The Platonic Art of Philosophy

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The carpenter who makes a table resembles the leatherworker making the bridle; both tripartitions put the visual imitator lowest. But why do flautists and jockeys suddenly appear in the top spot, in place of a god so supreme as to create even Forms? The answer might appear among the particular manufactured objects that these passages refer to, because for the reader familiar with Greek religion both rankings evoke Athena.

Theory of forms

The couch- and table-making carpenter practices a trade whose patron is Athena, while myths known to Plato depict her as the original user of both flute and bridle. If these associations stand up under scrutiny, they put the imitator at the opposite pole from a god, thus rendering the products of imitation not only lowly nothings but malevolently profane, even blasphemous Pappas If painting and other visual arts exemplify an ill that lies upon the land, they are never Plato's main targets.


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Homer was ignorant, never taught a useful thing to anyone b—e. This apparent ad hominem attack is designed to show that poetry too imitates appearance. For that purpose it suffices to show that one esteemed poet writes without knowledge. If great poetry can come out of someone ignorant, then poetry must not require knowledge.

Even if ignorance is not necessary for the composition of poetry Homer's example demonstrates that the two are compatible. What good will come of an activity that can not only be attempted ignorantly but even succeeded at in ignorance?

Theory of forms

Poetry too therefore imitates no more than appearance. It remains for Plato to argue that poetry harms the soul.

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He says that poetry's illusions fortify the worst part of the soul and turn it against the best. The first stretch of this argument c—b uses theoretical language—evidently taken from the Republic 's psychological theory—while the second b—b appeals to observable phenomena surrounding performances of tragedies. Socrates returns to his analogy between poetry and painting. If you are partly taken in by a painting's tricked-up table apparition but you partly spot the falseness, which part of you does which?

The soul's rational impulse must be the part that knows the painting is not a real table. But Book 4 established a fundamental principle: When the soul inclines in more than one direction, this conflict represents the work of more than one faculty or part of the soul b; recalled in Book 10's argument at e.

So being taken in by an optical or artistic illusion must be the activity of some part of the soul distinct from reason. Invoking Book 4's psychological theory integrates the critique of poetry of Book 10 into the Republic 's overarching argument. The dialogue as a whole identifies justice with a balance among reason, spirit or anger, and the desires collectively known as epithumiai.

This controlled balance is the happiest state available for human souls, and the most virtuous. Imitation undoes the soul's justice, it brings both vice and misery. Plato does not specify the irrational part in question. Thinking the sun is the size of your hand does not feel like either anger overwhelming you or desires tempting. What do illusions have to do with irrationality of motive?

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Again commentaries differ. A complex and fertile debate continues to worry over how perceptual error may undermine mental health or moral integrity Moss , Nehamas Part of the answer comes from Books 8—9, which sketch four character types graded from best to worst. Books 8—9 have not played the part they deserve to in the discussion of imitation. Those books make clear that the pleasures of the lowest soul are characterized by their illusoriness. Skiagraphia was an impressionistic manner of painting that juxtaposed contrasting hues to create illusionistic shadow and intensify color Keuls , Demand , and Plato disapproved of it Parmenides c—d, Phaedo 69b.

A Non-Philosopher’s Guide to Plato | The Getty Iris

Notice especially the terminology in Book 9. The language in Book 10 brings Book 9's equation of base pleasures with illusory ones into its attack on art. If Book 10 can show that an art form fosters interest in illusions it will have gone a long way toward showing that the art form keeps company with irrational desires. Plato does not confine himself to analogizing from painting to verse. He recognizes that analogies encourage lazy reasoning.

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So Socrates proposes looking at imitative poetry on its own terms, not just as a painting made of words b—c. He exerts himself to show that poetry presents false representations of virtue, often drawn from popular opinion about morality Moss , , and that because of their falseness those images nourish irrational motives until all but the finest souls in the audience lose control over themselves.

An essential premise is that what Book 3 acknowledged as an exception to its critique, namely the imitation of virtuous and thoughtful characters, is not apt to exist. Socrates has tragedy in mind comedy secondarily and observes that playwrights neither know the quiet philosophical type nor profit from putting that type on stage before spectators who came to the theater to see something showily agitated e—a. Being as he is impulsive and impassioned, the tragic hero behaves contrary to the dictates of reason. An illusion of virtue guides him. His son dies and he doesn't save his tears for a private moment but lets them flow publicly and at length e—a.

The spectators' reason is appalled; their other impulses rejoice c—e. Plato knows that even his upright contemporaries check their reason at the door when they enter the tragic theater. Vincent Rama used this phrase in conversation. They reckon that there is no harm in weeping along with the hero, enjoying the emotional release without the responsibility one feels in real-life situations.

Being Philosophers - The Art of Philosophy

Thus does dramatic illusion induce bad habits of indulging the passions; the soul that had spent its life learning self-control sets about unlearning it. When what we call literary works practice what we call representation , Plato claims that they represent human beings. Character is the essence of epic and drama. Halliwell argues otherwise.

Plato's emphasis on character already predisposes him not to find philosophical worth in literature. A character speaks from a single point of view. Bring several characters together representing several idiosyncratic perspectives on the world and the very idea of deriving a general statement from the work becomes impossible.

Laws c—d elaborates upon this problem. Aristotle notably bases his own and laudatory appraisal of tragedy on the premise that tragedy imitates not people but actions. From his privileging of plot over character Aristotle goes on to find general statements in poetry, philosophical ones. Plato's interpreters sometimes play up the passages in which he seems to counter the Republic 's anti-poetic comments with hopeful assessments of imitation.

According to the standard chronology of the dialogues, the relevant passages occur in dialogues written after the Republic. If Plato changed his views over time, these conciliatory references to imitation could indicate that he ultimately disavowed the censorship of Republic Such likeness-making is not fraud, for its outcome remains something worthy of respect.

One can say the same for scientific theories in Plato's Timaeus , whose main speaker Timaeus argues that discourse about the natural world mimics the intelligible world 47c. The Laws sees imitation in music as a potentially accurate process b ; the hard-to-date Menexenus urges the young to imitate their elders' virtues e, e.

All these passages suggest, from different angles, a rehabilitation for the process that Plato elsewhere demeans as counterfeiting. What Plato says about imitation when he has set out to define and evaluate it ought to weigh more heavily than a use of the word he makes briefly. Anyway the later dialogues do not speak as one. The Sophist looks into imitation in order to define what a Sophist is.

And although the Sophist 's theory of imitation diverges somewhat from the one in Republic 10, similarities between them preponderate. Like the Republic the Sophist characterizes imitation mockingly as the creation of a whole world, and accuses imitation of misleading the unwary b—c , even if it also predicts more optimistically that people grow up to see through false likenesses d. Most importantly, the representation that Plato charges the Sophist with is fraudulent. It is the kind that makes not an honest likeness eikasia but an illusory image, a phantasma d—b.

In drawing the distinction between these kinds of representations the Sophist does strike a conciliatory tone not found in Republic 10, for it seems that a branch of the mimetic profession retains the power it has in the Laws and Timaeus to produce a reliable likeness of an object. But the consolation proves fleeting. He recognizes that he has appropriated the general word for the specific act of enacting false images. Narrowing the process down to impersonation should make clear that Plato finds a Sophist's imitativeness to be much like a poet's.

Just as Republic 3's taxonomy made imitation look like a freakish variety of narration, this use of a word both generically and specially excludes good imitation as the exception and the problem case. The ancients did not work hard enough making all relevant philosophical distinctions d. Whether Plato should be permitted to juggle words' meanings is another question. His quest to condemn imitation leaves him open to criticism.

But he does not consciously change his theory in the direction of imitation understood positively. The Sophist 's references to divine copy-making invite another worry. But what could be metaphysically lower than a shadow? Coming back to the Republic one finds shadows and reflections occupying the bottom-most domain of the Divided Line a. Where does poetic imitation belong on that ranking? One can articulate the same worry even remaining with the Republic 's terms.

Shadows and reflections belong in the category of near-ignorance. Imitation works an effect worse than ignorance, not merely teaching nothing but engendering a perverted preference for ignorance over knowledge. Plato often observes that the ignorant prefer to remain as they are Symposium a , but this turn toward ignorance is different. Why would anyone choose to know less? The theoretical question is also a practical one. Plato's attack on poetry saddles him with an aesthetic problem of evil.

Republic 10 shows signs of addressing the problem with language of magic. The Republic already said that sorcery robs people of knowledge b—c.

Finally the catalog of Homer's kinds of ignorance ends by saying his poetry casts a spell b. Poetry works magically to draw in the audience that it then degrades. References to magic serve poorly as explanations but they bespeak the need for explanation.