Plato: Republic and Theory of Imitation

Theory of Art
Categories : Literary Criticism
Bust of Plato%252C Vatican Museum%252C Rome


Plato (428 -348 B.C.)

The Dialogue:  total- 36

The dialogue is between Glaucon and Adeimantus who have both experienced the influence of the Sophists. The main discussion is carried on by Socrates and the subject of the conversation is the role and status of poetry in a “well-ordered state“.

Plato’s teacher Socrates (470-399 B.C.)
The information about him depends on the historian Xenophon and the philosopher Plato.

 Generally what is the Socratic Philosophy that Plato tries to explore and debate?

“One thing only In know and that is that I know nothing”, 

is the starting point of Socratic philosophy. Socrates destroyed the false conceit of knowledge and binding the Athenians to their ignorance. He conversed with all who would listen. He would ask the same question,

What is justice? or Love? or Virtue?

The ideology of Plato was essentially rooted in his firm opposition to Democracy. This position gained firmer ground as a result of the martyrdom of Socrates.  He founded near the grove sacred to a legendary hero called Academus, which became known as the “Academy.” He gathered several pupils who united themselves in a “museum” a friendly society dedicated to the Muses. Plato appears to have devoted himself to his “Academy” for the remaining forty years of his life.

 Plato’s dialogues constitute a philosophical work and masterpieces of literature with lasting influence. Written in prose recognized for its purity and elegance, Plato’s dialogues have become synonymous with a philosophy to which the central contribution is the Theory of Forms. Closely associated with this theory are two others, namely that the soul is immortal and that all knowledge is reminiscence or recollection.

The Republic

Plato’s declared masterpiece is a dialogic projection of the discussion between Socrates and his friends on the nature of justice and the conversation leads to an outline of the ideal or perfect society. Studying it primarily as a book of philosophy it is important to pay attention to the reasoning, the order, and connection of thought. The argument of The Republic falls into two main sections.

1. The chief speaker is Socrates who repeats the conversation for unnamed groups the day after it occurs. Those taking part besides himself, he says, his friend Cephalus, his son Polemarches, Plato’s brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus, and a Sophist called Thrasymachus. The conversation begins with a discussion of old age (Cephalus is a very old man) but this is soon abandoned in favor of an attempt to define Justice. The question raised and discussed is: What does morality mean in a man’s innermost life?

2. Plato describes in outline what, as he thinks would be the best form of human society. The answer is that human life would be as perfect as it is capable of being if it is governed throughout by knowledge of the Ideal Forms. The cause of all present evils is hat men are blinded by opinions that arise from the transient material phenomenon perceived by the senses. At this point, Socrates says that he will describe by an image what is the actual condition of mankind regarding education and the want of it. (“Allegory of the Cave.”) The Allegory depicts the position of the man on earth and his deliverance by education. Plato’s theory of education springs directly out of the allegory of the cave. Education is like putting sight into blind eyes, it is like turning the eye to the light. Indeed it could only be done by turning the whole body round. Education means not merely illuminating the intellect, but turning the soul another way. The allegory describes a liberator who turns the prisoners round and tries to convince them that the actual images they see in the light of the Sun are nearer to reality than the shadows they watched in the cave. Socrates suggests that most people spend their lives seeing only reflections or hearing only echoes without ever seeing or hearing the originals. The cave stands for the visible world in which we live, the fire in the cave representing the sun. Just as the cave represents the sensible world, so the sensible world outside the cave represents the ideal world of Forms.

Knowledge in The Republic:

Poets and painters are altogether ignorant of conceptual knowledge. A work of art has no hold of reality in the way that knowledge has. It represents things as they appear and not as they are or ought to be. Thus begins what Plato calls “an ancient feud between philosophy and poetry.” Plato resolves, though reluctantly, that poetry must be banished from the ideal state. The essence of Plato’s criticism and analysis is straightforward – since every particular object in the sensible world is only an image its appropriate Form, every representation of such a particular must be at least twice removed from reality. Any particular bed can only be an imperfect copy of the Form of Bed and any painting of that particular bed can only be a copy of a copy.

Poetry, like painting, is only a reproduction of a reproduction ( instead of performing heroic deeds, the poet writes about them.) What poetry offers is not ‘knowledge’ but ‘opinion’. That which is grasped by thought, with a dialectical account is the thing that is always real, whereas that which is the object of opinion and belief with unreasoning sensation is the thing that changes and passes away and never has real being. Then the imitator is a long way off the truth and can reproduce all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image. For example:

painter will be paint a cobbler, carpenter, or any other artisan, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good painter, he may deceive children or simple persons when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter….And surely, my friend, that is how we should regard all such claims: whenever any one informs us that he has found a man who knows all the arts, and all the things else that anybody knows, and every single thing with a higher degree of accuracy than any of other man – whoever tells us this, I think that we can only retort that he is a simple creature who seems to have been deceived by some wizard or imitator whom he met, and who he though all-knowing, because he himself was unable to analyse the nature of knowledge and ignorance and imitation. (Book X)

Art and Literature:

Plato’s views on Art and Literature and Education derive from his theory of Forms. Poetry like painting is thrice removed from reality. The artist is a copyist for Plato. He is inferior to the workman or producer because he is an imitator and creates a world of make-believe. Imitation (mimesis Greek) is not set by Plato against the creative imagination: he calls a beautiful rhythm ” an imitation” of a ’manly’, self-controlled character. Imitation enters the very fabric. One is constantly imitating the forms.

 “We imitate, not only if we play a part on the stage, but when we sit as spectators, when we read Homer and put ourselves into the place of his heroes. We imitate unconsciously the line and color of the walls around us, the trees by the wayside, the animals we pet, the very dress we wear.”

The depth of Plato’s theory of imitation and his recognition of the power of Art upholds the view that there is no other road to the truth but dialectical reason.

Platonic Forms:

The central place in Plato’s system is occupied by the theory of Forms. The Forms constitute a world which exists of itself, is eternal and unchanging and can be grasped by thought. In this pure and independent existence, the forms have their abode – here the soul in its former existence has perceived them. All leaning and knowledge consist of the recollection of the soul of the forms when it perceives the things of sense. The role of the teacher is like that of the mid-wife who assists at the birth of ideas. The earthly things perceived by the senses are mere fleeting and shadowy images of the eternal world of forms. The earthly things perceived by the senses are mere fleeting and shadowy images of the eternal world of forms.

Theory of Imitation:

The Republic also discusses the kind of stories that should be told to the guardians in their early childhood and finds many tales about gods that would be undesirable for the purpose. He pleads for censorship of art and cites passages from Homer and Sophocles and others that should be deleted. (Book III) In the tenth book, this attack on art leading to the conclusion that art has no social or educative value ( most art is worthless in this respect, according to Socrates) and should be banned from his ideal State. Then the imitative poets were aims at being popular is not by nature made, but the art is intended, to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul; but he will appeal rather to the lachrymose and fitful temper, which is easily imitated?……..And now we may fairly take him and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two different ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth – in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being the associate of an inferior part of the soul, and this is enough to show that we shall be right in refusing to admit him into the state which is to be well ordered because he awakens, nourishes this part of the soul, and by strengthening it impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to wield power and the finer men are put out of the way, so in the soul of each man, as we shall maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less; but thinks the same thing at one time great and another small — he is an imitator of images and is very far removed from the truth. (Book X).

The basic ground for this banishment, as brought out through the dialogue, is that all art is a case of mimesis. Socrates had used this term in the third book when he discusses three different forms of poetry: Narrative as in Lyric poetry mimetic or representative in Drama, both tragedy and comedy, and a mixture of both in Epic. As the argument/dialogue develops, he uses the term mimesis to describe artistic creation as a whole. Plato uses the term in two different senses in The Republic. It has the general sense, IMITATION, and a particular sense of REPRESENTATION or IMPERSONATION. The sense of representation or impersonation is brought because, in Drama, the author identifies himself (herself?) with his character and in this emotional identification comes to represent or impersonate that character fully. In the theatre, this emotional identification extends to the audience. This is undesirable, especially, if the guardians emotionally identify themselves with evil characters.

Mimesis in Book X:

In this book the word mimesis is used in both senses of representation and imitation: In the case of Tragedy and Comedy and in Homer (through his use of Direct Speech) mimesis essentially implies representation. Both representation and imitation are implied in fine arts like painting. Applying his theory of forms, Socrates shows that all products of imitative art are but a third remove from the truth i.e., the essential nature of a thing. If a painter paints a bed it is only a copy of a copy. First, there is a form of the bed created by god, then its imitation created by the carpenter, and finally it’s copying by the painter and that too of only a particular aspect (for the painter cannot fully imitate the carpenter). The painter, therefore, is inferior to even the craftsman for he only creates appearances. Plato further remarks that a fine art such as painting is like producing reflections of objects in a mirror. The Republic, in effect, attacks realism in the art which believes that a work of art is an image of likeness of some original, or holds a mirror up to nature.

An easy way to accomplish this feat might be quickly and easily accomplished, none quicker than that of turning a mirror round and round – you would soon enough make the sun and the heavens, and the earth and yourself, and other animals and plants, and furniture and all the other things of which we were just now speaking, in the mirror. (Book X)


Implications for Poetry:

The implications of most art being imitative are far deeper for poetry than for other arts. Plato attacks poetry not only for being the third remove from the truth but also on psychological grounds. Drama represents characters in all kinds of actions, pleasant and unpleasant, and in all kinds of emotions indiscriminately. It shows them succumbing to grief and anguish whereas in real life men might like to face up to their misfortunes: the imitative poet is a maker of images, far distant from the truth.
The element of ‘being distant from truth’ leads Plato to contest the value of poetry as the true source of knowledge. Poets for the Greeks were infallible guides. But Plato says that they do not possess the knowledge, which alone is infallible. He, therefore, refuses to accept the social and educative value of poetry. The full implication of Plato’s theory of art is imitation: artists indulge in uncritical copying of an object and are quite uncritically affected emotionally by it. Hence artists especially poets (by far the most influential of artists) stand banished from Plato’s envisioned Ideal State.

Theory of Art
Plato’s views on art must have been shocking to his contemporaries and more than two thousand years later the modern mind can only consider him to be perverse when he condemns the greatest artists that Greece has ever produced – and the list includes immortal names like Sophocles and Homer.

A summary of Plato’s arguments in Book X.

 All art is a representation of imitation (mimesis) of an original, that is the form as defined in the theory of Forms.

 An artist’s representation is at the third remove from reality or truth. To take the example of a bed, first, there is a Form in nature, then its imitation by a carpenter and finally its picture by the painter. The painter and by extension any imitative artist including the tragedian is inferior to an artisan. What the artist produces is appearance and not reality.

 The claim of the poets and tragedians, especially Homer, that they are masters of all skills and know all about human excellence and religion are baseless. Neither Homer
nor the other poets had a real knowledge of the subjects they wrote about – war, statesmanship, administration, human conduct, etc.

 Poetry uses words, meter, rhythm, and music to create a picture but if you remove these elements it has no substance left.

 Another way to look at a thing’s worth it in terms of its use, manufacture, and representation (in contrast to form, manufacture and representation) Only the user knows best about a thing’s worth, the artist knows little or nothing about it. The art of representation has no serious value. This is true of all tragic poetry, epic or dramatic.

 Art in general and poetry in particular deals with the less rational part of our nature; the tragic drama depicts grief and suffering of the characters rather than their courage and fortitude in the face of misfortune.

 Poetry, dramatic poetry, in particular, most often corrupts even the best characters. It arouses our baser instincts by ‘representing’ sex, anger, vulgarity. In essence, it perverts our moral sense.

Poetry has a low degree of truth, deals with a low element in our minds, and very often has a corrupting influence on the audience. Therefore, the poetry of pleasure and poetry of grief shall be cast out of Plato’s ideal state, so that pain and pleasure do not rule in place of law and reason. In short, the poet will be banished.

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