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Why isn't storytelling taken seriously?

Storytelling and the paradox of Plato

Why did Plato ban storytellers? Why did he practise storytelling? These questions of ancient history have surprising relevance to our world today.

We live in an age when storytelling is suspect. Scientists deride it. Philosophers threaten to censor it. Logicians have difficulty in depicting it. Management theorists generally ignore it. And storytelling’s bad press is not new. It has been disreputable for several millennia, ever since Plato identified poets and storytellers as dangerous fellows who put unreliable knowledge into the heads of children and hence would be subject to strict censorship in The Republic.

It is ironic that Plato, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, should also be the man who proposed that in the rational world of the Republic storytellers would be either banned or censored:

The Republic: Books 2-3

Socrates discusses the nature of a republic organized on rational lines:

And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?

We cannot.

Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded....

But which stories do you mean, he said; and what fault do you find with them?

A fault which is most serious, I said; the fault of telling a lie, and, what is more, a bad lie.

But when is this fault committed?

Whenever an erroneous representation is made of the nature of gods and heroes -- as when a painter paints a portrait not having the shadow of a likeness to the original.

.... these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important

.... poets and story-tellers are guilty of making the gravest misstatements when they tell us that wicked men are often happy, and the good miserable; and that injustice is profitable when undetected, but that justice is a man's own loss and another's gain -- these things we shall forbid them to utter, and command them to sing and say the opposite.

..... And therefore when any one of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. And so when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city. For we mean to employ for our souls' health the rougher and severer poet or story-teller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed at first when we began the education of our soldiers.

....But shall our superintendence go no further, and are the poets only to be required by us to express the image of the good in their works, on pain, if they do anything else, of expulsion from our State? Or is the same control to be extended to other artists, and are they also to be prohibited from exhibiting the opposite forms of vice and intemperance and meanness and indecency in sculpture and building and the other creative arts; and is he who cannot conform to this rule of ours to be prevented from practising his art in our State, lest the taste of our citizens be corrupted by him? We would not have our guardians grow up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul. Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.

Why did Plato attack storytelling and storytellers? This depends on one's view of The Republic. On the surface, Plato appears to be describing an ideal world, organized entirely on rational lines. In this literal sense, Plato can be seen as the explicit enemy of storytelling.

On another level, The Republic can be seen as an ironic description of what a purely rational republic might be like, if only to show the impossibility of organizing the world on purely rational lines. In this sense, Plato, the great storyteller, is well aware of the awesome power of storytelling, and notes that its effectivenes is not derived through entirely rational means, and hence logically, the storytellers, along with the poets and musicians, must be either banned from The Republic or at least strictly censored. In this sense, Plato can be seen as protecting the young against the power of storytelling. He did not however hesitate himself to use storytelling to attain his own rhetorical goals.

The story of the dinner party that Plato tells in Symposium, has lived for several thousand years, and seems destined to live forever.

Narrative and analysis are complimentary

In The Secret Language of Leadership, I point out that narrative and analysis are not antithetical or in conflict. They are complimentary approaches to communication. Here's a passage from chapter 12:

"In making the case for narrative, I am in no way trying to undermine science or drag the world back to the dark ages of myth and superstition. On the contrary, I am committed to science and its self-correcting methodology.

"We need to apply double-blind controls in experiments, where neither the subjects nor the experimenters know the experiment’s objectives during data collection. We need to vet our results at professional conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. We should insist that research be replicated by others unaffiliated with the original researcher. In our reports, we need to include any evidence to the contrary, as well as alternative interpretations of the data. We need to encourage colleagues to be skeptical and to raise objections. If extraordinary claims are being made, we must put forward extraordinary evidence. Those methods need to be applied to the language of leadership as well as to everything else.

"But when we’ve done all that, and it’s vital that we do it, how do we communicate the results of what we have discovered, particularly if our findings are highly disruptive to people’s lives? If we try to communicate those findings by the same methods through which the findings were derived, what usually happens? Pushback. Resistance. Cynicism. Hostility. If we use narrative intelligence and employ the language of leadership, the results can be very different.

"It’s a matter of using science and analysis for what they are good at, and using the language of leadership to communicate science’s findings and get them implemented. Just think for a moment. Would it be scientific to go on using the language of analysis for an activity for which it isn’t suited, while refusing to use a different language that does work? To adopt such an approach would be the height of unscientific behavior."


Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, October 2007)

Plato, The Republic

Plato, Symposium

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