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Plato Plato can be characterised as endeavouring to establish philosophy as standing in opposition to the prevailing art-friendly culture, that not only prizes art but also adopts ill-thought-out theories concerning its value to human society. Plato asserts that such theories are the views of those who lack both a genuine understanding of what constitutes knowledge, and an understanding of the distinction between what is pleasurable to humans, and what is genuinely beneficial or a 'good' for humans, and of those who lack both the philosophical rigour and critical distance required to properly understand the value and relation of art to humans. Important to remember: Poetry was experienced in Plato's time almost solely through live performance - this 'theatricality' is one of Plato's principle targets, since he considers this to hamper poetry's ability to convey meaning, rather than support it. Poetry is theatrical performance, and is thus 'dangerously independent' of the understanding by which the words being acted out may have been informed. That human society seems to have proven itself not to be possible without the existence of some kind of poetry or art is seen by Plato as an indictment of humankind, and an example of our fallen state. Plato's poetic style of philosophy is designed to lead the human mind, which is receptive to and enticed by poetry, away from it, and toward proper philosophy, from where we can look back and begin to evaluate the arts. Plato devotes almost all of his theory of aesthetics to discussing poetry and beauty, but whilst beauty is as close to a greatest possible good as there is, poetry is a close to the greatest possible evil!
Plato endeavours to develop an account of the ideal, just city - the kallipolis - to show how these aims are to be achieved and realised on a political, ideological and social level. This city is run by philosopher-kings trained in mathematical science as well as philosophy, using this science to define the virtues since mathematical science is not open to ideological influence in the same way that ethical and political ideals are. These kings will have access to undistorted ethical truth, but will not abuse such knowledge and simply cannot abuse it, since only the truly virtuous have a full understanding of the good, and subsequently can attain this knowledge of ethical truths at all. Socrates (Plato's mouthpiece) begins to discuss the basis of the ideal city, beginning with the role of the arts in education, particularly in the education of those who will grow up to be 'soldier-police' - the guardians responsible for internal order and the protection and well-being of the city and its citizens. The creative arts, Plato asserts, should be regulated, such that stories of Gods and heroes do not represent them as cowardly or deceitful, or as ruled by base instincts or appetites. A good fiction for Plato, is one that correctly represents universal truths in reality, and impresses the value of good character upon its audience - ethical impact is a higher criterion of good story-telling than truthful representation. Mimesis in Plato 'Imitation' is perhaps better transliterated from Plato's original as 'emulation'. Imitation as a part of the poetic art is, for Plato, 'inherently suspect', since it encourages the continuation of the character adopted in indirect dramatic speech or performance in the performer's actual life. For Plato, imitation is only valuable to the aim of a just life when endeavouring to overcome its own inherent limitations - for example, when the soldier-police intend to become in later life what they imitate in poetry, they intend consciously to influence their own character through the use of imitation, without holding poetic imitation to be of any value in its own right. Plato accuses poets of doing just that: seeing poetic imitation as a good in its own right, as a process of acquiring knowledge, regardless of what is being imitated. But what is wrong with the process of poetic imitation as a source of understanding? Perhaps what makes Plato uncomfortable is the fact that it is possible to engage with poetry through imitation apart from any implicit approval or disapproval of the attitudes portrayed by that poetry, such that we come to understand the situation hypothesised by imaginatively participating in it.
Plato's attacks on poetry, mimesis and 'the arts'
1. Mimesis as fostering dangerous behaviour Poetry is not to be permitted not only because of the ethical content it happens to have, but more unavoidably because of the ethical effect of its means of operation - the imitation inherent in poetry is in itself a bad thing. Importantly, Plato considers the influence of poetry over actions to be only indirect, insofar as character influences actions: Plato's concern with the influence of poetry on the young and impressionable is not the same as the modern film or television censor. Rather than warning that spectacular violence will directly encourage youngsters either to go out and act in that way, Plato is concerned that youngsters will become accepting of character flaws such as an inability to restrain or temper one's grief. The base argument is simple enough: the new city does not want any presentation in poetry of the base types of human behaviour, because such acting fosters the behaviour of that impersonated type in the actual inhabitants of the city who observe that impersonation. Plato attacks mimesis - dramatic impersonation - as deceitful, but further, as dangerous to the stability of the kallipolis, since enacting dramatic parts causes one to become in reality like that character portrayed in drama. Since all members of the idea city should specialise in only one civic role (for example, the Guardians), the state should restrict the range of dramatic enactment that each citizen may be involved in - Guardians, for example, should engage in mimesis as little as possible, and only perform the parts of the noble and virtuous, such that they are more likely to become noble and virtuous in their own lives. Plato's 'dishonesty' in this argument If acting a part does foster this adoption of the characteristics of that part, Plato has in Book III a powerful but dishonest argument. It is powerful in that it prohibits all portrayals of ignoble characters (although Plato's list also includes, as well as various villains, all women, slaves, animals, sounds of water and musical instruments) and yet shields the noble and virtuous roles, but it is dishonest in that it conflates impersonation as something a writer does, and impersonation as the performer's task. His argument has to assume that mimesis is performance, since it makes more sense to consider mimesis a danger to young actors acting out vicious and unethical roles than it does to consider mimesis a danger to playwrights writing those parts. However, performance hardly endangers an entire population, and was hardly as widespread as literary influence (even if it were true that young Athenian men would spend a season in preparation for their time as the chorus of Athenian tragedies and comedies), thus if imitative composition stands or falls by the same token as imitative performance, a concern about the behaviour of young adults snowballs into an attack upon a vast body of literature.
2. Plato's attack on mimesis as subversive of reason and the Platonic ideal Plato further argues that poetry is 1) removed from the truth, but is easily mistaken for the work of someone with knowledge of truth, and 2) only appealing to an inferior part of the soul than pure rational reason, and thus subverts the dominance and rule of the reasoned intellect. Poetry thus promises intellectual gain, while delivering only ethical misdirection and damage. Plato argues thus that mimetic art is twice-removed from the ideal reality of the world of Forms, since it is an image of something visible, which is in itself a crude imitation of the true Form of that object. Thus to make such art requires no genuine knowledge of those things that are genuinely valuable. Plato intends to refute the idea that poetic image-making entails that the poet does indeed have knowledge (a popular view, and that which Aristotle defends), since otherwise he would not be able to write about what he does in such a lyrical or metaphorical way.
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