Does Plato have a coherent theory of art, and if so, what is it? This article attempts to answer this question with reference to two of Plato’s dialogues—The Republic and Ion. We will analyze how Plato viewed art, his concept of mimesis (meaning imitation or representation), and what he thought about the value of art.
The Problem with Plato’s Aesthetics
There is a difficulty associated with Platonic aesthetics—which we shall here take to mean the “philosophy of art”—which need to be addressed at the outset. The category of “art” in the sense we usually deploy it—as a general term, referring to (amongst other things) painting, sculpture, drama, and literature of various kinds—was not known to the Greeks, and it is certainly not a concept which Plato investigates directly.
Plato does have a lot to say about representation and imitation (in Greek, mimesis), and one way to begin a discussion of his philosophy of art is to begin with said discussions, which are to be found primarily in The Republic and Ion. It is also a good idea to avoid conflating mimesis, the Greek word most often translated as imitation, with the Anglicized “mimesis,” which though an adoption of the Greek word has not straightforwardly adopted the Greek word’s sense and has developed new connotations besides.
Yet the application of mimesis to the category of art in general is an interpretative decision we must take: Plato himself discusses it more often in the context of poetry, although, as we shall see, painting is also mentioned. Yet self-evidently, imitations of the world are a feature of art in general, and so it seems a sensible (and well-trodden) interpretation to apply what Plato has to say about poetry to art in general. What’s more, poetry for Plato also encompasses drama, given that poetry during his time would have been performed. That Plato lacked a concept of art as such should not prevent us from ascribing an aesthetic theory to him.
Mimesis in The Republic
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The Republic is probably Plato’s most famous dialogue. It extrapolates two of Plato’s most famous ideas—his Theory of the Forms and his ideal mode of government. Both theories are subtler and more complicated than there is space to do justice to here.
Plato first addresses mimesis critically, in the third Book of The Republic, and the criticism of mimesis in poetry is explicitly grounded in this latter project, which is in no small part concerned with determining who should rule, and how those who rule should be educated.
Plato claims that poetry, which at the time involved a performative element (poems like the Iliad would not be read in one’s head, but always aloud by skilled performers), is pernicious because in imitating some of the many inappropriate, base, incontinent characters one finds in poetry, those performers would be liable to reproduce those traits in their ordinary lives.
This is, on the face of it, a fairly improbable claim. Surely most actors are able to separate the fiction they perform from the rest of their lives. Even allowing for a certain amount of contextual nuance—those enjoined to performance were often young and impressionable—it is simply hard to accept that poetry has the effect which Plato claims it does. There is something else going on here.
Throughout history, philosophers have often been marginalized, in part due to the technicality and obscurity which (perhaps inevitably) characterizes philosophical activity, and occasionally even because philosophers propagate beliefs that contravene contemporary morality and conventional wisdom too emphatically. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was put to death for this very reason.
Plato’s suggestion here is that the literary consumption that is most popular is most pernicious. Plato’s utopia is, in part, an act of wishful thinking, an experiment in imagining what it would be to reverse the prevailing social logic of his time and place. Does this make Plato any more right? Perhaps not, but it certainly makes his argument less strange than it might appear at first.
Poetry and the Ideal City
Plato returns to the subject of mimesis later on in The Republic. Poetry’s role in creating (or rather undoing) the ideal city of Plato’s imagination is at issue here as well, but in a way that has much to do with Plato’s Theory of the Forms.
What is important to note about this theory for our purposes is that it is predicated on a strict distinction between how things appear and how things really are. At other points in his authorship, Plato is critical of philosophers (such as the sophist Protagoras) who he feels to conflate reality and appearance, and even to take appearances as constituting the criterion of reality. For Plato, the vast majority of people cannot see beyond how the world appears. One of the main reasons why Plato believes that philosophers would make the best rulers is that they and they alone are trained in such a way as to allow them access to reality in itself.
It is Plato’s view that mimesis in art serves only to confound our ability to see things in themselves: it wages war on behalf of appearances, because it is an imitation only of appearance. Plato draws a contrast between the artist and the craftsman. Even if the craftsman who makes tables never creates the perfect, ideal table which corresponds to the “Form” of that object, he is making an honest attempt at doing so. He is not, as the artist who (for instance) paints the table, merely replicating appearances (it is worth noting that poetic mimesis and mimesis in the visual arts are directly conflated by Plato here). Is the creation of appearances a bad thing in itself? Plato argues that the fixation on appearances necessarily weakens the rational impulse to control that fixation.
Appearance and Knowledge
As we have seen, the problem of mimesis, for Plato at least, comes down to a fixation on appearance rather than knowledge. Indeed, it is possible to frame Plato’s theory of artistic representation as largely concerned with the related problems of knowledge and rationality: the object of art is not knowledge, and the state it creates in those who participate in it (both those who create it and those who consume it) is an irrational one.
To see how Plato develops this line of thinking, we must look to another dialogue concerned with art and artists: Ion. In Ion, Socrates converses with the eponymous poet (whether Ion was a real man or not, we cannot say). Socrates’ line of question appears to focus on what Ion knows. Ion himself is not a poet, but a rhapsode—a performer and interpreter of poets. His particular specialism is Homer.
The rhetorical structure of the dialogue is sly. Socrates raises the possibility that Ion is not in his right mind—that he is inspired, and possessed by the spirit of Homer, who in turn channeled the possession of the Muses into his poetry. This is a claim that Ion initially rebukes sharply. Though Ion is inclined to claim that he knows all about all of the subjects of which Homer speaks, Socrates successfully challenges him on this, by demanding to know whether, when Homer speaks about technical subjects (chariot racing, medicine, and so on), Ion could claim expertise on a par with that of a charioteer or a doctor.
The dialogue concludes with Socrates offering Ion a choice: he is either to be considered a fool, speaking about that which he knows nothing, or he is to accept that he is possessed whilst he performs. Ion chooses the latter option.
Continuity and Variation in Plato’s Ion
For one thing, Socrates isn’t calling Ion irrational, or at least not merely irrational. He is claiming that Ion is divinely inspired: the state in which he performs is, according to Socrates, linked to the Muses themselves through Homer. Moreover, the upshot of all of this is extremely unclear. Socrates himself claims to want to see Ion perform. Whether or not this is slightly ironic, there is no criticism of poetry or representational art as such. Certainly, there is nothing on the same level as the criticism found in The Republic. The Ion leaves it an open question whether the power of art needs to be contained or merely interpreted and put in its rightful place—recognized as divine intervention, not a form of knowledge.
There are several possible implications that this might be understood as having for the coherence of Plato’s theory of art. We might, on the one hand, conceive of Ion as a precursor to the arguments that Plato develops in The Republic. We might equally suggest that Ion expresses a certain degree of doubt on Plato’s part about the strident, polemical, absolute critique leveled against art in The Republic. The question remains an open one, as is often the case when trying to develop an interpretation of Plato’s thought which hold across all of the relevant dialogues.