Monday, May 16, 2011

Plato and Aristotle Weigh in on Agatha Christie

Back in the olden days, Plato made the argument that still resonates today: Violence on T.V. causes violence in real life.


Okay, maybe that’s not a direct quote. But the essence of the argument is there. According to Plato in his Republic, poets specifically should not be allowed into a well-ordered society because, well, they make society un-ordered. Poets (read: writers/storytellers/artisans) were imitators of real life. As imitations of life were skewed, the poet’s perceptions could rile the populace. Ergo: If you watch violent cartoons, you will become a violent, bullying child and continue on through your adulthood to be a violent, bullying adult, thus fucking up the Republic.

So let’s look at Agatha Christie. She promotes violence (just look at the body count she’s racked up!). Every one of her bestselling novels requires that someone die. Every other character has to lie about their part in the murder. There’s greed, murder, corruption, and lawyers – damaging to even the best-laid Republic anywhere! The very puzzles in her books – her signature style – makes everyday folks think that they might be able to get away with murder: just think about Hercule Poirot’s thought process and thwart it! I tell you, if you follow Plato’s line of thought, Agatha Christie is right there in the middle of the trouble.

There’s one little problem, though. I can’t think of any real-life murderer going “Agatha Christie made me do it!” (If you find one, let me know, because I would be fascinated – perhaps too much so – by that.)

Aristotle, the opinionated student of Plato, had another thought on how art (tragedy specifically) worked: via catharsis. His idea was that if you watch violence on T.V., you will experience all the thrills you need and, therefore, will not go out and commit mayhem on the streets.

So, let’s look at Agatha Christie again. She has ‘perpetrated’ and ‘solved’ hundreds of murders/burglaries/bad stuff. She has delivered justice/retribution to villains the world-over. Families can sleep at night because they know that the bad guy who hurt their loved one is behind bars, or identified, or dead. Looking at it from that perspective, Christie’s work might’ve saved countless lives because potential murderers got their jollies from her depictions of death and/or worried that some Inspector Poirot or nosy neighbor Marple would hunt them down.

Yeah, but the truth is, either point is moot. There is no way to test Plato’s hypothesis, specifically. After all, every single Republic has always had some form of art/imitation of life. And there’s no way to limit the range of Aristotle’s point. Aristotle’s catharsis could’ve kept any number of nation-states from becoming outright chaos. People were busy at the theatre rather than at war. Unfortunately, the theatre-rather-than-war-argument doesn’t work because every generation since Plato and Aristotle has had wars, disorder, and random acts of violence – and they’ve all had art. But there’s no way to directly measure art’s influence. Perhaps the theatre-goers really did stop a war from becoming larger than it would have otherwise. Or maybe it caused it.

See? It can go either way. I’m pretty sure that’s why we still read and discuss Plato and Aristotle.

I read and discuss Agatha Christie because it’s fun.

3 comments:

  1. Such a great post. There's also the poison - I loved reading about all those different poisons and things. Er, not that I have any desire to...

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  2. Poisons! Yes! The seedy undercurrent of crime--definitely a taker-outer of Republics.

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  3. Good stuff- As you know I'm all for looking at the underbelly of society in a fiction kind of way as long as its interesting, not your regular old boring kind of crime. Plato also didn't like women, democracy and believed in "benevolent" dictators so there you go!

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