THE ANCIENTS were good at resisting seduction. Odysseus fought the seductive song of the Sirens by having his men tie him to the mast of his ship as it sailed past the Siren’s Isle. Socrates was so intent on protecting citizens from the seductive opinions of artists and writers, that he outlawed them from his imaginary republic.

Yawn. Oh … are we on? What I meant to say was grumble grumble! That sort of sexy prose and provocative appeal to the foundational figure of Western philosophy has left me shaken. This may be what’s called ‘doing things with texts,’ and don’t forget that these are texts. Odysseus and Socrates were characters, the former of the epic cycle, the latter of the works of Plato and Xenophon. Yes, there was a Socrates, but the whole of Plato’s literary output (aside from the letters, which virtually no one reads and few acknowledge) is comprised of Socratic dialogues. Do we really believe that Plato spent a lifetime painstakingly recording the doctrines of his dead mentor? He was a tool used by Plato to present philosophy in a digestible form. The dialogue caught on, and a number of efforts by later writers have been transmitted as Platonic texts.
This is an old academic trick, picked up from clever schoolchildren, to dress an empty argument in the prettily arranged scraps of the past, or at least of things that sound authoritative. Socrates is as good here as Foucault and doesn’t sound as radical.
Is this sophistry, or irony? I don’t know which.
But at any rate what we’re dealing with are apparently ‘seductive opinions.’ Can any one define that? What links the opening examples for Keen is apparently seduction, but for the Greeks it was song.
In the case of Odysseus the point is not resistance to seduction but defiance. Odysseus stopped his men’s ears with wax and had himself tied to the mast so that he could live through an experience no one else had. This is the same Odysseus who blinded the cyclops Polyphemus, the son of the sea god Poseidon, and taunted him during his escape. Poseidon’s wrath ensured an action-packed journey homeward, but in the end the defiant Odysseus reached his home, slaughtered his wife’s suitors, and reclaimed his kingdom. He was a true adventurer and audiences ate it up. Let’s not forget that Odysseus was fond of spinning yarns and pulled the wool over many an eye by his ‘seductive’ stories making him the perfect sort of person to live through the song of the Sirens (in another version the legendary singer Orpheus drowns out the Sirens with his own music, saving the Argonauts).
But first a digression on the attitude of some Greek writers toward song, which was synonymous for the Greeks with poetry.
Hesiod (ca 7th c. BC) described his own poetic initiation at the hands of the Muses, who gave him the gift of song and then famously told him, “we know how to say many things that seem like true things, and we know, when we want to, how to sing the truth” (Theogony 26-28).
This is in part a reference to Odyssey 19.203 (almost exactly worded), wherein Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, falsified a story so effectively that his own wife Penelope mourned for him. The critique of Odysseus as a singer of tales is a common one, and is born out by passages such as this. One can not ignore, either, that Odysseus is also a classic trickster, ‘the man of may turns’ in a number of ways (cf. Od. 1.1; πολύτροπος).
Hesiod surely didn’t believe in his own mystical meeting with the Muses. And yet audiences in successive generations and centuries seem to have believed in the works of both poets as divinely inspired texts.
This acknowledgement of the ambiguity of poetry became a trope in Greek poetry and philosophy, which was originally written in verse. Xenophanes the philosopher-poet (6th-5th c. BC), who was critical of the immoral depiction of the gods by poets, echoed Hesiod’s and Homer’s phrase when he closed a line by saying, “if in fact I know how to speak the truth” (fragment 8). This admits of two possible readings, implying either confidence (if I do … and of course I do, I who am so critical of the poets) or doubt (if I really do, as poetry is tricky business). Either way it points up the question of the power of a certain kind of speech to pursuade whether it’s true or not.
Gorgias (5th-4th c. BC) wrote an encomium of the face that launched a thousand ships, Helen, in part defending her honor by claiming that words arranged metrically, i.e., in verse, had a kind of magical affect that could persuade people (Encomium 9). This comes as no surprise from the reputed founder of Greek rhetoric. But notice that he specifically refers to words arranged metrically, i.e., to verse.
Plato and Aristotle had more sophisticated views on the matter and identified this property of art as mimesis, often translated wrongly as ‘imitation’ or ‘representation.’ In rhetorical training mimesis was the emulation of a master’s style, called imitatio by the Romans. But in the writings of Plato and Aristotle it represents something different.
Poetry was viewed as inherently ambiguous, as we’ve seen, either concealing great truths or presenting falsehoods convincingly. Poets played with this, but philosophers took it very seriously. Xenophanes attacked poets (like Homer) for essentially the same reason that Plato so limited their role in the Republic: mimesis is a powerful tool. Xenophanes believed that poets had spread lies about the gods, and Homer’s texts, which permitted licenses among the divine that would be shameful for men, became something like doctrine in panhellenic religion.
Plato’s characters were in full agreement with Xenophanes. The passages on the role of poetry in the Republic are inextricably bound to the rigid morality and social roles defined therein. In Republic 376e and following Plato is concerned with the depiction of gods and heroes, and his speakers (led by Socrates) conclude that the good of the republic depends upon (1) the proper cultivation of its citizens by telling only ‘true’ stories about the nature of the divine, i.e., that is only good, and (2) creating a warrior class that is willing to die in war, encouraged by censored stories of the great heroes that make the afterlife seem glorious and that depict only noble actions. As an afterthought they conclude that stories for the general public should promote the idea that good things happen to good people, effectively outlawing virtually the whole of literature.
Does this sound like a great society? There’s probably a good reason it was just a philosophical exercise.
This is picked up much later (595a and following) where the nature of poetry is defined as being at the third remove from true reality. The truest level of reality is the form, the next is the object, and finally the depiction. The danger which Plato’s speakers see here is in the poet’s or the artist’s ability to depict things that seem real and thus that may convince people of the artist’s expertise in what he depicts.
Because these productions could be said to represent something, but not to be a thing in any concrete sense, they were poieseis (creations) in a metaphorical sense. At Sophist 165b Plato has the stranger define mimesis as a sort of poiesis of mental pictures, not of the things themselves (cf. Laws 719c where the poet is said not to know which parts of his work are true). Contrary to the popular conception, mimesis is evocation rather than imitation. The stranger?s definition makes better sense when viewed in this way: mimetic works create a real intellectual or emotional response in the audience, founded upon things that may not be true.
So we return to the beginning. Does any of this suggest the nimbleness of ‘the ancients’ in avoiding seduction?
On the contrary it shows that (1) poetry has always impacted the soul of man, (2) that the masses were thought to accept uncritically what was written in their traditional texts, and (3) that these ideas were inconsistent with the rigid moral and social system imagined in Plato’s Republic.
But doesn’t Socrates provide a model which we are to follow? The very act of dialectic necessitates raising questions like these and challenging prejudices and received opinion. The reader is invited to disagree with the text by thinking critically about the issue. He is even supplied with ample examples of the supposedly offending texts. Far from doctrine, Plato’s texts layout the blueprint of philosophical investigation conducted in a manner of which all citizens are capable: dialogue.
Keen makes a ridiculously short-sighted claim for his wrongly adopted authority:

This Web 2.0 dream is Socrates’s nightmare: technology that arms every citizen with the means to be an opinionated artist or
writer.

This is patently false. If anything the changing landscape leans toward dialectic more than art. This is the key that Keen has missed. Socrates did not argue about opinions, but art, and in the Platonic corpus artists and writers are very often charged with ignorance, generating images and stories that appeal to popular taste. Opinion has nothing to do with this. More important is the public’s uncritical consumption.
Mass participation can only be a remedy.
What’s it all mean, then? What’s Keen’s beef?

One of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 movement may well be that we fall, collectively, into the amnesia that Kafka describes. Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. The cultural consequences of this are dire, requiring the authoritative voice of at least an Allan Bloom, if not an Oswald Spengler. But here in Silicon Valley, on the brink of the Web 2.0 epoch, there no longer are any Blooms or Spenglers. All we have is the great seduction of citizen media, democratized content and authentic online communities. And weblogs, course. Millions and millions of blogs.

Did I really have to waste so much time typing this response? This is what I’m arguing against, the notion that the proliferation of opinion and the active involvement of the masses in media might supplant the elite few and mean the end of culture?
Elitists have never trusted you.
It’s instructive that Keen considers democratization a utopian fantasy and holds the Republic up as a model of good sense. The Republic precisely explores the concept of a utopia, an ideal society, and it’s a society that is built upon censorship and the division of labor, a place for everyone and everyone in his place:

… in this city alone do we find that the shoemaker is a shoemaker and not a pilot in addition to making shoes, and that the farmer is a farmer and not a juryman in addition to farming, and that the warrior is a warrior and not a businessman in addition to making war … (397e).

I’ll take my chances on the mast like the man of many turns.