How Poets Should Speak of the Gods. Plato, Republic II 377e6–378a1
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors assign to poetry an important educational task in the envisioned just state, but then find the existing poetry mostly unsuitable for it. Examining how poets speak about the gods, Socrates directs at Hesiod the criticism that he »did not speak falsely well« (377e7) when narrating the actions of Uranus and Cronus. We may find this criticism surprising: the poet is not reproached for speaking falsely about the actions of these two gods, but for not speaking falsely well about them. It seems, therefore, that Socrates would not disapprove of Hesiod’s false speaking, provided that the poet spoke falsely well.
In order to clarify Socrates’ criticism, it is first examined what it means, in the case of Hesiod, »to speak falsely« (as opposed to »speaking truly«), and then what it means »not to speak falsely well« (as opposed to »speaking falsely well«).
Relying on some further arguments by Socrates, a distinction is made between two kinds of claims that can be made about the gods: claims about what the gods are like and claims about what they did. As this paper tries to show, it is acceptable to Socrates if poets speak falsely about what the gods did (for, because there is no knowing about the divine actions, it is not possible to speak truly about this, as is suggested at 382c10–d3), but not about what they are like (for what we do know about the divine nature is that it is good and therefore cannot cause evil, and so it must be spoken of, as is argued at 379b1–16). It turns out, therefore, that poets speak falsely well about what the gods did when they attribute good actions to them, i.e. such actions as they could in fact have done: doing so, the poets speak falsely about what the gods did, but implicitly speak truly about what they are like. As Hesiod attributed bad actions to Uranus and Cronus, he implicitly spoke of the gods as capable of evil. Therefore he did not speak falsely only about the divine actions, but, implicitly, also about the nature of the divine. That is why he did not speak falsely well.
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