Plato’s account of imitation would seem to be relatively simple at this stage; mimesis appears to be translatable as “representation”, an expression of character whereby the poet (using dialogue) and the actor (in a dramatic presentation) imitate a character. Furthermore, where that imitated character has undesirable traits, the imitation is to be avoided. And later, in Book X, Plato claims that most poetry of necessity contains evil men (in order to produce interest and pleasure), and this too forms a basis for a wide-ranging condemnation of poetry.
That imitation has harmful effects is a complex matter; Plato’s argument rests on several crucial assumptions concerning the effect of poetry on an audience. In Book II he claims that “a young man must not be allowed to hear that he does nothing strange when he commits the most shocking offenses” (Republic, II, p25). Such a claim recalls the dialogue of The Ion, in which “a whole series of the inspired” (Ion, p13) arose from a poet’s recitations; that is, the poet is inspired by the Muse and the audience is in turn filled with inspiration by the poet.
A much stronger argument against imitation appears in Book X of The Republic, where Socrates begins by saying “all the imitative arts seem to me ruinous to the mental powers of all their hearers” (Republic, X, p42). Plato then begins a detailed discussion explaining imitation from first principles – its mechanism and its relation to truth. The argument is based largely on the theory of Forms and certain relations between the art of poetry and painting. In this argument all art is taken to be mimetic, as opposed to Book III’s more limited use of mimesis.
All imitation, Plato argues, has little connection with truth; poets work in a similar way to a painter, who imitates the appearance of a bed which in turn is made by a craftsman from an idea in nature (and therefore the work of God). “An imitator” is defined by Plato in terms of painting; since painting is concerned only with appearances (as opposed to, say, the use to which objects can be put), Socrates says “you call him who is not in direct contact with nature an imitator” (Republic, X, p45).
Furthermore, the imitator, being so far removed from the truth, can have little knowledge of what he imitates so can thus have little conception of the inherent goodness or badness of his work. Rather it is their function to deceive: “the imitator seems all-wise because he himself is unable to distinguish between knowledge and ignorance and imitation” (Republic, X, p46) and later: “though he knows only how to imitate, yet to those who are as ignorant as himself he really appears to know” (Republic, X, p48).
In order to produce pleasure, poets must of necessity imitate “the disturbed and unsettled character” (Republic, X, p52), and so the poet “sets up a badly governed state in the soul of each individual” (Republic, X, p52), that is, causing a harmful effect upon the individual, which thus corrupts the state if practised on a wide scale (the political state being the prime concern of Plato). In short, such imitation deludes the senses and does not appeal to reason; this claim is based on Plato’s categories of the soul.
His conceptualisation of both the political state and the individual soul separates reason and will (operations of the mind) from pleasure and the passions (occupations of the senses). In the doctrine of the Line the similar attributes of knowledge vs. illusion are approximated into a linear scale. Since poetry appeals to the more illusory sense perception, it is placed lower in the scale; it cannot therefore have any access to the Forms, the highest reality possible.
Comparing poetry with holding up a mirror to reality and with painting suggest that imitation is merely a representation of how things appear; under Plato’s scheme the poet is “an imitator of what he knows nothing about, a mere appearance” (Republic, X, p48). As with painting, so with poetry, says Plato; he does not treat poetry on its own terms. Indeed, there are several crucial differences between the arts of painting and poetry (as pointed out in John Dryden’s essay “A Parallel Betwixt Painting and Poetry”); for example, that the function of painting is to provide pleasure, while poetry’s function is to instruct.
Certainly these arts use very different methods and it is difficult to conceive their functions as identical as Plato makes out. Indeed, the parallel that Plato assumes has been described even as “non-sensical”. Plato takes the object of imitation to be the same in both; that is, they imitate appearances of things (which are essentially static, not active). Much of Plato’s condemnations of poetry stem from the view that poetry should represent truth, and truth is obtained through knowledge.
Knowledge however is located within the various crafts (shipbuilding, generalship etc. ), but it is plainly impossible that any man can have a perfect knowledge of all crafts to the smallest detail. Even if there were such a man, Plato would “send him away to some other city” (Republic, III, p41) anyway! Such an argument (using crafts as the location of knowledge) is common within Plato’s writings. Ancient Greek thought held that poetry, drama, and other forms of fine art were imitations of reality, a reality that could be actual or potential.
Indeed, their phrase for what we think of as “fine art” was “imitative arts”, and great importance was attached to poetry as an integral part of the Greek education. Some questions naturally spring from this broad theory of art, for example: what exactly is being imitated by the poet or artist? How is it being imitated, is the imitation a straight copy, a distortion or an improvement in some way? Finally this leads us to questions of the end of poetry itself, and its justification for existence, that is, why imitate at all and can we obtain knowledge and/or pleasure through it?