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Plato’s attitude to poetry and the fine arts, and the origins of aesthetics

Part III
Walter G. Leszl
p. 245-336

Notes de la rédaction

Part I : Études Platoniciennes I, p. 113-197, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2004 et Part II : Études Platoniciennes II, p. 285-351, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2006.

Texte intégral

26. On mimesis

  • 1 Cf. discussion in Nehamas, Plato on imitation, cit., pp. 258-59.

1One topic which was frequently touched upon in the previous exposition but not dealt with in detail is that of imitation (mimesis). What should one understand by the Greek word which is usually rendered by ‘imitation’ ? Both Plato and Aristotle tend to treat painting as offering the best illustration of what is to be meant by mimesis (so does Plato in Republic X, after making Socrates say, in 595c7- 8, that he wants to explain what mimesis is in general ; and so does Aristotle in the first chapters of his Poetics ; notice that also in Laws II, 668d ff., Plato illustrates correctness in mimesis by reference to painting). On the other hand, the little we know about the early uses of the verb mimeisthai and its cognates suggest that these terms belonged originally to the sphere of mousiké or performing actions of various sorts. For instance, in the Delian Hymn to Apollo, v. 163, the Delian maidens are said to ‘know how to imitate the voice and the dance of all people’, which seems to mean that they spoke and danced in the manner various peoples do, thus that they acted like them. Similarly Democritus, in fr. 39, when he asserts that “one must either be good or imitate who is good”, must mean that, if one does not manage to be good, one should do the next best thing, that is to say, act like someone who is.1

2Plato has in mind this sense of mimesis in book III of the Republic, where, when talking about mimesis in connection with diction (lexis) or the way of speaking, he defines it as “likening oneself to another either in voice or in figure (schema)” (393c5-6). It is clear from the context that he is thinking of the performance of an actor, rhapsode or other performer (one can talk of mimesis in the sense of impersonation). Since this presentation of mimesis seems to be the closest one to the original meaning of the word and since it appears to be the first introduction of the term in this work, a number of scholars were induced to believe that for Plato this constitutes the primary meaning of the term, and that all the other occurrences of it in this work (especially those in book X) must be understood in the light of the treatment of mimesis in book III. Anyone who thinks that Plato, in discussing poetry, puts the accent especially on performance (e.g. Ferrari, Burnyeat), is induced to adopt this position.

  • 2 As pointed out by Halliwell, Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., pp. 19-20 and 121.
  • 3 The general sense of the passage is problematic, since a line is missing and the beginning of the s (...)

3Yet the fact remains that, when Plato declares explicitly that he wants to give an explanation of what mimesis is in general, he uses painting as his paradigm, and it hard to see how this can be understood in terms of impersonation or emulation or acting like (someone). There is no reason to think that he was much concerned with the original meaning of the word, especially as its application to paintings and statues must have already been current in his time2. It is in fact to be found in Alcidamas, On the sophists, §§ 27-28 (discussed above, Part I, ch. 6, p. 147), that is in a work which must be chronologically prior to the Republic, where paintings and statues are treated as imitations (mimemata). It is also to be found in Aeschylus, fr. 78a.6-7 Radt, where an image (eidōlon), i.e. a mask (according to some interpreters), of the speaker himself, is compared to a work of Daedalus, which must be a statue and which is called without ado an imitation (mimema) : this (or perhaps the image) is said to be only lacking voice (manifestly : in order to be indistinguishable from a living being which constitutes the imitated original)3. Further, though it is true that the substantive appears only at a later stage in the discussion in the Republic, Plato already uses the paradigm of painting in the discussion of books II-III, when talking of the way in which poets imitate the gods and heroes (cf. above, Part II, ch. 20 and n. 27). There is a clear continuity between this discussion and that of book X, for the question of how human beings are imitated by poets is left open in book III, 392a-c, and is taken up in book X. Finally, it should be remarked that, though it is true that at some stage of his discussion Plato talks simply of mimesis and of mimeisthai, the original distinction introduced in connection with diction is between simple narration and narration by imitation, and the latter is not exactly the same thing as mimesis.

4In order then to understand Plato’s attitude to mimesis, it is important to clarify what this is supposed to be in the case of painting. Some useful indications are to be found in the Cratylus, which can serve as our starting-point. There the question discussed is whether names can be taken as imitations (mimemata) or images (eikones) of the things of which they are names (cf. 430a-c and passim). The question is discussed by considering as a parallel case that of paintings. I shall limit my attention to what he has to say about this parallel case. It should be noticed that here, as elsewhere, his preferred example of a painting is that of the portrait type, so that the question is what relation the picture or portrait has to the person portrayed. In one passage, i.e. 434a-b, the suggestion is made that a painting (zographema) is of something real (i.e. of something to be found in the range of onta) because it has some affinity (or similarity : homoiotes) with it, e.g. the affinity lies in the colours by which what is painted is constituted, which are much the same (homoia) as those present in what is imitated. (Homoios is used ambiguously in the context, for the colours are drawn from nature, even if not from the same thing in nature as that which is imitated, and so in a certain sense are the same, but this sameness is the ground for the similarity or affinity - homoiotes - which the painting has with what is painted.) A similar account, applied in general to what constitutes an image (eidolon), is given in Sophist, 239d-240b, where it is said that it is ‘another suchlike’ (heteron toiouton) which is rendered similar (aphomoioumenon) to the true (or genuine : alethinon) object. This other object cannot be itself true or genuine, for it is only like (eoikos) (scil. what is true). Of the first object, to which the other is rendered similar, it is said that it is something real (an on), an assertion that gives rise to the question whether the other is real as well (this question cannot be pursued here, but must lead to the reply that it is not real in the same way as the first). The suggestion made in Republic X, 596e, that the couch reproduced by the painter, is not a true one but one that is apparent (phainomene), is manifestly along the same lines.

5In another passage of the Cratylus, i. e. 432b-c, it is suggested that a painting of the portrait type can only reproduce the colour and figure of the person portrayed, and not what is inside the person, i.e. his soul, his movements, his body warmth, etc. The painting cannot be a perfect replica of the original, for in that case it would not be an image any more, and one would not be able to distinguish the original from the image (cf. 432c-d). One implication of this passage must be that the painting, in reproducing an object, must reproduce a sensible (material) object with restriction to its externality. From this point of view there is an opposition between this status attributed to paintings and the status attributed to names, which, though being a sort of imitation of existing things like paintings, are, or ought to be, the imitation of the essence (ousia) of things (pragmata) (cf. 431d and 423d-e), thus are not limited to the externality of sensible objects. (This externality, in 423d-e, where there is an explicit reference to the imitative arts of music and painting, is made to consist of the figures, colours and sounds they present.) It is this limitation he has in mind in Republic X, 598a-b, where the suggestion is made that what is imitated by the painter is a couch taken from a certain point of view, thus as how it appears to us (though to consider this as a limitation to a pure appearance makes sense only if we attribute to the sensible objects an ousia which is identical with the corresponding Form).

6Another implication of the passage is that a painting, being something qualitative, cannot reproduce the original with a mathematical or quantitative correspondence by which the same number of parts which are to be found in the original are to be found in the painting (cf. 432a-b). In this case in fact the painting would have to have the same dimensions as the original, which of course is not a sound requirement ; further, the very fact that it is not three-dimensional renders unavoidable some difference in the number of the parts. This implies no doubt that the notion of similarity must not be taken in too narrow a sense, so as to require a perfect or specular replica of the original, but not that it can be taken in such a loose sense as to make any restriction become irrelevant.

  • 4 Cf. Sophist 235d-236c, where faithful reproduction is associated with eikastikē in opposition to ph (...)
  • 5 This has already been stressed by Nehamas, art. cit., pp. 61-64, where he says for instance that “t (...)
  • 6 A rather literal translation of the passage of the Sophist is : “produced as if it were a human dre (...)

7It is significant that in the Sophist and in the Laws Plato is induced to reject any form of illusionism in art, even when this illusionism can serve to make art more realistic in the appearances it produces, by sticking to a form of art which reproduces the given object just as it is, in its dimensions and proportions and disposition of parts and colours4. But this line of thought, when pursued to the end, leads to the paradoxical conclusion that the only faithful imitation is a perfect replica of the original. One would also have to claim that painting has to be abolished in the case of all three-dimensional objects, since it reproduces them as bi-dimensional. What Plato says in the Cratylus shows that he is not unaware of this paradoxical conclusion, but evidently he attempts to find a middle ground between these extremes. Thus the two requirements, suggested by the appeal to painting, that mimesis leads to the production of an image that is an image of something real (or belonging to the realm of existing things) and that is similar to that of which it is the image, are clearly restrictive. The adoption on Plato’s part of a conception of mimesis that involves such restrictions is also shown by the examples and the formulations he uses. It is sufficiently clear that in Republic X this is taken as a reproduction of something given, not dissimilar to the reproduction that is obtained by means of a mirror. And there is the tendency to deprive the products of the mimetic arts of any status of their own5.Thus, talking of painting, Plato suggests that what the painter produces is e.g. a couch, though not a real couch but an appearing one, or (in Sophist 266c) that what he produces is a house, but a house like the one it is seen in a dream6. He does not say that the painter produces the painting of a couch or of a house, which, as a painting, is not a couch or a house at all. In this way it is excluded that we can judge the painting by itself.

  • 7 Also notice the occurrence of apeikazo in 514a.

8From this point of view it is natural for Plato to assert, as he does explicitly in the passage of Laws II, 669a-b, that in order to provide a good representation or image (eikôn), one should first know what the object to be imitated is (ho esti gignoskein). Thus conceived, however, imitation excludes the use that Plato himself makes of images in his dialogues, including the very image of painting to illustrate the (mimetic) nature of poetry. For this is a use that is meant to throw light on what we have not full knowledge of, since the image provides an analogy and not simply a copy of an original. (Other such images that are provided in the Republic are that of the ship, thus called in VI, 488a, and that of the cave, thus called in VII, 515a7 ; similarly the comparison of the soul to a cart in the Phaedrus is clearly regarded as such an image in 246a.) Presumably imitation cannot be excluded for the use of images in cases in which the object may have become inaccessible (e.g. in the case of a portrait of a dead person) or may be accessible, even easily, but is either recalled by means of the image in its absence (e.g. in the case of a portrait of a person temporarily absent) or made evident in some aspect which can easily escape notice by direct observation (didactic use of images). But Plato does not take these cases into consideration, presumably because he does not think they can be of interest for clarifying the nature of poetic imitation.

  • 8 The same requirement of proportion (symmetria) is formulated elsewhere with the organization (and t (...)

9Plato does say once, in commenting his own use of imagery, in the case of the image of the ship introduced in Republic VI, that the procedure he adopts is like that of a painter : ‘it is necessary to combine many things making a figure (eikazonta), as painters do when they paint goat-stags and such creatures’ (488a). What is prospected in this passage constitutes no doubt an extension of the limits of mimesis, but not a very great extension, for it is still real (perceptible) things that are copied, but each in a partial way, so that the various bits can be put together to obtain a picture that does not fully coincide with any of the things copied. This same ‘combinatory’ conception of painting is to be found in passages by Xenophon and Aristotle, but is introduced with different purposes. Xenophon, in a passage of his Memorabilia, presents Socrates as interrogating Parrhasius the painter about his procedure and as making the remark that, since it is difficult to find a man who is perfect in every part of his body, the good painter will combine the most beautiful details of several men, and thus make the body as a whole appear most beautiful (cf. III 10, 2). Aristotle considers the procedure of painting because it can serve as a confirmation of the view that sometimes an assembly of different persons, each of which contributes to the decision to be taken or to the judgement to be expressed, may be superior to a single person, even if the latter is superior in virtue and intelligence to each of them. ‘Paintings made according to art (he says) differ (in the sense of being superior) from the real things just because they draw together into one what was previously scattered here and there, though, when these features are taken separately, somebody may have an eye, and somebody else another part, that is more beautiful than the corresponding part of the painted person.’ (Politics III 11, 1281b12-15). The suggestion made by Aristotle is different both from that made by Plato and that made by Xenophon : Plato thinks of a painted animal that is an imaginary combination of parts copied and drawn together from existing animals ; Xenophon thinks of a painted man who is an imaginary combination of the most beautiful parts copied and drawn together from existing men ; Aristotle also thinks of a painted man who results from such a combination of parts, but the beauty of the whole is supposed to depend on the harmonious combination of those parts, while each of them may be less beautiful than that possessed by existing men8.The basic account of the procedure of painting remains of course the same in the three authors, and this shows it must have been current (this tends also to be confirmed by the way in which it is introduced by Aristotle).While Plato is not concerned with beauty at all, Aristotle differs from Xenophon in making the beauty reside on the whole and not on the combination of parts which are most beautiful. (For this conception of beauty see below, ch. 29.)

  • 9 More literally : a model (paradeigma) which is such as would be the most beautiful man.
  • 10 On these passages cf. Nehamas, Imitation, cit., pp. 260-61, and Janaway, op. cit., pp. 116-17, who (...)

10A much wider conception of mimesis seems to be adopted in some other passages of the Republic. In book V Plato argues that in the discussion which is conducted in this work the concern is with a model (paradeigma) of justice to be realized both in the single man and in the city, but that this model is not to be regarded as defective if it is not realized (at least, not fully). For, he says, “do you think that he would be any the less a good painter who, having drawn an ideally beautiful figure of a man9 and having rendered all parts of the painting properly, should not also be able to prove that such a man actually exists ?”(472d). In two other, similar, passages (i.e.VI, 484c-d and 500e-501c) he says that philosophers, when ruling, must each, like a painter, have a model before him and, on that basis, draw the most beautiful painting. The problem with all these passages is that the painter considered in them is wholly imaginary, and, at least in the case of the last passage, not in fact kept distinct from the philosopher for whom it should offer a parallel (it is the philosopher who is a ‘craftsman of moderation and justice’ and who is the painter who traces the lineaments of the city by using a heavenly model ; the metaphor of tracing, like a painter, the laws of the city and so forth, is developed in what follows). Further, in the case of the first passage of book VI the most plausible interpretation is that suggested by the way in which Shorey renders the passage (“ … those who cannot, as painters look to their models, fix their eyes on the absolute truth ...”), namely that the painter serves as a parallel only for looking at a model, not for looking at absolute truth.10 These passages however should not be dismissed out of hand, even if it is clear that they cannot be taken literally, for it is excluded that the painter be able to directly contemplate Platonic ideas. A suggestion as to what these passages may adumbrate will be given below (ch. 30). It can be added, for the moment, that the view that painters did not have to stick to existing models, such as existing persons, must have had some circulation. When Aristotle says, at the beginning of Poetics 2, that imitation in poetry could be of persons who are ‘better than ourselves’, equal or worse than ourselves, and illustrates this with painting, with Polygnotos who portrayed men who are superior, he must be adopting a current view about painting. The restrictions then allow for some flexibility, but this does not mean that they have no application at all.

11As anticipated above (in ch. 5) Aristotle admits that imitation is involved in the case of the whole muthos (a story consisting in a non accidental nexus of actions) that is represented in a tragedy or in an epic work, but is induced to maintain that this imitation concerns not something real (because it has already happened in the world) but something possible (cf. Poetics, ch. 9 and 25).This is an artificial construct, for it is not clear how imitation in the sense of reproduction (like that done with painting, which he also uses as the paradigm) can be of something that is not given or available. He should rather have said that the muthos is just a fiction, a product of the imagination. It can be suggested that he did not do so because he wanted to preserve a relationship, however indirect, with reality, for what is possible is judged as such with a view to what is real. Thus even Aristotle’s attitude shows an unwillingness to abandon any restriction : if the story is not a representation of what is real, it must at least be real-like.

12Coming back to Plato, if mimesis in the case of painting involves these restrictions, the same must be true in the case of poetry. But how does this parallel work ? Plato occasionally talks as if the soul or some part of it could be imitated by the poet (e.g. in Republic X, 604e-605a the inferior part of the soul is said to be easily imitated). Yet we have seen that painting can only reproduce what is external, the appearance of the visible thing. And it does not really seem that even poetry, at least in the case of drama, gives a direct representation of the soul and of its condition, for, as Plato himself says, the imitation is of men who act (cf. 603c).Thus the imitation of what happens in the soul must take place in an indirect way.

13But there was the idea that even paintings give us an ikling of the condition of the soul of the person depicted. There are two, complementary, passages, by Xenophon and Aristotle, in which this view is propounded. In Xenophon, Memorabilia III 10, 1-8, the painter Parrhasius, interrogated by Socrates, agrees with him that painting is a “likeness of the visible” (eikasia tôn horōmenōn) and insists that all that can be imitated (apomimeisthai, mimēton) is the look, not the character, of persons.At the end he is persuaded that character can also be imitated, but only insofar as it “appears through (diaphainei) the face and the bearing” of the person. Aristotle has clearly in mind the same situation when he discusses the possibility of imitation of character beyond the domain of music, where in his view this is possible (for this doctrine see below, ch. 28). He says that this is possible only in the domain of sight, but with the qualification that it is not properly imitation (mimesis) :“They are not likenesses (homoiomata) of characters ; rather, the figures and colours generated are signs (semeia) of characters, and these signs are there {only} in the case of {depiction of} the body influenced by the emotions” (Politics VIII 5, 1340a32-35).That he has in mind painting and also sculpture as reproducing such signs results from what follows, where he refers to Polygnotos.

14Before developing this point (see below, ch. 32), I return to the sort of mimesis Plato has in mind in Republic III, that is to say, the one which concerns the performance of actors, of rhapsodes, and so forth and which he defines, as we have seen, as “likening oneself to another either in voice or in figure (schema)” (393c5-6). In the discussion which follows the initial introduction of narration by mimesis there is a gradual transition to mimesis which is independent of narration (this transition is favoured by the fact that the poet himself is supposed to ‘imitate’ his personages, in the sense of playing their parts, cf., on this point, supra, chs. 19 and 22). This mimesis, when applied to persons who act or do something, is always understood as a becoming like someone else. Thus of the guardians it is said that they should not make themselves like (or assimilate themselves to : aphomoioun autous) in words and in deeds to madmen (cf. 396a3-4, also b8-9). More generally, it is said of the man of orderly life (metrios aner) that, when, in narrating, he comes across some saying (lexin) or acting of a good man, he is willing to announce (himself) as if he were himself that man (hos autos on eikeinos) and will not be ashamed of this imitation, especially if it is a matter of imitating the good man when he is acting firmly and wisely, etc. (cf. 396c5 ff.). On the other hand, when he comes to someone who is unworthy of him, he will not seriously make himself like (apeikazein heauton) his inferior, etc. (cf. 396d3 ff.).

15What deserves attention in this presentation of imitating somebody else in his saying or acting with one’s own saying and acting is that it is taken as a sort of reproducing his manner of saying or acting with one’s manner of saying or acting.Thus one’s manner of saying or acting is itself an imitation.And this is how it tends to be presented in this same part of Republic III. In 395b5-6 Plato talks of imitations (mimemata) of actions which are similar to them or their copies (aphoiomata), saying it is difficult to perform the actions well when one is good at doing the imitations. Several of the examples he gives, including that of the imitation of natural noises such as those of thunder, wind, or certain animals (cf. 397a-b), are clearly about doing certain actions, e.g. making noises, that are reproductions of other actions, such as those noises. (Plato himself does not explicitly talk of actions, and adopts a distinction between acting [prattein] and imitating [mimeisthai], evidently because he does not wish to put them on the same level, but manifestly the imitations are themselves actions, and actions similar to those of which they are the imitations.)

16The implication of this presentation is, then, that Plato does not see any great difference between the mimesis which takes place in the case of painting and the mimesis which takes place when ‘one likens oneself to another either in voice or in figure’. This impression is confirmed by the treatment of imitative arts in the Sophist. There they are all treated as productive arts, in that they produce images (eidola). It is added (I simplify a bit) that these images can be produced either by means of instruments or by using oneself (i.e. one’s body or some part of it) as an instrument (cf. 267a). In the second case it happens for instance that somebody uses his voice to make it like (prosomoion), i.e. reproduce, the voice of another person (ibid.). This means that, just as a painting is an image (for instance of a person) that is made by means of signs or traces and colours on a piece of wood ( = the instruments), the reproduction of somebody’s voice is an image made by means of one’s voice ( = the instrument). Other such examples are to be found in Cratylus, 422e-423c, where for instance it is said that if (without telling any word, like a mute) one wants to point at the high, one will raise one’s hands towards the sky, thus producing a sort of figure or image with one’s gesture (this last assertion is mine, but if one understands the passage in this way it is not surprising that soon afterwards, in 423c, he talks of imitative arts like painting).There is the idea that, for instance in dancing, one traces, as it were, figures in the air, so that certain patterns (schemata) are produced (cf. e.g. Laws II, 655c and context, and 672e), this production thus not being essentially different from the drawing of lines by a painter (the same word schema can also be used in this connection).

  • 11 An account on these lines is also adopted by E. Belfiore,“A Theory of Imitation in Plato’s Republic(...)

17Plato’s position, then, is that in all these cases what is going on is the production of an image, and of an image that is similar to what it is the image of, thus a reproduction or imitation of it. Painting can serve as a good illustration for all these cases since the most obvious and typical way of producing an image is precisely to produce a picture, especially a portrait.11 The point about becoming like somebody else or of assimilating to him can be said to concern not the ‘imitative’ performance in itself, but the effects it has on the soul of the person who does the imitation. By copying a person in his behaviour one becomes like him, not just in behaviour but in one’s soul. This is just what Plato suggests in Republic IV, 395d. But this is an implication of imitation, not imitation itself, while scholars tend to reduce imitation to emulation and identification. Notice that the imitation concerns the lexis, 398b2, thus the way of talking and of behaving of a person, i.e. it is not a direct assimilation of one’s personality to that of another person this is an indirect consequence. It is true, on the other hand, that it has probably to be conceded that Plato is not always sticking to this distinction, but supposes that ‘imitation’ involves a more direct assimilation to the model adopted (this is certainly true in the case of the ‘assimilation to god’ introduced in Republic X, 613b1 and Theatetus 176b1, though this is presented not as a mimesis but as a homoiosis, while mimesis is used in connection with the ideas taken as a paradigm in Resp.VI, 500b-c).

18But if this is so, one cannot suppose, as many scholars do, that Plato not only adopts two different conception of mimesis, one which has to do with performance and consists of impersonation or emulation (involving identification) and one which takes painting as the model, but also gives priority to the first. It is more plausible to suggest that he gives priority to the second and that he is not completely aware of the fact that the first cannot be wholly assimilated to the second. His explicit paradigm is that of painting, and any interpretation that is given of his position must take this as the starting-point. But, used in connection with painting, the most obvious sense of mimesis, as understood by him, is the traditional one of imitation, with the restrictions that this involves. ‘Representation’ is not a satisfactory translation of the Greek word, because what represents something else (a deputy represents his constituency) need not have any similarity to that which it represents.

19An implication of this suggestion is that, if Plato, when explaining narration by imitation, of tragedy and comedy, talks as he does in Republic III, 394c-d and 395a, saying explicitly (in the second passage) that these genera (or more precisely their instances) are imitations (mimemata), he does not have in mind a concept of mimesis which has to do particularly with performance and should be kept distinct from that (based on the model of painting) which is adopted in book X. This conclusion however should not lead us to think that, when he discusses what imitations should be performed by the guardians as part of their paideia, he has in mind the same type of situation which is considered in book X, when submitting to scrutiny the imitations performed by the poets. The distance between these two treatments becomes more evident through criticism of a different approach that has been adopted by some scholars in recent times.

  • 12 Cf. Belfiore, “A Theory of Imitation”, cit., pp. 126-27 and ff., who talks of “versatile imitation” (...)

20What these scholars maintain is that what is at issue, in Plato’s treatment of mimesis in books III and X of the Republic, is what may be called “imitativeness”, in the sense of being “given to imitation” or “prone to imitation”, with the connotation of “indiscriminately imitative” or “imitative of everything”.12 It is maintained that this notion is suggested not only by the use that Plato makes of mimetikós in these texts but also by what purports to be the definition he gives of this word (probably invented by him) in III, 395a2 : “a person will imitate many things and be given to imitation” (pollà mimesetai kai estai mimetikós). The advantage of adopting this interpretation is that one can admit that his concern with mimesis is the same in book III and in book X of the Republic, i.e. consists in the rejection of “imitativeness” and not of mimesis in general, and that the impact of his criticism of poetry is significantly reduced.

21I cannot find the interpretation convincing. In the first place, it is difficult to regard 395a2 as containing a definition of mimetikós, for there a coordination is found between ‘being imitative’ and ‘imitating many things’, since polla mimesetai is also preceded by a kai. In the second place, the most obvious sense to be given to mimetikós elsewhere is that of possessing or exercising an imitative art (mimetikè techne) such as painting or poetry (for instance in X, 602 the poet is called both a mimetés and a mimetikós in poetry). Now a painter for instance ‘imitates many things’, for he draws pictures of a lot of things, but this is not an ‘imitating many things’ that Plato wants to reject for this very reason, since what he explicitly excludes in III, 395a, is that a poet may be good at composing both tragedies and comedies, and a carpenter is in his view to be condemned not if beyond tables he produces other wooden artefacts but if, beyond being a carpenter, he wants to be a shoemaker as well. But what the painter does serves as a paradigm in the treatment of poetry in Republic X, so that the poet cannot be condemned either for his supposed versatile imitation.

22What has to be admitted is that the discussion conducted in book III of the Republic is not entirely exempt from ambiguity.The question which is asked in 394e is whether the guardians of the well-governed city should be ‘imitative’ (mimetikoi) or not. It is likely, given the importance that Plato attributes to choral dance in paideia, that he is thinking primarily of what is done in practising it. (For the importance attributed to choral dance cf. above, ch. 16. That what a Greek like Plato intended by ‘dance’ is a rather wider range of practices than those we would have in mind is stressed by G. Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City, cit., pp. 304 ff., where he also notices the great role that dance is supposed to have by the philosopher.) Dancing, both because of its connection with music and in itself, is regarded as an imitative practice in the Laws (cf. e.g. II, 655d), but this cannot be what is at issue in the question of 394e, for it must concern what type of dancing should be practised and not whether dancing should be practised at all. For instance dances of war involve the imitation of the movements and gestures of soldiers, such as those of throwing a javelin or of striking an enemy (cf. Laws VII, 814d ff.). This sort of imitation, one can see, regards certain classes of people (such as soldiers or specific types of soldiers such as archers), and this is not Plato’s concern in Republic III, where the question raised is rather whether one should imitate a hero like Achilles. (It is certainly excluded that one imitates an individual who performs a banausic work, thus as belonging to a certain class, but still the question concerns the imitation of an individual.) The reply to this sort of question is that it would be better not to imitate anybody, but if imitation cannot be avoided, this imitation should be restricted to positive models, constituted by people who are brave, moderate, pious, and so forth (cf. 395c). The passage, thus rendered ad sensum, shows some suspicion towards all such imitation (a fact that tends to be overlooked by those who adopt the interpretation I am criticizing). Presumably Plato sees a danger in imitating a hero like Achilles (even if he can be taken as a positive hero), because one may assimilate oneself to a character which is not quite congruent with the character one possesses by nature, with as a result an internal contrast, while one should first of all be oneself. But, and here comes the ambiguity, he also seems to regard all imitation as a deviation from the principle of pursuing just one task in one’s life, giving as an example a fortiori that one cannot do well even in practising two types of imitation, such as writing tragedies and comedies (cf. 394e-395a). Certainly, by following this line, dance, which is regarded as imitative, would have to be avoided altogether, and this is not the position he wants to adopt. So in the end the argument serves to exclude variety in imitation, by restricting it to good characters, but not without some ambiguity, which leads to the expression of a reservation even about this type of imitation.

23Anyhow, whatever may be the exact meaning of the passage, any attempt to establish a close connection between this part of the treatment in book III of the Republic and the treatment in book X is doomed to failure, for two simple reasons. The first is that here a distinction is introduced between imitating individuals of good character and imitating individuals of bad character, while this distinction is not relevant to the treatment in book X, where the parallel of poetry with painting is general and not restricted to the imitation of certain objects (somehow corresponding to the individuals of bad character). The second is that the question whether the guardians should be imitative is a question concerning what happens to their own souls in performing certain activities (if they imitate good characters they will become better people, if they imitate bad characters they will become worse people). In book X, however, the question is not about what happens to the poet’s own soul if he does imitations, e.g. by writing a tragedy, but about what happens to the souls of the persons belonging to his audience, when the tragedy is represented. What happens to the poet’s own soul is not a question that interests Plato.(It is true that in book III the poet tends to be discredited for his imitating in an indiscriminate way, but he is discredited in the eyes of other people, while his own spiritual condition is not an issue.) The situations envisaged are then profoundly different.

27. On the status and place of the imitative arts

24Plato, as anticipated above (cf. I, ch. 6), does not regard what were called the imitative arts as being arts in the full sense, that is to say as satisfying the requirements for being a techne that are laid down in some dialogues (especially in the Gorgias).Among these requirements there are that being something more than a practice (tribé) based on mere experience (empeiria), because its method permits it to give a causal explanation of the results it produces (e.g. medicine can explain how it produces health), and that of having a positive aim, which cannot be just pleasure. However, in so far as these activities also involve some skill, one may call them arts in a looser sense of the word. In this way it becomes possible to give them a collocation inside the system of the arts as a whole. This collocation is not given them by Plato in a direct and explicit way. But, as we have seen above (last chapter), a collocation is given to them as a species of the productive arts, in that they also produce something, not a real thing (e.g. a table), as do most of the arts, but an image (usually an image of some real thing). Once they are collocated in this way, their collocation in the system of the arts will depend on the collocation of the productive arts as a whole.

25It is sufficiently clear, from passages in the dialogues, that Plato had already in mind that sort of hierarchy or pyramidal system, with politics at the vertex, which is propounded by Aristotle at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics. There is no space for discussing all the evidence in detail. It may be enough to point out that in Gorgias, 517c-518a, he admits a subdivision of all the arts in those which have to do with the body and those which have to do with the soul, with a general subordination of the former to the latter. Inside the arts which have to do with the body a hierarchy is prospected according to which medicine is at the vertex, and this must imply an analogous hierarchy in the case of the arts which have to do with the soul, with politics at the vertex (as can be inferred from other passages of the dialogue). That politics is at the vertex of the hierarchy of all the arts is in any case suggested with sufficient explicitness in some passages of the Politicus (e.g. 303e-304a). A general subordination of all the other arts, which explicitly include those which are productive (exemplified by the making of musical instruments like lyres), to those which ensure the competence in the use (clearly the use of the products of the former), is asserted in Euthydemus, 289b-290d, and there too it is suggested that, among the arts of use, there is a dominating one, which is politics (cf. 291b-d).

26The imitative arts as a species of the productive arts will belong to this system and thus be subordinated to politics. Thus, by adopting this conception, Plato offers a legitimization of his attitude towards the poets and other artists and towards their products in those works, like the Republic and the Laws, in which the collocation of the former inside the well-governed community is explicitly raised and in which all their activity (if they are admitted) is supposed to require supervision (direct or indirect) by the rulers. Even Aristotle, as we have seen above (ch. 4), thinks it is the responsibility of the politician (as the possessor of political art) to decide what place the fine arts should have in the education of young people and what place they should have in the life of adult citizens. Plato, in asking the question whether poets and other artists should be admitted to the well-governed city, goes beyond this, for he does not take for granted (as Aristotle seems to do) that, once education of young people is taken care of, they cannot do great harm, for adults with a proper education will be able to make their choices, avoiding bad influences, while the remaining people cannot be made much worse than they already are and this negative influence may be offset by the fears that are induced in them by the traditional mythology which is expounded by the poets. In any case it also seems that, in Aristotle’s eyes, Plato much overrated the harmful effect that can be exercised by poems and other works of art.

  • 13 What is implied in this passage, viz. that poets are unable to distinguish good from bad, is stated (...)

27In Republic, book X, as part of an argument meant to show that the poets do not possess real knowledge, Plato adopts a classification of the arts that presents some difference from that adopted in the Sophist (cf. 601b9 ff.). According to this classification there are three main types of art, (1) those of use, (2) those of making or producing, (3) those of imitating (cf. 601d1-2). It can be seen that, on this classification, the imitative arts are not treated as a species (besides others) of productive arts but as a wholly distinct group. However it is likely that Plato is not rigid in the classification he propounds and that this is not meant to be an alternative to that adopted in the Sophist, for he is willing to talk (as in that dialogue) of the ‘imitator’ (mimetés) as the producer of an image (eidolou poietes, 601a9). In any case he has in mind some sort of hierarchy of the arts, for he suggests that the person who possesses an art of use is in a condition to give instructions to the producer of the artefact that he produces, since he has knowledge of how to use that product. For instance the player of a musical instrument like the aulós (often improperly translated by ‘flute’) will give instructions to the maker of musical instruments as how best to make the instrument needed by him (cf. 601d-e). This suggestion is justified by recourse to the general principle that ‘the excellence and the beauty and the rightness of every implement (skeuos) and animal and (human) action refer solely to the use for which nature or the artist has intended them’ (601d4-6). Before commenting on this passage, I shall complete this account. It would seem that Plato is making a double assumption, namely that use always requires some art (at least in order to be exercised in a satisfactory way) and that this art has a directive function as well. Aristotle, it may be pointed out, did not share the first assumption at least, for he remarks that, for instance, the normal user of a house is its inhabitant and this is not the possessor of some art (cf. Politics III 11, 1282a17-23).Anyhow, leaving out any question about the validity of the assumptions made by Plato, what he says about the knowledge possessed by the one who exercises a productive art, for instance the maker of an aulós, does follow : he will have no knowledge (in the strong sense of the word) of the goodness or badness of the musical instruments produced by him, for he only follows the instructions of the user, who is the one who does possess that sort of knowledge (cf. 601e). Plato goes on to suggest that the imitator finds himself in a worse condition than the producer, for not only does he not have any direct knowledge of the use of what he has imitated (e.g of the painted aulós), but he does not even have that indirect knowledge (there presented as ‘right conviction’ : orthè pistis) which is possessed by the producer, i.e. the knowledge which he possesses by following the instructions of the user (cf. 602a-b). He in fact does nothing but imitate what is produced by e.g. the maker of musical instruments, hence cannot have any knowledge about the good or bad use of an aulós.13

28The argument is questionable, because (even if one accepted the artificial restriction of imitation to the imitation of artefacts) the issue of a good or bad use of a painted aulós does not arise at all, for this is not any more a musical instrument to be used but just a picture of it. And, as a picture, it will have to be evaluated in a different way. This possibility however is precluded once beauty is taken together with excellence (areté) and rightness and said to be relative to the use which is made of the thing. In other contexts (as we shall see in ch. 29) he adopts a definition of beauty or at least criteria of beauty which leave out any question of use. Further, by treating the imitative arts as a sort of play, Plato seems to be admitting that their products do not possess any use or any instrumentality in view of something good. Finally, by treating the imitative arts in this way, he does not show that they are subordinate to those arts of use which are also directive, one reason for subordinating them to politics thus being no longer valid.

29One can see that this argument is unsatisfactory, just like the argument which he had previously used in Republic X with the same purpose of showing that an imitator like a poet does not possess any knowledge worthy of this name (for this argument above, Part II, ch. 22).The argument is presented as parallel to the former, since it also leads to the conclusion that imitation is concerned with what is at the third remove from truth (cf. 602c), but in fact it works rather differently, for here it is the (human) user who is directly in touch with truth. There need not be a contradiction between the two, as some interpreters suppose, for the fact that according to the first argument the artisan or producer refers to the idea as his paradigm, while according the second he does not refer to it but follows the instructions of the user, since these instructions concern making the artefact most useful for its purpose, not the shape or constitution the artefact possesses. Otherwise nothing suggests that Plato did not take the argument seriously.

28. Music and the varieties of imitation

  • 14 The musical terms here used are difficult to render in modern languages, and I prefer to use what a (...)

30Much attention has been given by scholars to what Plato has to say about mimesis, either in general or in connection with painting and drama. Less attention has been given to the fact that, when Plato presents (as he often does, as we have seen above, Part I, ch. 6) music as an imitative art, he does not regard it as imitative in quite the same way as painting, though he does not do much to explain the difference. This notion of mimesis is introduced in a sufficiently explicit way in Republic III, 400a, talking about rhythms. There these are said to be imitations (mimemata) each of a certain sort of life (bios). (Later, in a passage mentioned below, there is the suggestion that in them are identifiable images [eikones] of certain virtues and their contraries.) From what follows, where an appeal to Damon is made, it would seem that they are imitations of certain sorts of life, or, more restrictively, of certain behaviours, because these are the expressions of certain characters held by persons. There are rhythms that are appropriate for meanness, or insolence, or fury, and there are rhythms that are appropriate for the contrary conditions (evidently : of the soul). Of one of these rhythms it is said that it is heroic (cf. 400b). It would also seem there is a continuity between this account of rhythms and that given immediately earlier of harmonies, for one account follows the other (except for a reference to instruments), and the examples given are rather similar (cf. 398d ff.). It is difficult to suppose that music is regarded as imitative for the rhythms, but not for the harmonies it uses. Of some of these harmonies it is said they are expressive of sorrow, of some others that they are soft and convivial, of still others that they are stern and austere, being proper for warlike actions and so forth, etc. There is a clear relationship between these harmonies and these rhythms and certain traits of character.14

31It has to be noticed, however, that for Plato this relationship is not wholly direct, for in the context of the passage in which he states that the rhythms are imitations each of a certain sort of life he also says that we ‘must observe which are the rhythms of a life that is orderly and brave’ (399e10-11), but adding that, ‘after observing them, require the foot (pous) and the tune (melos) to follow that kind of man’s speech (logos) and not the speech to follow the foot and the tune’ (399e11-400a2). This qualification returns in a later passage, where it is said that good rhythm and bad rhythm follow, the one, beautiful diction (kalè lexis), assimilating itself to it, and the other the opposite, and so the apt (euarmoston) and the unapt (anarmoston), thus conforming to the rule just expressed (clearly referring to 399e-400a) that rhythm and harmony follow the speech and not the speech these (cf. 400d).This point comes back in Laws II, 669d-e, where, in censuring the use of musical instruments to make music without words, he suggests that of the rhythms and harmonies that are produced in this way it is difficult to say what they are the imitations of and if their models are worth imitating. These models, as is sufficiently clear from the context, are always certain traits of character of persons or their attitudes to life.

32The same account of music seems to be taken for granted in some passages of the Laws. In book II, 655c ff., attention is concentrated on choral dances, and these are regarded as expressive of goodness or vice. It is also said explicitly that they involve imitations of ways (scil. of doing or, more generally, of living) (mimemata tropon, 655d5), and that those who enact them either give expression to their own characters (ethe) or imitate those of others. In the case of rhythms and harmonies some relation between them and the characters and dispositions of persons is suggested in a subsequent passage (i.e. 669b5 ff., which leads to the one quoted above), with the introductory remark that they, like paintings, belong to the images (eikones) (cf. 669b7 and a7-8).

33The view that musical rhythms and harmonies and/or tunes are imitations of traits of character or attitudes to life proper to certain persons by following their speech is understandable only if the aspect of speech that is considered consists in the way of speaking or expressing oneself that reflects one’s character (that is to say consists in the tropos tes lexeos as defined above, in chs. 22 and 19). It is suggested in fact that in music one can identify images [eikones] of virtues like moderation, courage and liberality and their contraries (cf. Republic IV, 402c, also 400b). But these virtues and their contraries find their expression for instance in the utterances of the brave man engaged in warfare or in those of the moderate one in other circumstances (cf. 399a-c). It is for these utterances that rhythms and harmonies will have to be appropriate. In this last passage of the Republic Plato goes beyond what he says in the passages mentioned above, viz. that rhythms and harmonies follow (hepesthai) speech, because he says they imitate the sounds of the words, but it seems that talking of imitation in this connection cannot mean the same as in connection with traits of character, and be rather a way of suggesting a very close integration between words and music. Similar examples, but this time in describing a situation of discordance, are used in Laws II, 669b5 ff. (see above, Part II, ch. 24).

34This account is taken up and developed by Aristotle, in Politics VIII 5, 1340a1 ff. He there says that “in rhythms and melodies there is the greatest likeness (esti homoiomata malista) to the true natures of anger and gentleness, and also courage and temperance, and of all their opposites, and the other characters” (1340a18-21). Later he says explicitly that in them there are imitations of characters (mimemata tôn ethôn, 1340a39). He differs from Plato in that he does not require any more that rhythms and harmonies be regarded as imitating traits of character only if they follow speech, though he is not explicit on this point in the passage of the Politics. (The explicit assertion is to be found in Problems XIX, § 27 (919b21 ff.), i.e. in a work which probably is not authentic but in much is faithful to Aristotelian thought : “For every tune (melos), even if it has no words (aneu logou), has nevertheless character …”.) He also declares that a resemblance (homoioma) to characters is not to be found at all in the field of the other senses, with a partial exception of the objects of sight, that is to say of paintings, for with them figures and colours are signs of conditions in the soul (the passage is 1340a32-35 and was quoted above, ch. 26).The present case is however kept distinct from that of paintings, for it is in the tunes themselves that the imitations of characters are present (cf. 1340a38-39), hence (it is implied) they can possess an emotional dimension. That, on the other hand, contemplating the painting of, say, a “frightening” scene leaves one emotionally unaffected is suggested by him in De anima III 3, 427b21-24.As a confirmation of this peculiarity of music he points out that the reactions by the listeners are, appropriately, mournful to mournful melodies, relaxed to relaxed harmonies, calm to those inspiring calm, etc. (cf. 1340a39 ff.).The trouble with this argument is that it is rather manifestly circular. It works on the assumption that, if these melodies etc. produce a certain effect, they must themselves be of the nature of the effect produced, and they can be of this nature only if they themselves reflect the characters or passions etc. which they put in movement.

35In the passage of the Problems referred to above something more is said, namely that sounds differ e.g. from colours because they involve a movement of which we have perception. In the case of music this movement ‘has a semblance (homoioteta) {to moral character} both in the rhythms and in the arrangement (taxis) of the higher and lower sounds’, so that one can say that it has to do with action (is a praktikè kinesis) and thus is a symptom of moral character. It can be seen that there is a stress on the peculiarity of the sounds of music, which, in being perceived as in movement, distinguishes them from colours and so forth, but that their capacity to somehow carry moral character is rather asserted than proved. In any case there is a consciousness of the fact that the account of mimesis as imitation, when this is given on the model of painting, cannot work in the case of music.

36Is there any sign that Plato himself was aware of the fact that music cannot be mimetic in the sense in which painting is ? Relevant to this issue appears to be Timaeus 47c-e, to be quoted below, for there is talk there of the sungeneia between the harmonies and rhythms of music and those which are realized, when harmonious, by the soul in its ‘revolutions’. In identifying ‘revolutions’ in the soul there is at least the postulation of movements in the soul which correspond to the movements that can be found in a succession of sounds. (Where the correspondence lies is not clear in the other Platonic passages or in Aristotle.) And it would seem that imitation (mimesis), being based on a sungeneia, can go in both senses : it is not merely music that imitates the harmonies and rhythms in the soul, but there can be the opposite imitation (which explains the formative effect of music : the movements in the soul adapt themselves, by imitation, to the movements of music). If this is so, there is clearly a significant difference between this mimesis and that realized by painting, which is a one-way mimesis, given the ontologically dependent status of images.

  • 15 The account of music given by Aristotle is discussed by Halliwell in his The Aesthetics of Mimesis, (...)

37Another relevant passage is Laws II, 668b-c, for Plato there seems to associate imitation in music to correct imitation (he there talks, with apparent approval, of those who look for music which is not merely sweet but also correct [orthé], in the sense, explained in what immediately follows, of being correct in imitation), but correctness in imitation consists in representing the object faithfully in its quantitative and qualitative aspect. This is stated there by recalling what he had said a few lines earlier (i.e. 667e10-669a4), where it was said that the imitation must be such that what is equal remains equal and what is proportionate (summetron) remains proportionate. We can thus understand this treatment of music in the light of the distinction between two types of mimetic art, the eikastiké and the phantastiké, which is introduced in the Sophist, for the imitation involved in the art of the first type consists in the preservation of the proportion (summetria) which is presented by the original (see there, 235e-236a). Because of this point of identity, one can say that what is involved is not just an imitation that goes in one sense but an affinity (sungeneia) that goes in both senses. This suggestion, certainly, comes from the passage of the Timaeus, and Plato does not recognize any absolute difference between the two types of imitation, but makes them consist in the reproduction of an original. Further, as we have seen, he talks of images (eikones) of virtue that are present in music, and this shows that the paradigm of painting is not wholly abandoned. It has thus to be concluded that the peculiarity of the mimesis in music receives only a partial recognition on his part.15

38Still on this issue of the nature of music, it has to be pointed out that in the passage of the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems to which reference was made above it is admitted that not everything in musical sounds imitates character (ethos), for this applies to the arrangement of higher and lower sounds but not to their mixture (mixis) ; further, consonance (sumphonia) is expressly said to have no moral character. Probably mixture is supposed to contribute to consonance, in any case that the beauty which music presents and the pleasure it procures depends on these aspects. There are thus two dimensions of music, one which has to do with character and the other which has not, but which both possess aesthetic significance. Plato must have been aware of this fact, for, as we have already seen, in Republic IV, in a context in which he talks of music, he is induced to point out that certain qualities, such as gracefulness and gracelessness, are also to be found in the products of painting, of architecture, of weaving, and so forth (cf. 400e ff.). In the case of these disciplines in fact certain formal qualities of beauty, such as symmetry, which have not to do with character, play an important role (as we shall see below, ch. 29), but there must be a point of contact between them and music, which lies precisely in the fact that certain formal qualities of beauty are also to be found in music. It has to be admitted, however, that in the passage I am considering Plato is not relying on any such neat distinction, for he is willing to talk of moral traits, such as the negative ones of evil disposition and illiberality, and of images of evil (eikones kakias) also in the case of the products of those other arts.

  • 16 Here I follow Cornford’s text and interpretation.
  • 17 What he propounds remains however a mathematical construction that underlies musical harmonies rath (...)

39Finally, it has to be stressed that the doctrine which is present in the dialogues also finds a significant expression in a passage of the Timaeus in which, after having considered the usefulness of the sense of sight, he considers the usefulness of the sense of hearing and that of voice. The passage deserves to be quoted in full :“For not only was speech (logos) designed for this same purpose, to which it contributes in the largest measure, but also that part of music (mousiké) that is serviceable with respect to the hearing of sound16 is given to us for the sake of harmony. Harmony, having motions akin (sungeneis) to the revolutions of the soul within us, has been given by the Muses to him whose dealings with them is guided by intelligence, not for irrational pleasure (hedone alogos), which appears now to be its utility, but as an ally against the disharmony that has come into the revolution of the soul, to bring it into order and consonance (sumphonia) with itself. Rhythm, again, was given us from the same entities as a help to the same intent, for in most of us our condition is lacking in measure and poor in grace.” (47c6-e2). The parallel he draws here with sight lies in the fact that the observation of the ordered revolutions in the heavens, which are a manifestation of (cosmic) intelligence, is of help in bringing order in the motions of thought inside us (cf. 47b). The idea that there are revolutions in the souls that are similar to those of the celestial bodies was introduced in a former part of the dialogue. It implies that the same harmony is present in the heavens and in our soul, when this reproduces in itself, by imitation (mimoumenoi, 47c3), the order of the heavens. (The same suggestion, in the simplified form that there is an imitation [mimesis] of the divine harmony in mortal movements, comes back in 80b.) Music is thus seen as an expression of this cosmic attunement and concord. This position is close to Pythagoreanism and goes beyond the idea that harmonies and rhythms are imitations of movements in our soul.(The Pythagoreans notoriously asserted that there is a celestial music - what will be called, anachronistically, the music of the spheres - that is inaudible to most men. Plato was certainly familiar with this view and, though he probably did not take it seriously, it remains significant that he supposed that the world-soul is divided into harmonic intervals and made the celestial movements depend on this ‘musical’ structure, cf. Timaeus, 35b ff., together with the commentary by F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, London 1937, pp. 66-72.17)

40On the other hand, there remains the idea that there is an affinity (sungeneia) between them and those in our soul, for only in this way can music exercise the effect of introducing order in the movements in our soul. This is seen as the aim that is to be pursued by humanly made music. Presumably pleasure is to be rejected as an independent (alternative) aim of music (as of the other beautiful arts) and as ‘irrational’, but not when it arises from an accord between the harmony in the musical sounds and that of the ‘revolutions’ in the soul. In fact, when coming back to this motif, in 80b, Plato is not excluding any pleasant reaction to the reception of harmony in one’s soul, but keeps distinct pleasure (hedoné) as what is felt by silly people from the good cheer (euphrosune) which is felt by the intelligent ones. As to education, this must be meant to realize this sort of accord. (Paideia is not mentioned in the Timaeus in this connection, but later on, in considering vice as ignorance resulting from lack of paideia, cfr. 86d-e, and in presenting paideia itself as the remedy for this situation in 87b. Gymnastics, music and philosophy are clearly taken as parts of paideia in 88c and said to contribute to a condition of harmony and proportion or equilibrium between body and soul.)

41The previous exposition has shown that, even if an incomplete way, there is a recognition by Plato that music cannot be mimetic in the sense in which painting is. This point leads to the question whether or not, by using painting as a parallel for poetry, as a paradigm for better understanding how it works, he is making the assumption that they are mimetic in the same sense. It is more likely that he is aware of the fact that the parallel cannot be complete, for he abandons it at some stage of the discussion of Republic book X. But where does the difference lie ? Or is there more than one difference ? Plato never discusses this matter in an explicit way, but some indications can be obtained by the hints he gives.

42One indications comes precisely from Republic book X, for it can be noticed that the parallel with painting is abandoned when he comes to discuss ‘the greatest charge against poetry’, and this is the charge of the corruptive effect it exercises by playing on the emotions of the audience, through the ‘sympathy’ that is felt for the hero who is represented as falling into disgrace (on this passage, i.e. 605c ff., cf. above, Part II, ch. 25).This must imply that painting does not give rise to the same sort of emotional involvement in the observers. It would seem that here the same distinction is operative which Aristotle explicitly makes between music and painting, precisely by excluding that the latter has the same effect on the emotions of the observers or hearers as the former has.

  • 18 For this definition see above, Part II, ch. 19, p. 305.
  • 19 For this passage see above, Part II, ch. 21, pp. 321-22.

43Another indication comes from a passage of the Timaeus, i.e. 19b-c, where it is said that the community or city that had previously been described (one with a constitution which coincides in the main with that of the Republic) is like a beautiful animal, either painted or living, but deprived of movement, of which one wishes that it be seen in movement and in competition with other animals. The request in the case of that city is that it be seen in conflict with other cities, so as to verify the results obtained by the education given to its citizens. This request is satisfied in the story (muthos) which is told in the (incomplete) Critias. Since also poets tell stories, the implication is that they can show, in telling a story, certain things in movement, while their representation in a painting would deprive them of movement. In fact, in the definition that (in Republic X, 603c) is given of the mimetic art that is realized by poetry its objects are said to be ‘men who are acting’ (prattontas anthropous), thus who are in movement18. It is true that in what follows in the Timaeus a limitation of the poets is pointed out19, but this limitation concerns their formation and has nothing to do with the distinction now drawn between representing something in movement and representing something in stasis. A similar passage is to be found in the Politicus, where it is asserted that it is more fitting (mallon prepei) to show a living being by means of speech (lexis and logos) than by means of a painting or any other handicraft (cf. 277c). In this passage the reason for this superiority of speech over painting is not explained, but it seems natural to suppose that it has to do with the fact that what is represented is a living being, thus something that should be shown in movement.(The distinction here illustrated finds a more explicit formulation in Dio Chrysostom, Oratio XII, 66 ff., where he says for instance that “the sculptor has to keep the same image in his mind all the time”, while the poets “embrace many shapes and forms of all kinds in their poetry, assigning movement and rest to them as they judge appropriate at any given time”.)

44A third indication comes from more than one passage, and lies in the fact that a poem is open to more than one interpretation, while this is not true in the case of a painting or other handicraft. This susceptibility of more than one interpretation is not usually presented by Plato in a favourable light, thus is not treated, like the two characteristics now considered, as an element of superiority, but still it is an element of difference. One passage in which this comes out is Protagoras, 347e, where Socrates is made to assert that, when the object of discussion is a poem, some people claim that the poet means to say this one thing and other people claim that the poet means to say some other thing, with the outcome that the lack of agreement is adduced as one reason for avoiding this sort of discussion (the previous discussion between Socrates and Protagoras illustrates such a divergence in interpretation). Elsewhere, in Republic I, 332b, and in Alcibiades II, 147b-c (cf. also Lysis, 214d), the suggestion is made that the poets are used to expressing themselves in riddles. In Theatetus, 180c-d, the suggestion is made that poets like Homer (mentioned in 152e) ‘used poetical forms which concealed from the majority of men their real meaning’. From the Ion one gathers that a poet like Homer is a need of a rhapsode as an interpreter of what he says. On the other hand, in the case of paintings or sculptures the only possibility that is contemplated is that of judging whether they are good or bad (cf. Ion, 532e-533a ; also Laws II, 668c-e). Nowhere is it suggested that a painting or a sculpture is open to more than one interpretation.

45Some relationship must of course have been admitted between this feature of poetry and the fact that it has contents that carry some ideology. From this point of view, however, the consequence must be that the images which poetry offers are not simple imitations of some reality but imply models that lead us to look at reality in a certain way. For instance the images that are given of the gods by the poets imply models that induce those who give a hearing to what the poets say to attribute certain characteristics to them. And this is a reason why the activity of the poets must be submitted to a stricter political control than that of other artists.

46In conclusion, coming back to the mimetic conception of music expounded above, whatever one thinks of its solidity, it clearly has a great importance in the eyes of both Plato and Aristotle. It offers a justification for the admission of the unity of music (in the narrow sense) and of poetry under the heading of music (in the wide sense), or for the admission (valid for Plato even if not for Aristotle) that poetry in the sense of literature should not be disjoined from music. It helps to explain the tendency, that is evident in both authors, to treat mimesis in connection with poetry and/or of music as being nothing but imitation of people acting (see e.g. the beginning of Poet. 2), for acting is involved, for instance, in choreutic dancing and in playing an instrument (examples given by Aristotle in that chapter), but their being mimetic is often explained on the basis of the fact that the rhythms, tunes, etc. produced or involved are mimetic. It also helps to explain the importance that is attributed to music in education, in view of the formation of the character of young people.

29. Where does aesthetic beauty lie? The formal criteria of perfection

47Aristotle, in an often quoted passage of his Metaphysics, suggests that the good (to agathón) and the beautiful (to kalón) are different, for the former is always to be found in actions (praxis) while the beautiful is found also in motionless things (cf. XIII (M) 3, 1078a31 ff.). It is therefore mistaken, he argues (more explicitly in III (B) 2, 996a21 ff.), to think that, since the good (in the sense of the end of actions) plays no role in the mathematical sciences, they are not concerned in any way with what has value and a causative function, for they are concerned with the beautiful. In fact “the chiefs forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness (tou kaloû megista eide taxis kai summetria kai to horismenon), which the mathematical sciences demonstrate to the highest degree” (1078a36-b2).Aristotle presents these as the main forms or species of beauty, but they should rather be considered as criteria or as ‘elements in the definition of beauty’ (as Ross calls them in his commentary to the passage). He himself, in Poetics 7, suggests that the beautiful resides in size and in order (to kalòn en megethei kai taxei estin) and illustrates this point with the example of an animal, which is beautiful not only when the parts by which it is constituted are ordered but also if it is not either too big or too small - clearly in relation to the way in which it is constituted -, so that, it would seem (this is not stated there) both symmetry and definiteness are involved (cf. 1450b35 ff.). (This point has application to a tragedy, in a way which will be clarified below.) A similar statement is to be found in Politics VII 4, 1326a33 ff., where it is admitted that beauty resides not only in size (megethos) but also in number (plethos) and it is said that for everything (including, again, animals) there must be a proper measure (metron), avoiding excess and defect. This is there applied to the size of the polis and the multitude of its inhabitants. But the point is there associated with the idea of the order (taxis) which the city realizes through its laws (cf. 1326a19-23) and which apparently is also taken as contributing to its beauty (this term is explicitly applied to the city in a25). Symmetry or proportion is clearly taken as a criterion of beauty also in the passages of Politics III 11, III 13, and V 3, which were considered above (ch. 26 and n. 8). It can be added that, in Topics III 1, still using the example of an animal, Aristotle presents its beauty as residing in the symmetry of its members (cf. 116b21-22).

  • 20 An ample study of this notion is provided by M. Pohlenz,“To prepon, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des (...)

48Concerning order (taxis), it would seem that Aristotle has this criterion mainly, though not exclusively, in mind in Poetics 8, where he treats the poetical work (thinking of epos and of tragedy) as the imitation of one action, but of this he says that it must be one and a whole, adding that its parts must be so arranged that if one of them is transposed or taken away the whole is disrupted (cf. 1451a30 ff.). There are also other criteria which he adopts in the Poetics and/or in other works, such as that of convenience or appropriateness or of the fitting (to prepon)20 (cf. above, Part I, ch. 8 and n. 20). How this is related to the others is not clarified by him. But it is clear, from what follows, that other authors also made recourse to it.

49Aristotle in these passages does not state a doctrine that is peculiar to him. Where he differs from other authors, and certainly from Plato, is in expressly propounding a neat distinction between what is beautiful and what is good, by restricting the latter to the field of action, in so far as is of interest for ethics (and politics), and by excluding the former from this field. However he himself does not stick to this distinction in his ethical works, for he is willing to say that virtues like that of courage are exercised in view of what is fine (to kalón) (cf. e.g. Nicomachean Ethics III 6 [9], 1115a11-12 and [10] 1115b10-14) and his conception of the mean, as avoidance of excess and defect, has to do with beauty in the sense defined above, for he himself (in that work, II 6, 1106b7 ff.) refers to the arts when illustrating it and remarks about them that “it is customary to say of well-executed works that nothing can be added to them or taken away” (b9-10).

50That the doctrine stated in the above quoted passages is not peculiar to Aristotle can be confirmed by some quotations, which could be increased in number. One can start with what Galen has to say about the celebrated Canon of Polycleitus :“ … beauty does not reside in the symmetry (summetria) of the elements {as health does} but in that of the members : clearly of finger to finger, of all fingers to palm and wrist, of these to forearm, of forearm to upper arm, and of all to all, as is written in Polycleitus’ Canon” (De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis V, p. 426). Galen adds that Polycleitus in his book gave information about all the proportions (summetrias) of the body and fashioned a statue in accordance with his theory (his logos), but that all physicians and philosophers (in the context he had named Chrysippus) place beauty of the (human) body in the symmetry (or proportion) of its members - keeping it distinct from health as the proportion of the elements.

51Before commenting on this passage, it can be added that the same conception of beauty is attributed to the Stoics in general by Cicero in his Tusculanae disputationes IV (13) 30-31 ( = SVF III, 279), where, in the case of the body, it is said to lay in a certain appropriate configuration of its members accompanied by an attractive colour, in the case of the soul in an analogous equilibrium (aequalibilitas) and coherence (constantia) of opinions and of judgements accompanied by firmness. A similar formulation is to be found in the account of Arius Dydimus reported by Stobaeus II, 7.5b4 (p. 62, 15 W. = SVF III, 278), where beauty of the body is made reside in a symmetry or proportion (summetria) of its constituent members both among themselves and in relation to the whole, and that of the soul also in a symmetry which concerns reason (logos) in its parts. Both in Cicero and Arius beauty is kept distinct from health, which is made to reside in the temperatio ( = eukrasia) of the constituents either of the body or the soul.

52This stress on symmetry is also to be found in the field of architecture, as we shall see below in considering Vitruvius’ position. For the moment it should be remarked that he admits, evidently following the same tradition, that a human body which comes close to perfection satisfies certain requirements of proportion that can be expressed by numbers (for instance the head is the eighth part of the whole body, the foot a sixth, the cubit a quarter, the breast also a quarter) and that are to be associated with ‘eurythmia’ (cf. De architectura III 1, 1, and I 2, 4).

53A synthesis of the motives present in previous authors seems to be offered by Plutarch, who, in De recta ratione audiendi, ch. 14, says that‘in every piece of work beauty is achieved through the congruence of many things brought into union with symmetry and harmony, whereas ugliness comes readily into being if only a single chance thing is omitted or added out of place’ (45C).

54Finally, it is helpful to make reference to Plotinus’ position. On the one hand, in his treatise On beauty (Enneads I 6, 1), he notoriously criticized the view that beauty consists in the symmetry (summetria) and measure (metron) of things, symmetry itself concerning the parts in their relationship to one another and to the whole, because it is a view that cannot account for the beauty of what is simple. Though he probably has the Stoic position mainly in mind, he gives the impression of intending to criticise what was the prevailing view of beauty. On the other hand, he himself could not do wholly without that conception of beauty, for, when talking of the (perceptible) products of the imitative arts, he makes their beauty reside in the symmetry which they realize, and extends this to animals (cf. Enneads V 9, 11, where the term summetria appears often, the substantivated to kalón only once, in a passage that could also have moral significance, but to talk of the symmetry realized by those object can only serve to justify their beauty).

55There is an obvious Pythagorean ancestry for this whole doctrine, with testimonies which may not be reliable in details, but which reflect its general acceptance. For instance in a testimony by Aristoxenus on the Pythagoreans, which is taken up by Stobaeus (Flor. IV 1, 49 = 58 D 4, p. 469.35-37 Diels-Kranz) and by Iamblichus in Vita pythagorica, XXXI 203 (unless he depends on another source), one of their teachings consisted in the formula that order and symmetry are beautiful and useful (useful presumably in a moral sense), while lack of order and symmetry are ugly and useless. Order and symmetry are supposed to extend to music and assume a character of harmony and so forth (using terms that may themselves be extended beyond the realm of music). Here again there is a testimony by Iamblichus who, in Vita pythagorica, IX 45, talks of the choir of the Muses (to whom, according to tradition, a temple was erected on Pythagoras’ suggestion) as being distinguished by an accord (sumphonia), harmony and rhythm which extends to the whole world. Beauty is implied though not explicitly mentioned in this connection.

56Coming back to the passage by Galen, the position which he attributes to Chrysippus (and which the other sources attribute to the Stoics in general), namely a distinction between the condition of health and the condition of beauty in the case of the body and the admission of parallel distinct conditions for the soul, goes back to Plato, as is sufficiently clear from Sophist, 227d ff. There the starting point is badness or vice (kakia), of which it is said that there are two forms, both for the body and for the soul. One form resides in illness (nosos), which consists in a sort of dissent (stasis) or contrast (diaphorá), another form resides in ugliness (aischos), which consists in a lack of measure (ametria) and form (duseideia) (cf. 228a). This view is developed in the case of the soul, and it is said that beauty for it consists in proportion or measure (summetria) and ugliness consists (again) in lack of measure (ametria) (cf. 228c-d). The same view must also be present in Philebus 25d-26b, though there Plato is not concerned with drawing a distinction between health and beauty (assuming a parallel between body and soul), but both are made to reside in measuredness (to emmetron) and symmetry (to summetron), these two terms themselves being associated with limit (peras) in opposition to unlimitedness (apeiria).

57The passage of the Sophist is of importance not only for the point made in it but also because it shows (together with that of the Philebus) that Plato too is willing to regard measure and symmetry as criteria of beauty. It is also likely that formedness (as the opposite of lack of form, which is there mentioned only in connection with the body) is to be understood as lack of order and definiteness (the latter is in any case implied by limitedness in the Philebus), so that all the criteria are involved that are admitted by Aristotle.

58The association of measure (to metrion, but also simply to metron), mainly in the sense of avoidance of excess and defect, and beauty is also to be found in Politicus, 284a-b, where its realization is said to ensure the accomplishment of works that are good and beautiful. In this passage, certainly, the beautiful is not kept separate from what is good. But it is significant that in a passage of the Philebus Plato is willing to bring back goodness to beauty, because he says that measuredness (metriotes) and symmetry or proportion (summetria) ensure at the same time beauty (kallos) and virtue (areté) (cf. 65e-66a).The same view must be present in Timaeus, 87c ff., where he asserts that “everything that is good is beautiful, but what is beautiful is not without measure”(pan to agathòn kalón, to de kalòn ouk ametron).This point is then said to have application to any living being, which must possess symmetry (summetria).The sort of symmetry or proportion he has in mind in the context concerns the relationship between the soul and the body, which must be harmonized to one another, without any excessive development of one of them at the expense of the other. This requirement becomes the justification of a paideia in which gymnastics, music and intellectual studies must all have a part.

59It is easy to extend this point to the condition of the soul taken by itself. Thus the suggestion made in these passages of bringing back goodness to beauty becomes understandable if one takes into account Plato’s conviction, which received an initial presentation above (in Part II, ch. 16), that harmony and measuredness of the soul is constitutive of the moral goodness of a person. At the end of Republic, book IV, in a passage to which reference was made there, he says explicitly that virtue is a sort of health (hugieia) and beauty (kallos) and good disposition (euexia) of the soul, while vice is a sort of illness and ugliness and weakness (cf. 444d-e). In this passage he is not concerned with keeping these three positive conditions (and the corresponding negative conditions) well distinct from one another, and in the context (cf. 444b-c) he insists on health and illness and, correspondingly, on agreement and dissent (stasis), which also in the passage of the Sophist are associated with those two conditions. It is sufficiently clear, on the other hand, that when (in 430d ff.) he talks of the virtue of moderation (sōphrosune), he is thinking more of a condition of harmony of the soul, which, in the other dialogue, is made to correspond to its beauty, for in this connection he talks explicitly of harmony or accord (harmonia) and concord (sumphonia) (cf. 430e, also 431d), thus using terms which have an application in music. Further, even in introducing the virtue of justice he is willing to talk of harmony and of accord, in addition to order (kosmos), as the condition that is to be realized in the soul, with an explicit allusion to what happens in music (cf. 443d-e). As already pointed out above (still in ch. 16) Plato is even willing to compare the harmonious condition of a person (in this case extended to the relationship between soul and body) to that of a well-accorded musical instrument (cf. III 411e-412a, but one may also compare Laches, 188d). Gracefulness in speech and behaviour are made by him follow good character, clearly in the moral sense (cf. 400d11-e3, already referred to there), but this is possible because harmony and concord are distinctive of good character. Further, the exercise of such virtues as that of justice is made by him to follow on the condition of health and beauty of the soul that is described in the above mentioned passage at the end of Republic IV, for he regards the behaviour which realizes justice as the external manifestation of the harmony and concord that subsists in the soul of the agent (cf. 442d ff.).

60The same point of view seems to be present in the Gorgias. There, in 506d-507a, it is said that the excellence (areté) of each thing - of an artefact (skeuos), of a body and of a soul or of a whole animal - consists in the order (taxis) and arrangement (kosmos) it realizes. It is added that this is true in particular of the (human) soul, which implies that a soul which possesses kosmos is wise and good. The same sort of order is then said, on the authority of some wise men (manifestly a reference to the Pythagoreans), to apply to the universe, which for this reason is called kosmos (cf. 507e-508a).

61If this account of Plato’s position is right, it can be seen that the conviction, often expressed by scholars, that the philosopher did not possess a conception of beauty which permitted him to keep it distinct from that of (moral) goodness is based on a misunderstanding. There is no reason to think that he was implicitly disagreeing with the distinction between the two which was propounded by Aristotle in the passages of the Metaphysics which were quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Bringing back goodness to beauty makes sense if beauty is not assimilated to goodness, and in fact the admission that beauty involves symmetry excludes this possibility.

62Generally, however, in the passages in which Plato establishes a relationship between beauty and (moral) goodness he is not concerned with goodness in the sense of the end to be pursued, as Aristotle is. What he is considering is, rather, the condition of the soul of the agent who behaves either in accordance with virtues such as justice or in contrast with them, thus he is considering the source and not the end of moral behaviour. And this condition of the soul is, in part, to be described in terms of beauty and ugliness, adopting the same definition of these terms that permits Aristotle to keep them distinct from (moral) goodness and badness.(I say “in part”, because it is also to be described in terms of health and illness, but of course an affinity is assumed between beauty and health and between ugliness and illness.) Further, it is illustrated by examples taken from music such as that of a well-accorded (or badly-accorded) instrument. One cannot therefore claim that beauty and ugliness are assimilated to (moral) goodness and badness. This reflects a failure to recognize that Plato’s conception of morality is such as to involve the introduction into this sphere of concepts that keep their aesthetic value. Indeed, it is probably more correct to say that these concepts are common to both spheres, without this commonness depriving them of their aesthetic value. It should not be forgotten that various terms that are in use in ancient ethics do not have an exclusively ethical meaning, starting with the basic term areté, which notoriously can denote excellence in a variety of fields (one could talk of the excellence of a horse who runs quickly, and one could talk, as we have seen, of the excellences of expression [virtutes dicendi]). There is much more flexibility in the use of these terms than is often allowed for by modern interpreters.

  • 21 I quote this part : “Nec vero illa parva vis naturae est rationisque, quod unum hoc animal sentit q (...)

63I may illustrate the point now made by reference to a passage of Cicero which is likely to reflect the typical attitude of the Greek philosophers on the relationship between aesthetic and moral values (anyhow it is likely to reflect the attitude by the Stoics, who probably did not differ from Plato on this matter). This is a passage from a chapter of his De officiis (ch. I 4), where the author talks of the origin in human nature of our appreciation for what possesses moral value. Here (in § 14) the suggestion is made that man is provided with a sense for what is order, for what is convenient and for what is measure in acts and in words. It is in this manner that even in the case of the objects which fall under his eyes he has a sense for their beauty, their charm and harmony (more literally : the convenience of their parts).21 But, by a transference in which reason plays a role, the similarity is recognized with the condition of our soul, thus coming to the judgement that beauty and coherence and order (pulchritudinem, constantiam, ordinem) must be respected and preserved, and with much more reason, in all our thoughts and acts, so as to avoid thinking and doing anything under the influence of passion. It is in this way, he concludes, that there arises our sense for what has moral value (honestum). One can see from this passage that the sense for what has moral value is supposed to find a source in our sense for aesthetic beauty, since this is disinterested (free from passion) and since this consists in an appreciation for qualities such as order and harmony, which are constitutive of moral value as well.

64Plato’s approach to education (which was illustrated above, ch. 16) is better understood in the light of this account. The formation of the character of a young person is obtained through mousiké, and this presents a dimension of literary contents (the ideology that is transmitted by poetry and by other literature) and a dimension which consists in music in a more narrow sense, and through other arts like painting which realize gracefulness in their products (we have seen that there is an explicit reference to these other arts in Republic III, 400e ff., while no doubt a priority is recognized for music). The choice of literary contents is manifestly greatly determined by ethical considerations. The same however can be said of music and of the other arts only to a limited extent. To a large extent the effect that they produce is through the gracefulness and harmony of their products and consists in establishing a similar gracefulness and harmony in the soul. If this result has a moral significance, the reason is not because it is a matter of using certain means in view of an end which is immediately moral, so that the means become themselves moral ; the reason is rather that the harmonious condition of the soul is the source of a conduct which reveals itself as being moral. Hence it would be erroneous to suppose that, since music and the other arts are given a great role to play in education, thus in the formation of the character of young persons, no recognition is given to aesthetic experience as such.

  • 22 This is something that was recognized by B. Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetics, cit., esp. p. 49. ( (...)

65Manifestly Plato sees an affinity between the arts that are mentioned in that passage of the Republic, namely painting, sculpture, architecture, weaving, embroidery, and so forth, and music because in them either harmony and grace or their contraries are present. Music includes something more because of its emotional impact (hence its centrality in education). If we leave out what is peculiar to music, the conclusion has to be drawn that he has in mind qualities or characteristics which are mainly formal and which are not restricted to the products of the arts22.

66As to there being no such restriction, it is a point which comes out in a statement by Plato himself, for in that same context in which he says that qualities such as gracefulness are present in the products of arts like painting and architecture he adds that they are also present in the bodies of animals and plants (cf. 401a).This is restated a little later, in 401e (quoted above, ch. 16), when he says that proper education in music enables one to most quickly perceive “any defect or failure of beauty in products of art or of nature”. In fact it is sufficiently clear that qualities such as measure and symmetry or proportion (which explain gracefulness) cannot be restricted to the products of the arts. In this connection it has to be remarked that the parallel between the beautiful animal and the beautiful poetic work which we have found is adopted by Aristotle goes back to Plato. He himself uses it most often in the case of the speech which is produced according to genuine rhetorical art, for of this he says, in one passage, that it “should be put together like a living creature, as it were with a body of its own, so as not to lack either a head or feet, but to have both middle parts and extremities, so written as to fit (preponta) both each other and the whole” (Phaedrus 264c, Rowe’s transl.). However it is clear, from the same dialogue, that Plato is willing to extend the parallel to the beautiful animal. He says in fact of tragedy that it is something more than short or long passages including speeches that are piteous or frightening, for it must be a composition (sustasis) of them which are put together so as to fit (prepousa) both each other and the whole (cf. 268d). Clearly tragedy here is just an example of a poetic work, and the way in which it is characterized recalls what he had said of speech in the former passage, where the parallel with the animal is explicit.

67The qualities or characteristics that Plato has in mind are certainly supposed to extend not only to the realm of nature but also to the realm of the arts beyond the imitative arts. This is sufficiently clear from Gorgias, 503d-e, where painters are associated to house-builders, carpenters, and ‘all the other artisans (demiourgoi)’, in that they aim to produce objects which are provided with an order that conforms to the requirement of reciprocal convenient adaptation and thus of kosmotes. Further, what is true of human techne is also supposed to be true of divine techne, which is treated as parallel to it for instance in Sophist, 265b ff. In this connection it may be remarked, finally, that the world as a whole, taken as the production of a divine artisan, is said to be particularly beautiful (cf. Timaeus, 30b and c), and that even the geometrical figures by which the bodies which belong to it are constituted are said to be the most beautiful among all geometrical figures (cf. 53e-54a). In its turn the sky is described as decorated by the sparks it presents and compared to the work of a particularly able painter ; on this basis it is also said to be particularly beautiful (kallista), though the symmetries or proportions they realize are not perfect (cf. Republic VII, 529c-530a).

68The attitude that Plato shows towards painting in the passages just mentioned of Republic III (and also elsewhere) is manifestly different from the one he adopts in Republic X, where painting serves as a parallel for poetry, and both are devalued for their imitative character (in relation to visible entities). Rather than talking of a contradiction, as it is done by some interpreters, one should admit that he adopts different points of view, for in the first group of passages he seems to be concerned with the formal characteristics which are instantiated by a good painting rather than with its being a reproduction of some physical object. One may establish a connection between this passage and the passage of the Philebus in which he admits that there are beautiful shapes and colours which give rise to pleasures that are particularly pure (cf. above, Part I, ch. 7, with reference to 51a-c). It is true that in that dialogue he thinks that beauty is realized in the fullest way (and gives rise to the purest pleasure) when what is contemplated are not paintings that are seen in relation to something else (clearly the physical object that is reproduced) but geometrical figures (one may recall that beauty is attributed to certain of them also in the above mentioned passage of Timaeus 53e-54a). However, those other passages show that Plato is willing to concede that one may, in contemplating a painting, appreciate its formal qualities rather than fidelity to some given physical object.

  • 23 I quote the passage (in Kraut’s transl.) :“For example, if someone enjoys contemplating the image o (...)

69It is the distinction of points of view that is explicitly made by Aristotle when he admits the possibility of considering an image, such as a painting, not as the (more or less faithful) image of some object, but, especially when the object represented has not been seen before, in its execution or colouring or shape, drawing pleasure from its sight (cf. Poetics 4, 1448b17-19 [quoted above, I, ch. 10, p. 165] and Politics VIII 5, 1340a25-2823).This explicitness is certainly not found in Plato.

70Even when it is a matter of considering paintings or statues as reproductions of certain physical objects, the requirement is advanced that these images be faithful to the objects they imitate rather than offer an illusionistic appearance of life-likeness, because only in this way do the beautiful objects that are imitated preserve their genuine symmetry or proportion, while in the other way the symmetries are only apparent (cf. Sophist, 235d ff., where the first type of mimetic art, which is called eikastiké, is kept distinct from the other type, which is called phantastiké). What is not usually noticed about this passage of the Sophist is that Plato is assuming that the objects imitated are themselves beautiful, and beautiful because they realize symmetry or proportion, so that their beauty can be preserved in the reproduction only if this remains faithful to the symmetry or proportion which is instanced by the original, otherwise it is somehow impaired. One may question his concern with faithfulness to the original, which cannot be defended in this way if the original is not itself beautiful, but one cannot say that the aesthetic point of view is left out of consideration by him.

  • 24 See e.g. E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion. A study in the psychology of pictorial representation, Ox (...)
  • 25 Thus it is understood as a technique of giving a figure in outline, as is evident from some passage (...)

71Beyond what he says in this passage, Plato appears to have been hostile to those innovations, tending towards illusionism and realism or, more precisely, towards lifelikeness obtained through illusionist techniques, which took place in the field of painting in Greece till his times. (Some historians of art talk in this connection of the “Greek Revolution”24.) He tends to summarise the techniques of illusionism under the term skiagraphia, which is probably used by him in a generic way to cover them all (the sense of depth due to perspective seems to be suggested more by skenographia than by this other term, which initially must have alluded to the use of shading to give relief to the figures in pictures25).As we shall see in connection with his treatment of tragedy, he uses that term to suggest the recourse to some form of deception, which for this very reason is to be rejected. To those developments in Greek art he opposes (in Laws II, 656d ff.) the stability of Egyptian art. Unfortunately he does not offer any explanation and/or illustration by examples of what sort of paintings or statues should be regarded as satisfying the requirements he has in mind and what sort should not be regarded as satisfying them. Egyptian art in that passage is appreciated for having remained the same across the centuries and possibly also for its hieratic character, but it is not clear whether he had any precise idea of its technical nature and wanted to commend it also from this point of view. It cannot be excluded that he had some familiarity with the suggestion that is known to us through Diodorus Siculus’ Library (cf. I 98, 5-9), namely that the Egyptians, in making statues, did not judge their proportions (the summetria of each of them) “according to what appears to the eye, as it is among the Greeks”, but in a more objective way, so that bits of the same statue could be made by different artisans who were agreed from the start on their absolute sizes.

  • 26 Cfr. Rouveret, Histoire et imaginaire de la peinture ancienne, cit., p. 438, with reference to Xeno (...)

72A final remark to be made on the topic of the treatment of painting is that, among the criteria that were currently adopted in expressing judgements about pictures there were summetria and exactness of execution, especially in drawing (in Greek akribeia, in Latin argutia, diligentia)26. It can only be remarked that these, just as the other criteria that have been mentioned, are not apt to put in evidence the originality of the works that are submitted to judgement or the creativity of the artist.

73Concerning now architecture, we depend on Vitruvius’ De architecture as our main source, but it is clear that he relies on a Greek tradition of works in this field, for he gives a list of them in the Preface to book VII of his work. Already from the presentation of these works it is evident that symmetria (he renders the Greek word with a transliteration) was a central notion in architecture as well (cf. §§ 12 and 14). Symmetria is by Vitruvius himself expressly associated with beauty (venustas) in I 3, § 2.Another term of which he makes use, eurythmia, is treated by him as venusta species (cf. I 2, § 3). It would thus seem that all the terms he uses as permitting us to give a judgement of the value of a building are to be considered as forms or criteria of beauty.These are the following : ordinatio (which is said to render the Greek taxis), dispositio (which is said to render the Greek diathesis), eurythmia, symmetria (manifestly both transliterations), decor (Greek equivalent not explained, but it must be to prepon), distributio (which is said to render the Greek oikonomia) (cf. I, ch. 2). I cannot enter into an examination of the definitions he gives of these terms, but it is sufficiently clear that there is some adaptation to architecture (particularly evident in the introduction of distributio) of terms that, as we have seen above, were commonly used to make evident the requirement that any object must satisfy in order to be said to be beautiful.

74There is no attempt, on the other hand, to treat the products of architecture as imitations in the way in which paintings and statues are treated as imitations (see also above, ch. 6).Vitruvius’ concern is a different one, namely to point out that the same principles are at work in buildings such as temples and in the human body, for their perfection requires that they meet the same requirements of beauty, such as that of symmetria (on the application of these requirements to the human body see above).This he suggests somewhat confusedly by expressly using the term proportio as an equivalent of the Greek analogia (cf. III, ch. 1).There is some confusion, because this term is also the equivalent of the Greek summetria, and Vitruvius is unable to keep them well distinct. It is manifest that he depends on some Greek writer on architecture who maintained that the summetria that is realized by the human body and the summetria that is realized by a building such as a temple show the existence of an analogia between them. The temple thus tends to be conceived symbolically as an extended reproduction of the human body (just as the Christian temple tends to be conceived as an extended reproduction of the cross), but clearly it would be out of place to talk of mimesis in this connection.

75Concerning music, it is admitted, as we have seen, that it exercises a stronger emotional impact than the other arts, because the transmission of sounds involves a perceptible movement which has something to do with the emotions, and that this confers on it some sort of priority over the other arts (this priority is certainly affirmed in the field of education). It does not seem, however, that any distinct account of its beauty is given either by Plato or Aristotle. Thus in the passage of the Timaeus quoted above (ch. 28) it is admitted that hearing music is a source of pleasure (making a distinction between the refined pleasure or good cheer of intelligent people and the irrational pleasure of the silly ones), but the beauty which gives rise to it appears to reside in certain formal characteristics of order, measure and harmony that are also shared by the movements of the celestial bodies and the structure of the world-soul. In the Republic he admits (as was also seen in ch. 28) that music imitates traits of character because in it are present images of the virtues or of their contraries. Since virtue is made to depend on order and harmony in the soul, these two accounts are complementary to one another. Pleasure in the refined form is reserved to those who appreciate music which conforms to those formal characteristics and have a grasp of the intelligible structure they reveal, while irrational pleasure is reserved to those who appreciate music which involves emotional excesses and are deprived of any such grasp.

76There is, finally, the issue of beauty in poetry, and especially in drama or in tragedy. Plato does not usually talk of beauty in this connection. However in the passage of Phaedrus, 264c (to which reference was made in ch. 20), when he says that a tragedy, like an animal, must have a “proper arrangement” of parts, he is implicitly conceding that a well-composed tragedy conforms to the criteria of formal beauty which are applicable to other works of art. If tragedy, in spite of this, becomes an object of condemnation, it is (one can reasonably presume) because these formal qualities cannot compensate the morally negative contents it presents. While in music there may be a reciprocal integration between the images of virtue it offers and the formal characteristics it presents, this does not happen in the case of tragedy, for the images of virtue it offers are deceptive (as we shall see below, esp. ch. 33).A similar contrast between form and contents is also presented by comedy, but what it represents is less harmful than what tragedy represents (for reasons to be given there), so that it can be tolerated within certain limits.

77Aristotle’s own treatment of poetry and drama is influenced by the fact that, in trying to show that a tragedy can be beautiful, he uses as his point of departure the formal criteria of beauty which were described above, at the beginning of this chapter. This leads him to stress the composition and arrangement of the tragedy as a whole and its parts, by concentrating his attention on the plot or story (muthos) and on those crucial moments (such as recognition and reversal) which determine the way in which a plot develops. Though some features thus considered are rather typical of tragedies, this sort of approach does not serve much to clarify what is peculiar to a tragedy. The category of the tragic is even absent in his Poetics. He has more to say on drama in general, for he shows some recognition of its nature (as pointed out above, esp. ch. 22), and makes some significant comments in discussing certain tragedies and the Homeric epos, but this does not amount to a full account of drama as a part of an aesthetic theory. One question which remains open is how a tragedy or a comedy can be beautiful in spite of having some ugly contents. (I come back to this issue below, ch. 34.)

30. Is there an idealistic aesthetics in Plato?

78The treatment of mimesis in Republic X will attract our attention in the next few chapters, but something has to be said immediately in using it as a point of departure for the present discussion. About the parallel that Plato propounds there between painting and poetry it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is rather unsatisfactory. When one tries to identify, in the case of poetry, the three levels that are distinguished in the case of painting : that of the idea of the couch which constitutes the model for the artisan who makes the (visible) couch, and that of this visible couch which constitutes the model for the painter, who ‘imitates’ it, what one gets is a more complex situation. The poet-dramatist ‘imitates’ men speaking and acting, thus imitates their (visible) exterior, as the painter does, but does so with the purpose (as I point out below, ch. 32) to bring to light the condition of his soul. In the soul of the person ‘imitated’ are present, to some degree (greater or smaller according to the degree to which he is a virtuous person), the virtues, and to these there correspond ideas which are fully known only by the philosopher. It is then the philosopher who corresponds to the artisan, and who realizes the virtues in his soul, while the poet has an acquaintance with the virtues that is merely ‘doxastic’ and which thus prevents him from recognizing the person who is truly virtuous. This problem of recognizing who is truly virtuous by distinguishing him from whom is not so does not arise in the case of painting, for the painter has no difficulty in recognizing the couch he wants to paint. The parallel then is not of great help to understand how the poet proceeds but has more the negative effect of pointing out that the poet does not possess knowledge of ideas and therefore his familiarity is limited to ‘images of the virtues’ (cf. 600e).

79The motif of the ‘images of virtue’ (eidola aretes) also appears in the Symposium, where it is suggested that those who are not familiar with genuine or true beauty will only be able to beget such images, while true virtue will be begotten by those who reach the contemplation of beauty itself or of the idea of beauty (cf. 212a).The restriction that is proper to the first position must be that which is applicable to the poet according to the account given in Republic X. The parallel between poetry and painting serves to show that the poet is not in the condition to have a direct grasp of the Idea, is not able to come to contemplate it directly : it is only the philosopher who is able to do so. This restriction concerns any other Idea, but concerns in particular the idea of beauty, as the account of the Symposium suggests. The poet is much in the same position as the lovers of sights of whom there is talk at the end of Republic V and who exemplify the people who pursue aesthetic pleasure : he is cut out from any grasp of either the idea of beauty or of any other idea, being a lover of the many beautiful things that are accessible to vision (cf. 479a and 479e-480a).

80Of beauty Plato says, in a well-known passage of the Phaedrus, that it is, among the Ideas, the one which is most manifest for us, since we are able to grasp it (in fact, as the opposition with wisdom, phronesis, shows, an image of it) through the most acute of our senses : sight. Its splendour in this world makes it most loved in addition to being most manifest (cf. 250c-d). In the Symposium he notoriously describes the gradual ascent from the many beautiful things, which are first beautiful bodies (one body, then more than one, then many bodies), then beautiful souls, then beautiful institutions and laws, etc., to the one truly and eternal beautiful thing which is the idea of beauty (cf. 210a ff.). (It is in this connection that he makes the distinction between the one who begets true virtue and the one who begets images of virtue.)

81Scholars have often found it surprising that, in spite of all this declared concern with beauty, there is no reference, in these two dialogues, to beauty in the field of the arts. And this has been taken as an indication of the fact that Plato has no consciousness of this sort of beauty as distinct from other sorts which are deprived of aesthetic meaning. But, in approaching these texts with the expectation to find a recognition of aesthetic beauty, they adopt a point of departure which is not justified. The ascent which is described in the Symposium is definitely presented as due to an erotic impulse, and as finding its accomplishment only on the part of the philosopher who is able to ‘sublimate’ (as we would say) an impulse that initially is pervaded by sexuality. Aesthetic experience may be thought of as leading to eroticism (as I suggested above, Part I, ch. 4), but eroticism, when fully developed, becomes an experience of its own, with (as it were) its own wings to fly, leaving aestheticism behind. Its object, when the ascent towards the Idea of beauty takes place, only apparently is identical with the object of aesthetic experience. It is true that this is always constituted by what is beautiful, but in one case this is the beauty of the Idea which manifests itself as something identical in a variety of different entities that are said to be beautiful. For instance when one has experience of the beauty of beautiful bodies what one has to grasp is that the beauty (the kallos) which is present in all of them is one and the same (hen kai tauton) (cf. Symposium 210b). On the other hand those who, like the lovers of beautiful sights, cultivate an aesthetic experience, do not grasp an identical beauty in many different entities (if they grasped it, they would already have some grasp of the idea of beauty, what for them is explicitly excluded), but see those entities as being beautiful on many different grounds (because of their colours, which are not identical in all of them, because of their figures, which again are not identical, and so forth, or because of a combination of colour and figure, etc.).What they see are different things which are beautiful in quite different ways, without any identical beauty being detected in them. If for instance they contemplate many beautiful women, they could say that they contemplate ‘many beauties’, each beautiful in its own way, each different from any other beauty. This is for them a completely satisfying experience, which, precisely for this reason, does not lead them in any way to accomplish an ascent towards the Idea of beauty. Aesthetic experience, far from opening the road to the contemplation of the ideas, is an obstacle to it, since it encourages those who cultivate it to find their happy realization in the world of the many beautiful tones and beautiful colours and shapes, thus in the empirical world around us. Cultivating aesthetic experience and cultivating philosophy are alternatives, and this is one reason why there is a quarrel between poetry and philosophy (on this quarrel see below, ch. 32).

82Plato is not wholly explicit on the reason now adduced for there being a quarrel between poetry and philosophy. But it is sufficiently clear, from what he says of the lovers of beautiful sights towards the end of book V of the Republic, that their experience is limited to the sphere of the many beautiful things and excludes any contemplation of the Idea of beauty (cf. especially 476a-b, 479a and 479d-480a). One of his concerns in this passage is to point out the inadequacy of their condition from the point of view of knowledge of reality, which makes of them ‘lovers of opinion’ (philodoxoi) rather than ‘lovers of knowledge’ (philosophoi). But this is to admit that their position is in some manner an alternative to that of the philosopher and to let it be understood that it offers satisfactions of its own. Plato’s effort is to present it as an inferior form of contemplation, which only to its disfavour can be compared to the contemplation of genuine reality that is accomplished by the philosopher. That this contemplation exists and offers satisfactions of its own cannot be denied. In book X this alternative is even more in the background, but if Plato did not have it in mind there would have been little point on his part in referring to the ideas (it would have been sufficient to suggest that the imitator produces imitations of such things as the products of the artisans) and to lay stress on the existence of a quarrel between poetry and philosophy.

83It is tempting to establish a connection between this account of the condition of the poet and of his public and the allegory of the cave, for there too what is illustrated is a deception concerning primarily, even if not exclusively, virtues like that of justice, of which only the shadows are grasped by those who finds themselves at the bottom of the cave (cf. 517d and 520c). However a close or direct connection cannot be established, for that of the cave is an allegory for the human condition as a whole (the prisoners at the bottom of the cave are said to be ‘like us’, cf. 515a5 ; further there is talk of ‘human affairs’ in 517c8-9, d5, etc.), though with manifest references to political life (cf. 516c-d, 517d), thus covers a wider experience and covers it with a wholly comprehensive image. Further, the projection of shadows at the bottom of the cave takes place in a manner that is quite different from the ‘imitation’ carried out by the painter and the poet, and the main error concerns taking for reality what are mere shadows. And the three levels distinguished in the case of painting find no correspondence in the allegory of the cave.

84Yet, once it is recognized that a close or direct connection cannot be established, it can also be admitted that a less direct connection is possible. The poet, together with the sophist and the rhetorician, contributes to the creation of that deception by which men are induced to regard the reality which falls under our senses as the only reality. The operations he accomplishes are restricted to the sphere of the perceptible, and he encourages men to find themselves at home in this sphere, by getting pleasure from his beautiful imitations. These imitations do not offer signs which can lead out of the cave. Only philosophical knowledge can teach us to see these signs and make use of them to obtain the condition of genuine freedom. It is also for this reason, and not only because of their competition for education in the cities, that there is a quarrel between poetry and philosophy.

85From what has been said so far it can be seen that there is no place for an idealistic aesthetics in Plato’s philosophy, though there are elements that could be used to construct one (as happens with the Neoplatonists). More positively, it can be admitted that the attribution of an idealistic aesthetics to Plato is not arbitrary. (In my exposition I offer a rapid synthesis, without keeping distinct the contributions of ancient authors, especially Proclus, and those of modern authors, especially Tate and Verdenius.) Its point of departure is the recognition that there are at least three problematic points in what Plato has to say in this field, namely (1) that mimesis is susceptible to extensive uses, without a clear limit being fixed to that sort of mimesis which is of interest for painting and poetry ; (2) that he is willing to talk of mimesis in the case of music, having in mind a situation which is different from that exemplified by painting ; (3) that he attributes some sort of divine inspiration to the poet, which should guarantee some access to the truth on his part. On the other hand, it has to be remarked at once that these three are not problematic points that are all centred on one issue, so that the interpreter can establish a convergence on the basis of one theory such as that of idealistic aesthetics.

  • 27 Cf. his Mimesis. Plato’s Doctrine of Artistic Imitation and its Meaning to Us, Leiden 1949, pp. 10- (...)

86The attempt that is made by some scholars, following in fact indications by authors like Proclus, is that of distinguishing a bad imitation, which is limited to what is visible and which is illustrated by the example of painting in Republic X, from a good imitation, which concerns the world of ideas. It is supposed that, at least in particularly favourable cases, poets and other artists can also make recourse to this second sort of imitation, of which Plato does talk in some contexts (for instance Tate adduces passages such as Republic V, 472d, on which see above, ch. 26). Thus Proclus admitted that this happens in the case of those poets whose inspiration is truly divine, making appeal to the doctrine of the Phaedrus (see above, Part II, ch. 25). He is followed on this point by Verdenius27. Most poets, on the other hand, are in the position of the ‘imitative tribe’ described in Timaeus, 19d, who “will imitate with most ease and success the things amidst which it has been reared” (cf.Verdenius, op. cit., p. 12). Now there is a problem (discussed above, ch. 25) as to how to reconcile what Plato says about the divine inspiration of the poet with the assertions he makes about the value of his products, but the fact remains that the adoption of that doctrine does not prevent Plato from expressing negative judgements about the poets themselves (this takes place in a sufficiently clear way in the Ion, but also happens in the Phaedrus, where the poet and any other such imitator is put on a rather low scale in reincarnation [cf. 248d-e], and in the Laws, where, in the often quoted passage 719c, the poet is supposed to contradict himself). Proclus (and Verdenius with him) solves the problem by going against the evidence.

  • 28 This is also noted by Halliwell, Aesthetics of Mimesis, p. 67 and n. 71.

87Verdenius exploits certain passages which in his view show that for Plato art can get “an idealistic character” (p. 15), namely Republic III, 397d, which should show that “a poet can also be an ‘imitator of the good’” (p. 15) and Laws II, 668b, which (talking of music) is taken by him to mean : “which gets its likeness from its being a representation of Beauty” (p. 18, n. 1). On this basis he says that “art is not confined to the limits of its visual models. True art does not lapse into flat realism, but it strives to transcend the material world ; in its poor images it tries to evocate something of that higher realm of being which also glimmers through phenomenal reality. It is true that Plato attaches much value to the likeness of a work of art, but this idea should not be interpreted in modern terms. In true art likeness does not refer to commonplace reality, but the ideal Beauty.” (op. cit., p. 18) The trouble with this attempt is that in those passages Plato talks of imitation in music, and that imitation concerns no doubt good characters, or good traits of character in good persons, but does not concern (at least directly) ideal beauty. (I take the passage of the Laws to concern the imitation of someone beautiful in the sense now specified, there being no reference at all to ideas in the context.28).

88On the other hand, one cannot stop at these negative remarks. What remains true, first of all, is that Plato (as was suggested above, ch. 28) admits that in the rhythms and harmonies of music one can identify images (eikones) of virtues like moderation, courage and liberality and their contraries (cf. Republic IV, 402c, also 400b), but these are images that are different from the images of virtue (eidola aretes) of which there is talk in Republic X in connection with painting and with poetry (cf. 600e), because they are not deceptive. Secondly, music can be the source of a pleasure that can be evaluated in a positive way, as recognized in Timaeus, 80b (also discussed above, in ch. 28).Thirdly, it is a source of this sort of pleasure when the harmonies it realizes are an imitation of the harmonies that are realized at a cosmic level, and especially in the movements of the celestial bodies. These harmonies are clearly an instantiation of certain formal characters that in various dialogues are recognized as constituting the criteria of beauty, such as order, measure and proportion (see above, ch. 29). In the fourth place, the requirement of satisfying these criteria of beauty can be extended even to the products of certain imitative arts like painting, when they are considered independently of what they reproduce, and to other objects that are not produced by the human hand, including the world as a whole.Thus there is a field in which beauty is instantiated without having to fall under the condemnation that is applied to the products of the imitative arts.

89About beauty understood as order, measure and proportion or symmetry it can be legitimately asked, as Plotinus does in the case of symmetry, whether it is a manifestation in the perceptible world of a symmetry that is present in intelligible reality (cf. Enneads V 9, 11).And there is some justification in giving a positive reply to this question, for the order which is realized by perceptible reality, as described in a work like the Timaeus, clearly depends on an intelligible order. However, before talking of the proposal of an idealistic aesthetics on Plato’s part, there are some qualifications to be made. The first is that Plato does not think there is a single idea, like the idea of beauty, which by itself constitutes the intelligible basis for that order, for this could only justify the presence of an identical beauty (or whatever) in all perceptible things. The objection by Plotinus that, by reference to the idea of beauty, it is not possible to conceive beauty in terms of symmetry and so forth, for in this way a plurality is involved which beauty excludes, has a justification already from the Platonic point of view and is in fact a development of certain of the objections against the various definitions of beauty that are to be found in the Greater Hippias. It is then not a single idea which constitutes that basis, but the whole ordered world (kosmos) of ideas, as it is presented in Republic VI, 500b ff., when he talks of the reality to which philosophers must both assimilate themselves, in becoming orderly and divine, in so far as it is permitted to man, and adopt as a paradigm in tracing the lineaments (i.e. the main laws and norms) of the best city. It is similarly a whole world, manifestly always the world of ideas, that constitutes the model for the divine artisan who produces the perceptible world according to the account given in the Timaeus (cf. 29b, where the expression eikona tinos [scil. kosmou] is used, and 30d).

90The second is that the painter or other artisan who produces a work of art or a musician need not, to have some grasp of the order and symmetry which will be instantiated by the product of his activity, come to a direct contemplation of the world of ideas, for order and symmetry are exemplified in many things that are around us and in the whole world. So it is sufficient to have an eye for the beauty that manifests itself in perceptible reality in order to be able to do the work of a good painter or a good musician.

91The third is that Plato never comes to propound a neat distinction between the procedure of those arts that are imitative in the sense in which painting is in Republic X, i.e. as reproducing perceptible things, which are mere copies of intelligible things, by looking at them as just perceptible things, and the procedure of those arts (sometimes the same) which, in producing images, do not simply reproduce perceptible things but make them beautiful in the sense of realizing a beauty which has a basis in the intelligible world. And the failure to draw this distinction leads (as we have seen) to dismissive judgements which concern the imitative arts without reservations.

31. On the interpretation of Republic X

  • 29 See discussion of these and other passages in Janaway, Images of Excellence, pp. 126-127. Burnyeat, (...)
  • 30 See discussion of these and other passages in Janaway, op. cit., pp. 124-125.

92What is the target of Plato’s polemics in Republic X ? What sort of poetry is to be kept out from the well-governed city (cf. 595a, 607a-c) ? When he talks of an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, it would seem that all poetry constitutes his target. And there are other passages in this book in which he speaks of poets in general, for instance when saying that ‘all the poets’ are ‘imitators of images of virtue’ (600e4-6), in talking generically of ‘Homer or any other poet’ (599b9-c2), and in treating poetry in general as mimetic (esp. 603b4-7)29. On the other hand, when he says (in introducing the topic) that what is in question is ‘such poetry as is mimetic’(595a5), he appears to suggest a restriction, for it is understood that not all poetry is mimetic. The willingness to leave a place in the best city to hymns to the gods and praises of good men (cf. 607a), presumably not only because their purpose saves them but also because less imitative than other forms of poetry, goes in the same sense. And some of the critiques that are offered in book X are explicitly against Homer and the tragedians, who are associated because Homer is said to be their ‘teacher and leader’ (cf. 595c1-2, 597e6, 598d7-8)30.

  • 31 The metres referred to are those of tragic dialogue and of Homeric epos respectively. The formula ‘ (...)

93Probably there is some oscillation in Plato’s position, which is favoured by the fact (already noticed above, chs. 6 and 26) that imitation (mimesis) is a notion that has its focus on certain paradigmatic cases, but is extended to other cases, so as to include the whole field of ‘beautiful arts’ (with the possible exception of architecture). On the whole Plato’s main target must be tragedy, supposed to be a continuation and a completion of epic (especially of Homeric epic), according to a conception of their relationship that is evident in Aristotle’s Poetics as well. And tragedy is his main target, because it is the poetic (or literary) genre which is the most ‘mimetic’ of all. It was classified as particularly mimetic already in book III, in the sense that it directly brings in the speech and action by the persons represented and is not an exposition of facts or a report of words by the poet himself. It is clearly treated in this way in book X. After having offered an argument against possession of knowledge by ‘the one who imitates in poetry’(602a11), concluding that ‘the imitator has no knowledge worth mentioning of what he imitates’ (602b7), the comment is made that “imitation is a sort of play (paidiá) and nothing serious, and the tragic poets, whether they write in iambics or in epic verse, are imitators to the highest degree” (602b8-10)31. It is also significant that, though talking of ‘mimetic’ (scil. poetry) in general, he should say that it ‘imitates people acting voluntarily or under compulsion …’(603c4-5), thus implying that it is essentially dramatic.

94On the other hand these last passages also show that Plato is willing to extend to all poetry what is particularly true of tragic or dramatic poetry. Concerning lyrics in particular, this is mentioned together with epic in Republic X, 607a, thus it is not wholly ignored. It is to be rejected in so far as it is imitative. But it is not any sort of imitation that is Plato’s concern, for one does not have the impression that he is in any way interested in poetry which for instance describes a landscape : the imitation that is supposed to be dangerous is that of people in their characters and is supposed to be dangerous because it illustrates a discrepancy between virtue and happiness. Tragedy is most typical from this point of view, but lyrics need not be excluded. For instance Sappho gives expression to her unhappiness when her love is not returned, as if suffering an injustice, yet she clearly considers herself a virtuous person. It is precisely this discrepancy which Plato does not admit.Tragedy exemplifies it in the fullest way, because it often consists in a story which illustrates a passage from good to bad fortune (with good fortune that seems to be deserved and bad fortune not), but, in so far as any other sort of poetry illustrates it, it should be dismissed.

95The devaluation of all poetry (because it is mimetic) as a sort of play is something to be found in passages of later dialogues, as we have seen (see above, ch. 6). This devaluation in itself is not without ambiguity, for Plato sometimes suggests that the whole of human life must be regarded as a sort of play (see below, ch. 33), and regarding poetry in this light could be a way of treating it as a harmless pleasure. However awareness of this human condition is limited to the philosopher, who is the only one to possess the antidote (pharmakon) of knowledge (cf. 595b), so that treating poetry as a play does not exclude its being harmful for most people.

  • 32 On this point also see Janaway, op. cit., p. 146.
  • 33 Autes in 605c6 presumably refers to mimetike poiesis, though in what precedes there is only talk of (...)

96Further, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Plato in Republic X is coming to a general condemnation of mimesis and of mimetic art. He says of painting and in general of mimetic art (hē mimētikē) that it produces an ergon that is far (porro) removed from truth (aletheia) and that it associates (proomilei) with a part in us ( = a part of our soul) that is far (porro) from intelligence (phronesis), being its companion and friend (hetaira kai phile) for no sound and true purpose (cf. 603a10-b4). And he adds immediately afterwards that mimetic art, being an inferior thing (or vicious : phaulos), has intercourse with something inferior and engenders inferior offspring. The language here used is insulting : mimetike is treated as a prostitute who consorts with the vicious part of the soul in view of pleasure and nothing better. And this, as one can see, is said to be true of mimētikē in general, not just of painting, and is immediately afterwards applied to poetry.32 At the end of this further discussion the conclusion that is reached is substantially the same, though the language is slightly less insulting : ‘the mimetic poet sets up in each individual soul a vicious constitution by fashioning phantoms (eidola eidolopoiounta) far removed from reality (to alethes), and by currying favour (charizomenon) with the senseless (anoetos) part (of it) …’ (605b-c).What he adds in what follows, as the greatest accusation against mimetic poetry33, is not really different from what has already been said about its effect (except in stressing its attractiveness). He says in fact that it fosters feelings, such as desires about sex and reactions of anger, having to do with pleasure and pain, which should be starved, and establishes them as our rulers when they ought to be ruled,“to the end that we may be better and happier men instead of worse and more miserable”(606d). On the whole this negative judgement is not far from that already expressed in Protagoras, 347c-348a, where discussing poetry was said by Socrates to be similar to the hiring of girl-musicians to entertain at symposia, instead of getting entertainment from their own conversations, as truly noble and educated people would do.

  • 34 E.g. Burnyeat, art. cit., pp. 306-307, but he feels obliged to write : “Perhaps exaggerated claims (...)

97One aspect of this attack on poetry lies, as we have seen (above, ch. 23), in the dismissal of the view that the poets possess some sort of wisdom about all things human and divine or some sort of encyclopaedic knowledge, which includes possession of the arts. Some interpreters34 appeal to the fact that in 598d-e there is mention of ‘some people’ who tell us that this is so. This appeal is made in the attempt to save Plato from giving a general (and not too persuasive) condemnation of imitation, by suggesting instead that what is at issue is only a misconception (not shared by him) about the nature of imitative poetry. Now it is true that Plato says that we must “scrutinize tragedy and its leader Homer since what we hear from some people is that these poets know all the arts and all things human pertaining to virtue and vice, and all things divine”, on the conviction that poets can do poetry well (kalôs) only if they have knowledge about the things they make poetry about (598d-e). But the difficulty with this (charitably meant) explanation is that Plato makes it sufficiently clear that, if certain people have come to adopt this position, it is because they have been deceived (exepatentai, 598e, also 598d) by the poets themselves, being the victims of some sort of spell that has been cast on them by the imitator who acts like a sort of magician (goes) and who in this way creates the impression of being all-wise (cf. 598d). (See my discussion of this passage above, ch. 23.) So it is not just a matter of rejecting an exaggerated claim by some few people. And if their position were not representative of a widely held view about poetry, why bother to give an ample refutation of it ?

  • 35 These four points are repeated from above, Part II, ch. 16, where more details are to be found.

98Attention should be paid to the formulation actually used by Plato. The supposition that poets know “all things human pertaining to virtue and vice, and all things divine” need not imply, or be strictly connected with, the supposition that they “know all the arts”. The first view can be seen as underlying much of the use which was made of poetry in Greek culture in Plato’s times. Recitation and memorization of large parts of the poems of Homer, Hesiod and other poets constituted one main feature, if not the main feature, of traditional education, as it is clear from indications given by Plato himself, by Aristophanes, etc. This happened, to some extent at least, because there prevailed a didactic view of the function of poetry. According to the view, set out schematically, familiarity with those poems had beneficial effects, especially in a pedagogic sense, (1) in telling stories about the great heroes and about other men they offered models of behaviour to be imitated ; (2) in telling stories about the gods or in speaking about them in other ways they provided a view of the gods that to some extent constituted the basis of polis-religion ; (3) in offering “precepts (hypothekai) on how one should live” (Isocrates II 3) ; (4) more generally, in suggesting a certain code of behaviour which concerns the main aspects of human life.35 It is sufficiently clear that Plato criticizes the contents of the works of the poets on all four counts, especially in his treatment of them in Republic II-III. One can raise the question whether he is always fair in doing so, but the assumption underlying this procedure, that the poets can be criticized for what they say, for the ideology they propound, cannot be seen as illegitimate against this background. And it was not wrong to summarise the prevailing view of poetry as being that which implied that the poets know “all things human pertaining to virtue and vice, and all things divine”.

99What is problematic is exactly the transition from this assertion to the assertion that the poets “know all the arts”, thus possess an all-wisdom which consists in a sort of encyclopaedic knowledge. Nothing in what was normally said about the poets and in the use that was made of their poems justifies this further assertion. There are only two passages by ancient authors that can be quoted (and are usually quoted by scholars in this connection) as offering some support, but they cannot be used without reservations. One passage is by Xenophon : it is Symposium IV 6, where Niceratus, the son of Nicias, who, as a student of Homer, claims to have apprehended from the poet arts such as that of a householder, a political leader and a general, for his poetry concerns practically ‘everything pertaining to man’ (perì pantōn tôn anthropinōn).This boast is rendered suspicious by the fact that it takes place at a party and that he is not immune from Socratic thought. Even so, the claim is probably not about “all the arts” (which are not mentioned in these terms) but about those which, because of their importance or worth, a man should acquire. And the acquisition of these arts is not disjoined from the acquirement of manly virtue (there is talk in the same passage of becoming like Achilles or Ajax and so forth), and probably is not supposed to amount to a ‘technical’ competence, i.e. that competence that is expected from a specialist. Partly on the same lines is a passage in Aristophanes (It is Frogs, vv. 1030-36, which runs as follows : “Consider from the beginning / How the master-poets have been the poets of utility :/ Orpheus published our rituals and the prohibitions against homicide / Museus published medical cures and oracles, Hesiod / Works of tillage, seasons of harvest and ploughing ; as for divine Homer / Surely his honour and glory accrued simply from this, that he gave needful instruction / In matters of battle order, valorous deeds, arms and men.”), but this too probably concerns a selection of the arts, even if the selection is wider. Further, this passage too does not separate competence in the arts from others sorts of knowledge and is to be understood as part of a comedy. It is true that some lack of distinction between the two spheres of knowledge seems to be present till Plato’s times, and that it may not always be easy to draw a distinction between them (e.g. if one takes divination as an art, as many did in those times, we meet a field in which technical expertise and respect for ritual are not separable).This is a fact to which makes appeal Eric Havelock, who, using Plato himself as evidence in addition to the passages by Xenophon and Aristophanes just considered, thinks it is appropriate to talk of a “Homeric Encyclopaedia” (he does so in his Preface to Plato, Cambridge, Mass., 1963 : it is the title of the fourth chapter of the book). He notices that, in describing the sphere of human activity which was Homer’s concern, Plato uses dioikesis (cf. Resp. X, 599c8 and 606e3) to indicate the ‘administration’ of life in general : social and individual, from the family to society as a whole, without distinction of technical aspects from others. But in the end he admits that strictly technical information, e.g. about what a skilled pilot should do in circumstances such as bad weather, are not to be found in the works by Homer or by Hesiod. Considering an example such as embarking on a ship, he remarks : “Rather do they set up the general order of procedure ; they describe what might be called the properties of the operation. ... Overall, this kind of information forms an exercise in general education, not the specifics of skilled performance.” (The Character and Context of the Code [1973], collected in The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences, Princeton 1982, p. 127).This suggestion seems plausible, but, when we come to Plato’s position, gives rise to the trouble that he seems to expect that the poet be competent as a pilot in navigation, as a doctor in curing patients, and so forth.

  • 36 It can be noticed that, if this suggestion about the conventions prevailing in an aristocratic soci (...)

100This is true with a qualification. In fact, as already remarked above (ch. 23), Plato sticks to this general requirement in the Ion, but, in Republic X, formulates it in the mentioned passage in which there is reference to knowledge of ‘all the arts’, without sticking to it, for the requirement to have knowledge of arts such as medicine is abandoned in favour of a selection of arts, which corresponds roughly to what Xenophon and Aristophanes have in mind in the quoted passage and to the similar list that is to be found in a later author, Strabo (cf. above, ch. 23 and n. 50). He is thus implicitly conceding that the requirement to have knowledge of all the arts is excessive, and comes down to the more conventional requirement to have competence in the arts which, in an aristocratic society, should be possessed by a man who has manly virtue, such as ability in war and in politics and, as part of the ability to administer one’s house, competence in agriculture (the special stress on mastery in education that is to be found in this part of Republic X is likely to be Plato’s own addition).36

101Even with this restriction, it is the assertion that the poets know the arts that permits Plato to advance his most radical criticism against them, which consists (as we have seen) in denouncing their incompetence in all the fields in which they have something to say, these being in fact fields that are usually covered by some art. Homer talks of generalship (e.g. through the mouth of Agamemnon), but does so abusively, since he has no competence in the field of military strategy. He talks of medicine (e.g. through the mouth of a doctor), but does so abusively, since he has no competence in this field. This criticism, it should be noted, is quite different from a criticism concerning certain given contents, such as that concerning the view offered by Homer about the gods. This criticism may suggest that Homer has no knowledge of the gods, but not because he is not competent in this field, for it is hard to talk of ‘competence’ in this connection, there being no ‘theological art’ comparable to medicine or the art of the pilot or of the general. Plato himself, when recalling, in 606e, what is said about Homer by his eulogists, states he was regarded as the educator of Hellas, and that one should obtain familiarity with his poems in view of education and administration of human things and, in general, regulate one’s whole life according to him. This is a strong claim, but not a repetition of the claim about possession of all the arts. So there is reason to suspect that this other claim is an invention by Plato, even if to some extent he himself may be the victim of a certain lack of distinction between technical and non technical knowledge.

102It is this invention that permits him to advance an apparently very damaging argument against the poets, in suggesting that their activity cannot but imply the claim to total knowledge, but this can be proved to be ungrounded. If it turns out that this claim is not implied, and that the poets are not doing anything more than (innocuously) imitate the parlance and demeanour of generals, doctors, and so forth, the argument misfires. Of course there remain other grounds for criticism, concerning the image that the poets offer of the gods, and so forth, but these cannot be put on the same plane as the general criticism of Republic book X (and of the Ion). There also remains the criticism that poets do not know what is just, what is good, and so forth, and this cannot be dismissed as being wholly without substance (see on this point next ch.), but, again, it cannot be treated in the same way as this one concerning their knowledge of the arts.

103Scholars have not paid much attention to the illegitimate transition signaled above, but nevertheless find this argument by Plato, and possibly also the rest of the treatment in that book, highly embarrassing. However I have not met, so far, any persuasive attempt to explain away those assertions by Plato that show him dismissive of poetry. The suggestion (put forward in a conversation by Maria Villela-Petit) that he is giving an ironical presentation of an account of poetry that is not his own but belongs to the sophists does not seem to have any substantial basis. As I point out in previous parts of this essay, there are passages (e.g. in the Gorgias) where sophistic and poetry are positively regarded as similar because they are forms of demagogic speech. The only passage in which he talks of what ‘some people’ say of the poets, i.e. Republic X, 598d-e, cannot be taken (for reasons given above) in this sense. It is also surprising that Plato should use concepts drawn from his own philosophy (starting with the theory of ideas, even if in a version that cannot be taken quite seriously) to expound a position that is not his own. Something about deception (apate) obtained by a sort of sorcery can be found in Gorgias, and I myself do think there are points of contact between his position and that adopted by Plato, but nothing in the testimonies suggests that the sophist had an account of mimesis similar to that provided in Republic X. In the case of other sophists there are not even these partial points of contact.

  • 37 Cf. The Repudiation of Representation in Plato’s “Republic” and its Repercussions,“Proc. Cambridge (...)

104For similar reasons I cannot accept C. Osborne’s suggestion that Plato is not rejecting dramatic and other poetry in that it is imitative, but only the theory of imitation that was currently given of these forms of poetry37. Nothing makes one think that such a theory was current at that time. One ground for her suggestion is that Socrates, in Republic X, states that he is willing to retract his criticism if a proper defence of poetry could be given (cf. 607b-e). However, it is difficult to take this concession very seriously, in the light of what precedes it. Even in this passage there is the assertion that it would be impious to betray the truth, which suggests that what precedes is not just a theory about poetry but the truth about it. And the defence which is expected would at best show that poetry is not harmful (against what had been claimed before), and would not consist in propounding a new theory of poetry. In fact the idea that dramatic poetry is imitative continues to be accepted even in the last dialogues, and is accepted by Aristotle as well, and this shows that it is too deeply ingrained to be considered as just one possible theory of poetry.

105Halliwell too makes much of this supposed willingness of Plato to retract his criticism, but claims that otherwise there are signs that the argument about painting must be regarded as “rhetorically provocative”, the mirror-image being “part of a challenge to refine the conception of (pictorial) mimesis that is a stake here” (cf. The Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., p. 135 and ff.). His suggestion is not open to the same criticism as that advanced by Osborne, since he is not supposing that what Plato questions is a theory of imitation that was current in his times but admits that the theory is propounded by him. Why however should he propound a theory that he regards as inadequate and elaborate a whole argument on its basis ? Further, it is not easy to get from his works an alternative to a theory which in his eyes should appear to be inadequate (Halliwell thinks that a wider conception of mimesis is to be found in the Cratylus, but see discussion above, ch. 26).

106As against all this it should be pointed out that Plato’s attitude does not change very much in different works : his position in Republic X is more extreme than elsewhere, but not wholly different. I have already pointed out that a negative attitude is evident in the Gorgias. What he says of Homer and other poets in Republic II-III has rather disastrous consequences for their poetry, since Plato cannot have been unaware that the works of these poets present some unity, so that one cannot leave out much of what is said about the gods and the heroes and still claim that what remains after all this censure is e.g. a tragedy that can be played in a theatre. Certainly the conclusion that is drawn in Republic III, 401B, that the poets should either ‘embody in their poems the semblance of the good character or else not write poetry among us’, has negative implications for Homer and the other poets. And this explains why at the beginning of book X he can regard as something already established that it should be refused ‘to admit at all as much of it (poetry) as is imitative’. It is also significant that in book VIII he should say (without that this topic be of importance in the context) that the poets of tragedy should not be admitted in our polity (i.e. in the well-governed city) because ‘they hymn the praises of tyranny’, adding that with their persuasive voices ‘they draw the polities towards tyrannies and democracies’ (568b-c). That he sees a connection between poetry and democracy is evident in the Gorgias and in some of the passages of the Republic has already been pointed out, so it can be concluded that the negative judgement about democracy extends to poetry and vice versa.

32. The Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry

  • 38 This polemic is recalled in Laws XII, 967C-D, where it is said that philosophers were compared to b (...)
  • 39 On these points see A. Wilson Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue. Plato and the Construct of Philosoph (...)

107Plato talks of an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry in a well-known passage of the Republic belonging to book X (cf. 607B), at the end of a treatment of poetry and of other arts which is meant to show that all imitative poetry (cf. 595A-B) e, in general, imitative art, is to be regarded as harmful (and therefore to be excluded from the well-governed city) because it is distant from the truth and associates with the inferior part of the soul (cf. 603A-B). He however, when suggesting that such a strong criticism against poetry has a justification in the existence of an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry itself, only gives illustrations of the negative attitude of poets towards philosophers by quoting some statements by them (from sources unknown to us38, without giving illustrations of the negative attitude of the philosophers against the poets. No doubt illustrations of this sort would not have been difficult to give (one may only think of certain passages in Heraclitus and Xenophanes), and Plato must have thought that it was sufficiently obvious that his criticism of poetry belonged to an existing tradition to need illustrations. Yet the attacks by philosophers like Heraclitus and Xenophanes had, indeed, important poets like Homer and Hesiod as their targets, but need not have reflected a general explicit repudiation of poetry as such or of certain forms of it. And the same can be said by the attacks by poets against philosophers. There was slander and caricature of certain philosophers on the part of some comic poets, of whom Aristophanes is the best known. This slander was perhaps not wholly harmless (as is suggested in Plato’s Apology of Socrates in the case of Socrates), but was directed against some specific figures like Socrates who attracted attention, and thus did not seem to reflect a general hostility to philosophy.39 And it has to be added that philosophy, as understood by Plato and seen as incompatible with poetry, is to a significant extent his own creation. So in fact the quarrel is to a large extent a new quarrel between philosophy as understood by Plato and poetry seen as a cultural and political influence that had to be opposed by philosophy.

108The assertion of the existence of a quarrel between poetry and philosophy, in so far as it concerns at least Plato’s own philosophy, presupposes the admission of a common ground between the two. This common ground can only be constituted (at least primarily) by ideology. As already suggested above (II, ch. 21) Plato is convinced that poetry transmits a certain ideology. The points that are at the centre of the attention in Republic X are those numbered (2) and (3) in the schema offered in that chapter (at p. 320), that is to say (respectively) the representation that is given of the just (or good or virtuous) man and of the unjust (or bad or vicious) man, and the conception that one has of what is just and unjust, good or bad, virtuous and vicious. These points (as already suggested there) are closely connected.

109Of interest is how in a passage of book X of the Laws a connection is established between the conception that we have of the gods (part of point (1) in the schema) and the image one has of men (point (2)). One sort of atheism and of impiety that is distinguished there (in 899d ff.) consists in the conviction that the gods, even if they exist, are not concerned about human affairs, but ‘despise and neglect them’ (900b2-3). The recognition of the affinity or kinship (sungeneia) there is between men and gods leads one to honour the gods and to admit their existence, but also to exclude that they can be the cause of bad things (cf. 899d7-8 and 900a6-7). One is induced to that sort of impiety by the experience one has of the good fortune, in the private and in the public spheres, of men who are bad and unjust, though in truth (aletheia) they are not happy, but are made to be happy by current opinion and by poetry that praises them in a way that is not right (cf. 899d8-e4). One is equally induced to that sort of impiety by the consideration of the many particularly impious and horrifying means that are used by some people to raise from a small beginning to the greatest power (cf. 899e5-900a5). In this passage the poets are taken to be encouraging and confirming the common beliefs that circulate about men, who are supposed to fare well through their badness. Giving credit to these beliefs has the consequence that, if one is intellectually honest, one is induced to maintain that the gods keep out of human affairs (cf. also Republic II, 365d7-e1, where however this suggestion is associated with that of the non existence of gods and seen in a different light), otherwise one is induced to maintain that they can be corrupted by men (this is what is suggested in what follows in the passage of Republic II). This issue is thus fundamental for one’s whole attitude to the reality that concerns human beings.

110This same point is touched upon in a passage of Republic III which also suggests that mimetic poetry, and tragedy in particular, illustrates, through its representation of human beings and of their actions and of the conditions in which they find themselves, an inevitable discrepancy between virtue and happiness. He says there that “both poets and writers of prose speak wrongly about men in matters of the greatest moment, saying that there are many examples of men who, though unjust, are happy, and of just men who are wretched, and that there is profit in injustice if it be concealed, and that justice is the other man’s good and your own loss” (392b).This passage, one can see, puts together what is represented, e.g., on the stage of a theatre, i.e. men that, though just, are unhappy, and men that, though unjust, are happy, and the implications that one can draw (and that sometimes the poets themselves draw) from the discrepancy thus illustrated between virtue and happiness, namely that there is no convenience in being just, so far as one is able to avoid being found out by other people. It is thus on the same line as what is put forward by Adeimantus in his speech in Republic II (in continuation of Glaucon’s speech).

111There are the following questions which arise in this connection : in Plato’s view is this mis-representation of human beings and of their condition a distortion that is inherent in the mimetic nature of poetry ? Or is it a misrepresentation that is proper to tragedy, that is to say which depends on how tragedy works, and from which other forms of poetry may be exempt ? Or, still, is there some sort of convergence between poetry’s being mimetic and tragedy’s way of working, depending on the fact that tragedy (or drama in general) is particularly mimetic ?

112These possibilities must be explored one by one. In what follows I start with the first one. How does imitation (mimesis) work when it is a matter of representing human beings and the condition in which they find themselves in their souls ? One can attempt to give an explanation on the basis of the analogy that is exploited by Plato between painting and poetry, making use of indications offered in previous parts (especially in ch. 26).The psychological condition in which the person portrayed finds himself is not a direct object of representation in a painting, but the external appearance of the person (his face etc.) that is reproduced can be regarded (when the portrait is made by a good painter) as a manifestation of his emotions and so forth, thus of his internal condition, for there are external traits that serve as signs for similar internal traits (the idea that they serve as signs goes back to an Aristotelian passage in Politics VIII 5 quoted there). Similarly the way in which the personage e.g. in a drama speaks and acts in the various circumstances can be regarded as external manifestations constituting a set of signs of his internal condition. If, however, this is the account that Plato tacitly adopts (talking in a simplifying way of imitation of the soul as a whole or in its parts) the question arises why should imitation be restricted to people who are not really just or virtuous and thus also are not really happy (that virtue implies happiness is of course one of the basic theses of the Republic). It is not only bad traits and strong emotions that have an external manifestation, but also noble traits and moderate emotions that have it, and thus are susceptible to imitation. It was a current view (as we have seen above) that certain painters imitated men of quality or men who are better than us. Why should not this be applicable to poetry ? (It is in fact applied to poetry by Aristotle.) Further, it could be maintained that between a dramatic representation in metre and one in prose there need not be a radical difference, and that Plato himself, in his Phaedo, offered a dramatic representation of the last hours of Socrates’ life that was meant to illustrate how a virtuous person can remain serene in that circumstance. Mimesis then must not be restricted to the negative case.

113If a close look is given to what Plato says on this point, it can be noticed that it is far from being free from a certain ambivalence, but in any case does not amount to a neat exclusion of the imitation of the virtuous person. He says in fact of the irascible element (to aganaktetikon) in the soul (corresponding to its inferior part) that it lends itself to much and varied imitation, whereas the character that is wise and calm, being always at one with itself, is not easy to imitate nor, when it is imitated, is it easy to understand, especially at a public festival when men of all sorts are assembled in a theatre, for the imitation is of an experience (or affection : pathos) which is extraneous to them (cf. 604e1-6). It is suggested, then, that there are characters which are more susceptible of imitation, because those who are taken by their passions also give them a larger external manifestation than those who are calm, so that for the poet there is more work to do. But the difference is relative, not absolute, and it is admitted that the characters who are calm and stable can also be imitated. This suggestion is accompanied by the further suggestion that when the second sort of character is imitated, it is difficult to find a public who will appreciate the imitation, because for most people this goes beyond their understanding (and of course their imagination) and, it is understood, the poets want to have success with a large public and for this reason will avoid the imitation of the virtuous person. This second suggestion is evidently of a quite different type from the first, and reflects Plato’s negative judgement about the poets and their typical public.

  • 40 Overcompression gives the impression that he wants to assert that they are imitators of images of v (...)

114There are some further statements by Plato that have to be considered. One of them is the well-known assertion that the poets are just imitators (mimētai), being producers of images of virtue and of the other things about which they compose poetry40, and that they do not lay hold on truth (cf. 600e4-6).This statement belongs to the argument, already discussed above (ch. 23), meant to show that the poet has no knowledge, for otherwise he would not limit himself to imitating generals, legislators, educators, and so forth, but would try himself to be a general, a legislator, an educator, and so forth. The argument, as we have seen, has a serious weakness in expecting the poet to do something different from imitating. And this also concerns the point made in our passage, for, even if the poet possessed the truth about the virtues, he could not but produce images of virtue, for he would be representing virtuous men who for instance have parts in a drama. Certainly, the argument has a sound basis in so far as it is a matter of drawing attention to the fact that, in order to do their imitations (e.g. of generals, legislators and educators), the poets need not have any knowledge of the subject-matter concerned in their imitations (e.g. they do not have any knowledge of generalship in imitating generals). (That the imitator, in this case the sophist, need not have knowledge of what his imitation is about is also stated in Sophist, 234c and 267d-e.)

115This point can be reasonably extended to the case of virtuous men : the poet imitates men he thinks are virtuous, without having knowledge of virtue. The parallel between these two cases could however give place to a significant difference, for it could be argued that, without having knowledge of virtue, one does not really know who is a virtuous man. To know who is a general, who is a legislator, who is an educator, and so forth, does not give rise to this sort of problem, because they are representatives of activities and skills which are widely recognized socially and about which the possibility to make a mistake is rather limited, though of course there are impostors. But there can be impostors because in most cases generals are genuine ones, and so forth. They are the exception rather than the rule. And, in the end, it makes no difference whether the poet imitates a genuine general or an impostor, in so far as the impostor is a good one, who looks very like a genuine general. To be a virtuous man could be a quite different matter, for it could be maintained that most people, having no effective knowledge of the virtues (because they have no effective knowledge of ideas), are not in the condition to distinguish a man who is genuinely virtuous from one who only has the appearance of being virtuous.

116This, I think, is precisely the position that is adopted by Plato, and which gives more substance to his argument than has so far appeared. The argument is particularly open to criticism because his insistence on the analogy between the arts (technai) and the virtues (aretai) leads him to treat in the same way cases in which general social recognition is sufficient and imposture is rather exceptional and cases in which it is quite conceivable that the large majority of men be in error. The discrepancy between appearance and reality, between imposture and genuineness, is rather limited in the case of the arts and can be restricted to a modest number of exceptions. In the case of virtue most of us could be unwitting impostors, believing ourselves to be virtuous men when this is not so. And the same mistaken belief can be held about other people. That most people are convinced of having knowledge, when they do not really have it but deceive themselves, was of course already Socrates’ position, and this concerned virtue, which cannot be had without knowledge. Plato, in this matter, seems to have remained a Socratic.

117At the heart of Plato’s philosophical enterprise, in the Republic, the Laws, the Gorgias and in other dialogues as well, there is the intent of showing that the life of virtue is at the same time the happy life, i.e. that there can be no discrepancy between (moral) virtue and happiness. This does not need many illustrations, but is sufficiently clear from various passages in these dialogues. In the Gorgias and the Laws there are rather explicit statements to this effect (cf. Gorgias 507b-508b, Laws II, 661 ff.). In the Republic the purpose of showing that justice is ‘useful’ or of benefit in the sense of rendering who is just a happy man is evident already in the first book, where the conclusion is that, before establishing whether the one who possesses justice is happy or not, we should establish what justice is. In the rest of the dialogue in fact both purposes, that of establishing what justice is and that of showing that it brings happiness with it, are pursued, and they are pursued in reply to the challenge of Glaucon (taken up by his brother Adeimantus), to decide which of the two is the happy man : the unjust man who has the appearance of being just, with all the advantages which come from this, or the just man who has the appearance of being unjust, with all the disadvantages which come from this (cf. II, 360e-361d).

118Much of this treatment in the Republic is centred on the issue of the discrepancy between appearance and reality when virtue is involved, for both the argument by Glaucon and that of Adeimantus tend to show that most people would be satisfied with the appearance of virtue, in the conviction that only this and not real virtue is what brings benefits to the individual, the main benefit being happiness (of course what they ask from Socrates is to prove the contrary).Accepting the appearance instead of reality certainly implies some capacity to make a distinction between the two, but does not imply having a positive and full knowledge of virtue, for if one had this one would never be satisfied with mere appearance. The appearance consists of course in how one appears to other people or in what reputation one has. In Adeimantus’ speech the point is made that, as the wise show (these wise men, as can be seen from the context, where for instance Archilocus is said to be ‘most wise’ [365c4-5], are first of all the poets), appearance (to dokein) tyrannizes over truth and is lord of happiness, hence what one should do is to surround oneself with an illusory screen (skiagraphia) of virtue and exercise the astuteness of the fox behind it (cf. 365c1-6).

119This same issue turns up in the Laws. There it is suggested that a lawgiver should compel the authors (as actually happens to some extent in Crete and in Sparta) to adopt a line which consists precisely in accepting as true that virtue implies happiness, by imposing penalties against those (among which the poets are singled out) who suggest that ‘there are men who live a pleasant life in spite of being scoundrels’ (cf. II, 662a-c). Since also in this work it is claimed that the poets do not offer the truth (cf. IV, 719c-d, quoted above, ch. 22 and, more extensively, ch. 25), and that the only true tragedy is that which illustrates a noble life (cf. VII, 817c), it is sufficiently clear that the real poets (or at least most of them) are supposed to illustrate the contrary situation, in which scoundrels are happy and just persons are unhappy. Another clear statement to this effect is to be found in X, 899d-e (a passage which probably recalls 890a), where it is said that the fortunes of unjust people are not only celebrated as happy (eudaimonizomenai) by general opinion but are wrongly glorified in the language of the Muses.

120Following the first passage just referred to, in 663c, it is said the impression we have that injustice has a pleasant look and justice an unpleasant one is the consequence of an error of perspective comparable to the one caused by shadow painting (skiagraphia), that is to say by painting that is illusionistic (because it gives a sense of depth and so forth). The implication is that the poets create and exploit the same sort of error when, of course, they do not just claim but illustrate in their tragedies and other poems a discrepancy between virtue and happiness. Errors of perspective of the same sort, concerning our evaluation of what is pleasant and what is unpleasant, are taken into consideration in Republic IX, where it is let understood that most people are their victims, and that their passions are the consequence of this fact (the motif of skiagraphia is introduced there too, cf. 583b and 586b). Illusionistic painting (using the same word skiagraphia) is mentioned in Republic X as well, though not in the context in which painting is considered as a parallel to poetry, because it is introduced to illustrate how the irrational part of the soul is liable to fall into errors of judgment (cf. 602d). But it is on this irrational part of the soul that poetry is said to exercise its appeal, so that this illustration turns out in fact to be relevant.

121In brief, the poet operates at the level of perceptible illustration and representation and of imagination. But what he does is the expression of a certain ideology.This is an ideology shared by most people, which the poet both accepts and reinforces. His position reflects an ignorance about the nature of the virtues and in general about values, but in his lack of awareness of his condition he is induced to make people believe that the people imitated by him are provided with virtue.

33. On tragedy (and on comedy)

122I come now more directly to the issue of tragedy. In dealing with it one has to distinguish two aspects : tragedy as drama, as a literary genus, and tragedy as an expression of the tragic vision of life. It can be said, briefly and anticipating on what follows, that Plato has little understanding of drama, and this makes certain assertions he makes about tragedy (especially those in the Laws about the poet’s contradicting himself and about the ‘true tragedy’) unsatisfactory, though not to the point of excluding the possibility of connecting this aspect to the other aspect. On the other hand he has an understanding of the tragic vision of life, though he rejects it as false, and as a consequence rejects tragedy as an expression of that vision. (Aristotle’s position is the opposite : he has an understanding for drama as a literary genus, but no understanding of tragedy as an expression of the tragic vision of life.)

123To deal first with tragedy as drama, one important feature of it is that what is enacted is a story, i.e. a succession of events which concern different persons and which are bound together in such a way that we can talk of a plot. This is a feature of tragedy which is notoriously stressed by Aristotle but not by Plato himself in the discussion of Republic book X, yet it must be well present in his mind because in his view a plot is enacted when tragedy illustrates the happenings by which a person who appears to be good falls into disgrace, with the effect of rousing feelings of pity and fear in the audience.(We have seen that he alludes to this situation in 603c and in III, 392b. In the discussion of Resp. II and III he shows awareness of the fact that in the case of much poetry some story (mythos) is told. In Resp. X, when he says, in 606b, that one should disdain a whole poem, he must be alluding to this aspect.) What he says more explicitly elsewhere, in Laws IV, 719c-d, is that drama (he talks of poetry in general, but clearly meaning drama) illustrates people who have (literally : are put in, scil. by the poet) opposite dispositions among themselves (enantiōs allelois anthropous …diatithemenous), so that the poet who composes the drama is obliged to contradict himself. The passage (quoted in full in ch. 25) is not satisfactory, as already pointed out above (in ch. 22), in that it tends to reduce this conflict to a contradiction internal to the poet. Thus the important recognition it contains that there is no tragedy without conflict risks being deprived of significance. But, as also pointed out there, Plato’s attitude is rather ambivalent, and this leaves some room for an understanding of tragedy as drama.

124One intention of this passage, then, is to say that drama represents a situation of conflict between different persons. It is of course because they enter into conflict with other persons that certain heroes in a drama fall into disgrace. And this conflict, as is sufficiently clear from the allusions in Philebus 50a-c but also in Republic X, 603c-d (where the contrast, stasis, is extended to the soul of the single individual) is supposed to be caused by the fact that in these persons there are passions such as fear, love, jealousy and envy. A connected feature of tragedy, which is not explicitly pointed out by Plato, but is not difficult to conjecture, is : tragedy gives the impression that what happens on the stage has the character of inevitability, and has this character because what is involved is a convergence between fatality and ill-will by the gods towards men.(An allusion to tragic fatality, adopting the Greek he heimarmene as an expression that would be adopted by ‘a man in a tragic play’, is to be found in Phaedo, 115A, where Socrates refers ironically to his own destiny.) In talking about fatality the other aspect of tragedy, i.e. its being an expression of the tragic vision of life, is already involved. Concerning this other aspect, it should be noticed that, if Plato suggests (in Republic X etc.) that drama on the scene is to be dismissed as a mere play in the same way as all other things human, he does not do so because it is a mere fiction that has nothing to do with human life or with human reality. On the contrary, drama is quite faithful to human life - at least : good drama is like that. This is not asserted by Plato in an explicit way, but it is not difficult to get it from some assertions of his touching the point. The clearest statement to the effect that tragedy is an expression of the tragic vision of life (or as a category) is to be found in the Philebus, where he asserts that ‘our argument shows that pains and pleasure are mixed together in songs of lamentation (en threnois) and in tragedies and in comedies - not only in stage-plays (dramasi) but in the entire tragedy and comedy of life’ (50b). This same parallel between dramas and human life is implicit in a passage of Republic X to be commented on below, for what is implied is that human life itself, with all that it involves, is just a play like a drama.

  • 41 For this analysis see again I, ch. 12, esp. pp. 177-78.

125The continuity between drama and life admitted in the passage of the Philebus must not be understood as implying the possibility of taking what happens on the stage as real life. What is clear from the context is that he admits, in human life, persons and situations that are serious and persons and situations that are ‘laughable’, clearly by the former meaning the proper objects of tragedy and by the latter the proper objects of comedy, so that, from this point of view, there is no difference between drama in real life and drama in the theatre. But what is asserted in the passage is that not only in dramas but also in the entire tragedy and comedy of life pleasures and pains are mixed. Now the reason why pleasure and pain is mixed in the case of the contemplation of a tragic drama is not the same as that for which there is such a mixture in life. Plato himself there (in 48a) alludes clearly to the fact that, in tragic spectacles (theoreseis), one contemporaneously (hama) cries and feels pleasure (chairein), this being also what is suggested in Republic X (see above, I, ch. 12, pp. 175-76). In life however this can concern oneself, thus is not an object of contemplation, and even when this concerns other people contemporaneity is excluded, for the pain one feels for oneself or (in compassion) for another person is not accompanied by pleasure. Thus the continuity between real experience and experience in the theatre, from the point of view adopted in the passage under discussion of remarking the existence of a mixture of pleasure and pain, is only apparent, and Plato must not have been wholly unaware of it. (It must be admitted that the analysis of comedy which is provided in the context does not make any difference between real life and comedy from this point of view, because pain arises from a malevolence which one feels towards one’s friends and is transferred to the imaginary person on the stage.41 This must have influenced the generalization which is to be found in 50b, when in fact the same analysis cannot be applied to tragedy.)

126Anyhow it must be realized that the experience one has of what is tragic is not something immediate but is influenced by one’s judgement about the nature of events, thus depending on the ideology that one adopts. Poetry, as we have seen, is supposed by Plato to transmit a certain ideology. What the tragedian does is to suggest that a good person - one who (on the stage) is presented in this way by other people and who himself expresses this conviction about himself - falls undeservedly into disgrace and reacts to this situation giving vent to his pain, thus arousing in us (the public) our compassion. Thus he suggests a certain way of looking at the happening he represents on the stage. The alternative interpretation is that the person either deserves his fate, for he is not really as good as he seems to be, or, even if he does not fully deserve his fate, he should show steadfastness, without giving vent to his (to some extent unavoidable) feelings of pain. If what is represented on the stage were meant to show this, there would be no place any more for compassion, but rather for admiration, but this would not be a tragedy any more.

127Now the way of looking that one acquires in contemplating tragedies represented on the stage is liable to be extended to what happens in real life : one sees tragedies taking place in the life of people, including possibly oneself. From this point of view there is a continuity, but in the reverse sense than the one expected : it is not simply tragedy that imitates life, but life that is seen in the light of the imitation of it given on the stage. One in fact is induced to believe that there are people who are good and fall into disgrace and thus deserve our compassion (and if this disgrace is caused by some person, there is also indignation for what is happening). But their goodness may be just appearance. And even if they fall undeservedly into disgrace, they should give proof of steadfastness. Hence there is no place for tragedy in real life either.

128Coming back to the issue of Plato’s recognition of the tragic, there is another passage that is of significance from this point of view, to be found in the Cratylus, where he deals, rather playfully, with the etymology of the god Pan, by pointing out his double nature (cf. 408b-d).This double nature is linked to that of discourse (logos), which has the capacity to signify ‘everything’ (pan) and which is both true and false. What is true in it is ‘smooth and divine’ and has its place high among the gods ; what is false in it has its place low among the multitude of men and is ‘harsh and tragic’ (trachu kai tragikon),‘for it is here that very many stories (muthoi) and falsehoods belong, in connection with the tragic life’ (408c5-8).The passage manifestly contains a pun on the ‘rough and goat-form’ side (trachus kai tragoeidês, 408d2) of Pan’s nature, putting it in relation to the goat (tragos) element in tragedy. Presumably Plato’s intention is to suggest that human life, as such, that is to say in so far as it contains no approximation to the divine, is tragic. In any case the passage, though not establishing an explicit connection between real life and drama, contains a recognition of what can be called (with Miguel de Unamuno in his Del sentimiento trágico de la vida and with George Steiner in his The Death of Tragedy) “the tragic vision of life”.

129Tragic drama is rejected by Plato precisely as an expression of this vision of life. He does not want to dispute the fact that tragedy (at least good tragedy) offers a realistic picture of human life, for he himself on occasion points out the existence of conflicts among men. What however he obviously cannot accept is the underlying suggestion of inevitability : conflict depends on a defect of knowledge, is like engaging the war of Troy not for a real Helen but for a simulacrum of her (cf. Republic IX, 586b), and the true philosopher cannot be in conflict either with himself or with other people because he contemplates a realm of being where conflict is excluded (cf. Republic VI, 500b-c). Fatality is touched upon in the final myth of Republic and elsewhere, by pointing out that certain choices by men may indeed have consequences that are irremediable and in this sense fatal, but the choices themselves are not fatal. That the image given of the gods not only in drama but in much other poetry as well is false is something that Plato notoriously tries to show in books II and III of the Republic, where the polemic against poetry has also the intent of offering a proper image of the gods and of their action, by exclusion of their being a source of ills for men (see above, II, ch. 21).

130(The Stoics’ attitude to tragedy does not seem to have been much different, at least if Epictetus remains faithful to the main tenets of stoicism. “What are tragedies,” he asks, “but the passions of men who are fascinated by things external, presented through such and such a metre ?” [Dissertations I 4, 26]. Elsewhere he treats the Oedipus of Sophocles and similar heroes of tragedies as fools who follow the appearances [cf. Dissertationes I 28, 31-33].And, in commenting on the exploitation by poets like Euripides of the attitude to cry on everything unpleasant that happens to us he remarks : “See how tragedy occurs, when fortuitous happenings befall stupid men”[Dissertationes II 16, 31].)

131Thus philosophy and tragedy offer alternative views of human life and of reality, and this is one reason why there is a quarrel between philosophy and poetry, for tragedy is representative of all poetry. Tragedy gives the false impression that it is people who are good and virtuous who fall into disgrace and adds the suggestion of inevitability to this picture, when in fact much of what is negative that happens in this world is deserved by men who bring on them their disgraces by their actions. In so far as there is what seems to be an undeniable disproportion between what certain (not fully vicious) men do and what happens to them or what seems to be an undeniable success with some men that are vicious, it should be recognized that we adopt an inadequate point of view.

  • 42 Also compare Laws VII, 803b and Republic VI, 486a-b, on which below.
  • 43 Cf. context of the passage of Laws VII referred to : 803b-e, and Laws I, 644e-645c ;‘puppet’[thauma(...)

132It should be recognized, first of all, that ‘nothing of human affairs is worthy of great concern’ (Republic X 604c42).This point is developed in the Laws into the suggestion that we are the playthings of gods or their puppets43 and that we should, in awareness of this, play in the best way the part that is given to each of us to play. This idea of having to play a part in a play appears in some form also in Republic X, where it is suggested that the attitude we should have in the face of what happens to us in the various circumstances of life should be similar to that of a player who throws dice (cf. 604c) (perhaps the sense is also that of accepting the coups of fortune).This view again finds a development in the Laws, where the suggestion is advanced that we ourselves are a sort of pawn in a game of petteia that includes the whole world. What we should recognize is that we are parts of this larger whole in which we play a role and that each part of the whole is ordered in view of the whole, not of each of its parts. This arrangement has also a providential character, for in the end virtue prevails on vice, by a proper distribution of the souls (cf. X, 903b ff.).

  • 44 Cfr. e.g.Ariston of Chios, in Diogenes Laertius VII 160 [ = SVF I,fr.351] ;Teles, Diatriba II [quot (...)

133However significant these images may be, it is to be remarked that only in the passage of Laws X there is the (at least implicit) suggestion that one is a player among other players, for the image of the puppet concerns each of us (hekaston hemôn, I, 644d8) in relation to some god who has produced us and who pulls the strings, and similarly with the images used in Republic X. And it is equally to be remarked that even in the passage of Laws no recourse is made to the metaphor of drama or the theatre. This is a metaphor which had a rather wide circulation in philosophy subsequent to Plato, with variations on the motif that each of us is an actor who has to play a part (evidently together with other actors) in a drama in which each part is assigned by a dramaturge (who is made to coincide with chance or with divinity)44.The absence of this metaphor in Plato is probably to be explained, in part, with his failure to conceive drama as the interaction between different personages.

134As to the general meaning (in positive) which the images used by Plato have, it would seem to be the following : if we are inclined to think that good men can fare badly and bad men can fare well, because our experience seems to show this, it is not simply that we are deceived (with the encouragement of poetry) in thinking that genuine happiness is at issue, but that we adopt a narrow point of view that is both anthropocentric and self-centric (the latter point is implied rather clearly in Timaeus 19d-e, where it is said that the poets cannot help imitating what they have been acquainted with by their education). Philosophy, on the other hand, as is already suggested in Republic VI, 486a-b, enables us to reach a point of view which consists in the contemplation of all time and existence and which includes both things human and things divine. He who comes to adopt this point of view recognizes that the life of man cannot be a thing of great importance, and will thus learn to despise death and all the ills that can happen to anyone of us. But the purely human point of view which the philosopher is expected to overcome is precisely the one that is adopted by the poet who composes tragedies. It is, we have seen, the point of view which leads to the representation of conflicts among men that are motivated by their passions, such conflicts being nothing more than the fighting about shadows that is illustrated by the allegory of the cave. It is then a point of view which takes illusions as reality and which has to be rejected on this ground. Drama certainly has to do with life, but it is the life of the people who take as important what happens in the city to which they belong because of their inability to reach a vision of the reality that is beyond it.

135Plato then rejects tragic drama as an expression of the tragic vision of life, because he regards this vision of life as incompatible with philosophy. This is not in contrast with the fact that in Laws VII, 817a ff., he makes the speaker say that the constitution they are elaborating is the truest and best tragedy that can be composed, they themselves being ‘poets’ who compose dramas in competition with the tragedians. In effect, even if we leave out the metaphorical application of the word, this is not a tragedy at all in the sense I am referring to, for the constitution is said to be meant to be an imitation of the best and finest way of life, and this is the one which ensures happiness. (I take it that this way of life is that of the collectivity, not of each member of it in relation to the others, so that even in this connection the theatrical metaphor is not properly present. On the place of comedy in the Laws see below.)

  • 45 Cf. e.g. Charmides 172a, 173d ; Euthydemus 278e, 280a-b, 281c ; Resp. I, 353e-354a ; this equivalen (...)

136This rejection of tragic drama converges with his rejection of mimetic poetry, since, as we have already seen above (ch. 19), in Republic X he gives the following definition of mimetic poetry : “mimetic (poetry) imitates human beings acting under compulsion or voluntarily, and as a result of their actions supposing themselves to have fared well or ill (eu hoiomenous e kakôs pepragenai) and in all this feeling either grief or joy” (603c). ‘Faring well’ is usually taken as being equivalent to being happy, while ‘faring ill’ is usually taken as being equivalent to being unhappy45. And clearly acting involves virtue or vice. The definition seems to apply to drama, and especially to tragedy, since what is supposed to be imitated is human beings in their acting. From this definition it is evident then that the relationship between virtue and happiness is at issue in the case of mimetic poetry, and especially in the case of tragedy, which is the poetical genre that Plato has mainly in mind. And mimetic poetry errs, as is pointed out in the passage of Republic III, 392b, that was quoted above (ch. 21), in representing just men who are unhappy and unjust men who are happy.

137This point emerges in Republic X as well, for the poets offer mere images of virtue, but it is this untrue representation of virtue what leads to the conviction that virtue does not imply happiness. The illustrations that are actually considered are of behaviours (responding with laments etc. to unfavourable circumstances) that certainly do not reflect virtue (at least according to Plato’s conception of it). But it is said that the public pities someone who has fallen into disgrace but claims of himself to be a good man (cf. 606b). If this claim were regarded as wholly unjustified, pity would not arise (as is explicitly pointed out by Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 13) because the disgrace would be regarded as deserved. Plato himself however thinks that some misjudgement is involved, because he says (talking not from the point of view of the public but of that of the ‘very best of us’, cf. 605c) that what is contemplated is a man who is such that one would be ashamed to be like him (cf. 605e) and that the whole poem (thinking manifestly of the story it tells) would deserve disdain (cf. 606b). On this point his attitude differs, again, from that adopted by Aristotle who does not think that a (serious) misjudgement is provoked in the spectator, for on his account the people represented on the scene are good men, even if not men of perfect virtue, and they fall into disgrace because of a fault (an hamartia), not because of a vice that is present in their character.

  • 46 In his Tragedy and Philosophy, Princeton 1968, p. 73.
  • 47 Halliwell, in his Plato’s Repudiation of the Tragic, in Tragedy and the Tragic. Greek Theatre and B (...)
  • 48 His position is summarised as follows by W. Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, pp. 201-202 : “Hegel’ (...)

138It cannot be said, however, that this account of tragedy as resulting from this sort of fault is at all adequate regarding its properly tragic dimension. I would say, simplifying, that Plato hates tragedy, but has some understanding for it, knows his enemy, while Aristotle loves tragedy, but has no understanding for it, since the tragic vision of life is completely absent in his Poetics. (I agree with Kaufmann’s assertion46 that Aristotle “simply ignored their – the tragicians’– ideas and outlook to concentrate wholly on problems of technique”, adding that the poetics as established by him “deals with form at the expense of substance”).Yet Plato himself, while admitting the spell the poetry can exercise on us, does not make any serious attempt to understand tragedy as such, that is beyond the general account he gives of imitative poetry, presumably because he dislikes it so much. Tragedy cannot be so easily eradicated (and was certainly not eradicated by Plato’s philosophy), but must have some deep roots in human nature, in its finiteness and imperfection, and Plato does do not much to explore this fact.47 Hegel is not prevented by his propounding a wholly non tragical philosophy of history from giving an account of tragedy that shows much more understanding than either Plato or Aristotle have shown.48

139Concerning comedy, we find that in the Laws Plato is not excluding it altogether (cf. VII 816d ff. and XI 934d ff.). A justification for the introduction of comedy is given in the first of the two passages, as follows : “Now anyone who means to acquire a discerning judgement [to be phronimos] will find it impossible to understand the serious side of things in isolation from their ridiculous aspect, or indeed appreciate anything at all except in the light of its opposite” (VII 816d9-e2). The requirement formulated in this passage concerns understanding (mathein), and this means that one should be able to recognize what is ridiculous, to avoid falling into it because of one’s ignorance, but not that one should practise it. This is actually stated in what follows, where the norm is introduced that no citizen should learn to do comedy (especially, it is understood, by writing comedies) and to practise it, but this activity should be left to slaves and hired aliens (cf. 816e-817a).Another severe restriction is introduced in the other passage, namely that no comedian should ever be allowed to ridicule any citizen whatever. In that passage he also makes a distinction (not recognized in the Philebus) between comedy with malevolence and comedy without it, adding the suggestion that it is the second type that should be performed ; but it is not very clear what kind of comedy he has in mind (perhaps comedy of characters, not referred, as the Aristophanic one, to concrete living persons).

  • 49 Halliwell, in his Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., pp. 82-83, notices that there is an“asymmetry betwee (...)

140The treatment of comedy in parallel with tragedy in Republic X and in the Philebus would lead one to expect an equal exclusion of it from the city. In fact the parallel concerns the emotive aspect (see above, ch. 12). It does not concern the ideological aspect. Presumably Plato regards comedy as not harmful from this point of view : either it does not introduce the mistaken view that virtuous people can be unhappy and bad people can be happy or it introduces it in a non serious way. Concerning the emotive aspect, presumably he thinks that comedy, in spite of that parallel, is less harmful than tragedy, because the public is not inclined to ‘sympathize’ (with some degree of identification) with the people who are put on the scene, for these are ridiculed, and one does not wish to be similar to a ridiculous person. Further, as just noted above, he seems to admit a form of comedy (that without malevolence) which apparently he did not think about in those other works.49

  • 50 Halliwell, in his Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., p. 79, pays attention to Republic III, 396a, though (...)
  • 51 One may quote Kaufmann again : “Confronted with literature in general, we may readily grant that th (...)

141Yet the sort of justification Plato gives in the Laws for the admission of comedy, even if with certain restrictions, could easily be extended to tragedy. The requirement of having some sort of knowledge of bad people, together with badness, as the opposites of good people and of goodness (or of virtue), is applicable just as the requirement to know what is ridiculous in opposition to what is serious. In fact he touches upon this requirement in a couple of passages of the Republic. While excluding that the guardians should in any way imitate bad people or madmen, he says that they should have knowledge (in the sense presumably of recognizing them and having some knowledge of their nature) of men and women who are bad or who are mad (cf. III, 396a). Similarly later on, in discussing gymnastics, he makes an excursus on the sort of knowledge that should be possessed by a judge, judging being clearly one of the main functions that must be exercised by the governors of the well-governed city (cf. 408c ff.). It is admitted that, just as the physician must have familiarity with ill people and with illness, the same must be true of the judge in the case of bad people and of badness, not in the sense however (allowable for the physician) that he should himself have been in their condition or have associated from youth with bad people, for this would have had a negative effect on his character. Yet, even if relatively late in his life, he should acquire knowledge of these negative conditions by getting familiar with them, though without a direct involvement (cf. 409a-b).50 Now it could be argued that one way for obtaining this sort of knowledge consists precisely in witnessing to the representation of tragedies, for (as Plato is willing to concede) they are a faithful representation of life, and of life in what is good and what is bad, including people who are good or bad. Yet Plato does not appear to be willing to make this concession, presumably because he thinks that emotional involvement in the case of tragedy is too strong to permit the serene acquisition of knowledge. He is not ready to recognize that the exclusion of works like those of Sophocles leads to an impoverished vision of the human condition.51

142It would seem that this is precisely one point where Aristotle disagrees with Plato. He makes the general claim that imitation serves to acquire knowledge and, in this way, is also a source of pleasure (cf. Poet. 4, 1448b12 ff., also Rhet. I 11, 1371b4 ff. [see also above, ch. 6]). It is sufficiently clear that he is convinced that this must be true of tragedy, for the comparison with history (in ch. 9) tends to suggest that poetry, as being ‘more universal’ and ‘more philosophical’, gives us more knowledge. One object of this knowledge must be the nature of men, good or bad, for their characters are represented in tragedies and other forms of poetry. If this is so, he is adopting the sort of argument that could have been adopted by Plato himself in defence of tragedy. (On the comparison with history see above, ch. 13.)

34. Where does aesthetic beauty lie? A survey in the light of the issue of the origin of aesthetics

143It could be seen, from the (not wholly adequate) synthesis provided above, ch. 29, that one reply that the ancient authors would usually give to the question ‘where does aesthetic beauty lie ?’ is that an object which is beautiful satisfies certain formal criteria of perfection, such as order, symmetry and measure. It is sufficiently clear that these formal criteria of perfection can be satisfied by a work of art even independently of any relationship to the object which it is supposed to represent. In fact these criteria may be satisfied by the products of architecture, which do not appear to represent objects different from themselves. Further, they may be satisfied by objects which are not the products of any art. Both Plato and Aristotle suppose that there are geometrical objects which satisfy those criteria. And they are willing to admit that there are entities in nature, like animals, which also satisfy those criteria. Even the world as a whole can be taken as satisfying those criteria, since it was certainly regarded as a harmoniously ordered whole.

  • 52 As suggested by Berhard Schweitzer in some of his studies.

144A complication is given by the fact that works of art can be regarded as satisfying the formal criteria of perfection because they reproduce objects which themselves satisfy the same criteria. In other words, a certain work of art can be said to be beautiful because it reproduces in a faithful way the order, symmetry and measure which is possessed by a certain object, which is itself a beautiful object just on this ground. This possibility raises the question whether the reproduction by the work of art must be wholly faithful to the object or must have the appearance of being faithful because it achieves realism by means of illusionist techniques. We have seen above, in ch. 29, that Plato takes sides, before this alternative, in favour of what can be called literal faithfulness, but that Greek art was typically opposed to Egyptian art because the symmetry satisfied by its products was “according to what appears to the eye”. It may be added that this sort of distinction plays a role in the ancient history of art, for, according to Pliny (who must draw on some Greek source like Xenocrates52), Lysippos was the first who made statues with a ‘symmetry’ that had the effect of making men (as reproduced by him) to be not as they are but as they appear to be for the seeing eye (cf. Historia naturalis XXXIV 65).

145When the ancient authors put stress on the fact that the work of art reproduces or represents some object, thus also on the fact that art itself is an imitative activity, the suggestion emerges that what is important is accuracy in execution. This is evident for instance in what Aristotle has to say about imitation (mimesis) in Poetics ch. 4, where the activity of imitating is regarded as the main source of poetry. The reference is there made to images, manifestly in paintings, which are appreciated for the accuracy (akribeia) in execution (cf. 1448b10-12, but the same point must be implicit in the mention of craftsmanship [apergasia] in b18-19).The same approach must have been present in some ancient histories of art, as Pliny testifies. He notices for instance the diligentia of which Zeuxis gave demonstration in certain of his paintings (cf. Historia Naturalis XXXV 64), or the subtilitas which is to be found in the paintings of Parrhasios (idem, 67), or the ability of execution in reproducing a hero shown by Timanthes (idem, 74), or, again, the diligentia which was exercised by Protogenes (idem, 80). One implication of this approach is that the artefact may result in being beautiful even if what is reproduced is not beautiful or even ugly. This is something which, as we shall see, is recognized by both Aristotle and Plutarch.

  • 53 This is something that is pointed out by Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetics, cit., p. 57, who remar (...)

146In this connection the question may be raised how the contents of a tragedy or a comedy can be regarded as satisfying criteria of aesthetic beauty. This question does not interest Plato, for the (partial or complete) condemnation of tragedy and of comedy from a moral point of view makes it irrelevant. It becomes a concern of Aristotle, who does not share this condemnation of the two dramatic genres from a moral point of view. This concern is rather evident in the case of comedy, for, at the beginning of Poetics 5,he says of it that it is‘an imitation (mimesis) of the worse people to be found, worse however not according to any sort of vice, but in the sense in which the ridiculous is a sort of ugliness’(i.e. ugliness, aischos is here taken as a sort of vice or badness : kakia, what is easier in the Greek). Of course this ugliness is not limited to the image that is given of these personages, but extends to their words and their behaviour, so that a comedy may be full of it. But ugliness, though Aristotle does not point this out, is to be found in tragedy as well, though not usually in the form of the ridiculous, for e.g. Medea who kills her children and Orestes who kills his mother offer an ugly spectacle (even if it is not directly represented on the scene). So there is a genuine and serious aesthetic problem that Aristotle raises in this way and would have to face53. However, one does not have the impression that he does much to face it.

147Beyond the claim that certain formal criteria of beauty are satisfied, the issue as to how a tragedy or a comedy can be beautiful in spite of having some ugly contents is dealt with only indirectly, when he notices that there is pleasure in contemplating images made in the most accurate way even when their originals have shapes that are painful to see, e.g. when these are the lowest animals or corpses (cf. Poetics 4, 1448b9-12). However this point is open to two different developments.

148One development is to be found in Aristotle’s De partibus animalium I 5, 645a10 ff., where, still referring to low animals as the originals, the suggestion is made that our appreciation for images is due to the grasp of how the painter or sculptor have exercised their skill. This grasp is then regarded as parallel to the grasp of the organization of the (low) animals themselves in the light of the causes of their formation, which is said to lead us to overcome our childish repugnance and appreciate the beauty of nature even in their case. One can see that on this account the pleasure or joy comes from learning. This suggestion is by no means extraneous to the approach adopted in the Poetics, where it is admitted that the concatenation of the events which constitute the plot of a drama must satisfy requirements of plausibility and necessity - a situation which is at least close to a causal explanation in nature - and the conclusion is drawn that it is more instructive than history (on this point see above, ch. 13). But clearly this appreciation by itself has not much to do with aesthetics. Yet it is likely that, since the unity of the action and, thus, of the story told is made by him to depend to a large extent on the manner in which the concatenation of events satisfy those requirement, Aristotle admits that here lies at least part of the beauty of a tragedy (or of a comedy), even though he does not make it clear. (Given that what is plausible and necessary may not reflect any real succession of events, accuracy in execution, though brought by Aristotle himself in connection with imitation, need not be accuracy in reproduction of something given.)

  • 54 It should be noticed that Plutarch discusses this sort of issue also as problema 1 of Quaestiones c (...)

149The other development is to be found (at least explicitly) not in Aristotle but in Plutarch, who also discusses the question as to how the picture of something ugly, for instance of a lizard or of an ape or of the face of Thersites, can be a source of pleasure and admiration (cf. De audiendis poetis, ch. 3, 17F ff.). This result is not to be obtained, Plutarch remarks, by making the ugly thing appear beautiful in the picture, for in that case the picture would not be faithful to the original : Thersites’ face remains ugly even in the picture. The explanation he gives is that it is not the same thing to imitate something beautiful (kalón) and to imitate something beautifully (kalôs), the latter consisting in imitating fittingly and properly (prepontōs kai oikeiōs). It is an explanation that he is ready to extend to poetic works. One can see that his explanation is more relevant to aesthetics than that given by Aristotle, but that he remains close to the traditional categories of aesthetics in talking of what is fitting or convenient (to prepon). It could be argued that the requirements of plausibility and necessity in Aristotle’s Poetics include this aspect as well, but the trouble is precisely that the two aspects are not kept well distinct.54 That, in any case, what is fitting or convenient plays some role as an aesthetic criterion in this work has already been pointed out above (ch. 8 and ch. 29). It is probably no accident if even Plato makes mention of it in the passage of Phaedrus, 264c, which was quoted above (ch. 29). One may regard this criterion as something in between criteria which are mainly formal such as symmetry and order and criteria which concern the accuracy in the reproduction of what is given.

150To complete this survey, it may be recalled that, in addition to the satisfaction of these formal criteria and of those of accuracy in the reproduction it was admitted that a sense of aesthetic beauty is aroused by the recourse to embellishments, that is to say to adornment or to colouring and so forth. Certain colours may be pleasing to the eye because they are particularly brilliant. We have seen above (II, ch. 24) that Plato recognizes that embellishments may have a great effect on the hearer and/or viewer, though he tends to condemn their use. Aristotle similarly recognized (as already pointed out in I, ch. 10) that the pleasure which is produced by a drama depends to some extent on the language which is ‘pleasurably garnished’ (Poetics 6, 1449b25-29) and on the spectacle which is offered on the stage (Poetics 6 again, end of ch.). Variety and novelty also play a role from this point of view. What is unusual and unexpected may be a source of excitement (again condemned by Plato as typical of democracy, as also was illustrated above).Aristotle in turn gives importance to what is marvellous or surprising (thaumastón) (this again was already pointed out in ch. 10).

151What can be said is that there is a tension between these different points of view, and, first of all, between the point of view of imitation, which makes sense of the work of art by putting it into some relationship to what it is supposed to reproduce, however freely, and the point of view of beauty in the formal sense, which makes sense of the work of art by setting requirements that it must satisfy quite apart from any such relationship (recourse to embellishments may be associated with this second point of view). Some ancient authors, and especially Aristotle, show an awareness of this distinction of points of view, as was illustrated above (ch. 29). Now, this distinction of points of view is relevant to the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. As I suggested in ch. 29, there is a convergence between aesthetic judgement and ethical judgement when formal criteria of perfection are involved, thus when the second point of view now distinguished is adopted. The same convergence between the two types of judgement is not possible any more when the contents of e.g. a tragedy are considered, hence the condemnation of this genre on Plato’s part and the separation of the aesthetic from the ethical judgement, now regarded as irrelevant, by Aristotle (as illustrated above, ch. 10).

152In so far as the point of view of imitation (mimesis) remains dominant, this has some rather restrictive consequences (in part denied by Halliwell, but see above, ch. 5 and ch. 26). Imitation is to a large extent reproduction, but the capacity to reproduce involves ability, skill, accuracy, etc., but not great originality, creativity, genius. In fact there are various indications that the recognition of originality and so forth does not play an important role in ancient literary criticism and in ancient history of art (see above, I, ch. 3, p. 128 and n. 7 ; and see the relevant remarks contained in the present chapter). No doubt this constitutes a significant point of difference between ancient and modern aesthetics (see above, I, ch. 3, p. 129 and n. 8). Typical of the modern attitude is Herder’s (somewhat extreme) assertion that ‘the artist is become a creator God’. Yet it should probably be recognized that it remains an open problem how far aesthetics should be restricted to the appreciation of the products of human originality, at the expense both of beauty in nature and beauty in those human products which are susceptible of being reproduced in many identical copies. Further, the room left to inspiration by some of the ancient authors seems to show some awareness by them that the production of beautiful objects cannot be seen exclusively in the light of skill in imitation.

  • 55 Similar to this is the deception said to be provoked by a statue of Orpheus,of being a person provi (...)

153What tends to be underrated by an aesthetics of mimesis is not so much the originality of the artist as that of the work of art, since this is judged mainly in relation to the reality which it is supposed to reproduce or represent. It is rather typical of ancient discussions of the value of a work of art that the question be raised how far this is close to truth (taken as synonymous with reality) or to nature. The success of the artist is measured by his ability to create the illusion of reality in the hearer or viewer, as if this should be his main concern. (This point is illustrated by the anecdote, told by Pliny, Naturalis historia XXXV 65-66, of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasios in depicting grapes realistically, indeed so realistically as to deceive birds, who flew towards the picture and tried to eat them.55) What is praised by some authors, who regard this deception as harmless, is condemned by Plato, who cannot admit that any deception be without harm, but the point of departure remains the same. Modern discussions of the same phenomenon of illusion or deception which is provoked by a work of art assume that its relation with reality is less direct, and point out, rather, that it itself embodies some sort of truth. In other words, truth is not regarded as wholly external to the work of art, for this, in its peculiar way, i.e. in spite of being fiction, embraces truth. It is thus rather usual to admit that the characters in a good novel have a life of their own, even going as far as to claim that they have more life than many really living persons. Fiction or the dream, far from being a pale reflection of reality, has so much reality that reality by comparison becomes a pale reflection.

  • 56 It will be recalled that this fact is pointed out by Nehamas, but that from this he drew the mistak (...)

154Another point of difference which deserves to be underlined is that works of art, in so far as they are taken as the product of mimetic activity, are not regarded as carrying any meaning of their own. Interpretation is regarded as open, and as relevant, only in the case of works of poetry, but this is supposed to be so because discourse is involved in them, and of discourse it has to be admitted that it requires interpretation. (We have seen above, ch. 28, that Plato points this out, but seems to regard it as a defect of poetry.) It is already doubtful whether a drama as a whole, beyond, that is, what this or that personage may have said, was regarded as susceptible to different interpretations. (This possibility is not contemplated either by Plato or Aristotle.) Of the products of the figurative arts it is implicitly excluded that they require to be interpreted, precisely because they are just reproductions of a given reality56. It is never suggested that one can say of them that they are provided with meaning in the sense of exercising some symbolic function.

  • 57 To these examples one may add the following title (more restricted in its topic, but dealing with a (...)
  • 58 See his Lettre sur les sourds et muets, where he states what follows (I quote point 18th in the acc (...)

155The modern attitude on this point is different, for to us it seems rather obvious that one can use words like ‘meaning’ and ‘language’ in connection with the figurative arts. (For instance Erwin Panofsky did not see any great need to justify the use of the first word in the title of one of his collections of essays : Meaning in the Visual Arts, though what he has in mind emerges in just some of them. Again Nelson Goodman would entitle his main contribution to aesthetics : Languages of Art, by explicitly claiming that one of these languages is constituted by painting, and similarly with the other figurative arts.57) It would seem that Ernst Cassirer, in An Essay on Man, offers what is by now a widely shared view when he presents man as an animal symbolicum and claims that one of the manifestations of this symbolic nature of man is represented by art. This is a point of view which, from what I was able to see, finds its first expression in Denis Diderot who had recourse to the idea of the hieroglyph to explain the nature of art, by claiming that each art has its type of hieroglyph, singling painting, in addition to music and poetry, to illustrate the point58.

  • 59 On this topic one may refer to Jacqueline de Romilly, Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, Cambrid (...)
  • 60 For an attempt to give an account of this aspect, by relying on composition (sunthesis), and with a (...)

156The products of imitation, then, were not regarded as bearers of meanings. Some of them, however, were regarded as bearers of emotions. The supposition was made, as we have seen above (ch. 28), that this sort of communication of emotions takes place in music. It takes place in poetry too, in so far as the words of the poet are accompanied by musical tunes. However in this case imitation (mimesis) could not be taken quite in the same sense in which it is taken in the case of such products as paintings. Further, it would seem that some sort of communication of emotions takes place in poetry even independently of its association to music. As pointed out above (II, ch. 24 and n. 54) a ‘psychagogic’ effect was usually attributed to poetry, on the supposition that it exercises an effect on the public comparable to a magic spell. Plato himself attributes this effect rather to rhetoric59, but establishes a close connection between the two, by presenting poetry as a sort of demagogic rhetoric. This effect seems to be explained by him through recourse to embellishments on one side, and through recourse to some deception (like the tricks used by the sophists) on the other side (see again ch. 24). Yet these explanations do not seem to be sufficient. Perhaps it is assumed that, in live performance, poetical words, like musical tunes, become bearers of emotions, with the resulting emotional involvement of the public. Whatever the explanation60, this seems to go beyond the limits of an aesthetics of mimesis, for it is not through the imitation of some object that an emotional effect can be achieved.

157To recapitulate, the point of view of imitation, as I have tried to show, is not the only one that is to be found in the ancient authors, since for instance there is the recognition that formal criteria of perfection play a role in our judgements about works of art. Moreover, there is an awareness by the ancient authors of the peculiarity of aesthetic experience, since it is recognized that there are items or objects which, either for their beauty or for some other quality, are a source of aesthetic pleasure, this pleasure being not only restricted to man but in some ways different from other forms of pleasure and other experiences of man (cf. above, chs. 7-9). And this is one main reason why it is not justified to exclude the existence of aesthetics in antiquity. The second point to be made is that, though aesthetic experience is by no means supposed to be restricted to certain products of man thought of as being a manifestation of his creativity, some sort of centrality or privileged place is assigned to the aesthetic experience which concerns those items or objects which are symbolic of what man feels and thinks. The fields of drama and music receive particular attention (as is evident in both Plato and Aristotle) precisely for this reason, even if drama is not treated in the same way as music and in fact its treatment is a matter of controversy. (What is at issue is not that drama is a source of an aesthetic pleasure that is particularly intense and rich in meaning, but whether the emotional involvement which accompanies this experience is harmful or not from an ethical point of view. Epos tends to be associated with drama.) Beyond this, with extension to the visual arts, there is in any case the inclination to recognize a central place, as a source of aesthetic experience, to the representation of man, especially, again, if something is communicated of what are his feelings and his thoughts.

158This second point should lead us to be careful in giving an undifferentiated treatment of ancient aesthetic experience, for the ancient authors show much awareness of the differences between the various fields of aesthetic experience. A basic distinction is admitted between what falls under the eye and what falls under the ear, in spite of the inclination to admit a parallel between painting and poetry (ut pictura poesis), considered that this serves mainly as a concrete illustration. Only what falls under the ear has the capacity to transmit certain beliefs (an ideology) and to be the cause of a strong emotional involvement (see above, ch. 28). Inside this sphere drama (to which epos may be associated) and music have a central place.

159How drama should be treated is problematic not only because of the different evaluations that can be given of the consequences of the emotional involvement its experience causes but also because the symbolic meaning (at a general level) of what is represented on the scene is open to different interpretations, in part due to different attitudes by the interpreters (see above, ch. 33, for a discussion of the attitudes of Plato and of Aristotle) but in part due also to the developments in drama as a performance (see above, I, ch. 4).

160The adoption of a basic distinction between what falls under the eye and what falls under the ear does not exclude the recognition of certain formal characteristics which are common to all items or objects which are said to be beautiful, such as symmetry and harmony and order. And from this point of view there is no significant differentiation between human products and what is to be found in nature, which tends to be regarded as the product of an art (or of a capacity similar to that of art) which is either attributed to a divinity or which is supposed to be immanent in nature (or both, in the case of the immanentistic conception of the divinity which is adopted by the Stoics).There is no significant differentiation, either, between the products of the imitative (or fine) arts and the remaining arts. The personality and originality of the producer does not receive any particular recognition when adopting those formal characteristics as criteria of judgement of value, as was usual in antiquity.

35. Conclusions

161Ferrari’s article on Plato and Poetry makes an attempt, that seems to go further than any other made so far, to clarify what is that Plato finds unacceptable in poetry (his approach meets the approval of scholars like Burnyeat). After the passage I quoted above (in ch. 4) about the importance of live performance in Plato’s culture, he adds : “This aspect of poetic experience, its ‘theatricality’, is a major target of Plato’s hostility ; above all because poetry has at least the appearance of human talk, of saying something ; and Plato believes that its theatricality, so far from strengthening poetry’s voice, has a tendency to hamper its ability to speak to us.” (op. cit., p. 93) He also says on this point : “The dominant theme of the critique of poetry in the earlier dialogues (…) is that poetry is theatrical performance, and for that reason dangerously independent of the understanding by which it may or may not be informed. (…) The theatricality of poetry does not reside in the poem considered as a stretch of language but in an aspect of the psychology of those who participate in the performance of that stretch of language (a description that includes the audience) : namely, in their capacity of imaginative identification with what is to be represented. Theatricality contrasts in this respect with what we call the ‘fictionality’ of poetry, although the two notions can be brought to bear on the same issue of the independence of a poetic creation from the understanding of its creators (and appreciators)” (op. cit., p. 108) On ‘fictionality’ he says : “Any ‘fiction’ has a certain life of its own. We could become enthralled by Hamlet even if the script had somehow been worked up by monkeys ; or by the Iliad even if its medium is a monkey like Ion. And we tend not to see anything wrong with this, because fictionality is a concept that applies primarily to artistic language as such, or in a larger sense to artistic creations in general (insofar as paintings or sculptures can be thought of as fictions). Questions of right and wrong in the practice of art (hence the possibility of censorship) we consider mostly in terms of how we as audience are affected by such creations : whether we learn from them, are emotionally enriched by or otherwise benefit from exposure to them, or the opposite. But the fictionality of the work we take for granted : poems, plays, novels just are fictions ; and whether, as such, they are good or bad for you is a quite separate question. Plato thinks of this differently. (….) Plato never in fact works with this concept, and still less does it have any verbal equivalent in his Greek. What dominates his thinking about poetry (and art in general) is not fictionality but ‘theatricality’ : the capacity for imaginative identification which inspired poets and performers and satisfied audiences alike employ. Fictionality belongs to the artistic product ; theatricality belongs to the soul. And by thinking of poetry in terms of theatricality rather than fictionality, Plato makes poetry through and through an ethical, not an aesthetic affair. There are not two separate domains of inquiry for Plato here : the fictionality of literature (its aesthetic status) and the psychology of literary production (its ethical effects). Theatricality promotes in the poet, performer and audience alike a psychological stance that is not to be confined to aesthetic contexts but occupies an important place in our regular ethical lives. But Plato further believes that in this ethical role it is liable, if not carefully circumscribed, to have a pernicious effect.” (op. cit., p. 98)

162These remarks contain much that is true, but are not exempt from serious oversimplifications. One dimension that is left out, and which concerns the contents of the poetical work, is the ideology of which it is the carrier. Although much that the poet communicates does not consist in statements which directly express his position on points such as the conception he has of the nature of the gods, Plato admits that from his representations it is possible to infer such a position. Poetry has an influence on our beliefs not too different from that of rhetoric and reflects a point of view that is acceptable to the majority of men but makes it enter into conflict with philosophy (see above, ch. 21). It should also be recognized that there are also indirect ways in which the poet shows his adherence to a certain ideology, for instance in showing approval, by his practice, of novelty and variety. From this point of view, and partly also from the point of view of contents, a connection can be established between it and the reality of democracy. (Cf. above, chs. 17 and 18.) The role that poetry plays in the education enacted in existing cities is to be connected in part with the ideology it transmits, for the didactic function it is generally supposed to have concerns this aspect to an important extent (cf. above, ch. 16). Of course, poetry cannot be reduced to the ideology it transmits, but its importance in Plato’s eye is not easily to be overstressed.

  • 61 It is evident that for the ancient authors there is a rather close connection between the use of th (...)

163This dimension is distinct both from fictionality and theatricality. It is to a large extent a rhetorical dimension, addressed to persuading an audience which to a certain degree is already persuaded and wants to be comforted and confirmed in its prejudices61. Rhetoric and theatricality of course can be closely associated, but theatricality reinforces the effect that rhetorical persuasion would have in any case. It is a dimension that is ideological also because it has to do with truth and falsity, not just with what is right or wrong from an ethical point of view, and concerns the conception that one has of the world at least in so far as man is concerned.

164Secondly, the concept of ‘fictionality’ seems to be too inclusive or too vague. One aspect of fictionality lies in the recognition that works of art are not life, but belong to a different sphere. In the case of poems or dramas or novels this recognition is easy, because they only can tell stories. But even when there is representation, as in drama, one recognizes that what takes place on the stage is not life. There is the connected recognition that what is told in a poem or in a novel cannot be treated in the same way as what is told by a historian, and thus judged as being either true or false. Aristotle is more explicit on this point than Plato, but I think that the latter, when he says that the stories told are false, admits in some way that they are fictions, and otherwise tends to exclude that one (an adult in normal condition of mind) can mistake what is represented with life.

165The other aspect of fictionality (the one to which Ferrari alludes) is in some sense the opposite of this, since it consists in the admission that works of art, while not being life, have a life of their own. This concerns mainly the dramatic dimension that not only drama, but also epos and certain musical performances like choral dances (as both Plato and Aristotle admit) and, we would add, novels present. The people represented and/or spoken about have a life of their own. It is precisely this aspect that Plato, as we have seen above (esp. chs. 19 and 22), does not recognize (while it is recognized by Aristotle within certain limits).

166Why does he not recognize it ? One explanation that can be given is that, in his approach, he remains the prisoner of the didactic tradition in the reception and interpretation of poetry. This is connected with the tendency to give a too great importance to the ideological dimension of poetry. The poet transmits ideas, and talks for himself, but hides himself behind the personages that appear on the scene. He also offers models to be imitated, but also these models are expressions of his own personality, not persons who have a life of their own, who have an autonomy with respect to the personality of the poet himself.

167As to theatricality, this also presents more than one aspect or dimension. It would seem that performance, however important, tends to reinforce an effect that the poetical work would have anyway. I do not think that performance, by itself alone, can give the impression that the poet is saying something when he is saying nothing. Plato is convinced that the poet deceives the public in at least two ways : (a) by giving a nice appearance to his products (embellishment), which by themselves are mediocre, obtaining this effect e.g. by using metre, musical rhythms, etc. (see above, ch. 24) ; (b) by giving the impression that he possesses a knowledge which he does not really possess (see above, ch. 23). This sort of deception however requires no doubt some psychological involvement, which tends to be seen by Plato as being like falling under the spell of a magician, but does not require a strong ‘imaginative identification’ e.g. with the personages represented on the scene. This identification is rather the result of how drama operates, in representing someone like us, supposed to be a good man, who falls into disgrace without deserving this change of fortune (for this account see above, ch. 12 ; that this identification is not the result of performance by itself and of mimesis has been argued above, chs. 24 and 25).

168It is reductive to treat ‘theatricality’ as an aspect of the psychology of those who participate in the performance, for there are mechanisms of production of illusion, of provoking emotional reactions, and so forth that are involved. The objective aspect is of course strictly intertwined with the subjective one, but should not be assimilated to it. In fact Plato has more to say on the objective aspect than on the subjective one, as one can notice in reading Republic book X.

  • 62 Ferrari repeats the commonplace that "the category of the "aesthetic" only came to prominence, of c (...)
  • 63 This concern “with the effect of poetry on readers and spectators”, at the expense of attention for (...)

169It is also reductive to assimilate the psychology of literary production to its ethical effects, because, though everything that takes place in the soul of the individual has ethical implications (and thus has to be judged from this point of view), there is something (aesthetic pleasure) which is not itself of an ethical nature62. It is more justified to talk, with Jemenez (in the passage from his Qu’est-ce que l’esthétique quoted supra, ch. 12), of an ‘aesthetics of reception’.63

170Some observations must be devoted, finally, to the ideological dimension of poetry and to its effects from a pedagogical point of view. Plato’s recognition of the existence of this dimension was not without justification, because it responded to the assumptions underlying certain pedagogical practices in use in his times. He may be criticized for overrating its importance (while Aristotle may be criticized for underrating its importance), but this criticism in itself is not decisive. Some of his assumptions however are open to more decisive criticism.They are : (1) the unwillingness to admit a differentiated treatment of young and very young people and of not so young and adult people, because supposing that most people remain in constant need of the same sort of paideia which is addressed to young people (cf. above, ch. 16) ; (2) the unwillingness to admit that well educated people may react differently from uneducated people even if they are part of some collective representation ; (3) the unwillingness to admit that there are techniques of interpretation which can be apprehended with an appropriate education and may enable one (without becoming a philosopher) to have an antidote against the bad influence drama or epos may exercise.

  • 64 On Aristotle’s position see above, I, ch. 13, esp. pp. 183-85. (See also Andrew Ford, The Origins o (...)

171On point (2), there is the following question that has to raised : can one speak of an educated public and admit that this public is able to maintain independence of judgment when becoming a part of the wider audience ? It would seem that Plato is convinced that even educated persons cannot maintain their independence when they are part of the ‘assembly’ of people (one such assembly being the theatre), since willy-nilly they are somehow transported by the ‘current’ of the prevailing moods of the sort of beast which is constituted by the people (ochlos) thus assembled (this is suggested most explicitly in Republic VI, 492b-d). It seems that the exchange between Agathon and Socrates in Symposium 194a-c is to be understood on the same lines : Agathon, in admitting some hesitation to make his talk, assumes a distinction between two types of public, the educated ones who are present at the symposium and the ordinary public constituting the largest part of the audience for his play : only in front of the former did he feel such hesitation. Socrates, in replying to him, denies this distinction, since they were also part of that audience. Rather than taking Socrates ad litteram, as asserting that the people present at the symposium are really on the same level as the rest of the audience of Agathon’s play, one should take him as implying that, as part of the larger audience, they could not maintain their independence of judgement. It would seem that Aristotle would have been on Agathon’s side, not on Socrates’ side, in this sort of exchange.64

  • 65 For more details on this topic cf. L. Brisson, Platon, les mots et les mythes, Paris 1982, pp. 152- (...)

172On point (3) one possibility is constituted by the adoption of an allegorical interpretation of those passages of poems such as those of Homer which otherwise would be exposed to censure for the very reasons for which Plato regards them as so exposed. This is a device of which much use was made by certain philosophers after Plato, starting with the Stoics, but which was not unknown to him. In fact he explicitly rejects recourse to it, on the ground that the (very) young cannot make use of it, for they do not have sufficient understanding, being unable to distinguish what is allegory from what is not (cf. Republic III, 378d-e)65. The trouble with this argument is that it is the only reason for the definitive rejection of recourse to allegory, apparently on the usual assumption that most people remain forever like children, without admitting that appropriately educated grown-up people would be in a condition to exploit this technique.

173And it has to be asked whether education can be such as to provide the ‘antidotes’ to the possible harmful effects of tragedy even in other ways. This tends to be assumed by Aristotle, but without a detailed indication of the antidotes to be used. But a significant change in perspective that is to be found in his Poetics, as we have seen, concerns the recognition that, at least in drama, what the players say and do is not an immediate reflection of what the poet thinks. This distinction is introduced in a more explicit way by later authors. Thus the author of the Ars rhetorica attributed to Dionysius of Harlicarnassus suggests that the drama of Euripides entitled Melanippes the wise has two aspects (presents a double schema), that of the poet and that of the character in the drama, i.e. of Melanippes. Certain opinions that are expressed in the drama reflect in fact the point of view of the poet (who is said to expound certain teachings by Anaxagoras) and certain others reflect the point of view of the character (cf. op. cit. IX 11, p. 345 Usener-Radermacher). This distinction is assumed after him by Plutarch, who suggests that the poets themselves give indications that they do not approve everything that is represented by them, especially certain behaviour of their character (cf. De audendis poetis, ch. 4, 19A ff.).The obvious example is constituted by Thersites : Homer makes it quite clear that he regards him as a sort of buffoon and does not approve of his behaviour (Thersites is likely to find more sympathy in a modern reader).Thus he is not presented as a model to imitate, and to take him in this way would be to misunderstand the intentions of the poet. But even in the case of genuine heroes like Agamemnon and Achilles the poet hints that he does not approve of all of their behaviour (for instance the former’s harsh treatment of the priest Chryses). This implies that young people must be taught in such a way as to be able to recognize these indications and take them into account, rather than accept at face value what is represented.

174We take these distinctions for granted, but they constitute part of a code that must be learned and that is learned rather unconsciously at school and in other circumstances. Before it could be learned the code had to be invented and its inventors (at least in so far as this concerns us in the Western world) were the Greeks. It is difficult to escape the impression that Plato used his exceptional intellectual powers not to contribute to its invention but, somewhat perversely, to elaborate questionable arguments to show that poets do not possess genuine wisdom.

175Interpretation may not be enough, and is restricted to educated people. Plato raises the issue of the ethical and social responsibility which the artist, and particularly the literary author, has, and this is not a dead issue, for the autonomy of art cannot be absolute. Equally the issue of the place which should be given to aesthetic experience in education (and to which sort of aesthetic experience) is not dead, and is related to the other issue. Most of us cannot accept his rather extreme and authoritarian solutions, but it would be wrong to regard them as solutions to problems that do not exist or that existed only in his own times.

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1. Studies and documentation

W.D. Anderson, Ethos and Education in Greek Music.The evidence of poetry and philosophy, Cambridge, Mass., 1966.

Julia Annas,“Plato on the Triviality of literature”, in Moravcsik and Temko, edd., Plato on Beauty, 1982, pp. 1-28.

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Jean-Christophe Bailly, Le champ mimétique, Paris 2005.

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Elizabeth Belfiore,“A Theory of Imitation in Plato’s Republic”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 114, 1984, pp. 121-46.

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Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom be Found ?, New York 2004. Hugo Blümner, Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und Römern, IV, Leipzig 1887.

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Bernard Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetics, London 1904 (reprinted as vol. 4 of The collected Works of Bernard Bosanquet, vol. 4, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1999).

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Whitney J. Oates, Plato’s View of Art, New York 1972. Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Chicago 1955.

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Wolfgang Rösler, “Die Entdeckung der Fiktionalität in der Antike“, Poetica 12, 1980, pp. 283-319.

S.D. Ross, Beauty : Conceptual and Historical Overview, Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics, vol. I, pp. 237 ff.

Agnès Rouveret, Histoire et imaginaire de la peinture ancienne, B.E.F.A.R., Rome, 1989.

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M. Michela Sassi, Estetica, ibid., pp. 510-513.

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J. Tate, “‘Imitation’ in Plato’s Republic”, Classical Quarterly 22, 1928, pp. 16-23

J. Tate, “Plato and Allegorical Interpretation”, Classical Quarterly 23, 1929, pp. 142-154.

J. Tate, “Plato and ‘Imitation’”, Classical Quarterly 26, 1932, pp. 161-69.

W. Tatarkiewicz,“Classification of Arts in Antiquity”, Journal of the History of Ideas XXIV, 1963, pp. 231-240.

W. Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics. I : Ancient Aesthetics, Warszawa, 1970.

E.N. Tigerstedt, Plato’s Idea of Poetical Inspiration, Commentationes Humanarun Litterarum, no. 44, Helsinki 1969.

E.N. Tigerstedt, “Furor poeticus : poetic inspiration in Greek literature before Democritus and Plato”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 31, 1970, pp. 163-178.

W. Trimpi, “The Early Metaphorical Uses of ’skiagraphia’ and ‘skenographia’”, Traditio 34, 1978.

W.J. Verdenius, Mimesis. Plato’s Doctrine of Artistic Imitation and its Meaning to Us, Leiden 1949.

W.J. Verdenius, “The principles of Greek Literary Criticism”, Mnenosyne new series 4, 36, 1983, pp. 14-59.

P. Vicaire, Platon : critique littéraire, Paris 1960. M.L. West, Ancient Greek Music, Oxford 1992.

Richard Wollheim, Art and its Objects, New York 1968.

Paul Woodruff, “What could go wrong with inspiration ? Why Plato’s poets fails”, in Moravcsik and Temko, edd., Plato on Beauty, 1982, pp. 137-150.

M.-A. Zagdoun, La philosophie stoicienne de l’art, Paris 2000.

2. Editions, translations and commentaries referred to

Plato, The Republic, vol. III of The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Oxford 1892 (3rd ed.)

Plato, Phaedrus,With translation and commentary by Christopher J. Rowe,Warminster 1986.

Plato, Philebus, Translated with Notes and Commentary by J.C.B. Gosling,“Clarendon Plato Series”, Oxford 1975.

Plato, Timaeus,Translated,With Introduction, by Donald J. Zeyl, Indianapolis 2000.

Plato, The Laws,Translated with an introduction by Trevor J. Saunders,“Penguin Classics”, Harmondsworth 1970.

Platon, Le Sophiste, tome VIII, 3e partie des Oeuvres completes, texte établi et traduit par Auguste Diès, Paris 1955 (3rd ed.).

Aristotle’s “Politics”, books III and IV, translation with introduction and comments by Richard Robinson,“Clarendon Aristotle Series”, Oxford 1962.

Aristotle’s “Politics”, books VII and VIII, translation with a commentary by R. Kraut,“Clarendon Aristotle Series”, Oxford 1997.

The “Poetics” of Aristotle, translation and commentary by Stephen Halliwell, London 1987.

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1 Cf. discussion in Nehamas, Plato on imitation, cit., pp. 258-59.

2 As pointed out by Halliwell, Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., pp. 19-20 and 121.

3 The general sense of the passage is problematic, since a line is missing and the beginning of the story unknown, but not the point that is of interest to us concerning the use of mimema.

4 Cf. Sophist 235d-236c, where faithful reproduction is associated with eikastikē in opposition to phantastikē, and cf. Laws II, 667c ff. and 668d-669a.

5 This has already been stressed by Nehamas, art. cit., pp. 61-64, where he says for instance that “the objects of imitations are hardly entities in their own right”.

6 A rather literal translation of the passage of the Sophist is : “produced as if it were a human dream for those awake”, but it would seem that “human” has a double function, for it must also qualify the type of production, since in the context what is experienced in sleep is an image produced by divinity (cf. 266b). The sense of the passage must be that this is a dream-like image produced by men and contemplated by men who are awake. There is no suggestion here of the possibility of a mistake about its nature, like taking dreams for what is real, as against Republic V, 476c-d, where those who have no knowledge of the ideas are supposed to constantly live in a dream and mistake what is similar to reality with reality itself.

7 Also notice the occurrence of apeikazo in 514a.

8 The same requirement of proportion (symmetria) is formulated elsewhere with the organization (and the constitution) of the city in view. One passage is the following :“It is plain to see in the other arts and sciences also. No painter would let his figure have a disproportionately large foot, however outstanding in beauty, no shipbuilder such a poop or other part of the ship. Nor will the producer accept a singer whose voice is stronger and better than the whole company.”(Politics III 13, 1284b7-13, Robinson’s transl.) Another similar passage is Politics V 3, 1302b33 ff. Partly similar is Politics VII 4, 1326a33 ff., discussed below (ch. 29).

9 More literally : a model (paradeigma) which is such as would be the most beautiful man.

10 On these passages cf. Nehamas, Imitation, cit., pp. 260-61, and Janaway, op. cit., pp. 116-17, who both reject Tate’s attempt to exploit these passages in order to oppose a good imitation, which is expounded in them, to a bad imitation that is introduced in book X of the Republic. (The reference is to J. Tate, “‘Imitation’in Plato’s Republic”, Classical Quarterly 22, 1928, pp. 16-23, and “Plato and ‘Imitation’”, Classical Quarterly 26, 1932, pp. 161-69.) Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., p. 45, believes that Plato, in Cratylus, 430a-431d,“allows for images that represent imaginary members of classes such as “man” and “woman” or even, perhaps, depict the general proprieties of “man” and “woman”themselves”. But this is not the most obvious interpretation of the passage, for in 430e-431a reference is made to ‘this man before me’, and the mistake is showing him the portrait of a woman as his.

11 An account on these lines is also adopted by E. Belfiore,“A Theory of Imitation in Plato’s Republic”, cit., esp. 123-126.

12 Cf. Belfiore, “A Theory of Imitation”, cit., pp. 126-27 and ff., who talks of “versatile imitation” ; Ferrari, Plato and poetry, cit., pp. 124-25 ; E. Asmis, “Plato on poetic creativity”, cit., pp. 350-51 and n. 27 ; this suggestion goes back to an unpublished Johns Hopkins diss. by V. Menza, entitled “Poetry and the Techne Theory”, 1972 (not seen by me).

13 What is implied in this passage, viz. that poets are unable to distinguish good from bad, is stated explicitly in Laws VII, 801b-c, where the solution given is that poets should follow the prescriptions coming from the laws of the city, in addition to being selected on the basis of moral standards and allowed to operate only if they are at least fifty years old, as suggested in VIII, 829c-e. On these restrictions see above, Part II, ch. 16.

14 The musical terms here used are difficult to render in modern languages, and I prefer to use what are in fact transliterations. Notice that Plato, in Laws II, 664e-665a, defines rhythmós ( = rhythm) as the order (taxis) of movement, and harmonia ( = harmony) as the order of sound or voice, when there is a mixture, with temperament, of high and low tones ; the word in effect suggests an attunement, and a sort of attunement may be rendered by ‘mode’.

15 The account of music given by Aristotle is discussed by Halliwell in his The Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., ch. 8 entitled “Music and the Limits of Mimesis : Aristotle Versus Philodemus”. He shows awareness of the fact that the thesis of the imitative nature of music is not new with him, but is to be found already in Plato, yet he does not discuss this matter. According to him Aristotle does not regard the case of musical ‘mimesis’ as quite distinct from that of the presence of signs of conditions of the soul in paintings. He writes : “The parallelism appears to be a matter of both quasi-semantic and affective correlation, such that elements of the mimetic work create powerful psychological equivalences to the experience of (certain) features of the relevant phenomena in the real world, phenomena that are themselves closely associated with, and in some cases partly constituted by, affective properties.” (op. cit., p. 245) We have also seen, above, ch. 5, that he treats this as a distinct type of mimesis, that concerning “vocal or musical production of significant or expressive structures of sound” (op. cit., p. 15). These passages exemplify the misty language in which Halliwell tends to cloud his thoughts in certain parts of his book.

16 Here I follow Cornford’s text and interpretation.

17 What he propounds remains however a mathematical construction that underlies musical harmonies rather than one that can be converted in real music, as pointed out Luc Brisson, Le Même et l’Autre dans la structure ontologique du Timée de Platon, Paris 1974, pp. 324-32.

18 For this definition see above, Part II, ch. 19, p. 305.

19 For this passage see above, Part II, ch. 21, pp. 321-22.

20 An ample study of this notion is provided by M. Pohlenz,“To prepon, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des griechischen Geistes” (1933), collected in his Kleine Schriften, Hildesheim 1965, vol. I, pp : 100-139.

21 I quote this part : “Nec vero illa parva vis naturae est rationisque, quod unum hoc animal sentit quid sit ordo, quid sit quod deceat, in factis dictisque qui modus. Itaque eorum ipsorum quae aspectu sentiuntur, nullum aliud animal pulchristudinem, venustatem, convenientiam partium sentit.”

22 This is something that was recognized by B. Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetics, cit., esp. p. 49. (This work includes what in my view remains the best history of ancient aesthetics from a philosophical point of view.) See also his comments on 400a ff., in his A Companion to Plato’s Republic for English Readers, London 1895 [2nd ed.], p. 104, where he remarks that “this and analogous discussions are the real working part of Plato’s aesthetic analysis, and though apt to be neglected in favour of more poetical passages, such as the description of abstract beauty in the Phaedrus, undoubtedly contain the germ of sound aesthetic theory”.

23 I quote the passage (in Kraut’s transl.) :“For example, if someone enjoys contemplating the image of something for no other reason than the very shape of it, he will necessarily take pleasure in contemplating the things itself whose image he is contemplating.” There is, indeed, a comparison between the original and the image, but the appreciation for the image concerns its shape, independently of any reference to the original, and the movement is from the appreciation of the image to the appreciation of the original.

24 See e.g. E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion. A study in the psychology of pictorial representation, Oxford 1960, ch. IV entitled “Reflections on the Greek Revolution”.

25 Thus it is understood as a technique of giving a figure in outline, as is evident from some passages in Plato himself (Resp. IX, 586b ; Critias, 107c-d). But there is a shift towards the idea of a technique which uses shadows to create a sense of depth – though this cannot be created only by shading. Skenographia alludes to all the techniques which achieve this effect.(On this topic see e.g. H. Blümner, Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und Römern, IV, Leipzig 1887, pp. 419-23, and W. Trimpi, “The Early Metaphorical Uses of ’skiagraphia’ and ‘skenographia’”, Traditio 34, 1978, pp. 403-13.)

26 Cfr. Rouveret, Histoire et imaginaire de la peinture ancienne, cit., p. 438, with reference to Xenocrates of Athens, supposed to be (following a suggestion by B. Schweitzer) ‘the father of history of art’.

27 Cf. his Mimesis. Plato’s Doctrine of Artistic Imitation and its Meaning to Us, Leiden 1949, pp. 10-11.

28 This is also noted by Halliwell, Aesthetics of Mimesis, p. 67 and n. 71.

29 See discussion of these and other passages in Janaway, Images of Excellence, pp. 126-127. Burnyeat, art. cit., pp. 309-11, makes an attempt to neutralize 600e4-6 by suggesting that all the poets we are talking about are involved. The trouble with this is that the passage, thus understood, would refer back to 599b9-c2, which is quite general, and that the discussion is centred on the parallel between the painter and the poet, not between certain painters and certain poets.

30 See discussion of these and other passages in Janaway, op. cit., pp. 124-125.

31 The metres referred to are those of tragic dialogue and of Homeric epos respectively. The formula ‘nothing serious’ is a polemical reference to the claim made for epos and tragedy as ‘something serious’, against comedy, cf. Murray, op. cit., pp. 212-13, ad loc. Cf. also 608a6-7.

32 On this point also see Janaway, op. cit., p. 146.

33 Autes in 605c6 presumably refers to mimetike poiesis, though in what precedes there is only talk of the mimetikos poietes.

34 E.g. Burnyeat, art. cit., pp. 306-307, but he feels obliged to write : “Perhaps exaggerated claims of this sort were believed …” [my italics] ; also Cornford, The Republic of Plato, transl. with introd. by F.M.C., Oxford 1941, p. 325, who says that Plato is concerned with “extravagant claims for the poets as moral teachers”.

35 These four points are repeated from above, Part II, ch. 16, where more details are to be found.

36 It can be noticed that, if this suggestion about the conventions prevailing in an aristocratic society is right, Havelock’s idea of an “Homeric Encyclopaedia” cannot stand for this reason as well.

37 Cf. The Repudiation of Representation in Plato’s “Republic” and its Repercussions,“Proc. Cambridge Philol. Soc.” 33, 1987, [pp. 53-73] pp. 56-57.

38 This polemic is recalled in Laws XII, 967C-D, where it is said that philosophers were compared to bitches baying at the moon.

39 On these points see A. Wilson Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue. Plato and the Construct of Philosophy, Cambridge 1995, pp. 60-67.

40 Overcompression gives the impression that he wants to assert that they are imitators of images of virtue, but this cannot be the sense of the passage, cf. Sophist 265b1 : mimesis = production of images, and, similarly, in 601b9 : mimetés = tou eidōlou poietés.

41 For this analysis see again I, ch. 12, esp. pp. 177-78.

42 Also compare Laws VII, 803b and Republic VI, 486a-b, on which below.

43 Cf. context of the passage of Laws VII referred to : 803b-e, and Laws I, 644e-645c ;‘puppet’[thauma] recurs in 644d7 and in 804b3.

44 Cfr. e.g.Ariston of Chios, in Diogenes Laertius VII 160 [ = SVF I,fr.351] ;Teles, Diatriba II [quoting Bion of Borysthenes = F16A Kindstrand] ; Epictetus, Manual, ch. 17, and Dissertationes I 29, 41 and IV 7, 13 ; Plotinus, Enneads III 2, 17.

45 Cf. e.g. Charmides 172a, 173d ; Euthydemus 278e, 280a-b, 281c ; Resp. I, 353e-354a ; this equivalence is taken for granted in the words at the close of the Republic.

46 In his Tragedy and Philosophy, Princeton 1968, p. 73.

47 Halliwell, in his Plato’s Repudiation of the Tragic, in Tragedy and the Tragic. Greek Theatre and Beyond, ed. M.S. Silk, Oxford 1996, pp. 332-349, reprinted - with revisions - as ch. 3 of his Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., rightly points out that not only in Aristotle but also in other authors close in time to Plato one cannot find any recognition of the tragic beyond tragedy as a literary genus. For an older treatment of this topic see particularly the contributions by H. Kuhn in his The true tragedy – On the relationship between Greek tragedy and Plato,“Harvard Studies in Classical Philology” 52, 1941, pp. 1-40, and 53, 1942, pp. 37-88, reprinted in a revised form in German as Die wahre Tragödie – Platon als Nachfolger der Tragiker, in Das Platonbild. Zehn Beiträge zum Platonverständnis, hrsg. K. Gaiser, Hildesheim 1969, pp. 231-323.

48 His position is summarised as follows by W. Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, pp. 201-202 : “Hegel’s understanding of Greek tragedy far surpassed that of most of his detractors. He realized that at the center of the greatest tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles we find not a tragic hero but a tragic collision, and that the conflict is not between good and evil but between one-sided positions, each of which embodies some good.” (Kaufmann’s book is ignored by Martha C. Nussbaum in her The fragility of goodness. Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy, Cambridge 1986, while Hegel is only taken in consideration – and blamed – for his optimistic view of history and not for his interpretation of Greek tragedy !)

49 Halliwell, in his Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., pp. 82-83, notices that there is an“asymmetry between Plato’s attitude to the two genres”, i.e. to tragedy and to comedy. His comments on this asymmetry are close to the one now given by me, with some further developments. This asymmetry was noticed by others, e.g. by Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, cit., p. 28, who also thinks that the Aristophanic sort of comedy would not have been admitted by Plato.

50 Halliwell, in his Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., p. 79, pays attention to Republic III, 396a, though not to the successive passage, but seems to me to misunderstand it in presenting it as referring “to another dimension of the experience of poetry”, for Plato does not associate that knowledge to poetical experience, as he requires that nothing evil be permitted to be represented in the various arts, cf. 401b etc. It is true that he expects that one, to be a good ‘musician’, be able to recognize not only the virtues but their opposed vices [cf. 402c], but how this knowledge is reached remains unexplained.

51 One may quote Kaufmann again : “Confronted with literature in general, we may readily grant that the three great tragedians and Homer were exceptions and that few poets, in the widest sense of that word, have ever been as philosophical as Aeschylus and Euripides. We cannot blame Plato for leaving out of account Goethe and Tolstoy, but there is something highly unsatisfactory about a critique of “the tragic poets and their master, Homer”that, even if applicable to most fourth-century tragic poets, fails to take into account the big three.”(op. cit., p. 21).“Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides not only went far less towards inhumanity than Plato did in the Republic ; after twenty-four centuries we can still turn to them to learn what it means to be humane. For Plato’s failure to see this dimension of their tragedies one can plead all kinds of extenuating circumstances, but it remains a glaring fault.” (op. cit., p. 25).

52 As suggested by Berhard Schweitzer in some of his studies.

53 This is something that is pointed out by Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetics, cit., p. 57, who remarks in this connection that “an inquiry into Greek epic, tragedy, and comedy, must at least include elements belonging to an aesthetic theory of the sublime and the ugly ; and it would be impossible to penetrate far into these distinctively modern provinces of aesthetic without throwing off the subjection of art to what pleases in everyday perception. The treatment of comedy in the Poetics, of which the details are unhappily lost, was therefore in principle a most important extension of Plato’s reference to drama.”

54 It should be noticed that Plutarch discusses this sort of issue also as problema 1 of Quaestiones convivales V, entitled “why it is with pleasure that we hear those who imitate people in anger and in pain, but with displeasure when those are themselves proving those sufferings”, but that the account there given is closer to that given by Aristotle. The connection between Plutarch’s discussion of the issue and Aristotle’s discussion was already noticed by Bosanquet, A History of Aesthetics, cit., p. 106, who remarks that the author “has the merit of stating in plainer terms than Aristotle (…) the strictly aesthetic question : ‘Can what is really ugly become beautiful in art ?’”. A more comprehensive discussion of Plutarch’s contribution is given by Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, cit., pp. 296-302.

55 Similar to this is the deception said to be provoked by a statue of Orpheus,of being a person provided with life, according to Callistratus, Descriptions 7.2.

56 It will be recalled that this fact is pointed out by Nehamas, but that from this he drew the mistaken conclusion that Plato must have had in mind just popular arts (see above, I, ch. 14).

57 To these examples one may add the following title (more restricted in its topic, but dealing with ancient theory of art) : Tonio Hölscher, The Language of Images in Roman Art (transl. by A. Snodgrass and A. Künzl-Snodgrass, foreword by J. Elsner), Cambridge 2004.

58 See his Lettre sur les sourds et muets, where he states what follows (I quote point 18th in the accompanying Observations) :“Que tout art d’imitation a son hiéroglyphe ; ce qu’on m’a demontré par un essai de comparaison des hiéroglyphes de la musique, de la peinture et de la poésie”. This innovation is attenuated by the fact that Diderot continues to talk of arts of imitation, and says of painting (in apparent contradistinction with music and poetry) : “c’est la chose même que le peintre montre” (1468-69).

59 On this topic one may refer to Jacqueline de Romilly, Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece, Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

60 For an attempt to give an account of this aspect, by relying on composition (sunthesis), and with an explicit parallel with the effect exercised by music on the public, one has to refer to the anonymous work On the Sublime, and especially to the following passage : “Now composition is a kind of harmony (harmonia) of words which are implanted in man at his birth, and which affect not his hearing alone but his very soul, and it is my belief that it brings out manifold patterns of words, thoughts, deeds, beauty and melody, all of them originally born and bred in us ; moreover, by the blending of its myriad tones it brings into the hearts of the bystanders the actual emotion of the speaker, and always induces them to share it ; and finally it builds up an accumulation of phrases into a grand and harmonious structure.” (ch. 39, § 3, transl. by T.S. Dorsch).

61 It is evident that for the ancient authors there is a rather close connection between the use of the word in poetry and its use in rhetoric. In fact it is not only Plato who admits this connection, but for instance Aristotle, in Poetics 19, refers to his work on rhetoric for the treatment of those aspects, such as style, which have to do with language, and the anonymous author of the work On the Sublime (attributed to Longinus) gives ample space to the discussion of rhetorical devices such as the rhetorical figures.

62 Ferrari repeats the commonplace that "the category of the "aesthetic" only came to prominence, of course, in a later age" (p. 138). What he observes on that same page is nevertheless of some interest.

63 This concern “with the effect of poetry on readers and spectators”, at the expense of attention for the writer and his intentions in composing a drama or other piece of poetry, is also pointed out by Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, cit., p. 87 and ff.

64 On Aristotle’s position see above, I, ch. 13, esp. pp. 183-85. (See also Andrew Ford, The Origins of Criticism. Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece, Princeton 2002, pp. 286-93. This important work escaped my attention when writing part I : much of what he says confirms and integrates certain of my observations.)

65 For more details on this topic cf. L. Brisson, Platon, les mots et les mythes, Paris 1982, pp. 152-59.

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Walter G. Leszl, « Plato’s attitude to poetry and the fine arts, and the origins of aesthetics », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 3 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2016, consulté le 21 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.997

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