previous sub-section
The Art of Allusion
next sub-section


On January 24, 1934, Gadamer gave a lecture entitled “Plato and the Poets” before the Society of Friends of the Humanistic Gymnasium in Marburg. In this lecture he set himself the task of “understanding the meaning and justification”[19] of Plato's critique of the poets in the Republic. For the members of the cultural elite who had gathered to hear him speak, this “represented the most difficult task confronting the German spirit in its efforts to assimilate the spirit of the ancient world” (5). The difficulty of this task resided in the fact that Plato's critique of the poets was carried out through

an attack on the “art and poetry of the ancients” and so challenged just that ideal domain that embodied the self-understanding of German humanism.

Gadamer starts out by recalling the harmonious character of this humanist ideal, in which Plato occupies a place. Plato is recognized as one of “the greatest representatives of the poetic genius of the Greeks,” “admired and loved like Homer and the tragedians, Pindar and Aristophanes” (5). By identifying Plato's eminent status within the humanistic ideal as envisaged by his audience, Gadamer finds a starting point from which he can begin to rebuild this ideal from within. Plato himself is represented as a “hostile critic of the art of classical antiquity” (5). The poetry he wrote in his youth, “he burnt… after he became a pupil of Socrates” (6) and he “condemned Homer and the great Attic dramatists … to be completely expelled from the state” (5). The tension generated by this conflict enables Gadamer to set the hermeneutic circle of his lecture in motion.

Following Socrates, Plato turns against the “much beloved Homer” (6). He censors Homer in accordance with the norms of a poetry that should work for the state and recomposes the opening of the Iliad so as to “purify it of all direct speech” (10). Plato thereby chooses “a deliberately provocative example” (10), since Socrates, through whom Plato speaks, must struggle against his own deep-rooted sentiments and attitudes. But Gadamer, too, thereby chooses a “deliberately provocative example,” for the “verses known to all” from the opening of the Iliad—learned by heart by entire generations of gymnasium students—were a symbol of classical education.

Gadamer may well have disturbed his hearers by demanding that they should bring this “monstrous attack” upon poetry and on Homer vividly to mind rather than “pushing it away from us … into the distant past of a unique historical period.” Gadamer is concerned with the fact “that this decision also has something to say to us” (10). Was his audience not suddenly confronted with the National Socialist present, with its burning of books, and the censorship, exile, and persecution of poets and writers?

At no point does Gadamer directly mention the fascist present. His lecture remains entirely on the terrain of an interpretation of Plato. Plato's measures against the poets are to be understood through an interpretation of the Republic.[20] In the first part of the lecture Gadamer discusses the status of Plato's critique. Its full significance is derived from the project of refounding the state. This new state is to be an educational state. At its center Gadamer places the Platonic paideia, the education of the youths to become its guardians. These are the youths who risked corruption by the poets because they lacked “the binding civil ethos which could secure that poetry would have its proper effect” (15). In the second part of the lecture poetry is rehabilitated in the service of patriotic ends. Here Gadamer discusses Plato's critique of imitation. Plato develops a conception of art whose purpose is not to give aesthetic pleasure but to strengthen the civil ethos, as

in the case of hymns. Finally, Gadamer presents Socrates, the critic of myths, as the restorer of myth against the Enlightenment.

Despite the textual immanence of Gadamer's reading of Plato, his audience must have been all too aware of the fascist present with its censorship, persecution, exile, and expatriation. When this lecture was delivered in January 1934, the burning of books, the symbolic high point of the “action against the non-German spirit,” had taken place only six months before.

Taken as a whole, the lecture and its context are rich with interdiscursive implications and allusions. Together they provide a hermeneutic horizon that is congruent with the ideal self-understanding of National Socialism as a political decision to “renew” the state after the “decay” of the Weimar Republic. Drawing explicitly on the politicized reading of Plato that valued his thought as a “resolute expression of decision … directed against the entire political and spiritual culture of his age” (12), Gadamer chose to discuss the theme of the expulsion of the poets—a theme that seemed to be given in advance of the times—rather than emphasizing his status as a “metaphysician of the theory of ideas” (12).

When Gadamer demanded of his educated and cultured audience that they respect the expulsion of the poets as a decision made within the framework of the founding of the state, he indirectly attacked the reservation and skepticism about the burning of books that was widespread amongst the humanist elite. The burning of books was not only an action against the so-called enemies of the state, but it also affected authors who belonged to the cultural bourgeoisie itself. Alongside books by Marxists, pacifists, and left-wing intellectuals such as Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky, Carl von Ossiet-zky, Erich Maria Remarque, and Franz Kafka, flames also consumed the works of writers like Thomas Mann, Friedrich Gundolf, Arnold and Stefan Zweig, and the Catholic pacifist Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster. Parallel with the attack against thinkers on the left there was also a second front of “action against the non-German spirit.” In Goebbels's language, the so-called aesthetic humanism of the enlightened liberal bourgeoisie revealed an attitude of “non-involvement” and “standing to one side.” In this respect, the burning of books could be understood as a warning against “inner emigration.”

In Alfred Baeumler's inaugural lecture, which was originally planned as a speech to accompany the burning of books, the critique of the ideal of a harmonious personality and of the “aesthetic attitude”[21] entertained by the highly educated took on a key role. Baeumler's critique of the personality ideal of the cultured reappears-in almost exactly the same words[22]—in Gadamer's lecture. His interpretation of Plato's notion of paideia is directed against the “humanist ideal of the ‘harmonious personality’” (18). Gadamer seeks to make this critique of aesthetic humanism plausible to his humanist audience by constructing it out of their most coveted cultural

sources. He makes Plato ‘spaideia into “the opposite of that which the Greeks themselves and we as their humanist successors conceive under the terms ‘education’ and ‘culture’” (18).

As can be shown in greater detail, Gadamer constructed an interpretive framework for the contemporary situation in Germany that, at the same time, allowed Plato's critique of the poets to be understood in a manner that simultaneously articulated the self-understanding of the present. As a result, the passages in which Gadamer, together with Plato, argues for the unconditioned validity of authority over and against the sophistic conception of the laws of the state can be seen as a grave and unambiguous response to National Socialism in the period of its consolidation. Central here is the demand for a new paideia that was called upon to shape the youths into the guardians of the new state and to help them to resist the seductions of the sophistic spirit to which they may be exposed. In this way, a new form of subjectivity was to be developed that—without the recognition of basic human rights—was to bring the interior of the state into agreement with its external form. This achievement can be made visible, however, only when the meaning and scope of the topos of the sophists (or the sophistical), as well as the critique of the Enlightenment, is understood not only in terms of the history of ideas but also as a concrete and stigmatized way of representing the enemies of the state under National Socialism.

By drawing upon all the available material, in which Gadamer's voice is but one amongst many, we can establish the following points:

  1. The genesis of this multiform interpretation of Plato was not determined by extra-academic impulses or by some sort of Weltanschauung, but arose at the center of academic discourse itself and was unconditionally asserted as part of the scientific canon. Popular interpretations of Plato drew upon these approaches and sought to make them productive in their own way.
  2. At the same time, however, certain interpretations of Plato's Seventh Letter and of Plato's unwritten secret doctrine secured exclusive access to the truth for the academic elite under National Socialism. By identifying hidden “reserves of meaning” in the Platonic material, they were able to distinguish their own reading from the “simple message” contained in the popular image of Plato.[23]
  3. The topos of interpreting the Republic as an ideal task that is yet to be fulfilled allowed the possibility of conceiving new ways of actualizing this task under National Socialism as it developed through its various stages. This is something that can be shown in an exemplary way in the case of Gadamer. The traditional reading of the Seventh Letter as an expression of Plato's disappointment at the impossibility of realizing his project of a proper ordering of the state could be functionalized in a new way with
    the occurrence of “processes of disappointment” over certain unwelcome developments under National Socialism.

previous sub-section
The Art of Allusion
next sub-section