Plato’s polemic against poetry is undermined by a paradox: his own dialogues square with the characterization poetic. At any rate, it appears that the philosopher himself lays claim to the title of poetry.

Plato’s assault against poetry in the Republic

The Republic illustrates in the most emphatic tone Plato’s repudiation of poetry. His polemic goes as far as to claim, against any historical vindication, that the relation between poetry and philosophy is affected by an “ancient quarrel” (607b5-6). Already in the Ion, Plato comes out to show that a mind for poetry does not refer to any expertise (techne); and that is because poetry is only induced by divine dispensation, and not by any form of knowledge. Keeping in mind that Plato’s criticism on poetry bears on his criticism on mimesiscan help us elucidate the philosopher's cast of mind.

a) Second and third book of the Republic. Plato identifies mimesis with the ability of creating a resemblance with objects, countenances or words. After establishing a distinction between mimetic and a non-mimetic poetry, he declines the former on account of the morally degenerating impact it has on both the imitator and the perceiver of the imitation. The kind of mimesis that misrepresents its object deceives the perceivers and harms the most eminent part of their soul. Likewise, corroding are the poems that erode the moral education of the auxiliaries. Such poems are those that depict great men being carried away by immoderate impetuses and contradictory passions. Similar danger lurks for the imitators themselves, whose integrity is at risk when they impersonate wretched characters. Therefore, two criteria have to be met if mimetic poetry should be vindicated: the accuracy of the representation, and the moral utility.

b) Tenth book of the Republic. Criticism on poetry acquires, in this chapter, an aphoristic character which seems inconsistent with what has been discussed in the previous parts of the dialogue. The distinction between the edificatory and the harmful poetry is here dropped; mimetic poetry is now unconditionally repudiated. In this context, mimesis is defined as the production of a copy; as if someone creates a replica by setting a mirror in front of the original object. The poet is likened to a painter, and the act of mimesis is determined as a mechanical portrayal. The painter creates a simulacrum which copies a model object that, in turn, represents the exalted Form in which it partakes. Thus, the painter’s product is twice distanced from the truth of the Form – and hence his ignorance of it, and the hazardous nature of his work become evident. In addition, if the perceiver of the imitation is ignoramus, s/he can be easily deceived in believing the fake copy to be the original thing. The dimmest impact of poetry, says Plato, is the power to corrupt even those who are virtuous: it stultifies the rational part of their soul by accustoming them to conditions of emotional conflict and moral dissension.

Philosophers-lawgivers and poets

For all that, the very philosophy, that so emphatically rules out poetry from its conceptualization of the ideal city, is also a philosophy articulated in a theatrical form, and informed by a plethora of poetic features.

a) The philosophers as poets. Where is the conjunction of philosophy with poetry? And under what stipulations is philosophy justified in adopting the method of mimesis? In a passage from the Laws, the legislators of the good city deny the tragic poets the right to set up their stages in the city, for not only do the legislators claim to be tragedians themselves, but, what is more, to be poets of the finest tragedy: “At any rate, our entire state has been constructed so as to be a “representation” of the finest and noblest life—the very thing we maintain is most genuinely a tragedy” (817a-d). This is tantamount to saying that the ideal city is a representation of the best life, and therefore its legislators are imitators. But how do their imitations differ from those of common poets? The legislators of the good city of the Laws are philosophers; hence, they have a privileged access to knowledge, and consequently they are endowed with the power to establish and rule over a just city. Under the stipulation that the philosophers are aware of the truth, their imitations are true, ontologically unexceptional, and morally edifying. Conclusively, poetry is authorized only as philosophical poetry; and it is the philosophers who can and ought to dismiss the morally hazardous poetry.

b) The demand for a good moral example. Plato's vehement hostility against poetry is better understood within the historical context it emerges. In his time, poetry was a bearer of moral values: it proffered a modus vivendi, and exerted significant influence upon the society. Philosophy did not exist as an alternative discourse in its own right. Philosophy qua philosophy is introduced by Plato, who demarcates it by opposing it to poetry. The philosopher's ideal is distilled in a way of life shaped by knowledge and instructed by reason. Plato targets poetry's ability to distort truth, and corrupt the soul by eliciting passions and casting it into psychological dissension. His own philosophical counter-proposal postulates moderation and reason as antipodes to chance, contingency, inevitability, unruliness and hyperbole. Ultimately, the criticism on poetry amounts to Plato's objection against the educational system and the ethos of his epoch. His aspiration is for philosophy to eliminate the moral code of poetry, and eventually to replace its social impact.

Plato as a poet

 If, according to Plato, the best political life is but a representation of the most excellent life, it follows that the appropriate way to describe it through language is by means of mimesis. Moreover, philosophy is, for Plato, an experience practiced in human relations, in the exchanges of everyday life, and much more within the political system he proposes. It is an experience that can be formulated in dialogical form. Consequently, the philosopher sets up and rules the good city by imitating its ideal model; he is also the one who describes it through the mimetic philosophical language. It becomes apparent that Plato claims an exclusive right to poetry; a claim that is succinctly illustrated in a plethora of excerpts. In the Laws (811d), the Athenian Visitor remarks that the words he exchanged with his partner were divinely imbued, and that they resembled a poem. In the Phaedo(61a), philosophy is designated as the highest kind of music; and in page 115a Socrates likens himself to a tragic character. Similarly, telling is the attempt of the two interlocutors, in the Protagoras,to interpret Simonides' poem. In the same vein, the various mythical narratives that figure in Plato's dialogues attest to the interrelation between platonic philosophy and poetry. In conclusion, Plato preserves his own kind of mimesis; one that, apart from its political significance, plays an essential part in the philosopher's ontological system. The philosopher introduces a particular kind of mimesis: a mimesis conditioned by knowledge of the truth; whose aim is to nourish the higher part of the soul by catering for the moral education of the citizens.

Author: Deny Konstantinidi
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Halliwell, S. The aesthetics of mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton, 2002.
  • Mittelstrass, JGriswold, C.L. ed. . Platonic Writings. Platonic Readings. New York, 1998.
  • Nightingale, A.W. Genres in dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy. Cambridge, 1995.
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