Plato plus his student Aristotle proposed the earliest identified by theories of literature inside Western philosophy. The particular art form that most concerned them was drama. In his Republic, Plato presented a design for an ideal state. In the course of outlining his utopia, he argued that poets—particularly dramatists—must be outlawed. In order to justify the exclusion of dramatic poets from the ideal state, Plato had to give reasons. Plus the reasons Plato found had to do with what he regarded as the nature of drama. According to Plato, the essence of drama be imitation—the simulation of appearances. That is, actors in plays imitate the actions of whomever they represent. In Media, the actors, for example, imitate having arguments. Plato thought that this be problematic primarily for the reason that he believed that appearances appeal to the emotions plus that stirring up the emotions be socially dangerous
Arguments like Plato’s against poetry are still heard today when it comes to discussions of the mass media. Often we are told that TV with its seductive imagery its seductive appearances makes for an unthinking electorate. Carefully designed, visually arresting, political advertisements appeal to the emotions of the voters rather than to their minds. If Plato were alive today, he would probably want to censor political advertisements for the same reason that he wanted to ban dramatic poetry.
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Aristotle, however, believed that Plato’s case was overstated. Though he agreed that drama provokes an emotional response from audiences, he did not believe that this is all that drama does. Tragedy evokes pity and fear in spectators, but, he said, it does this for the purpose of catharsis—that is, for the purpose of purging the emotions. The meaning of “catharsis” is disputed among scholars. Some say that it means “clarifying” the emotions; others that it means “purifying” them; and still others that it means “evacuating” them. But, in any case, it is clear that Aristotle thought drama stimulated emotional responses for a beneficial purpose, even if we are uncertain about the precise nature of the purpose he had in brain.
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