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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Plato's Mimesis

(Class Note – 25th July, 09)
Plato claims that poetry is very far removed from the truth and hence should be banned from his ideal state. The best known locus for this dramatic gesture is the Socratic dialogue Republic. Socrates, the main character, engages other characters (such as Adeimantus and Glaucon for instance) in discussions regarding moral and philosophical problems.

In the tenth and last book, Plato has Socrates (engaged in a dialogue with Glaucon) reach the conclusion that “we can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men.” The reasons poets cannot be accepted into the ideal community are both epistemological and moral, but whatever the reason, they have a word in common: mimesis. Poetry delivers a poor and unreliable knowledge since it is an imitation of another imitation. It is far removed from the truth. The philosopher comes closest to first-hand knowledge of real reality: he can see the form or ideas, or ideal form of things and can therefore disregard imitations.

He begins his justification by illustrating what a true form is. This is popularly understood as platonic realism. The articulation of realism is found in his Republic. It refers to the idea of realism regarding the existence of universals.

Universals were considered ideal forms by Plato. In Platonic realism, universals do not exist in the way that ordinary physical objects exist, but were thought to have a sort of ghostly or heavenly mode of existence; metaphysical existence if you will. It holds that they exist in a broad, abstract sense. Thus, people cannot see or otherwise come into sensory contact with universals, but in order to conceive of universals, one must be able to conceive of these abstract forms. One need not attribute material existence to universals, but merely understand that they are. This is the truest form of anything; the truest form of existence or reality; a sort of metaphysical reality.

One type of universal defined by Plato is the Form or Idea. Although some versions of Platonic realism regard Plato's Forms as Ideas in the mind of God, most take Forms not to be mental entities at all, but rather archetypes (original models) of which particular objects, properties, and relations are copies. Due to the potential confusion of the term idea, philosophers usually use the terms "Form", "Platonic Form", or "Universal".

Forms (or Ideas), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. The Forms are the only true objects of study that can provide us with genuine knowledge.

Forms are related to Particulars (instances of objects and properties), where a Particular is regarded as a copy of its form. For example, a particular tree is said to be a copy of the form of Treeness and the tree’s green color is an instance of the form of Greeness.

There are some forms that are not instantiated (abstractly represented by a tangible example) at all, but, he contends, that does not imply that the forms could not be instantiated. Forms are capable of being instantiated by many different particulars, which would result in the forms' having many copies, or being an innate part of many particulars. The Form is a distinct singular thing but causes plural representations of itself in particular objects. Hence you have the Form ‘Treeness’ and many trees (the Particulars of the Form) existing as proof of this Form.

This Platonic reality can thus mean that universals exist independently of particulars (A universal, as we’ve seen from above, is anything that can be predicated of a particular).

These Forms are the essences of various objects: they are that without which a thing would not be the kind of thing it is. For example, there are countless tables in the world but the Form of tableness is at the core; it is the essence of all of them.

A Form is aspatial (outside the world) and atemporal (outside time). A Form is an objective "blueprint" of perfection. The Forms are perfect themselves because they are unchanging. For example, say we have a triangle drawn on a blackboard. A triangle is a polygon with 3 sides. The triangle as it is on the blackboard is far from perfect. However, it is only the intelligibility of the Form "triangle" that allows us to know the drawing on the chalkboard is a triangle, and the Form "triangle" is perfect and unchanging. It is exactly the same whenever anyone chooses to consider it; however, the time is that of the observer and not of the triangle.

Plato held that the world of Forms (the metaphysical world) is separate from our own world (the world of substances) and also is the true basis of reality. Removed from matter, Forms are the most pure of all things. Furthermore, Plato believed that true knowledge/intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of Forms with one's mind.

The imitation or representation of this true basis of reality of Forms is what is called mimesis.

In developing this in Book X, Plato tells of Socrates' metaphor of the three beds: one bed exists as an Idea/Form made by god (the Platonic ideal/reality); one is made by the carpenter, in imitation of god's idea; one is made by the artist in imitation of the carpenter's.

In simpler words, first there’s the metaphysical world (Ideas/Forms/Real reality); then the world of appearances (world of ‘becoming’/Particulars) and then the world of imitation (Mimesis). It’s this mimetic world that Plato has a problem with. He wants to make a distinction between truth and falsity, right and wrong.

The bed produced by the carpenter is a reproduction of the original (Platonic Idea/ Form) bed (mimesis through imitation), whereas the artist reproduces the carpenter’s copy (mimesis through representation). So the artist's bed is twice removed from the truth. The copier’s only touch on a small part of things as they really are, where a bed may appear differently from various points of view, looked at obliquely or directly, or differently again in a mirror. So painters or poets, though they may paint or describe a carpenter or any other maker of things, know nothing of the carpenter's (the craftsman's) art, and though the better painters or poets they are, the more faithfully their works of art will resemble the reality of the carpenter making a bed, nonetheless the imitators will still not attain the truth (of god's creation).

As culture in those days did not consist in the solitary reading of books, but in the listening to performances, the recitals of orators (and poets), or the acting out by classical actors of tragedy, Plato maintained in his critique that theatre and poetry were not sufficient in conveying the truth. He was concerned that actors or orators were thus able to persuade an audience by rhetoric rather than by telling the truth. In the Republic (book X), through Socratic dialogue he warns that poetry should not be regarded as capable of attaining the truth and that we should be on our guard against its seductions, as the poet is very far removed from the concept of truth.

The symbolic target of his attack is Homer. Although, according to Plato, many of his contemporaries thought that Homer knew all technical skills, all human affairs concerned with good and bad and all about the gods as well (598d,e), Plato argued that Homer was a mere imitator of human behavior and did not possess, at least as far as one can tell from his poetry, any expert knowledge. Unsophisticated people, hearing Homer’s poetry recited, think that he is imparting knowledge “because they believe anything said with meter, rhyme, and tune, be it on cobbling or generalship or anything else whatever, is right--so great is the natural charm of poetry” (601a,b). This natural charm of poetic language deludes us into thinking that we are being instructed rather than merely entertained.

The poets, beginning with Homer, far from improving and educating humanity, do not possess the knowledge of craftsmen and are mere imitators who copy again and again images of virtue and rhapsodize about them, but never reach the truth, or even glimpses of this truth, in the way the superior philosophers do. Socrates ofcourse does not say so, but it seems to follow that the carpenter, who copies the original or ideal bed, is much better suited to rule the city than the poets or painters would be. In other words, the artisan should be atleast an adjunct of the philosopher. As Plato has it, truth is the concern of the philosopher only; even if a philosopher’s painstaking labor towards achieving this truth may only allow him glimpses of it.

Why should such mimetic artists be expelled from an ideal community?

Plato’s answer, which applies to our world too, is that mimetic artists do not recognize their limitations, their lack of real knowledge, and they try to instruct us as Homer did. They feel compelled to speak out on matters important to us, and they seduce us with the charm of their words. Their influence on our thinking is therefore far greater than it deserves to be. They are deceptive in the sense that their audience mistakes their imitation for reality.

Gaining real knowledge is a difficult process, one that requires serious labor and much midnight oil (as only laboring philosophers are capable of pursuing through arduous training). It is much easier to listen to the poets and absorb their convictions--much easier than learning mathematics and struggling to gain knowledge and spending years in the process. Hence, the danger poetry poses to society, his ideal state is far too critical to be ignored, and thus, his decision to ban poetry from the ideal state.

(References: Mr.Pinto’s class notes; Plato’s Republic, Stanley Rosen; Articles on Plato, Bruce Aune; Literary Theory and Criticism, Patricia Waugh; Classical Literary Criticism, Penguin Classics; The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch; Wikipedia)

[The next post will be on Aristotle vs. Plato on Mimesis]

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