Philosophy and Poetry: Plato’s Legacy


In Greek culture poetry had a pedagogic role, to induct the young into the religious, moral and political norms of their society. How the poets spoke – Homer and Hesiod for example – was supposed not only to represent but to transmit the forms in which Greeks were to think about the human condition, and about that which made for its excellence or baseness. Attic tragedy and comedy, though in a more critical and reflective mode, contributed to this, as did the oratorical practices and teaching of the itinerant intellectuals known as the Sophists. Plato wanted to differentiate from these cultural activities a style of reflection, the specifically philosophical style of discussion (dialegesthai) he saw practiced by his teacher Socrates. The Republic was a sustained effort to gain for philosophy a voice in the political and cultural life of the city-state. Plato’s effort has given rise to a tradition which views philosophy as involved in a kind of conflict with poetry, literature and the more ‘representational’ of the creative arts. While philosophers may, like non-philosophical members of the community, be prepared to admit that art and literature can afford important insights into the complex and intertwined themes one finds in ordinary life, they regard the style through which literature and art seek to arrive at and to make manifest, these insights and truths, as radically different from, and, perhaps antithetical to, the style their own investigations must take. Theirs is a form of critical and rational inquiry which must ensure that, whatever the nature of the matter it investigates, the rational character of its method of arriving at truth is at all times perspicuously evident, independently of whether or not it in fact arrives at the truth it seeks. By contrast, literature and art, it is felt, are not subject to any such constraint. So long as artists, whether in words or other material, succeed in bringing to our minds the thoughts they want to guide us towards or stimulate in us, it is not essential that the methods adopted to achieve this end exhibit the singleness of procedure characteristic of rational activity. The point is not whether the way the artist ‘hits upon’ truths may or may not be rational (Plato himself raises interesting questions about ‘inspiration’ in a number of dialogues, notably the Phaedrus); rather, the contrast between philosopher and poet is meant to capture a fundamental difference in attitude about how people’s minds are to be directed towards the apprehension of what is deemed as truth.

Ever since Plato (and perhaps, Parmenides and the Eleatics before him) introduced the idea of a philosophical ‘house-style’, the belief has grown that philosophy is concerned not only with the discovery of truths about the nature of reality, of knowledge and morality, but that it is also committed to doing so in a way which exemplifies the unencumbered and undistorted exercise of reason. It is for this reason that philosophy regards the activities of the technai, of the sciences, and of mathematics, as more akin to its own than to those of literature and other arts. The latter are free to avail themselves of techniques of persuasion and suggestion – rhetorical tropes of all kinds – which often succeed by by-passing, short-circuiting, or down-playing, rationality, rather than disclosing it or exemplifying it.

But if something like this is Plato’s view then neither he as the author of the dialogues, nor Socrates as the character exemplifying the practice and commitment of the philosopher, seem especially concerned to avoid techniques which poets, speech-makers, rhetoricians and Sophists characteristically employed. This is nowhere more evident than in the Republic itself, where (in Book X) the ‘ancient quarrel’ between philosophy and poetry is vigorously stressed. The point has, of course, been noted before, as has the fact that within the Republic Plato appears to hold inconsistent views. In Books II and III poetry and music are considered as forms of mimesis, the effects of which on the soul of the young guardians-to-be are to be closely monitored. Both the subject-matter and the style of the poetry allowed in the nurture of the young guardians are to be ‘purged’ and tightly censored. The conclusion of the discussion is to admit in the ‘good city’ only the poet who is ‘the unmixed imitator of good character (ton tou epieikous mimeten akraton (397d 4-5). In Book X, however, Socrates says that the polis has been correctly built because ‘in no way are we admitting as much of it (poetry) as is imitative’ (595a 5). The inconsistency could hardly be more glaring. And it is this point that needs to be confronted. Commentators have either tried to remove the inconsistency by distinguishing senses of ‘imitation’, or to argue that, though it cannot be finally eliminated, it is not as stark and glaring as it has often seemed.

I want to suggest that this ‘glaring’ inconsistency is not Plato’s. Or, rather, the ‘inconsistency’ represents the inescapable burden the philosopher who will be king – philosophy which has been given a socio-political function – must bear. The combination of a philosophic and political function in some individuals – the Republic‘s central message – necessitates that they have a double relation to mimesis. While recognising its potential to corrupt the proper exercise of thought (dianoia), thus judging it to be antithetical to their philosophical nature, they must also admit that mimesis plays a crucial role in preparing the unformed minds (‘souls’) of youths for the social function assigned to them. Thus, not only must philosopher-kings be trained as philosophers (as sketched in Books VI and VII), their soul must also be so fashioned that the love of truth and the desire to see intelligible order realised both in their own lives and in the life of the polis they rule is firmly implanted in them. Clearly, the latter motivations, though rationally desirable, and perhaps even essential to the proper exercise of a full developed human reason, can neither be assumed to be natural accompaniments of the reasoning capacity, nor, more importantly, to be necessary effects of philosophic training. The drive to reach the intellectual stage of dialectic and, equally, the willingness or preparedness on the part of philosophers to deal with the public affairs of their polis, presupposes that they have this double motivation. The rule of Reason presupposes a love of Reason – a love Reason needs for its proper exercise but which the mere exercise of Reason cannot of itself bring about. Such love, therefore, must be part of the nurture of the whole personality, the ‘soul’, of those destined to become philosopher-kings. A certain kind of mimesis is, thus, an unavoidable component of such nurture, even though to a fully developed and properly functioning philosophic mind there is a feature of mimesis, especially the ‘object’ it generates, which is abhorrent.


I want now to fill in the details of this interpretation of Plato’s ‘inconsistent’ attitude to poetry and mimesis. Though Plato’s discussion of poetry and imitation in Books II and III contains much fascinating detail, I extract some key points relevant to my theme. Socrates is there beginning to construct the good city, which is to be built on the principle that each individual does what they are best suited for and does not meddle in activities they are not suited for. The question is what qualities will make youths fit for the guardianship of such a city. It looks as if they will need the antithetical qualities of being at once fierce and gentle. Socrates suggests the image (eikon) of a dog as an apt simile for the philosopher. Dogs are gentle to those they know and ferocious to strangers; both their gentleness and ferocity issue from the fact that knowledge or its absence (ignorance) is the criterion of how they respond (376b 3-6). In his subsequent treatment of poetry, as part of the nurturing of such dog-like philosophic natures, Socrates keeps firmly in view the power of poetic image-making, both in its content (ha lekteon) and style (hos lekteon), to instil in the young a pattern of response. Models of good or bad behaviour do not merely communicate a certain content, they also transmit styles of imitation. They are not only ‘likenesses’; they also incorporate modes of ‘likening’ oneself to other people and things.

Socrates main point in censorship of traditional poetry is that the stories and fables must not only present what is true about the things they ‘represent’ (how gods and heroes act), they must also, in their style, be true to, fitting for, the nature their listeners are expected to develop. In other words, poetic image-making generates not only ideals for emulation but styles of diction and discourse. From the poetic imitation in works of poetry, youths pick up not only moral paradigms of how good (and bad) people act, they are also presented with good (and bad) styles of imitation. These can generate in the soul motivations which may hinder or facilitate a person’s understanding; they affect how, when the youths develop, they will want to perform certain tasks.

The latter point needs emphasis for it is usually missed even by those who, while recognising Plato’s illiberal attitudes, claim that Plato’s view has considerable plausibility. Socrates discussion of Homer it is claimed has its parallel in the criticism of books and mass entertainment programmes from which children get their first paradigms of friendship, of companionship, of justice, of how to treat others, etc. Socrates is doing no more than engaging in the widely recognised (even if not universally approved) practice of determining what makes books and T.V. programmes vehicles of proper character formation. While this may be true, it should not be forgotten that Plato is concerned not only with the power of imitation to influence moral character, but also with its power to shape attitudes to Reason, with how the soul learns to recognise that some forms or styles of word-making are ‘kin’ to its proper ‘constitution’ and, so, to be ‘befriended’, while others are ‘strangers’ and so, to be feared and despised. This perspective colours importantly what Socrates says about poetry and imitation.

The most important aspect of Socrates discussion of styles (lexis) of literary narrative in Book III (‘simple narrative, mimetic narrative (drama) and their combination in epic’) concerns this point. ‘To liken oneself to another in voice or look is to ‘imitate’ (mimeisthai) him to whom one likens oneself’ (393c 5-6). Poets employing the dramatic form do precisely that; and in doing so the author conceals himself (apo kruptoito) behind the ‘appearance’ he or she creates. The poet does not say what he thinks, he presents a ‘face’, a ‘mask’, which impersonates a view, an attitude or a feeling. Now when Socrates asks (394e) whether the young guardians will be allowed to imitate and what, he invokes the principle that founded the good city: ‘the man who imitates many things cannot imitate well one thing’ (394e 8-9). Poets and actors try to do both comedy and tragedy, and imitate a whole variety of things which require a multiformity of styles. This is antithetical to the development of a person whose dominant desire is to deal with things in a uniform and measured way. But this is precisely the person Plato sees as a true guardian who will also be required to be a philosopher. He is released from other productive activities so as to become exclusively a ‘craftsman of freedom in the polis’. However, since ‘human nature is split up into smaller parts such that it is impossible for anyone to imitate many things well, or do well the things of which the imitations are likenesses (aphomoiomata), (395b 3-6), the young guardians must neither do nor imitate anything which does not bear upon their future task (395b 8-c 2). Socrates concludes that there are things fit for guardians to imitate (being brave, temperate, pious, free and the like) and things which are unfit for them (the unfree, the shameful etc.). He also infers that there are two kinds of style of discourse, one of which is congenial to the good and noble character, to the man of ‘measured character’ (metrios aner), and one which suits the opposite character, the one who ‘the more contemptible he is the more he will imitate everything without discrimination’ (397a 1-b 2).

The imitation allowed to the young guardians, therefore, is one which corresponds to the literary genre which is mostly simple narrative with a minimum of imitative narrative (or drama), i.e. a style of diction which is uniform in character and requires least variation. But most poets characteristically do the opposite. Therefore, since ‘in our city’, says Socrates, no man is ‘twofold or manifold’, no poet who prides himself in being able ‘to turn himself into everything under the sun and imitate every conceivable thing’ will be allowed because ‘there is no such man in the city, nor does custom (themis) allow there to be one’. Only the poet, austere and unattractive, who imitates the diction of the good man can be entrusted with the paideia of guardians (397c 8-398b 4).

It is to be noted that this critique is not aimed at literary or poetic technique as such, but at the diction, the form of discourse, whose style of imitation replicates that found in poetic discourse. Thus, not only poets, actors and rhapsodes, but orators and teachers of rhetoric (such as Gorgias and his pupils) who present views and attitudes of both good and evil or shameful people, who imitate both the just and the unjust logos, are unsuitable nurturers of the philosophical soul. Evidently, the critic of democracy and its attitude of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’, cannot but regard the ‘theatrocracy’ in law courts, in the Assembly, and in the lecture halls of Sophistic displays, as inimical to a philosophic nature. A culture in which such imitation proliferates will not generate an image of discourse true to the kind of motivation which has as its aim to ‘craft freedom in the polis‘.


But what sort of ‘freedom’ does Plato have in mind? Evidently it is not the freedom of the liberal political philosopher. It is not liberty but the freedom Reason and thought achieves when it ‘conquers’ or ‘masters’ the psychic and cultural forces which impede its proper exercise. Mimesis bears a collusive relation to these forces.

I now turn to Book X and to Plato’s reasons for thinking that poetry, as mimetic activity, is corruptive of the philosopher’s capacity to think, and that it undermines the power of the right ‘constitution’ in the good soul – that ‘constitution’ which is outwardly or public ally reflected in the good city. The argument crucially depends on the thesis that mimetic activity generates a special type of ‘object’ which I shall call a mimetic object. It is important to realise that though there are certain logical features of such objects which, as we shall see, give it general significance (to a theory of art, and to a critique of culture and ideology), in Plato’s text it is introduced in a way which ties it to the two main props of the Republic‘s metaphysics and philosophy of mind: the theory of Forms and the tripartite division of the soul.

To understand the notion of a mimetic object, and why Plato uses as his chief illustration of it, not poetry or literature but ‘realistic’ or ‘trick’ painting (tromp d’oeuil), we need to appreciate that a mimetic object is an ‘intentional object’, the object of an intentional activity whose character nevertheless is determined not by reference to what the agent engaged in this activity intends, thinks, or subjectively experiences, but by reference to features of what is produced. In this respect the intentional objects of philosophic activity, of craft, and of poetry and painting differ from those of psychological states such as desire, hope, fear, dreaming, phantasy, expectation, belief, will, etc. In the latter cases, though we can infer from behaviour what the objects of these states are, the descriptions a person gives of them is prima facie authoritative and determinative of what they are. This, it seems, is not so with objects towards which philosophic activity, craft production, and imitation aim. What these objects are can be derived from features of the products which these activities give rise to. I believe this to be the true significance of the rather complex argument about poetry and mimesis in Book X.

Socrates proposes to discover the nature of mimesis by adopting ‘our accustomed method’ of supposing a Form to correspond to the ‘many’ we collect under a common name. There is a lot of controversy over this passage which I cannot go into here. I favour the interpretation of the Greek passage (596a 10-b 1) according to which the fact that a plurality of things is grouped under a common name does not by itself establish the need to postulate a Form. Unless the things can be shown to possess an intelligible nature, i.e. to be the intentional objects of intellectual activity (noetic objects), no Form bearing the same name as the common name of the many things needs to be postulated. Socrates suggests, for the sake of argument, that such objects as beds and tables be considered as having Forms corresponding to them. If we do so, and since beds are crafted products, as well as being capable of being ‘imitated’ in ‘trick’ painting, we shall have three ‘intentional objects’ we can distinguish with respect to beds:

1. The bed as object of divine craft which is not a physical bed, but a ‘bed-as-in-nature’, i.e. with what-it-is-to-be-bed (ho einai ho esti kline). God is said to be a ‘nature-maker’ (phytourgos) who creates a unique object.

2. The bed as object of human craft. Though the craftsman’s activity issues in a physical product, the bed as product of an intentional activity must be described in terms of the telos of that activity; not merely in terms of what the bed-maker had ‘in mind’ but in terms of what the craft itself lays down as the criteria of its proper exercise. That the bed-maker has ‘in mind’ the right things when making a bed is determined by reference to what a bed ‘really is’. Thus the craftsman’s product and, hence, his ‘intentional object’ is always assessable in terms of the Form. The crafted bed, though like (hoion) the ‘real ’bed (the bed-as-it-really-is) is not identical with it. The reason is that since to assert an identity between two things means that they have all their properties in common, to assert an identity between two different intentional objects is incoherent. For, it is equivalent to saying that X-qua-F and X-qua-G are the same. But if the crafted bed and the divine bed were identical they would not be different intentional objects. There would, consequently, be no reason to postulate a Form for beds; no reason to suppose that there is a unique ‘what-it-is-to-be-a-bed’. There would be as many ‘bed-natures’ as manufactured beds.

3. The bed as object of imitation. The picture-bed (not the picture of a bed, for that is not an intentional but a physical object) which is the intentional object generated by the painter’s activity. This activity Socrates describes as ‘in a way’ (tropo tini) analogous to that of ‘replicating’ the physical universe by turning a mirror around.

Plato claims that with respect to ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ the mimetic bed is thrice removed from ‘the bed-in-nature’. It is to the category of mimetic objects that Plato consigns the products of the poets. Their activity, like that of the trick-painter is oriented (pros) to the ‘apparent’ (to phainomenon) as it appears (hos phainetai), not to being (to on) as it is in truth (598b). Note here, that this orientation has nothing to do with the painter’s or poet’s intentions or wishes. It is their product which gives rise to the intentional object, not any desire to trick or delude. It is the product itself which generates an illusory, a ‘phantasmatic’ object.

Plato’s language about the ‘mimetics’ – as Homer and other tragedians are later said to be (598dff) – seems to vacillate. At 598b 4-5 he characterises painting as an ‘imitation of an appearance’ (phantasmatos mimesis) while, later at 599a 2-3 he claims that poets ‘produce appearances’ (phantasmata poiousin). Similarly, poets are said to be ‘imitators of images’ at 600e 5 (mimetas eidolon), while he describes Homer as a ‘maker of an image’ at 599d 3 (eidolou demiourgos). It has been thought that this vacillation is indicative of confusion. Plato runs together ‘appearance’ as object of imitation and ‘appearance’ as product of imitation. To think of a painter as an imitator of an ‘appearing’ (of a look, of how a thing ‘presents itself’ from a certain angle) is to think of appearance as object of imitation, as something existing independently of the painter’s activity, which the artist copies or duplicates on paper or canvas. But to think of a painter as a maker of an appearance is to think of it as a product of the artist’s imitative activity, his model being other than appearance. The ‘appearance’ in this sense is the result of his ‘representational’ activity. To the extent that Plato does not mark this distinction he tends to speak as if object and product of imitation are the same, as if the painter transposes on paper the ‘surface’ of an object. This seems reinforced by Plato’s language when he says that ‘Homer and the other poets are imitators of images of virtue and of all subjects of which they write, and do not touch (haptesthai) the truth, but like … the painter who makes a cobbler who seems to be’ (skutotomon poiesei dokounta einai 600c7–601a7). And, again, that imitation can ‘fashion everything, because it touches a small part of each thing – and that is an image’ (smikron ti hekaston ephaptetai, kai touton eidolon; 598b 7-8). Plato does not seem to want to distinguish between a picture of a cobbler, or of cobbling, from ‘the-cobbler (or cobbling) – as-pictured’, a ‘picture-cobbler’. The consequences are far-reaching. For, this view makes mimesis, and the mimetic object, metaphysically speaking, a species of repetition. The imitator of an F thing produces a seeming (F) thing, an object whose identity is constituted by the thing it seems to be; it does not have any properties in its own right. It is precisely because such mimetic objects are totally transparent that they can fool and deceive. The more effective a painting of a bed is in ‘re-producing’ the ‘bed-look’, the more what it produces is a seeming-bed. Unlike the relation of the crafted bed to the divine Bed, the mimetic bed is not assessable in terms of the crafted bed since the activity which generates it is not aimed at realising something approaching the ‘truth’ of that bed, but only at replicating its appearance. Mimetic practices give rise to objects which are what the practices imitate: merely appearances. As such they are ‘thrice removed’ from objects of knowledge in the sense that an understanding of beds derived from, and confined to, mimetic beds will need to be twice transformed before achieving the status of knowledge of beds, of the ‘truth’ of beds.

It does, indeed, seem strange to treat artists and poets this way – as repetitors of the ‘appearance’ of human practices and activities. I have no doubt that this is how Plato thought about mimetic activity and mimetic objects. But I do not think he is guilty of a confusion between product and object. On the contrary, the notion of an intentional object which arises in the exercise of an activity, in contrast to intentional objects of mental states, entails that product and object coincide. This is so in the case of all three ‘beds’ Socrates distinguishes. On the supposition that the divine demiurge’s intelligent activity issues in an abstract standard of bedhood, he is the producer not of a physical bed but a ‘bed-in-nature’. The latter is the product of divine intelligence operating in nature (hence, he is called ‘phytourgos’). But the ‘production’ of a standard is also that which the exercise of divine intelligence aims at or intends; it is not merely the outcome of divine intelligent activity but the realisation of a divine project. As Socrates implies in the difficult passage (597b-d), the creation of a unique standard of Bedhood was a project governed either by God’s will or some necessity. In other words, although it is logically possible that considered as outcome of divine activity there could have been two beds-in-nature (‘that-bed-which-is-what-bed-is’), God’s project was the realisation of a unique standard of Bedhood in nature. Such a project entails that the product of the divine activity gives rise to an intentional object – the Form of Bed – which incorporates the requirement of uniqueness. The analogue of the Standard Metre in Paris fits. What is manufactured there is, in a sense, a standard. But recognising it as a standard entails that we treat the physical thing (a ’product’) as the realisation of a standard (an intentional object). Therefore, God does not make a Form of Bed; rather, in fulfilling the aim of producing ‘that-which-is-what-bed-is’ in nature, he necessarily realises a Form in nature.

Though the requirement of uniqueness is, of course, absent in the case of the other two ‘beds’ – the bed of craft and the bed of mimesis – the point about the coincidence of product of activity and intentional object remains. The craftsman of a bed produces a physical thing which incorporates or realises a function or a use, a material object-as-vehicle of the bed-function. The imitator of a bed (in painting) produces a material thing as-imitation-of-a-phantasma (598b 1-5).

There seem to be three logical features possessed by a mimetic object:

1) that it ‘repeats’ the appearance of a thing. Appearances for Plato are not subjective impressions, the way, for example, secondary qualities are ‘powers’ for Locke. They are the ‘facets’ which ‘essences’ present when realised in a material or physical medium. Though such ‘facets’ can be variously perceived by differently constituted observers, what is thus perceived is objective, the way a shadow or a mirror-image makes an entity causally and ontologically dependant on the entities whose shadow or mirror-image they are. The intentional objects of mimetic activity are phantasmata, the shadow-like ‘seemings’ of things.

2) though intentional, the mimetic object comes into existence at the same time that the product of the activity imitating an appearance or a phantasma comes into being. The mimetic object is not how a thing looks to someone, but what an activity aims at, the repetition (in a different medium) of a thing’s ‘facets’.

3) the mimetic object (because of 1) and 2)) can cognitively mislead. Like those ignorant of the trickery involved in trompe d’oeuil paintings, those who base their judgment of what something is on the mimetic objects generated by poetry, theatre, rhetoric, etc, will have in their judgement a substitute object. The intentional object of mimetic activity prevents the emergence of the intentional object of thinking or reflective activity precisely because it can usurp its place. Like the birds in the story about the famous painting of ‘realistic’ grapes, the danger of poetic products is that the mind attempts to feed on seemings which substitute for real truths.


Plato’s exclusion of poetry from the philosophic city is based on the antithesis between philosophic and poetic activity. The antithesis is, in turn, derived from taking poetry to be inescapably caught in mimetic activity. Plato’s reasons for thinking so are given in 598c 6-601b 7. They are:

1) no one who claims to have, or is reputed to possess, knowledge of all the crafts, better knowledge than each of the several craftsmen possess, can be a genuine knower. They are only imitators of knowledge in the sense that they are purveyors of imitations or substitutes for knowledge. (Cf., e.g., Socrates’ opening discussion with Georgias about rhetoric in the Georgias).

2) But poets are reputed ‘to know all the crafts and all things human in relation to virtue and vice, and things divine’. Yet, if the poet is to make beautifully, to produce a beautiful presentation of, what his poem is about, he must do so with knowledge of his subject matter or fail altogether. But if (by 1)) the poet’s reputation as a ‘know-all’ renders him an imitator of knowledge, those who regard this reputation as true are in a position analogous to those tricked by the trompe d’oeuil painting: they take an object mimetic of knowledge to be knowledge.

3) It seems reasonable to suppose that anyone who has true understanding of good deeds would not spend their energies in the activity of producing imitations of them, instead of seeking to realise them in their lives and in the polis they inhabit. This assumption is evidenced by the fact that even though Homer tries to tell of ‘the mightiest and noblest things’, of wars and leadership, of government and education, no one takes him seriously as a military, administrative or educational advisor – the way, for example, lawgivers like Solon or practical men of science like Thales, or men like Pythagoras who offer models of life to their followers, or, even, Sophists like Protagoras and Prodicus who inspire the belief that rulers need to be educated by them, are taken seriously.


4) Given their reputation as ‘know-alls’ coupled to the fact that they neither engage in political activity, nor is their ‘knowledge’ deemed to be of practical political consequence, they must be creators and imitators of images (eidolon) of virtue and the other things they create, in no way ‘touching’ (haptesthai) truth. Both the products of the poets and the response of spectators or auditors of these products revolve around a mimetic object, a substitute for knowledge. The situation replicates that of the painter who makes a ‘seeming-cobbler’, not knowing anything about cobbling, and that of spectators, equally lacking in understanding of cobbling, judging it by ‘colours and shapes’ rather than by what it is.

We note that this argument does not establish that the product of poetic activity (understood broadly) is of necessity a mimetic object. It only establishes that the products of what is conventionally regarded as poetic activity (Homer, the tragedians, etc.) are mimetic to the extent that they are regarded as repositories of knowledge and wisdom. If poetic products were fashioned on the basis of knowledge, they would cease to be art or literature; they would become pieces of legislation or of moral, political and practical advice (as Plato tells us in that remarkable passage in Laws, 817b). The conclusion is that either we should not regards products of poetry and art as expressions or realisations of knowledge, or that if we do, as common opinion confusedly accords wisdom to the poets, we convert the poem into a mimetic object.

Plato’s argument works to the extent that we take poetry to be an alternative route to the same knowledge afforded by various kinds of expertise. On the assumption, argued for in the Republic up to a point, that the philosopher and the philosophic ‘constitution’ is the nearest we come to moral and political expertise, it follows that the philosopher is committed to combating (excluding) poetry conceived as a kind of wisdom. For to accept it is to allow an object mimetic of itself to pass as the genuine article; an object, moreover, which logically cannot satisfy the conditions of the sort of knowledge definitory of the philosopher. As Socrates points out (601c3–602b10), ‘the excellence, fineness and correctness of every artifact, living creature and action is determined by no other consideration than the use for which each thing is made or has naturally built-in to it’ (pephukos). Thus, concerning any artifact there is the skill (techne) of using it, the skill of making it, and the skill of imitating it. With respect to knowledge, therefore, it is the user, he who knows the use of the artifact, who can prescribe to the maker what needs to be done. The maker can have a right opinion about the matter because of his association with the user. But the imitator has neither knowledge, nor right opinion, for he does not need to know the use of a bridle, nor how it is made, to replicate its look on canvas. Consequently, he will not know whether what he is replicating is a good or a bad bridle, even though what he produces will strike the ignorant as fine.


Socrates subsequent argument concerns the corruptive impact of the poetic product, considered as mimetic object, on the philosopher’s soul. The impact is twofold:

1) The part of the soul which is ‘naturally drawn’ to imitation is an element ‘far removed from understanding and a friend and mistress to nothing healthy and good’ (603a12–b2). It is the element which, in the context of perception, is drawn to appearance, and which resists and is in conflict with judgement arrived at through measurement and rational calculation. Socrates seems to contemplate an analogous conflict within the understanding (dianoia) in order to show that the imitative products of poetry ‘speak to’ (prosomilei) that part of the understanding which is inferior (603b10–c2). Poetry presents men acting under compulsion or willingly, thinking in the light of their actions that they have done well or badly, and rejoicing or being aggrieved by this. Poetry imitates a conflicted soul. However, it is not any psychic conflict Plato is talking about here. It is a conflict between a better and a worse aspect of understanding in its relation to passion analogous to that between measurement and appearance in relation to perception. He illustrates this by reference to two attitudes one can have towards grief at one’s own misfortune. The one indulges the grief, and constantly returns to it, as if nothing in life mattered more than to give vent to feelings of distress or indignation at the misfortune. The other prescribes that the grief be borne calmly and that it be brought under rational control on the grounds that good and evil in the matter of misfortunes are not certain, that indulgence of grief does not make things better in the future, that, after all, human affairs are not worth taking that seriously, and, finally, that grief undermines the recuperative and corrective powers of the soul.

Socrates claims that the latter attitude expresses the soul’s being drawn to ‘reason and law’ (logos kainomos), while the former, the one which draws a person to dwell on their suffering, signifies a soul responding to the passion itself, rather than to how a person is supposed to cope with the passion (604a-d). Plato makes the interesting suggestion that the rational attitude to grief becomes more possible the less grief is privatised. One moderates one’s grief when under the observation of others. But, tragedy, though performed in public and crowded theatres, imitates this privatised grief rather than its rational control in the public context. Drama is, therefore, the enactment in a public space of the behaviour of that part (the id-like part) of the soul which loves private indulgence of passion, and is antithetical to reason and law; the latter being essential to the public realm. Dramatic imitation, then, usurps the public domain and puts in its place an image of privatised grief – something which ordinary people recognise as familiar, and so, easy to identify with. It feeds and nurtures attitudes which are antithetical to those required in public life – since it produces what has ‘little value with respect to truth’ (of how to correctly assess one’s responses to misfortune), and assimilates itself to a part of the soul that is not the best. In this respect the poet implants ‘an evil constitution in the soul of each individual’ and must, thus, be refused entrance to the philosophic city (605a, b), for it does not seek to imitate the prudent and quiet character at one with itself. Imitation of this character does not lend itself to variety and diversity, while imitation of the ‘complaining element’ (aganaktikon) does.

2) Mimesis (in poetry) has the power to corrupt even the good, except for very few (605c 6ff). It does so because it generates enjoyment at the sight of a person being what we ourselves would not wish to be without shame. Thus, we enjoy and praise a performance which enacts an action which would elicit regret and disgust if enacted by ourselves. What Plato is suggesting here is that both tragedy and comedy release id-like reactions towards the tragic and the ludicrous. In a passage highly reminiscent of Freud (in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious), Socrates suggests that poetic imitation lifts repression from what is repressed, for that is the part of the soul whose natural desires the poetic product gratifies (phusei on toiouton hoion touton epithumein). It, therefore, undermines the power of what is ‘naturally best in us’ to watch over the ‘weeping’ or ‘jesting’ part of the soul, for it has not been adequately trained either by reason or habit (logo oude ethei). The idea seems to be that because theatre appeals to the repressed element in us, the pleasure we find in it blocks or undermines (except in very few) the capacity to reason (logizesthai) about what makes a situation tragic or ludicrous. Deriving pleasure from the spectacle of imitated misfortune fosters similar attitudes towards our own misfortunes. In feeding the element of pity about other people’s misfortunes, we make strong the element of self-pity vis-à-vis our own misfortunes (606b 5-8). Being exposed to a theatrical treatment of grief, or the ridiculous, we become theatrical towards our own passions. But to allow such ‘theatre’ in the philosophic city, ‘to receive the pleasure-sodden Muse (hedusmenen Mousan) of song and epic’, is to make pain and pleasure (Freud’s Pleasure Principle) ‘the king of your city instead of law and what is at all times commonly judged to be the best reason’ (beltiston logon) (607 a5-8).

Both aspects of this impact on the mind by poetry Plato draws from its mimetic character rely on the power of the mimetic object to gratify pleasures which lead a mind to self-indulgence. Thus, poetry as producer of mimetic objects incapacitates a mind to pursue the rational and communally-orientated tasks required of the philosopher/ruler, the good person in whom justice reigns.


I believe that the inconsistent attitudes to poetry in the surface of Plato’s text contain a realisation that there is always a hidden tension between philosophy and the culture within which it operates. The philosopher ‘pictured’ in the Republic is, like Socrates’ city, ‘laid up in heaven as a pattern for him who wills to see, and seeing, to found in himself’ (592b). But, like the young guardians, the philosopher is also a political being. He or she is committed to the best and highest employment of mind, not the least important of which is to determine the nature of mind, intelligence and reason. Yet, no actual human being can develop these outside a particular socio-political context. It follows that any philosopher will not only be surrounded by ‘texts’ (I mean by ‘texts’ written texts, as well as ways of talking, acting and responding dominant in his/her culture), but generating ‘texts’ himself or herself. Consequently, in being critical of poetry and other aspects of their culture philosophers will be ‘poets’ themselves; they will be generating ‘products’ which, though aimed at realising the intentional objects of understanding (noetic objects), cannot avoid altogether the risk of generating mimetic objects; products which cannot altogether eschew id-like and emotional responses. No actual philosopher can avoid cultural imitation without ceasing to be a political being.

Nevertheless, the value of the idea of a mimetic object, though introduced by a contrast to the ‘purified’ noetic object of the Republic’s philosopher and thus requiring the machinery of Plato’s metaphysics, has a value that goes beyond Plato: it alerts us to the fact that the search for knowledge and genuine understanding is always caught in the web of ideological constructions. To entertain the idea that by the adoption of certain views of the mind (for instance, some varieties of physicalism), or that by employing methods of discourse which imitate those of science or mathematics, the philosopher achieves this Platonic ideal of absolute distance from the mimetic and the ideological is a deep illusion – as deep as the one succumbed to by those in Plato’s time who regarded poetry as a repository of knowledge and wisdom.

Such illusion comes close to being propagated as the ‘true’ philosophy in certain sections of Anglo-American philosophy today. Philosophy is seen as excluding from its purview issues of ‘cultural meaning’ and ideology’ – this is left to literature and texts on cultural interpretation which are thought of as ‘non-philosophical’. But this is both a theoretical and a political mistake. Theoretical because it treats what can only be a regulative ideal of intellectual activity as dictating a method of producing philosophical knowledge. The fascination of philosophy with the new science since the 17th century has generated a mimetic object within philosophy itself: to mistake a facet of rational procedure for the ‘essence’ of Reason and Intelligence, and the belief that by the adoption of a certain style of discourse one escapes the traps of imitation and the self-indulgence of the mind absorbed in the ideology of cultural forms. The mistake is simply that the idea of philosophy as a total escape from image and metaphor is itself a metaphor – a metaphor introduced by Plato himself.

This currently fashionable view of philosophy is also a political mistake. For, what enables philosophy to become a critic of its own times is the extent to which its scrutiny of established cultural idioms allows it to generate its own idiom. Only so can it achieve a certain measure of the desired distance from that which is mimetic of cultural patterns. Goethe was right after all about Plato: he could only speak to the things he was against. Perhaps the increasing air of irrelevance which shrouds much contemporary analytical philosophy should serve as a warning. It is no longer clear what it is against, and, hence, what it is speaking to.