Plato’s Republic: On the Poets – Lessons For Investors

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Via Investing In The Classics

Please note that for the purposes of this analysis, I use the Allan Bloom translation of Plato’s The Republic. Please refer to a previous analysis on which I build upon here.

Ever since Plato banished poets from his ideal city in the Republic, hostility towards the arts has been endemic to philosophy. To a large extent, this is because philosophy and the various art forms were perceived to be competing sources of knowledge and belief. Indeed, Socrates acknowledges this stating “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Book X, 607c). Plato was concerned to maintain the exclusivity of philosophy’s claim to truth, thereby dismissing the arts as poor pretenders of truth. For investors today, one must recognize that there are poets everywhere. These pretenders of truth are overt in the media, while the more sophisticated poets camouflage themselves as celebrity-activists. Ultimately, the prudent investor must be able to identify these pretenders and dissemblers so as to not be fooled by their cunning ways.

According to Plato, the problem of the poets stems from human nature. Plato, through Socrates, states that philosophic types are rare: “for the man who is going to become a perfect philosopher – such natures are few and born only rarely among human beings” (Book VI, 491a-b). However, philosopher or not, we all have an “inborn love of such poetry” (Book X, 607e). Hence, Plato asserts that “it’s impossible that a multitude be philosophic” (Book VI, 494a). Since the masses cannot truly reach the depths of philosophic reasoning, nor would they desire to, the poets serve as the de facto educators, which is a problem for Plato. For investors today, it is obvious that vast majority of market participants are not prone to prudent reasoning, which is equally matched by their lack of desire to put in the effort to do diligent fundamental analysis. Hence, the speculators get their decision making inputs from the poets; the media, the noise, rumors of all shapes and sizes, talking heads, bankers and of course, the celebrity-activists.

Plato’s primary target is Homer – the most famous and influential of the Greek poets – who, as we have seen, instills values that Plato deemed incompatible with a well-educated and flourishing city. The problematic aspect is that Homer and his followers claim to speak of the truth and of proper values. As Socrates states:

“tragedy and its leader, Homer, must be considered, since we hear from some that these men know all arts and all things human that have to do with virtue and vice, and the divine things too. For it is necessary that the good poet, if he is going to make fair poems about the things his poetry concerns, be in possession of knowledge when he makes his poems or not be able to make them” (Book X, 598d-e).

Plato argues that if Homer and his followers claim to know everything, or anything, about virtue and vice, then they ought to actually possess this kind of knowledge if they are to be a good poet, or else they will corrupt everyone with their pretensions. Plato then asserts that if Homer, or any poet, actually knew how to do the things in which they imitate, then they would be far more serious about it. As Socrates posits:

“But, I suppose, if he were in truth a knower of these things that he also imitates, he would be far more serious about the deeds than the imitations and would try to leave many fair deeds behind as memorials of himself and would be more eager to be the one who is lauded rather than the one who lauds” (Book X, 599b).

Plato posits that if one were to actually know what they imitate, not only would they be more serious about its subject matter, but they would more likely be prone to do that occupation rather than being one who imitates it, i.e. a poet. Similarly, for investors those talking heads and fools who yak on CNBC are suspect with Plato’s insight, for if they actually had true knowledge of investing they would most likely be investors themselves, and not just pretenders.

Plato then asserts that if anyone claims to be knowers, then they ought to have qualifications. The poets, who tell lavish epics about human virtues, governance, and the gods, ought to be able to justify their claim to this knowledge. As Socrates demands:

“But about the greatest and fairest things of which Homer attempts to speak – about wars and commands of armies and governance of cities, and about the education of a human being – it is surely just to ask him and inquire, ‘Dear Homer, if you are not third from the truth about virtue, a craftsman of a phantom, just the one we defined as an imitator, but are also second and able to recognize what sorts of practices make human beings better or worse in private and public, tell us which of the cities was better governed thanks to you…’” (Book X, 599c-d).

Here, Socrates attacks Homer for claiming to have knowledge of warfare, proper governance, and good education through his poems. Thus, Socrates asserts that they should ask Homer on what credentials does he have the right to make such claims, what cities were governed better as a result of his practices. Similarly, investors today should ask the same of anyone who operates under the pretense of knowing in order to figure out if they are a true knower of what they speak or rather if they are a pretender.

Since most people capable of doing what they would otherwise imitate, few qualified individuals opt to be a poet rather than the occupation which they imitate as poets. Indeed, Socrates says that “the imitator knows nothing worth mentioning about what he imitates; imitation is a kind of play and not serious” (Book X, 602b). Hence, Plato asserts that since these poets are generally unqualified and that the masses love poetry, the poets are well incentivized to manipulate the masses:

“the poetic man also uses names and phrases to color each of the arts. He himself doesn’t understand; but he imitates in such a way as to seem, to men whose condition is like his own and who observe only speeches, to speak very well. He seems to do so when he speaks using meter, rhythm, and harmony, no matter whether the subject is shoemaking, generalship, or anything else. So great is the charm that these things by nature possess” (Book X, 601a-b).

The charm of the poets is so great, according to Plato, because the poets find it easier to manipulate the unphilosophical masses with clever speeches. As Socrates says, “it is because they take advantage of this affection in our nature that shadow painting, and puppeteering, and many other tricks of the kind fall nothing short of wizardry” (Book X, 602d). Similarly, the talking heads of today know how to use buzzwords to manipulate the speculative masses. Through their wizardry they try to tell the populace what to think, further propelling the media machine and the mouthpiece of whoever is the highest bidder for their services.

Plato not only asserts that poetry is not only opposed to the truth, but that it also makes people wicked. As Socrates states, “painting and imitation as a whole are far from the truth when they produce their work; and that, moreover, imitation keeps company with the part in us that is far from prudence, and is not comrade and friend for any healthy or true purpose” (Book X, 603a-b). Poetry corrupts because it appears to the worst part of people; their appetitive and spirited parts of the soul. As Socrates describes:

“the irritable disposition affords much and varied imitation, while the prudent and quiet character, which is always nearly equal to itself, is neither easily imitated nor, when imitated, easily understood… Then plainly, the imitative poet isn’t naturally directed toward any such part of the soul, and his wisdom isn’t framed for satisfying it – if he’s going to get a good reputation among the many – but rather toward the irritable and various dispositions, because it is easily imitated” (Book X, 604e-605a).

It is hard for poetry to imitate the prudent, calculating part of the soul for one has to be prudent themselves in order to do a good job of replicating it poetically. However, as Plato already argued few people are prudent, and ever fewer of those who are prudent would opt to be a poet. Instead, the poets find it rather easy to imitate the irritable and appetitive dispositions. Moreover, such imitations give the poet a good reputation among the unphilosophical masses. Similarly, the speculative masses today have no taste for long-term orientations. Our soundbite culture is so infectious that the media outlets must cater to it if they want to get good ratings. In this sense, Plato’s criticisms are just as prevalent today as they once were, if not even more so.

By appearing to the parts of human nature that are worse, the poets prey on human weaknesses in order to gain a good reputation. In doing so, the imitative poet – the pretender – “fosters and waters [the appetitive parts] when they ought to be dried up, and sets them up as rulers in us when they ought to be ruled so that we may become better and happier instead of worse and more wretched” (Book X, 606d). This forms the basis for why Socrates famously banishes the imitative poets from the Republic:

“And thus we should at last be justified in not admitting him into a city that is going to be under good laws, because he awakens this [appetitive] part of the soul and nourishes it, and, by making it strong, destroys the calculating part, just as in a city when someone, by making wicked men mighty, turns the city over to them and corrupts the superior ones. Similarly, we shall say the imitative poet produces a bad regime in the soul of each private man by making phantoms that are very far removed from the truth and by gratifying the soul’s foolish part” (Book X, 605b-c).

Plato argues that those who pay too much attention to the poets will find their own reasoning diminished. For investors, this conclusion resonates. If one spends too much – or any time, for that matter – listening to the noise then one will find that their own prudence will be undermined. Hence, it is no surprise that many of the most successful investors avoid the mania of Wall Street – for Wall Street is the mecca of poets and poetry! Furthermore, Socrates says that “if you admit the sweetened muse in lyrics or epics, pleasure and pain will jointly be kings in your city instead of law and that argument which in each instance is best in the opinion of the community” (Book X, 607a). Thus, the emotions – pain and pleasures, fear and greed – rule over reason in the individual who entertains poetry. Wall Street – with its perpetual short-term, bullish bias – and the imitative poets in the media prey on the fear and greed of the speculative masses. Thus, Socrates recommends that “the man who hears it must be careful, fearing for the regime and in himself, and must hold what we have said about poetry” (Book X, 608b).

Despite these accusations and criticisms levied on the poets, Plato has not yet declares “the greatest accusation against imitations” (Book X, 605c). The greatest accusation and problem of poetry is “For the fact that it succeeds in maiming even the decent men, except for a certain rare few, is surely quite terrible” (Book X, 605c). In other words, a poor education – one provided by poetry and particularly that of Homer – corrupts even potential philosophic individuals. Indeed, Socrates asserts that this is quite terrible because “those with the best natures become exceptionally bad when they get bad instruction” (Book VI, 491e). Those who could have been great in doing good can become great in doing bad if poorly educated. I assert that these decent men gone wrong are none other than the celebrity-activists. These celebrity-activists had the potential to becoming great investors, but instead they opted to be poets – in fact, it is no stretch to say that they are the greatest of the poets! Although the masses don’t recognize them as such, it is no doubt that they are the most vain, manipulative, and deceptive of all of the poets.

Instead of becoming true philosophers, these corrupted youths become sophists. Instead of developing prudence through learning and wisdom, they employ their natural talent to become masters of rhetoric. As Socrates states, the sophist “educates in nothing other than these convictions of the many, which they opine when they are gathered together, and he call this wisdom” (Book VI, 493a). The sophist does not have true knowledge of what they claim; they are pretenders and dissemblers, and masters of manipulating the masses:

“When he has learned all this from associating and spending time with the beast, he calls it wisdom and, organizing it as an art, turns to teaching. Knowing nothing in truth about which of these convictions and desires is noble, or base, or good, or evil, or just, or unjust, he applies all these names following the great animal’s opinion – calling what delights it good and what vexes it bad” (Book VI, 493b-c).

Without true knowledge, the sophists call that which displeases them bad, and that what pleases them good. It is clear that the sophist is none other than the celebrity-activist, for the celebrity-activist is the vainest of the poets. Like the sophist, the celebrity-activist acts “with a great deal of uproar, blame some of the things said or done, and praise others, both in excess, shouting and clapping” (Book VI, 492b). The celebrity-activist is the best imitator – he deceives the greatest number of people into believing that they have true knowledge – even though the basis of their opinion is nothing more than a bit of boredom and lust! Just as the sophists are exposed for their false wisdom when their advice leads to times of panic and war, the celebrity-activist is exposed as a fraud-of-an-investor when their lack of prudence leaves them exposed in bear markets. Thus, Plato concludes that any prudent individual must always be on the lookout for poets, for they are everywhere. In the words of Socrates: “Haven’t you noticed that all opinions without knowledge are ugly? The best of them are blind. Or do men who opine something true without intelligence seem to you any different from blind men who travel the right road?” (Book VI, 506c).

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