Plato sowed the seeds of Western art theory. His brief discussions on the topic, spread throughout his dialogues, give us a glimpse into his ideas. On one hand, these ideas can seem incomplete, fragmented, or even confusing. On the other hand, they can be strikingly profound and thought provoking. Regardless, one thing that Plato’s art theory is not comprehensive about is something that later thinkers and artists over the span of millennia would develop.
With that in mind, it is important to realize that Plato’s ideas played a foundational role in raising poignant questions throughout his dialogues. These questions not only started the conversation on the nature of art but also pointed it in the right direction. As such, his insights are valuable for artists and patrons, especially in the modern age.
Normally, all my posts are standalone reads, even those within a series. However, to grasp this post better and gain context, I recommend reading, or at least skimming, Post 86.
In Post 86, I set the stage for Plato’s thoughts while also delving into some of his writings that emphasize the positive aspects of his views on the arts. In this article, I’ll explore some of the more critical perspectives of Plato on art and then endeavor to tie them all together at the end.
The Idea of mimêsis in Plato’s Writings
To understand Plato’s ideas of art, it is important to briefly discuss his concept of mimêsis, which we can translate into English as “imitation”. This word appears in various contexts throughout Plato’s dialogues, albeit with a range of and various shades of meaning. The word mimêsis is derived from the Greek word mimos, from which we get the words mimic and mime.
Some people used the Greek word mimêsis to mean imitation or representation, but Plato and Aristotle gave it a lot more philosophical meaning, both in art criticism and literary criticism.
In Post 85, the starting point of this brief series, I delved into the dialogue Ion, where Plato explored the concept of reciting poetry through divine inspiration. In Republic Books 3 and 10, Plato further delves into the notion of art as mimêsis, although he emphasizes different aspects in these two chapters. And, in my previous discussion on Book 3 (covered in Post 86), Plato narrows down the meaning of mimêsis to mainly revolve around drama. Here, it adopts the sense of “impersonation,” leaning more towards representation. Moving on to Book 10, Plato broadens the scope of mimêsis to encompass painting, poetry, and drama. However, he simplifies the meaning of mimêsis as imitation, picturing, or copying, as seen in the relationship between a visible original and its visible likeness.1
The Idea of mimêsis in Plato’s Republic Book 3
When Homer was read, it could be done in several different ways. The first way involved mere recitation or narration, or lexis. Lexis, from which we get words like lexicon and lexis, simply means “words.” This would be equivalent to a non-dramatic or non-emotional reading of poetry. The second is through imitation, mimêsis, where the reader would “act out” in a dramatic fashion the various characters in the poem.2
For those who participate in poetry readings, the former usage is very familiar. Poets will tell you that when you do poetry reading, you should read slowly without emotion or drama, letting the words do the work, for the words themselves are designed to elicit emotion. Poet Laureate Billy Collins gives the following sage advice when reading poetry:
Read in a normal, relaxed tone of voice. It is not necessary to give any of these poems a dramatic reading as if from a stage. The poems selected are mostly written in a natural, colloquial style and should be read that way. Let the words of the poem do the work. Just speak clearly and slowly.3-Billy Collins, Poet Laureate
The latter usage, mimêsis, would be the equivalent today of acting rather then reciting. The reader of the poem would really function as an actor, dramatically portraying the various characters as he or she recited their words in the poem. This today would fall under the rubric of dramatic poetry reading. An in between state would be one in which a reader reads a poem with emotion, but not in the fashion of a dramatic play. Plato mentions these three modalities of reading poetry in Book 3:
Do not they proceed either by pure narration (lexis) or by a narrative that is effected through imitation (mimêsis), or by both?–Plato’s Republic Book 3, 392d
This form of mimêsis as impersonation was very dangerous in Plato’s view for the actor was taking on the very traits and attributes, for good or for bad, of a particular character. And if he personified an evil character, that could possibly corrupt him. Because of this, it was Plato’s opinion that the guardians of a city-state should ban such dramatic expressions.
If, then, we are to maintain our original principle, that our guardians, released from all other crafts, are to be expert craftsmen of civic liberty, and pursue nothing else that does not conduce to this, it would not be fitting for these to do nor yet to imitate anything else. But if they imitate they should from childhood up imitate what is appropriate to them—men, that is, who are brave, sober, pious, free and all things of that kind; but things unbecoming the free man they should neither do nor be clever at imitating, nor yet any other shameful thing, lest from the imitation they imbibe the reality. Or have you not observed that imitations, if continued from youth far into life, settle down into habits and (second) nature in the body, the speech, and the thought?-Plato’s Republic Book 3, 395b-d (italics mine for emphasis)
This argument involves not only the actor himself but those affected by his drama, especially the impersonation of what is evil, and extends to those, by implication, who imbibe in such dramatic representations. As such, it was Plato’s opinion that the Guardians of a city-state should ban all such dramatic expressions. But this begs the question: should we ban all drama, or just that which portrays evil? Should the state allow dramatic readings of Homer depicting good characters? If drama is so influential, then this most certainly would be a force for good, since emotions are so powerful.
The Idea of mimêsis in Plato’s Republic Book 10
The question is and always has been how to reconcile Plato’s seemingly disparate views of mimêsis in the Republic Book 3 and Book 10. Even though I don’t have the full answer to that controversy, one thing to consider is that Plato is taking us along with him in the development of his thinking. In other words, Plato does not present his ideas as static and in their final form, but as dynamic and evolving throughout the Republic. We often get confused, I think, because we apply modern standards of writing to ancient texts, whereas one possibility is that Plato may be taking us along with him in the development of his thoughts on the matter.
In Book 3, Plato did propose the idea of banning poets doing imitative poetry in dramatic fashion that portrays negative behavior or vices. He did not, as I discussed in Post 86, disparage all such artistic expressions, but stated that just as art can have a negative influence, it could also have a positive one. Indeed he had some surprisingly positive things to say about the benefits of artistic expression. He then called for the banishment of only those poets practicing negative dramatic poetry.
Here in Book 10, he seems to have reversed course and now calls for the banishment by the state of all poets, having nothing really positive to say about the arts. Why this reversal? To answer that question, one has to consider what has transpired between Book 3 and Book 10. It’s as if Plato were saying that his earlier conclusions were correct based on the earlier premises, but if we take into consideration the new premises, then that would necessitate new, and in this case, more drastic conclusions. This begs the question of what exactly changed between Book 3 and Book 10 that would bring about a change in both his conclusions and even in his definition of mimêsis. Plato says as much at the beginning of Book 10:
And truly, I said, ‘many other considerations assure me that we were entirely right in our organization of the state, and especially, I think, in the matter of poetry.’ ‘What about it?’ he said. ‘In refusing to admit at all so much of it as is imitative; for that it is certainly not to be received is, I think, still more plainly apparent now that we have distinguished the several parts of the soul.’-Plato’s Republic, 595a-b
Plato is saying that if he previously called for the banning of imitative poetry, how much more now, considering the new information about the nature of the soul? He learned this information in Book 3, so why did he not admit as much then? Simply because, I think, he wants to take us along in his thinking process so we will be even more convinced. How many times have we changed our minds on the credibility of someone’s conclusions once we have become privy to their actual thinking process that brought them to that point? If a modern philosopher had a change in thinking, he or she would note that by telling us how they used to think, whereas Plato let’s us see it in real time. Why? Because he was a dramatist. As such, this is just another example of the genius of Plato in constructing his dialogues.
Mimêsis and the Soul
The deciding factor in Plato’s “change of mind” was the revelation of the nature of the soul. Plato criticizes dramatic poetry for harming individuals. He also critiques imitative poetry, stating it can negatively affect the soul by disrupting its balance. We must realize that there is a shift in philosophical emphasis here. If one uses different tools, then one will come to different conclusions. In Book 10, Plato takes the argument out of the natural realm and into the metaphysical realm. In essence, in Book 10, Plato was using a different philosophical lens to view the same situation.
To use an analogy, a homeowner wonders why he has mold in the basement when the basement appears dry. He doesn’t think he has much of a problem. But once a moisture detector is used, he discovers that there is much unseen moisture behind the walls. This revelation causes him to see his problem in a much more serious light and develop a more serious strategy to attack the problem. And this is vintage Plato, ultimately finding his answers in the unseen, non-physical world.
Plato, in essence, makes a three-part argument as follows4:
- Mimêsis is woefully in adequate to capture the truth of a subject since it merely imitates, in a superficial way, the visible appearance of the subject.
- As such, mimêsis in poetry corrupts the soul since the soul responds to truth.
- As a result, imitative poetry should be banned from the city
1. Plato’s Ideal World of Forms
In (1) above, Plato relies on this theory of forms. If you are not familiar with Plato’s theory of forms, Plato believed that a form or eidê of anything was the pure and absolute, non-physical, perfect, and ideal representation of that thing.5 In other words, there are many couches in the world, but none of them are “perfect” couches. They all have flaws and imperfections. If this is the case, how do we know what a couch is? The answer is that we all have the idea of a couch in our minds. It originates not in the physical world but in the ideal world of Forms.
This makes perfect sense because Plato’s theory of Forms was an instruction. As a result, no theory of art, or any theory for that matter, would be complete unless Plato considered this. In regards to art, such as painting, Plato makes the following argument by using the example of a couch:
The idea of a couch resides in the ideal world of forms. This is the “perfect” couch. This is how anyone, including a carpenter, knows what a couch is. It becomes apparent when a carpenter is diligently crafting in his workshop and there are no existing couches or pictures of them. In this scenario, his mental focus is directed towards shaping the form of the couch.
He does not focus on the form because he cannot physically see it. No one can see true forms except in rare cases after death. But that is a topic for another time. Just focusing on the couch is enough for him to create a couch. It’s a failure in replicating the form, but still usable. Here, we have an honest flaw. At least the carpenter had a true opinion of the form as a reference point.6 He gave it the “good college try,” as we say in the States.
‘But these utensils imply, I suppose, only two ideas or forms, one of a couch and one of a table.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And are we not also in the habit of saying that the craftsman who produces either of them fixes his eyes toward the idea or form, and so makes in the one case the couches and in the other the tables that we use, and similarly of other things? For surely no craftsman makes the idea itself. How could he?’-Plato’s Republic, Book 10, 596b
So if a carpenter fails in replicating the Form of couch, at least he made something useful in that failure even though what he made was just a dim copy of the Form. Despite that, his couch was still the subject of true belief because he was looking toward the idea. His creation was an imperfect copy of the perfect Form.
If the carpenter, at his best, makes an imperfect copy of the Form of couch, what about the artist who makes a copy of the copy? According to Plato, the artist’s creation is just a “cheap imitation” of an imitation, an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy. Where the human who made the couch is at least a craftsman, the artist is just an imitator. If the craftsman failed once, the artist failed twice. At least the craftsman creation was the subject of true belief, whereas the artist’s creation was the subject of false or flawed belief. The Forms are made by none other than God himself. In Plato’s scenario, we end up with three couches made by God, the craftsman, and the imitator, and guess which one is disqualified in Plato’s view.
‘If you please,’ he said. ‘We get, then, these three couches, one, that in nature which, I take it, we would say that God produces, or who else?’ ‘No one, I think.’ ‘And then there was one which the carpenter made.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And one which the painter. Is not that so?’ ‘So be it.’ ‘The painter, then, the cabinet-maker, and God, there are these three presiding over three kinds of couches.’ ‘Yes, three’-Plato’s Republic, 597b
This is aptly illustrated by the following diagram:
What I would ask Plato is, instead of imitating a physical couch, what if the artist, like the carpenter, looked toward the form of the couch? Would that put him or her in the second category above rather than the third? If Plato argued that the created object must be physical in order to qualify for the second category, what about a sculpture who sculpted a physical couch based on his perception of the form of the couch?
2. Mimêsis in poetry corrupts the soul
That second part of Plato’s argument is that, if the artist fails to represent the form in any way, even imperfectly, then how can the soul benefit from such a misrepresentation?
Without getting too deep in the weeds on this one, I will simply summarize Plato’s famous theory of the tripartite soul from the Republic, Book 4, where Plato illustrates the workings of the soul by his famous analogy of a charioteer and two horses, one white and one black. The charioteer represents the Rational or highest part of the soul, whereas the white horse represents the Spirited part of the soul or the emotions, and the black horse represents the lowest part of the soul which is the base Appetites. These three are represented by the head, heart, and genitals respectively.
Anyway, have you ever wondered why the ideal man in ancient Greek art was depicted with a very small penis? The sculpture didn’t want to look good in his wife’s eyes; he wanted to deemphasize the aggressive aspect of the man and emphasize the rational and spiritual aspects.Well, on second thought, it is possible that they had mixed motives.
So if we combine Plato’s theory of forms with his tripartite theory of the soul, then we get a nice one-to-one correspondence:
- Rational Soul = Forms
- Spirited Soul = Representation of Forms
- Appetitive Soul = Imitation of representation
Remember that the Greeks strongly emphasized unity and harmony. If the soul is to function well, then all of the parts must work in unity. This is the nub of Plato’s argument against artistic imitation whether it be painting or poetry.
The Rational Soul resonates, if you will, with the world of forms. The Spirit is infused with the things of this world that are imperfect representations of their corresponding forms. Another way of saying it is that the Spirited Soul has to do with the “stuff” of this word. The Appetitive Soul is a different beast altogether. It chases after the base pleasures of this world and, therefore, needs to be reigned in by rationality. When the rational soul collaborates with the spirit soul, the soul achieves balance and harmony. This leads to a healthy state mentally, emotionally, and physically.
If not reigned in, the Appetitive Soul’s natural inclination is to chase after base pleasures. And these, according to Plato in Book 9, are illusory. The base pleasures are idols, promising what they cannot deliver. (Sounds a bit like Christian teaching that would come later.) True pleasure is found in seeking the ideal truth in the world of forms and living with courage and integrity. True pleasure comes from virtue, not base pleasures. This comports with reality to some extent. The addict of any kind continually pursues pleasure but, in the end, finds no pleasure, only destruction.
To summarize Plato’s argument, when one consumes art, whether painting or poetry, he consumes a defective copy of a copy. On the one hand, his rationality recognizes this, but his base appetites delight in and pursue it. Thus the soul is divided, and once divided, serious harm comes to it.
‘The part of the soul, then, that opines in contradiction of measurement could not be the same with that which conforms to it.’ ‘Why, no.’ ‘But, further, that which puts its trust in measurement and reckoning must be the best part of the soul.’ ‘Surely.’ ‘Then that which opposes it must belong to the inferior elements of the soul.’ ‘Necessarily.’ ‘This, then, was what I wished to have agreed upon when I said that poetry, and in general the mimetic art, produces a product that is far removed from truth in the accomplishment of its task, and associates with the part in us that is remote from intelligence, and is its companion and friend for no sound and true purpose.’ ‘By all means,’ said he. ‘Mimetic art, then, is an inferior thing cohabiting with an inferior and engendering inferior offspring.’-Plato’s Republic, Book 10, 603 a-b
3. Banish All Artists!
So we are back to where we started. In Book 3, Plato advised banishing some artists because of potential corruption due to the emotions generated from dramatic representation. This is more of a superficial approach to this problem. In Book 10, he goes through his theory of forms and the tripartite division of the soul. After that, he intensifies his stance and calls for the banning of all artists. This stance has given Plato a negative reputation as far as the arts go, which is understandable. Aristotle, despite not expressing strong negativity towards the arts, showed little interest. His contributions to the advancement of Western art were minimal.
I agree with the theory of forms, especially with the idea of substantial forms as developed by Aristotle, and I also believe in the soul and the rational controlling the lower appetites. However, I don’t agree with Plato’s reasoning in this case. As someone who supports the arts, I think they are very important and play a big part in our lives. In the Middle Ages, Catholic philosophers, theologians, and artists started to stress how important the arts were. This led to the first Renaissance in the West, which was unlike anything that had happened before or since.
So rather banishing artists, I would like to say, “Welcome artists!”
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- Pappas, Nickolas, “Plato’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Please check out this following interesting link on how to read poetry, “How to Read a Poem Out Loud”, by Billy Collins, Library of Congress
- Pappas, Nickolas, “Plato’s Aesthetics”
- As an interesting note, Aristotle attributes to origin of the idea of forms to Socrates. Plato and Aristotle both later developed this idea, the difference being that Plato’s forms resided “out there” somewhere, whereas Aristotle’s forms resided in the particular object itself.
- Pappas, Nickolas, “Plato’s Aesthetics”
Cooper, David, editor, Aesthetics, The Classical Readings, Wiley-Blackwell; 2nd edition (March 29, 2019)
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Volume I, Hildebrand Project (November 7, 2016), ISBN-13 978-1939773043
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Volume II, Hildebrand Press; First English ed. edition (February 8, 2019), ISBN-13 978-1939773104
Albert Hofstadter, Richard Kuhns, Editors, Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, University of Chicago Press; 2nd edition (August 15, 1976), ISBN-13 978-0226348124