Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Plato on poetry, storytelling & organization
Plato's The Republic is universally recognized as the masterpiece of one of the founders of Western philosophy. And yet the book is not widely known for its wholesale onslaught on poetry and storytelling. The assault occupies the first half of the book and is one of the themes on which the book concludes. One of the few books to put forward a comprehensive explanation of the attack is Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1963). Some excerpts are set out below.
p.4   "Let us consider the tone and temper of Plato's attack. He opens by characterizing the effect of poetry [and storytelling] as a 'crippling of the mind'. It is a kind of a disease, for which one has to acquire an antidote. The antidote must consist of a knowledge 'of what things really are'. In short, poetry is a sort of mental poison, and is the enemy of truth. This is surely a shocker to the sensibilities of any modern reader and his incredulity is not lessened by the peroration with which, a good many pages later, Plato winds up his argument:
'Crucial indeed is the struggle, more crucial than we think - the choice that makes us good or bad - to keep faithful to righteousness and virtue in the face of temptation, be it of fame or money or power, or of poetry- yes, even of poetry.'
p.4  "There has been a natural reluctance to take what Plato says at face value. Plato's admirers normally devoted to his lightest word, but when they reach a context like the present start looking around for an escape hatch, and they find one which they think he has provided for them. Just before this peroration, has he not said that poetry may offer a defense of herself if she can? Has he not confessed to her overpowering charms? Does he not admit reluctance to expel her, and does this not mean that in effect he recants? ... But the terms in which he makes the concession to poetry, to plead her case if she chooses are themselves damning. For he treats her in effect as a kind of prostitute, or as a Delilah who may seduce Plato's Samson if he lets her, and so rob him of his strength. She can charm and coax and wheedle and enthrall, but these are precisely the powers that are so fatal. If we listen, we dare to do so only as we counter her spell with one of her own... We must keep on our guard.

p.97.  "To approach Homer as a didactic author is asking a good deal from any reader and is not likely to win his early sympathy... However the warp and woof of Homer is didactic, and the tale is made subservient to the task of accommodating the weight of educational materials which lie within it.

p 145.  "The Homeric poet controlled the culture in which he lived for the simple reason that his poetry became and remained the only authorized version of important utterance. He did not need to argue about this. It was a fact of life accepted by his community and by himself without reflection or analysis.

p.146.  "For a relationship between the poetry and the individual memory of any member of the community could be established only by audible and visual presence. The relationship must be built up and maintained during the course of oral recitation. 
    "This surely is a clue to the reason why Plato, as he examines the ways of poets and poetry, seems so preoccupied with the conditions of the actual poetic performance before an audience... What the poet was saying was in Plato's eyes important and maybe even dangerous, but how he was saying it and manipulating it might seem even more important and more dangerous. 

p.235. "Let us look back for a moment over the road that has been traveled. The original departure point lies in those Homeric days when the Greek culture had been one of oral communication... That experience had been central; it had constituted an overall state of mind; let us call it the Homeric. And he proposes to substitute a different state of mind, the Platonic... an area of knowledge populated by abstract objects.. designed as a total correction of the poetic account of experience... what Plato is pleading for could be shortly put as the invention of an abstract language of descriptive science to replace a concrete language of oral memory.

p236. Is Plato ever prepared to identify poetry as essentially a system of narrative syntax? Not very explicitly... although the implication is there in his assumption, maintained fairly consistently that the content of poetry is mythos as opposed to dialectical logos.... Everything said by a ... poet.. is "a going through of what has happened or is or will be".

p.237. [Plato] asks, What does a poet represent? and he replies 'He represents human beings involved in action, whether this action be autonomous or the result of external compulsion and including what men think of feel about their actions; that is how they interpret their effect in terms of weal or woe to themselves and their corresponding joys and sorrows.'... Plato's formulas for poetic content... place the accent on a purely narrative series.

p258-9 "[The] entire purpose [of the curriculum of sciences offered in Book Seven] is.. a conversion from the image-world of the epic to the abstract world of scientific description, and from the vocabulary of narrativized events in time towards the syntax and vocabulary of equations and laws and formulas and topics which are outside time.

p. 261. "Platonism at bottom is an appeal to substitute a conceptual discourse for an imagistic one. As it becomes conceptual, the syntax changes, to connect abstractions in timeless relationships instead of counting up events in a time series; such discourse yields the abstracted objects of 'intellection'.

p.304.  "Greece was now committed to a dangerous and fascinating game, in which the combats of Homeric heroes found themselves being translated into battles between concepts, categories and principles. With the vocabulary of ideas, there was also born a prose of ideas... [The] efforts [of Socrates and Plato] created 'knowledge' as an object and as the proper content of an educational system... Man's experience of his society, of himself and of his environment was now given separate organized existence in the abstract word.

p.305  "Europe still lives in shadow [of Socrates and Plato] using their language, accepting their dichotomies, and submitting to their discipline of the abstract as the chief vehicle of higher education, even to this day.

Plato's political agenda in The Republic: Is it utopian?

    Since the title of Plato's masterwork is The Republic, it is generally taken to be an essay in political theory. The political arrangements however that Plato proposes are today seen as intolerably repressive and unacceptable, or utopian (i.e. desirable but unrealizable). But despite this bad press of this model in the political arena, the model reflects the these are by and large the arrangements that are today practically universal in the modern corporation.

     Plato's model of organization comprised: 

· the citizens are divided into two classes, rulers and ruled.
· the small class of rational people (called guardians) is to rule the state with the support of a soldier class.
· the masses are excluded from any part in leading. Their role is to obey and support the community's needs by engaging in useful trades. 
· there is limited mobility between classes. 
· the managers or guardians are educated by wholly rational training such as mathematics. Poetry and narrative are excluded from the curriculum except stories that have been sanitized to show good behavior. 
· a select few are chosen around the age of 30 as managers and given special training. 
· the selected guardians or managers spend around 15 years serving in lower offices before a few become the leaders of the state around the age of 50, chosen because they understand The Good.
     But despite this bad press of this model in the political arena, by and large, these are the arrangements that are practically universal in the modern corporation:
· employees are divided into two classes, managers and workers.
· the small class of rational managers rule the organization with the support of loyal advisers (personnel, finance).
· the workers are largely excluded from playing any part in management. Their role is to obey and support the organization's needs by engaging in useful roles in the organization.
· there is limited mobility between managers and workers.
· managers are trained exclusively in rational subjects such as mathematics. Poetry is excluded and the only stories are case studies which are sanitized to show good behavior.
· a select few are chosen as potential managers around the age of 30, and sent to do an MBA.
· the best of the junior managers are selected to become senior managers or CEOs.
· the managers are chosen for their ability to understand and make rational decisions on the Bottom Line, ie. the modern mathematical representation of The Good.
Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Stephen Denning 
The views expressed on this website are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of any person or organization
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