Plato

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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...
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