or weeping and wailing in the various modes which Homer has delineated. … For if, my sweet Adeimantus, our youth seriously listen to such unworthy representations of the gods, instead of laughing at them as they ought, hardly will any of them deem that he himself, being but a man, can be dishonored by similar actions; neither will he rebuke any inclination which may arise in his mind to say and do the like. And instead of having any shame or self-control, he will be always whining and lamenting on slight occasions. (Republic III)

The arts, in his view, often provided poor moral exemplars and made a mockery of the heroes of Greece. Plato was troubled by the potential for art to evoke strong emotions without necessarily imparting wisdom or morality. In the Republic, he suggested banning certain types of poetry and drama from the ideal society he envisioned, as he believed they could corrupt individuals and undermine the stability of the state.

In book 10 of the Republic, Plato (as Socrates) expresses concerns about the influence of art on society. He believed that art, particularly poetry and the visual arts, could have a negative impact on people by appealing to emotions and irrationality rather than reason and logic. Recall, in section 7.4 of this text we discussed Plato’s division of the soul into three parts, reason (logos), spirit or passions (thymos), and appetites (eros). There we discussed how he made this the basis for his tripartite division of the ideal society into guardians, auxiliaries, and producers. For Plato, just as the guardians were meant to govern the lower social orders, so too our reason was meant to dominate our lower passions and appetites.

In his Phaedrus he gives us the image of a charioteer holding the reins of a white horse and a dark horse.

All soul is immortal, for she is the source of all motion both in herself and in others. Her form may be described in a figure as a composite nature made up of a charioteer and a pair of winged steeds…. and his two steeds, the one a noble animal who is guided by word and admonition only, the other an ill-looking villain who will hardly yield to blow or spur. Together all three, who are a figure of the soul, approach the vision of love. And now a fierce conflict begins. The ill-conditioned steed rushes on to enjoy, but the charioteer, … forces both the steeds on their haunches; again the evil steed rushes forwards and pulls shamelessly. The conflict grows more and more severe; and at last, the charioteer, throwing himself backwards, forces the bit …and pulling harder than ever at the reins, …forces him to rest his legs and haunches with pain upon the ground. (Phaedrus)

The charioteer we must assume is reason, the white horse the passions, and the dark horse the appetites. The arts, by encouraging excess emotions, disrupt the equilibrium of the soul and our ability to restrain our passions and appetites. By extension, they disrupt the equilibrium of society. They overstimulate the horses and cause the charioteer to lose control.

Looking down the top rows of the Epidaurus theatre.
View of the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, considered by Pausanias the finest in Greece

Another reason Plato distrusted visual and poetic/dramatic arts is that he believed they were deceptive. Plato believed the visual arts (painting, sculpture) gave us representations that were primarily imitative, i.e., they copied or mimicked (mimesis), what the artist perceived in the natural or social world. Recall that in his epistemology he argued that the truth lay in the eternal forms, the pure ideas that existed outside of the sensory realm, and that the sensible objects of our ordinary experience were but mere shadows, bad copies of the eternal forms. Philosophy and contemplation were the way to access the truth. Plato saw the arts as offering mere copies of the world, of the shadows which were already copies of the transcendent Forms. For instance, a painting of a chair is a copy of the physical chair, which is an imperfect representation of the ideal Form of a chair. He believed that art, being two steps removed from the truth (copying the physical world, which is itself a copy of the Forms), could not lead to genuine knowledge or understanding. Art was in essence a copy of a copy and had very little value as a means of finding the truth. Such mimesis, he argues, even corrupted the artists engaged in the copying. He advocated banning them from the ideal Commonwealth.

However, it’s important to note that Plato’s views on art were not solely negative. In places in his dialogues, he also acknowledged the value of art in inspiring people and recognized its potential to convey important moral and philosophical messages when used appropriately. Overall, Plato’s assessment of art was complex, critical of its potential negative influences, yet recognizing some of its potential for positive impact when aligned with higher ideals and moral principles.


Plato’s most famous student, on the other hand, saw a more positive role for the arts. In his Poetics, Aristotle attempted to refute his teacher’s negative opinions about the arts, especially those about poetry and theater. Recall from our chapter on Epistemology that Aristotle defended a notion of the forms in which they existed not outside of the objects of nature but within them. Thus, the arts, by imitating the world around us, are important for helping us learn about the world around us, wherein lies the truth.

Aristote held that an essential function of the arts was to create in the audience a sense of catharsis.

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions. (Poetics, VI)

This ancient Greek idea originally referred to practices of purging the body from illness, but with Aristotle came to mean a social and moral purging. When an audience viewed a Greek Tragedy for example, they were able to emotionally participate in the drama experienced by the actors. By inviting feelings of pity and fear through the fate of the characters, tragedy had a cleansing and calming effect on the emotions. This gave pleasure to audiences even as they contemplated painful subjects.

Terracotta mask of Dionysus.
Mask of Dionysus found at Myrina (Aeolis) of ancient Greece c. 200 BC – 1 BC, now at the Louvre

Catharsis also served to educate the audience regarding morality.

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. (Poetics IV)

Epics and dramas allowed audiences to evaluate events and ethical dilemmas from a thoughtful distance. This allowed a kind of moral learning and contemplation of virtues and flaws. Theaters could encourage critical thinking and empathy. This education went beyond the theater. The shared experience of the tragedy helped shape public values and foster a collective civic discourse. By prompting reflections on meaningful themes, the theater contributed to the wider social dialogue. By creatively portraying essential truths of human life in an amplified, condensed manner, poetic forms like tragedy, comedy, and drama gave insights into the human condition. The audience’s own experiences were transformed, clarified, or discouraged as a result of the cathartic moment.

In general, the ancient Greeks had a broad understanding and appreciation of the arts, including literature, theatre, music, architecture, sculpture, and painting. They viewed the arts as a way to reflect and celebrate beauty, harmony, proportion, and human expression. A high value was placed on symmetry, grace, and perfection in the arts. They placed strong emphasis on the arts as modes of representation and mimesis – the idea that art should represent or imitate nature, reality, and the human experience. This distinguished the arts from craft and made them meaningful. Art forms like tragedy, sculpture, architecture, and pottery decoration developed deep symbolic and metaphorical functions. As we have seen, Greek tragedy aimed to provoke catharsis and explore human emotions, sculptures represented ideals, temples were seen as homes for the gods. Literature was held in very high regard as an elevation of human language for aesthetic purposes. Homer’s epic poetry was foundational to their understanding of the literary arts. Music too was thought to represent harmony on a cosmic scale via ratios and arithmetic relationships between notes. The Greeks saw connections between music and math as expressions of the same immutable truth. In all, the ancient Greeks saw the arts as elevated forms of human creativity with unique powers to represent the world, explore human experience, and celebrate what was seen as beautiful and harmonious in life.

Works Cited

The Great Theater of Epidaurus, designed by Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC, Sanctuary of Asklepeios at Epidaurus, Greece by Carole Raddato, www.wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 2.0. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.

Terracotta figurine of a theatrical mask representing Dionysos, ca. 2nd or 1st century BC, Musée du LouvreE, www.commons.wikimedia.org, is in the Public Domain. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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