The ''popular philosopher'': Plato, Poetry, and Food in Tudor Aesthetics
Efterpi Mitsi
University of Athens

Mitsi, Efterpi. "The ''popular philosopher'': Plato, Poetry, and Food in Tudor Aesthetics." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): 2.1-23 <URL:

. . . the philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say he teacheth them that are already taught. But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs, the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher. (An Apology for Poetry 337)

  1. In the contest between philosophy and poetry presented in the Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney surprisingly compares the poet to "the food for the tenderest stomachs." Although Sidney links poetry to food throughout his treatise, describing it as a "cluster of grapes" (340) and a "medicine of cherries" (341), here it is the poet, rather than the poem, that nourishes and pleases, that is consumed and digested by the audience. Sidney's rhetorical choice has sacramental echoes, as the metaphor not only supports the didactic role of literature due to its "digestibility," but also evokes the primal association between poetry and life, the essential life-giving power of the poet.

  2. Food is the reflection of a culture's structure and world vision; it "metonymically brackets and informs all aspects of discourse and human experience" (Hinz v). As food is endowed with complex values and ideologies according to anthropologists and sociologists, [1] the use of alimentary discourse in literature is also ideological, involving questions of appetite, desire, consumption and pleasure. Moreover, in the early modern period, the predominance of the Galenic regime of the humors, which "demanded the invasion of social and psychological realms by biological and environmental processes," turned the stomach from a mere organ of digestion into "a primal site for the exercise of ethical discrimination and moral virtue" (Schoenfeldt 244, 257). The popularity of the comparison between poets and food, or even between poets and cooks, in sixteenth-century debates on poetry reflects concerns about the consumption of literature in Elizabethan culture, focusing on its social and moral function. In the context of such debates, the food metaphor recalls Plato's famous challenge against poetry, that it "nourishes" our worst part, and "it feeds and waters the growth of passions that should be allowed to wither away" (Republic 605c6-8). Sidney's comparison of poetry to the "first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled" even the enemies of poetry "to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges" (327), placed in the beginning of his Apology and soon followed by a reference to Plato's own philosophy as poetical, connects nourishment, poetry and Plato in an attempt to emphasize the necessity and popularity of literature in both past and present cultures.

  3. Whereas Sidney's popular philosopher in the passage quoted earlier is the poet, it is Plato, the author of the Republic, who emerges as the popular philosopher in Puritan attacks against literature. Indeed, sixteenth-century arguments on the role of poetry, such as Gosson's Schoole of Abuse and Sidney's Apology for Poetry, reveal the ambiguous reputation of Plato in the aesthetic program of the Reformation. Paradoxically, Plato figures in both attacks and defenses of poetry: on the one hand, he functions as its main "adversary," and on the other he is redeemed as its "patron," himself "the most poetical" of all philosophers (Sidney 352). Like the food metaphors, omnipresent in both Gosson and Sidney, the allusions to Plato involve the authors' anxieties about the uses and abuses of literature.

  4. Stephen Gosson's tract The Schoole of Abuse (1579) begins with a dedication to Sir Philip Sidney, presented as an invitation to dinner: "Beseeching you, though I bidde you to dinner, not to looke for a feaste fit for the curious taste of a perfect courtier" (4). His sparse and modest dinner is an attack against poetry addressed not only to the courtier representing the hope of European Protestantism, as Alan Stewart argues in his biography Philip Sidney: A Double Life, but also, rather ironically, to a poet. In apologizing for not satisfying "the curious taste" of a courtier, Gosson suggests that the differences between himself and Sidney involve attitudes towards courtly pleasure and consumption (Matz 63). Although Gosson wishes that "though the dishes be fewe, that I set before you, they shall for this time suffice your selfe and a great many moe," (5) Sidney will adopt the food metaphor for the opposite purpose, to defend poetry from such poor dinners.

  5. The association between writing and food continues throughout Gosson's text, culminating in the comparison between Homer and Mithecus:

    Mithecus . . . was an excellent Cooke among the Greekes, and asmuch honored for his confections, as Phidias for his caruing. But when he came to Sparta, thinking there for his cunning to be accounted a God, the good lawes of Licurgus, and custom of the country were to hot for his diet. The gouernours banished him and his art, and al the inhabitants folowing the steppes of their Predecessors, vsed not with dainties to prouoke appetite, but with labour and trauell too whette their stomackes to their meate. I may well liken Homer to Mithecus, and Poetes to Cookes the pleasures of the one winnes the body from labor, and conquereth the sense; the allurement of the other drawes the mind from vertue, and confoundeth wit. (12)

    By comparing poets to cooks, Gosson identifies poetry with indulgence, conspicuous consumption and expense; employing the discourse of protestant moral discipline, he criticizes the contemporary court as the site of curious tastes and suspect pleasures that have replaced Spartan hardship and discipline. The link of poetry to food leads to the justification of attacks against poetry, following the footsteps of Plato. "...As in euery perfect common wealth there ought to be good lawes established, right mainteined, wrong repressed, vertue rewarded, vice punished, and all maner of abuses thoroughly purged: So ought there such schooles for the furtherance of the same to be aduaunced, that young men may bee taught that in greene yeeres, that becomes them to practise in gray haires" (12).

  6. Gosson's Schoole of Abuse follows Plato to argue that poetry and drama are morally disruptive, and therefore should be banned from "a reformed commonwealth." Citing the Republic Book 10, where "Plato shut [poets] out of his schoole, and banished them quite from his commonwealth, as effeminate writers, unprofitable members, and utter enemies to vertue" (10), Gosson claims that poets mislead and seduce their audiences into a whole array of vices and abuses and thus employs Plato as well as Cicero, sources within the classical humanist tradition, as weapons against literature, itself the tool of humanist learning. Indeed, his Schoole of Abuse aims at "setting up the Flagge of Defiance" to the prevailing abuses of the day, claiming to be the one to "found the schoole and reade the first lecture of all." The public should avoid the pleasure of "poets, Pypers and players," especially the theatre which is a meeting place for "the wanton and his paramour" (25), leading to prostitution and social disorder. Disturbed by the "promiscuous mixing together of social groups" and especially about the presence of women as spectators (Howard 69-70), Gosson appears more concerned about the activity of going to the playhouse than the content of the plays themselves. Characteristically, his disgust at the theatre centers on the body (the proximity of bodies and the satisfying of the appetites of touching, smelling, seeing, hearing), evoking "the disease and disorder both of the natural body and the social body" (Hulse 53).

  7. Although Gosson centres his attack on the deceit of the stage and the players, following the Puritan objections to players as tricksters, "telling lies by counterfeiting of other personalities than their own" (Gurr 106), he does condemn all poets as masters of appearances who corrupt their audiences by masking the truth. His task, to unmask them and expose their deceit, is represented through a series of similes and metaphors, full of classical allusions:

    pul off the visard that Poets maske in, you shall disclose their reproch, bewray their vanitie, loth their wantonnesse, lament their follie, and perceiue their sharpe sayings to be placed as Pearles in Dunghils, fresh pictures on rotten walles, chaste Matrons apparel on common Curtesans. These are the Cuppes of Circes, that turne reasonable creatures into brute Beastes, the balles of Hippomenes, that hinder the course of Atalanta; and the blocks of the Diuel that are cast in our wayes, to cut off the rase of toward wittes. No marueyle though Plato shut them out of his schoole, and banished them quite from his common wealth, as effeminate writers, vnprofitable members, and vtter enimies to vertue. (10)

    The armour of humanism, the knowledge of classical antiquity, is thus used to attack poetry, an attack concluded by the evocation of the Republic. Indeed, Plato's famous legacy could not be absent from any discussion of appearance and reality. Furthermore, Gosson, through Plato, accuses writers as effeminate, and connects effeminacy to idleness and waste. The loss of a traditional masculine warrior role was a popular reproach against poets in the Renaissance, where the discourse of sexual difference was, as Thomas Laqueur has demonstrated, a metaphysics of hierarchy. Gender encoded the development from childhood and youth to adulthood as a progression toward a goal of masculinity, the "effeminate" period of youth therefore being a stage of indeterminate length. Youth was also associated with the secondary attributes of the absolutist aristocracy -- learning, polish, wit, and of course with poetry. Being a poet "represented the threatening alternative of indefinite 'youth' and thus 'effeminate' baseness" (Pask 164). In the same way that Gosson compared Mithecus' "dainty" meals with poetry, he also links sexual with social criticism, opposing the manly middle-class protestant, the profitable member of society, to the eternally "young," effeminate, and thus socially powerless and useless courtly poet.

  8. When he published The Schoole of Abuse, Gosson was twenty-four years of age and already a poet and dramatist himself. Educated at Oxford, he had written pastorals before leaving for London to become both actor and playwright. As he confesses in his tract, he had produced at least three dramas: Catalines Conspiracy, "a cast of Italian devices called The comedie of Captaine Mario," and "a moral" entitled Praise at Parting. Gosson, however, left London and the theatre at the end of 1578 to become a private tutor in the country; there he prepared his Pleasaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters and such like Caterpillers of a commonwelth, entered at Stationers' Hall on 22 July of the year following (Dover Wilson 389).

  9. Although the term "abuse" in the title emphasizes moral censure, The Schoole of Abuse does not read like a puritan palinode but seems to compete against Lyly's Euphues, which had appeared a few months earlier. Its worldly and smooth style as well as its elaborate classical allusions question Gosson's moral censure of poetry as the product of his reformed conscience; instead they suggest his desire to rival the success of Euphues, as well as a possible discontent with the theatre. In fact, in the later sermon "The Trumpet of War" (1598) he attacks continental reformers, "showing he was not really a puritan" (Carey 355). Gosson certainly hoped that by publishing his attack against literature, especially drama, he would attract the favourable notice of London puritans. Among the letters at the end of the book is one addressed to the lord mayor, Sir Richard Pipe, as well as to the aldermen, applauding their policy on the theatre. Indeed, as John Carey has already pointed out, Gosson "seems to have been a quite successful dramatist" but attacked the stage because he was "almost certainly hired by the city authorities to do so" (355).

  10. Gosson's attack was widely read, prompting direct replies such as Thomas Lodge's A Reply to Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse in Defence of Poetry, Musick, and Stage Plays (1580), as well as one of the central theoretical documents of the era, Sidney's Apology for Poetry (1595). Lodge carries even further Gosson's comparison between writing and food, poets and cooks, assuming the role of the physician who could give Gosson a potion, purging him of his wrong diet:

    If you please I wyll become your frende and see what a potion or receypt I can frame fytt for your diet. and herein I will proue my selfe a practiser, before I purdge you, you shall take a preparatiue to dis burden your heauy hedde of those grose follis you haue conceued: but the receipt is bitter, therefore I would wysh you first to taste[n] your mouth with the Suger of persevera[n]ce: for ther is a cold collop yt must downe your throate yet such a one as shall chau[n]ge your complection quit. (7)

    Replying to Gosson's metaphor of his tract as a modest dinner, which aims at the moral education of its readers, Lodge offers his own text as medicine instead of food. His concern about his opponent's digestion parodies Gosson's anxieties about indulgence, consumption and waste: it is Gosson's "follies" that need to be purged rather than the lavish and heavy dinners of Mithecus, associated by the latter with poetry. Following the early modern notion of the centrality of the stomach in the life of the organism, Lodge suggests that Gosson's "indigestion", his distaste for poetry, has affected not only his mental capability but also the realms of his soul.

  11. Lodge must have written his tract immediately after Gosson's School appeared. His defence was refused a licence and was secretly printed in the late summer of 1579 with no evidence of the identity of the author or publisher--an indication of puritan power. Similarly to the text he attacks, Lodge's prose is full of classical allusions and occasionally attempts the euphuistic manner. The tract also contains personal insinuation: Lodge and Gosson, had been contemporaries at Oxford and were probably acquaintances later in London (Dover Wilson 389; Paradise 71). Lodge uses the same armour as Gosson, the authority of ancient writers and philosophers to defend poetry, marked by a detachment from contemporary literary experience. However, he recognizes the need to reform the abuses of literature, arguing that it is wiser to correct rather than censor poets:

    I like not of an angry Augustus which wyll banishe Ovid for envy, I love a wise Senator, which in wisedome wyll correct him and with advise burne his follyes: unhappy were we yf like poore Scaurus we shoulde find Tiberius that wyll put us to death for a tragedy making but most blessed were we if we might find a iudge that seuerely would amende the abuses of Tragedies but I leave the reformation thereof to more wyser than my selfe. (10)

  12. Lodge also rejects Gosson's comparison between poets and cooks as an irreverent and ignorant argument; his emphasis is on the elevation of the status of poets in the hierarchy of disciplines with the help of course of the ancient authorities. His refutation of Gosson's comparison ends with a dismissal of his opponent's use of Plato:

    you compare Homer to Methecus, cookes to Poetes, you shame your selfe in your vnreverent similituds, you may see your follyes verbum sapienti sat: whereas Homar was an ancient poet, you disalow him, and accompte of those of lesser judgement. Strabo calleth poetry, primam sapientiam. Cicero in his firste of his Tusculans attributeth ye invencion of philosophy, to poets. God keepe us from a Plato that should expel such men. (10)

    His phrasing suggests that Gosson's Plato, or a puritan Plato, is a different figure from the favourite philosopher of European humanism. Lodge even suggests that Gosson has misappropriated the Greek philosopher, founding his argument on the problematic (according to Lodge) notion of imitation:

    your Plato in midst of his precisnes wrought that absurdite that never may be redd in Poets, to make a yearthly creature to beare the person of the creator, and a corruptible substaunce, an incomprehensible God: for determining of the principall causes of all thinges, a made them naught els but an Idea which if it be conferred wyth the truth, his sentence will savour of Inscience. (4)

  13. Furthermore, in his discussion of the importance of divine inspiration to poets, Lodge claims that Gosson does not really know Platonic philosophy, but merely babbles the notorious passage from the Republic: "I would make a long discourse vnto you of Platoes 4. furies but I leue them it pitieth me to bring a rodd of your owne making to beate you withal" (7). Throughout his text Lodge expresses his contempt of Gosson's classical learning, calling his lengthy quotations and allusions "stories" which show mere reading rather than wisdom.

  14. In his defence, Lodge compares poets to physicians rather than cooks, administering wisdom to their readers-patients in the form of a pleasant, palatable potion, a notion echoed in Sidney's "popular philosopher," who communicates vital knowledge and understanding to the public:

    so that, what so they wrot, it was to this purpose, in the way of pleasure to draw men to wisedome: for seing the world in those daies was unperfect, yt was necessary that they like good Phisi[ti]ons: should so frame their potions, that they might be appliable to the quesie stomaks of their werish patients. (3)

    The emphasis on the stomach through the comparison of literature to the sweetened medicine that coats wisdom with pleasure replies to Gosson's dismissal of poetry as mere pleasure, pleasure being used pejoratively as conspicuous consumption and leisure. It also alludes to Lodge's self-fashioning as the physician framing the potion to cure Gosson of his disease. Just as the stomach is in the sixteenth-century the "central medium for therapies that alter body and mind" (Schoenfield 250), poetry is the means for both pleasure and education, reviving body and soul. Lodge's literally therapeutic notion of literature is further underlined through a series of rhetorical questions: "what made Erasmus labor in Euripides tragedies? did he indeuour by painting them out of Greeke into Latine to manifest sinne vnto us? or to confirm vs in goodnes?" (4). Lodge asserts the didactic role of literature, a role connecting antiquity with modernity, the pagan authors with their humanist Christian readers, interpreters and translators. Yet Lodge, the protestant defender of literature, has to stress that poetry did not originate in pagan antiquity, but "all the beginning of Poetrye proceeded from the Scripture" (6).

  15. Throughout Lodge's defence, it is Plato, rather than the contemporary puritan opponents of literature, that emerges as the most formidable enemy of poetry. Not only does Lodge expose what he considers as weaknesses in Platonic philosophy, but also employs an army of wise men, pagan as well as Christian authorities, to prove that the author of the Republic was totally wrong: "Poetes were the first raysors of cities, prescribers of good lawes, mayntayners of religion, disturbors of the wicked, advancers of the wel disposed, inve[n]tors of laws, and lastly the very fotpaths to knowledg. & vndersta[n]ding ye if we shold beleue Herome he wil make Platos exiles honest me[n], & his pestiferous poets good preachers" (9) The traditional function of poets as creators of culture counters Gosson's narrow-minded utilitarianism, and the juxtaposition between exiles and honest men, pestiferous poets and good preachers, affirms once again the social value of literature in a protestant culture, poetry remedying and healing rather than spreading social and moral disease.

  16. However, another contemporary defender of poetry was determined to save both literature and Plato for Protestantism. Although Gosson had dedicated his tract to Sir Philip Sidney, the latter, using again all the sources of classical and European humanism, wrote his Apology to defend poetry from attacks such as Gosson's. After explaining that he had "just cause to make a pitiful defence of poor poetry, which from the highest estimation is fallen to be the laughing stock of children"(326), Sidney boldly pronounces that those employing Plato in their assault against literature have actually misread the philosopher's arguments, since Plato "banish[ed] the abuse not the thing"(353). Although he does not name Gosson, Sidney places him among those "who cry out with open mouth, as if they had overshot Robin Hood, that Plato banished [poets] out of his commonwealth" (348). Indeed, Gosson's tract -- and its dedication to Sidney -- may have prompted the composition of the Apology (Duncan-Jones and Van Dorsten 61-62, Carroll 259, Gurr 128; Kinney "Parody and Its Implications in Sidney's Defence"1-19). Following the metaphor of masking and masquerade, already used by Gosson, Sidney exposes the enemies of poetry as asses masquerading as lions through their misreading of Plato: "For indeed I had much rather, since truly I may do it, show their mistaking of Plato under whose lion's skin they would make an ass-like braying against poesy, than go about to overthrow his authority"(353). Instead of questioning Plato's arguments in the Republic, as Lodge did, Sidney unmasks the puritan readers of the ancient philosopher as ignorant fools, eventually incapable of hurting literature. The metaphor of the ass, a very popular one in the sixteenth century, [2] emphasizes the stupidity of the opponents of poetry and exposes their claim to Plato as fake and superficial, a hide covering their ignorance and folly, very much unlike the humanists' profound understanding. Sidney's contempt recalls Lodge's low opinion of Gosson's scholarship, especially of his ignorance of Platonic philosophy.

  17. In his text, Sidney intends to elevate poetry, not merely from cooking to medicine, but by placing it above philosophy in the hierarchy of disciplines. Therefore, his argument rests not only on the notion of the poet as the "popular philosopher" but also on the philosopher himself as poet: Sidney claims that the earliest Greek philosophers were poets, culminating of course in Plato, "the most poetical" (352) of all philosophers. In a rather bold twist, the traditional enemy of poetry is turned into a poet himself!

  18. Sidney's Apology was not only a response to Gosson's polemic, but also a personal defense, a need to "say something unto you in the defence of that my unelected vocation," (326) as it was written alongside the Arcadia. The need, therefore, to address Plato's devastating attack on poetry as inferior and deceptive mimesis, and to understand Plato's hostility towards poets became a particularly crucial issue. Sidney's food metaphor, the poet as the "food for the tenderest stomachs," responds to Plato's challenge that poetry "nourishes" our worst part, that "it feeds and waters" those passions that should be always controlled and repressed (Republic 605c6-8). Whereas Plato condemns the audience's behaviour at the theatre as "womanish," Sidney insists that poetry is an art "not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage" (354), constantly rejecting the commonplace association of poetry, youth, and effeminacy: "poetry is the companion of camps" (351), and "Alexander left his schoolmaster, living Aristotle, behind him, but took dead Homer with him" (351).

  19. In his effort to prove that Plato fought the abuses of poetry, not poetry itself, Sidney also argues that in Ion, Plato "giveth high and rightly divine commendation into poetry" (353). Sidney's reading, however, is incomplete as in this dialogue, Socrates exposes the rhapsodist Ion's lack of understanding of what Homer's poems have to say, suggesting that the public confounds values of performance with values of understanding, whereas the former undermine the latter (Ferrari 95). Plato turns the traditional claim that the poet is divinely inspired around, concluding that poetry does not properly engage the understanding, as Ion is always running on inspiration rather than understanding. Sidney's argument that in the Republic Plato attacks the abuses of poetry is even more problematic. On the one hand, Plato's objections to poetry are metaphysical, denouncing art as inferior to artisanship, being an imitation not in direct contact with truth; [3] on the other hand, they are psychological, related however, to Plato's negative notion of imitation: Given the imitative nature of poetry, it opposes the "best" in people and targets or appeals to the "worst" in them. Even as experienced by the worthiest among the audience, poetry (tragedy, for example) exploits their worst part and corrupts them. Arguing that this is not a proper education for the audience, Plato's premise is ethical rather than aesthetic.

  20. The question arising from reading the Republic together with Gosson and Sidney is who (and why) has really misread Plato. Is Sidney consciously misreading Plato's Republic or reforming Plato through an intertextual and political reading, based on a whole body of texts defending poetry, and reflecting on the relation between nature and art, from Aristotle to Scaliger? As Arthur Kinney suggests, Sidney's reasoning, "that Plato could see passions aroused by ideas in virtuous ways: that Plato too was a poet, and a good (read virtuous, not merely successful) poet," is "neither clever nor desperate sophistry, but a thoughtful and logical position that fused philosophy and poetry with life" ("Intimations of Mortality: Sidney's Journey to Flushing and Zutphen." 135). Rather than misreading, Sidney is rereading or reforming Book X of the Republic in the context of a broader cultural negotiation "of the divergent codes of pagan literature and Protestantism" (Sinfield 124). [4]

  21. Plato's role in Sidney's aesthetic programme of literary reform concerns the connection between art and virtue. Using the humanist concept of imitation, Sidney emphasized on the importance of poetry, arguing that it may lead to virtue rather than sin. While recognizing the moral ambiguity of texts (especially those from antiquity), Sidney justifies poetry as "an education in virtue," a principle influencing the teaching of both classical and vernacular literature for centuries (Carroll 261). Depending on the Aristotelian notion of mimesis (Poetics 1. 1477 14-15), Sidney also evokes Plato by adding to the word imitation the sense of a model, a guide to virtue: "the skill of the artificer standeth in that Idea or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself" (331). Whereas nature can create "the particular excellency" of Cyrus only once (331), poetry can create many imitations of that excellency and teach virtue to readers through his example. Therefore, Plato's main objection to poetry is turned around, through the influence of Sidney's "Augustinian-Calvinist belief in the weakness and needs of the human will" (Carroll 259). Indeed, Sidney's emphasis on the capacity of poetry to teach delightfully (to sweeten the pill, so to speak) is Platonic, since it was Plato who insisted that poetry if ever admitted at all in the ideal Republic should be morally instructive (Hardison 78).

  22. Throughout the Apology, Sidney's vision of the transformational power of poetry, emphasized through the imagery of food, recalls Levi-Straus's notion of cooking as the mediator between nature and culture: it is the poet in this case that transforms the raw (what belongs to nature) into the cooked, an elaboration in the form of cultural transformation (406). Poets mediate between the raw product and its human consumer, between the physical world and the subject, combining sustenance with pleasure. It is indeed this metamorphosis that makes food a suitable and yet complex metaphor for the poetic endeavour. Moreover, the contemporary view of digestion as "a very literal assimilation of something that is not part of one to the essence of one's being" (Schoenfeldt 245) corresponds to Sidney's view of the profound effects of poetry on its readers. Whereas Gosson and the puritan opponents of literature condemn pleasure as waste, for Sidney the pleasure offered by poetry is profit, a difference illustrated by the story of Menenius Agrippa's tale, which is quoted by Sidney as an example of teaching wisdom through delight: "there was a time when all the parts of the body made a mutinous conspiracy against the belly" and "concluded they would let so unprofitable a spender starve. In the end [. . .] with punishing the belly they plagued themselves" (342). The tale affirms the rights of the belly, the importance of consumption and digestion for life and growth in all senses, placing once again the defense of literature in the context of the body, associating it with food, with life-giving nourishment, such as the mother's milk.

  23. Plato's Republic Book 10 emerges as a "map of misreading", a site of a contest between opposing views on literary reform, evoking what Joyce describes as the "babbling pumpt of platinism" (Finnegans Wake). The reformation of Plato involves the appropriation of the ancient philosopher by protestant concerns and values, as well as the correction or amendment of what was thought erroneous, defective or corrupt in Platonic philosophy, already condemned by Calvin in the Commentaries on the Genesis as a "fictitious kind of teaching [which] would be injurious rather than profitable" (xlix). Yet, if Protestants could accept Sidney's claim that Plato attacked the abuses of poetry rather than poetry itself, then Plato's own "abuses" could also be redeemed. When Lodge proposed the correction rather than the expulsion of poets, he added that the "reformation" of their errors should be left to wiser critics than his own self (10). Sidney's use of Plato in the Apology combined with his pervasive food imagery performs such a reformation. Although Sidney argues that no poet would "authorize abominable filthiness as [philosophers] do" (352) like Plato in Phaedrus or Symposium and underlines that Plato's ideal commonwealth "alloweth community of women" -- therefore the poet's "banishment grew not for effeminate wantonness, since little should poetical sonnets be hurtful when a man might have what woman he listed" (352) --, he is still determined to consume, devour even, Plato's pagan wisdom to protestant purposes: "But I honor philosophical instructions, and bless the wits that bred them, so as they be not abused, which is likewise stretched to poetry" (352). In Sidney's own ideal world, in an England embracing and nourishing poets as a mother, a "reformed" Plato, the "patron and not [the] adversary of poets"(353) would recognize that it is not poetry that "abuseth man's wit, but that man's wit abuseth poetry" (350).


1. See Lévi-Strauss and Fischler. On alimentary discourse and literature see the special issue of Mosaic 24.3-4 Diet and Discourse: Eating, Drinking and Literature.

2. On the popularity and complexity of the ass motif in Renaissance literature see Deborah Baker Wyrick, esp. 432-439.

3. "We refused to admit [poetry in the Republic] because it is imitative [...] All the imitative arts seem to me ruinous to the mental powers of all their hearers who do not have as an antidote the knowledge of what these arts really are. The imitator knows nothing worth mentioning of what he imitates, but this imitation is a sort of game and not serious, and all who undertake tragic poetry in iambic poems and in epics are imitators in the full sense of the word. This imitation is not in direct contact with truth (600e) [. . .] The imitative poet sets up a badly governed state in the soul of each individual" (605a).

4. Sidney's appropriation of Plato, his attempt to "save" Plato from Gosson relates to the larger issue concerning the hybridity of the Apology itself, being both an example of the European character of humanism and a product of the Reformation, of the English nationalist and Protestant mode typical of works such as Spenser's Faerie Queene (Waller 36-37, Sinfield 124). According to Alan Sinfield, "the diverse constituents of the Defense reveal an intervention at a particular political juncture, aimed at appropriating literature to earnest protestant activism" (124).

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).