As a lover of art – especially the art of prose fiction – I have always been somewhat put off and confused by Plato’s banishment of the poets from his ideal Republic. Poetry, words, it seemed to me, were the wheels on which we might hope to be carried towards the truth. Fiction had the capability of embodying myth; myth had the capability of embodying eternal Truth. Not much of what is written rises to that level, as I well understood. But still it seemed to me that, at the very least, the poets should be exiled on a case-by-case basis, and not across the board.
Although it is a very long essay, and she is unfolding her thesis slowly and carefully, I believe that I can confidently assume from the point I’m now at, that the “fire” of Iris Murdoch’s piece “The Fire and the Sun”—that is, the lesser light in Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” – represents the upper limit of what art can achieve. She writes:
The Good (truth, reality) is absent from us and hard of access, but it is there and only the Good will satisfy. This fact is concealed by the consoling image-making ego in the guise of the artist whom every one of us to some extent is. Art with its secret claim to supreme power blurs the distinction between the presence and the absence of reality, and tries to cover up with charming imagery the harsh but inspiring truth of the distance between man and God.
She discusses this not only in terms of “poetry” in the broadest sense of the word, but also with reference to other arts, such as painting. Even philosophy itself is apparently suspect:
The strongest motive to philosophy is probably the same as the strongest motive to art; the desire to become the Demiurge and reorganize chaos in accordance with one’s own excellent plan.
Wow. I mean, I was aware that many a rock star first picked up a guitar more in the hope of one day getting "access" to most any chick that caught his fancy, than of making great music. But philosophers with ulterior motives? Who knew?
I am hopeful that Murdoch, herself being the author of some really kick-ass novels, will pull art's fat out of Plato's fire by the end of the essay.