The critique of poetry runs through the entire Platonic corpus. Plato’s main point of criticism is formulated in the Republic, in two places (books II-III and book X), and is based on approaching poetry as mimesis. As far as we know, nobody had described poetry as some kind of mimesis before Plato.

Mimesis may signify representation –in which case what the poet does is to make people appear to us and try to simulate their behaviour– or imitation – whereby the poet uses words to mimic a reality, a nature or a truth outside himself.

In his critique Plato makes use of both meanings of mimesis. Having rejected epic and tragic poetry earlier in the Republic on grounds of content, he comes to consider the poetical ways of expression; mimesis is introduced at this exact point and the way it is introduced indicates that it is initially considered as representation (394c). Plato states his preference for narration (393d) and, conceding that even in the ideal city myths would be appropriate way for the soul’s education, he does not shy away from accepting poetry of good myths, if such poetry proceeds by simple narration. On the contrary, imitative or mimetic poets are to be expelled from the city.

Yet the decisive criticism of poetry as mimesis appears in book X, where poetry is no longer considered as representation, but as an imperfect imitation of some reality. The poet fails to imitate things as they truly are for humans and gods with respect to virtue and vice (598e), because he remains ignorant of such things (such knowledge is only accessible to the philosopher); he only imitates what seems to be virtue and vice, the contingent behaviour of actual people.

As an imitator of images of virtue, the poet offers what the many desire, he nurtures pleasure and strengthens the worst part of their soul (605a). Above all, he is forming a type of man who is not “of one mind with himself”, “who is in strife and holds within himself contrary opinions at the same time about the same things” (603d). Plato does not wish for citizens in strife. The tragic poet teaches that there are insurmountable moral and political dilemmas, that the free man is necessarily faced with crucial decisions that lack some evident solution. There are those who would claim that tragedy was the true school of Athenian democracy for exactly this reason. Plato, however, holds that a “base theatrocracy” is what led to the degeneration of the Athenian republic (Laws 701a).

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
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