The concept of “mimesis” or imitation, for Plato and the role it plays in his ideal city-state in the Republic: Book X.
In the last of his books in “Republic”, Plato includes the philosophical discourse between Socrates and Glaucon. The first part of the conversation revolves around Socrates justifying an earlier statement on why a particular category of poets would not find a place in his ideal city-state.
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Socrates then goes ahead to present his arguments, classifying creators into three categories: the generator of the idea, the one who manifests the idea, and the one who simply imitates the manifestation of the idea. He illustrates this point by using a carpenter, a bed and an artist as an imitator (Plato 577, 578).
He says that the idea of the bed from which all beds are made generates from god, the carpenter who makes the bed ‘naturalizes’ what god had conceived, and the painter copies the idea of the bed without truly understanding it. His conclusion is that since those who fall into the third category; the imitators have no place in the city-state because they are farthest from the rational soul of the universe, and thus, they ‘muddy’ the truth (580).
Why Plato ultimately rejects mimesis and the poets from his ideal city-state
Plato rejects the poets from his ideal city-state for three fundamental reasons, adding that though he loves the poets himself, with Homer being the chief of these, he loves the truth more and he is bound to speak it (580).
His first argument is that poets, like artists do not understand their subject matter beyond what they perceive. The poet, writing about governance and war, knows no more about his subject matter than the artist who paints a bed. He says that for one to know the truth one must experience the truth (588).
God as the creator of the idea experiences the truth because he brings the idea into nature. The carpenter, experiences the truth when he creates from the idea that god has made. The artist on the other hand, just perceives what is in existence but does not understand it (589).
His other argument is that poets write about a wide variety of subjects, yet no man can make the claim that they know so much. He says that it is not possible for one man to understand all the disciplines; yet the point will write with as much ease about war and governance as he will about agriculture or the fine points of dance. To Plato, the superficial knowledge of the poets is a signal that they should not be given any gravity (589).
His third argument is that poets appeal to the baser of human emotions, that with their verse they may sway their audience to pity and unnecessary maudlin. This in turn means that the audience cannot reason clearly and in a just manner. Since one of the fundamental principles of his ideal city-state is justice, then the tragic poets contravene what the ideal city-state primarily stands for (591).
Weaknesses in Plato argument for the banishment of the poets from the ideal city
Plato’s argument for the banishment of tragedy poets from the ideal city is that the emotions the poets evoke with their work make the souls of people weak. When one’s soul is weakened with pity, the power of rational thought is decreased, and according to Plato, rationality is the core of the soul.
At the beginning of Socrates’ discourse with Glaucon, Plato identifies three sources of things: God, who creates the idea, the carpenter who manifests the idea, and finally at the lowest rank, the artist who, he says, imitates the idea without any a true appreciation of the substance of the idea (577).
Without doubt, Plato admits that god, who is the closest to the truth, is the origin of all things, he is the ‘wizard’, the one who knows all things, a concept that Glaucon dismisses at first (579). Hence, if this god is the origin of reason, and rational thinking that has its niche in the ideal city, is he not also the origin of emotion and feeling? If this god who is the source of the idea for the bed and the table, and made for the manifestation of these ideas, as the source of all things, then he too must be the source of the emotions such as pity and empathy.
The purpose of the carpenter is to ‘naturalize’ the idea of the bed; in the same way, the artist and the poet have their place too, and Plato should thus not dismiss them so lightly.
Man cannot be divorced from emotion. If Plato was of the argument that only certain emotions were to be admitted in the ideal city, the question rises whether these emotions of which Plato approved make a man any more just than those of which he disapproved.
Does ecstasy as would be roused by the poems dedicated to the gods make a man more just than feelings of pity roused by the tragedy poets? On this premise, Plato argument is thus that some emotions are more noble than others. The case in point is that extremes of emotions of any kind, in my opinion would distance one equally from the rational core of the soul.
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It seems that Plato based his argument on the premise that the state of being an artist and a carpenter are mutually exclusive events. Would the painting of a bed by an artist who also happens to be a carpenter and thus has the knowledge of a ‘creator’ still be considered three degrees from the truth?
If a war general, who has fought the bloodiest battles, wrote odes of the deeds done on the battlefield, would Plato discredit the poetry of such a man because, being poetry, it was an appearance but not reality?
Plato states that emotions make men weak, but does he really try to understand why emotions are as essential as the reasoning aspect of the soul. According to Socrate’s argument, emotions are the weaker and lesser part of the soul, but in essence, they still constitute the soul.
The soul has to be complete, just as Plato argues in his earlier writings that there is good and evil, then the soul has more than one part: the part that reasons, and the part that feels. Is it right for Plato to discredit one aspect of the soul because to him it serves a lesser purpose? If emotion serves no purpose then why did god make it part of the soul? Why did the god who made the soul integrate emotion? Is man still man with only reason and no emotion?
Plato discredits tragic poems but says that poems written about heroes would have a place in the ideal city-state. Yet poetry, no matter what the subject matter might still elicit the same response. If Homer wrote a poem on the tactics of war which moved his audience to tears, and another poet wrote a poem on the sufferings of a great hero in battle, is not the basic emotional response the same?
Plato says that the poet, and the artist, presents the truth three degrees removed from the source. Does that make the aspect of truth as represented by the artist or the poet any less true? Plato, as a philosopher, having never been a governor or a war general understood Homer’s poetry on governance and war, and furthermore, he admitted that he appreciated Homer’s writing. Just because Homer was neither a general nor a governor then his poetry should be discredited.
Yet the facts written by the poet do not become false or baseless because the writing is that of a poet and not a governor.
Just as the painter sets out to paint a bed not to make one; but the bed that the artist paints remains the representation of a bed that even the carpenter would identify. The artist does not set out to build a wooden bed; his objective is achieved as he set out to do. He captures one aspect of the truth, which, is no doubt an aspect of the truth (or appearance of it), but his aspect of the truth is not a sham.
Plato shunning of poetry is so earnest it should be genuine. He first brings up the issue of his own love of tragic poetry, especially Homer, then refutes it, because truth has to be paramount above all else.
Plato. Translated by Cohen, Benjamin. The Republic. Washington: Plain Label Books, 2008. Print