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10.2: First Accusation- Imitation in Ignorance

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    See 595a-602b. Socrates’ renewed criticism of the poets falls into two general accusations, the first being that poets “imitate images of virtue and all the other things they write about, and have no grasp of the truth.” This phrase “imitate images” is Socrates’ way of indicating the extent to which poets are removed from knowledge of the forms. Consider Homer, who attempted in the Iliad and Odyssey to describe human excellence in action. Did he have a genuine understanding of wisdom, justice, and the other virtues? Evidently not, given his depiction of gods, heroes, and men, the best of whom have souls that are paradigmatically timocratic. Homer never attempts a depiction of philosophical dialectic, although he does depict, with notable success, quarreling, plotting, taunting, anguished begging, and lamentation. It is of course conceivable that Homer never in his life met an aristocratic person. And not being a philosopher himself, it is likely that, had he met such a person, he would not have understood her. He presumably had some familiarity with timocratic people. He may have been one himself, driven to win glory through his verses rather than by the spear. But he had no real understanding of the forms of the various virtues. This is Socrates’ point. It is Homer’s experience of particulars – “images” of the forms – that serves as the basis for his poetic imitations. So these imitations are at best the imitations of images, a shadow of the truth about human excellence. As Socrates sees it, poets “take a mirror” to the world of particulars, and produce more or less accurate representations, not of “the things themselves as they truly are” (the forms), but of the transient, imperfect, and imperfectly knowable things that make appearances on the stage of sense experience. Moreover, poets can only represent certain aspects of the things they imitate. Like someone who is painting a picture of a bed, and must paint it from a certain angle, under certain lighting conditions, with the covers arranged in a certain way, and so on, the poet depicting Agamemnon or Hector or Helen is similarly forced to represent the person’s character in just some respects. So what the poets offer us are incomplete representations of imperfect instances of the forms. And yet, if a poet is skillful and effectively uses “meter, rhythm, and harmony,” then these shadows of the truth are highly entertaining. Consider the Star Wars movies. How well did George Lucas, or do the writers now working for Disney, understand the human soul, the nature of good and evil, the relative merits of different political systems, or the physical limitations of space travel? What about using “the Force” – did Lucas know what his characters were talking about? Maybe not. But it is an entertaining story all the same, particularly with the costumes and makeup, the cinematography, the special effects, the full symphony orchestra and chorus, and so on. It is sometimes said that, in literature, form is at least as important as content. Socrates thinks this is all too true. Strip a literary work of its “musical colorings,” and what remains is dull and unenlightening. Even the poet treats it as “a kind of game, not something to be taken seriously.” For “if he truly had knowledge of what he imitates . . . he would take deeds much more seriously than their imitations, would try to leave behind many beautiful deeds as his own memorials, and would be much more eager to be the subject of a eulogy than the author of one.”

    • Do poets (novelists, songwriters, screenwriters, etc.) know anything that the rest of us don’t, anything beyond the details of the literary craft?

    • Is it true that, if poets truly had knowledge of virtue, then they would be virtuous rather than imitate virtue? Is the same true of teachers – that if someone truly knew mathematics, say, then they would be mathematical rather than teach mathematics? Perhaps. But is to successfully teach mathematics not a way of being mathematical? Is to successfully imitate virtue not a way of being virtuous?

    • Is to successfully imitate dialectic not a way of being dialectical?

    This page titled 10.2: First Accusation- Imitation in Ignorance is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Drabkin.

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