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Controlling the fable-makers

Along with Plato, Aristotle (384–322 bc) was one of the two greatest philosophers of antiquity, and in the view of many he was the greatest philosopher of all time. Aristotle lived and taught in Athens for most of his career. He began as a pupil of Plato, and for some time acted as tutor to Alexander the Great. He left writings on a prodigious variety of subjects, covering the whole field of knowledge from biology and astronomy to rhetoric and literary criticism, from political theory to the most abstract reaches of philosophy. His Poetics is the most influential book on poetry ever written and is a founding text of European aesthetics and literary criticism. We present a brief extract from Republic, Books Two and Three.

‘We must begin by controlling the fable-makers, and admit only the good fables they compose, not the bad. We shall then persuade nurses and mothers to tell children the admitted fables, and mould their minds with fable much more than they now mould their bodies with the hand. Most of the tales they tell now will have to be thrown out.’


‘If we look at the big fables, we shall also see the little ones. Big and little need to be of the same type and have the same effect. Don’t you agree?’

‘Yes: but I don’t see what you mean by the big ones.’

‘Those that Hesiod and Homer told, and the other poets. For it’s the poets who told men, and still tell them, the false stories they themselves compose.’

‘What stories? And what fault do you find with them?’

‘The fault one must find, first and foremost, especially when someone tells falsehoods wrongly.’

‘But what is it?’

‘Making bad verbal likenesses of gods and heroes — just like a painter making a picture unlike the object he wants to paint.’

‘Well, it’s certainly right to find fault with that sort of thing. But just what do we mean?’

‘To begin with, the greatest falsehood, involving the greatest issues, was wrongly told by the person who said that Ouranos did what Hesiod said he did, and that Kronos took his revenge upon him. What Kronos did and what happened to him at his son’s hands is something I should not want to be told without precaution to the young and foolish, even if it had been true. If possible, it should have been veiled in silence; but if there had been great need to tell it, it should have been made a secret, for as small an audience as possible — and they should have had to sacrifice not a pig, but some expensive and inaccessible victim, so that as few people as possible should hear the tale.’

‘These stories are indeed difficult.’

‘They are not to be repeated in our city, Adimantus. Nor is it to be said in a young man’s hearing that if he committed the most outrageous crimes, or chastised an erring father by the direst means, he would be doing nothing remarkable, but only what the first and greatest of the gods have done.’

‘I don’t myself think that these are suitable stories.’

‘It’s the same with all the tales of how gods war, plot, and fight against gods— not that they’re true anyway— if our future city-guardians are to believe that readiness to hate one another is the greatest scandal. Still less must they be told elaborate fables of battles of giants, and all the other various hostilities of gods and heroes towards their kith and kin. If we are somehow to convince them that no citizen has ever been the enemy of another, nor is it right that he should be, then that is the lesson that older men and women must impress on the children from the start, the lesson (more or less) that poets too must be forced to impress on the adult population. Hera tied up by her son, Hephaestus thrown out by his father because he was proposing to defend his mother against a beating, Homer’s battles of gods — all this is inadmissible, whether it was composed allegorically or not. Young people can’t distinguish the allegorical from the non-allegorical, and what enters the mind at that age tends to become indelible and irremovable. Hence the prime need to make sure that what they first hear is devised as well as possible for the implanting of virtue.’

‘That makes sense. But if we were to be asked what these things are, what the stories are, what should we say?’

‘You and I, Adimantus, are not poets, at the moment: we are founders of a city. Founders have to know the patterns within which poets are to be made to construct fables, and beyond which they must not be allowed to go, but they don’t have to make up fables themselves.’

‘True enough: but just what are the patterns for an account of the gods?’

‘Something like this, I fancy. God must always be represented as he is, whether in epic or in lyric or in tragedy.’

‘Yes indeed.’

‘Now God is in truth good and must be so described.’

‘Of course.’

‘And nothing good is harmful, is it?’


‘Does the non-harmful harm?’


‘And does what doesn’t harm do any evil?’


‘And what does no evil is cause of no evil?’

‘Of course.’

‘Now again. The good is useful?’


‘Therefore the cause of felicity?’


‘The good therefore is not the cause of everything, but only of what is well.’


‘God, therefore, being good, cannot be responsible for everything, as is the common opinion, but only of some things in human life. There is much for which he bears no responsibility. Our blessings are far fewer than our troubles, and while none but God is responsible for the blessings, we must seek other causes for the troubles.’

‘That seems perfectly right.’

‘We must therefore not allow Homer or any other poet to make foolish mistakes about the gods.” [ … ]

Aristotle is important in the early history of Western linguistics both for his general contributions to logic, rhetoric, and poetics and for a specific classification of speech units. Sir Anthony Kenny is a distinguished philosopher whose books include The Aristotelian Ethics (1978), Aristotle’s Theory of the Will (1979), and Aristotle on the Perfect Life (1992). His most recent book is A New History of Western Philosophy (2010). For Oxford World’s Classics he has translated Aristotle’s Poetics and Eudemian Ethics.

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Recent Comments

  1. nikita

    Confusingly, the quote is from Plato.

  2. Mike Law

    Does Sir Kenny explain why there is not a single poem in a book called POETICS?

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