Mimesis: Plato and Aristotle

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Mimesis: Plato and Aristotle

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Philosophy 2348: Aesthetics\

The term ‘mimesis’ is loosely defined as ‘imitation’, and although an extensive paper could be written about the cogency of such a narrow definition, I will instead focus on Plato and Aristotle’s contrasting judgements of mimesis (imitation). I will spend one section discussing Plato’s ideas on mimesis and how they relate to his philosophy of reality and the forms. I will then spend a section examining Aristotle’s differing views on mimesis and how it relates to catharsis. During this deliberation I will prove that as with much of their philosophies, Plato and Aristotle disagree on the concept of mimesis. Plato saw mimesis as deceitful and dangerous; Aristotle saw it as cleansing and educational. In book X of The Republic, Plato uses Socrates and Glaucon as artifacts for contemplating the idea of mimesis. In the dialogue, Plato makes it apparent right from the beginning that he has negative predispositions on imitative poetry. Plato writes: “...poetry... not admitting at all any part of it that is imitative. For that the imitative... must not be admitted looks... even more manifest now that the soul’s forms have each been separated out... All such things seem to maim the thought of those who hear them and do not as a remedy have the knowledge of how they really are.”

This seems to suggest that under Plato’s perfect society, imitative poetry should not be allowed because it is tricking people into believing that these imitations are distracting people from the real truth, the truth that lies in the forms. Plato places the forms at the highest level of his schema of reality and imitations (certain poetry and other artwork) at the bottom. He places human representations of the forms – such as the “couchmaker’s” fabrication of a couch – somewhere between the forms and imitative art forms. This couch is loosely based on the form of couch and according to Plato is more permissible than imitative art forms. Although the “couchmaker’s” fabrication of a couch is more truthful than a painter’s representation of the same couch, Plato still condemns it for being deceitful: “... so that they look like they are; however, they surely are not the truth.” Plato feels that because of the rising popularity of imitative art forms within the city, and the skilful representations of craftsmen, people will be misled by the metaphorical mirror that reflects what is real. By deceiving people like this, Plato believes that this imitative poetry will corrupt the souls of people and therefore should be banned from the city. Along with holding far less truth than the forms, imitative artwork also has negative moral and psychological implications, according to Plato. To accentuate this, Plato divides the soul into three different areas of importance. The base level – in which he calls ‘the appetite’ of the soul and allocates the least amount of importance to – is driven by urges and sins and is easy to deceive and manipulate. The second level, the will, is the power to control one’s own actions, but can also be influenced. The first and most important level is the intellect or reason; this level drives the other two parts of the soul and, when exercised and mastered, can distinguish truth from imitation. Plato claims that imitative art forms seem to target the base level (appetite) of the soul because it is the easiest to deceive and people give in to a sensationalist imitation rather than the truth. “The imitative poet produces a bad regime in the soul of each private man by making phantoms that are far removed from the truth and by gratifying the soul’s foolish part...” Mimesis weakens the first and second levels of the soul by appealing to the base level’s pleasure-seeking ways. According to Plato, imitative art forms are representations of the forms; mere renderings of the truth. Imitative art forms deceive people into believing things that are not the truth....
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