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  • Cited by 12
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: November 2007

15 - What Is Imitative Poetry and Why Is It Bad?


Plato's argument against poetry in Republic 10 is perplexing. He condemns not all poetry, but only “however much of it is imitative [hosē mimētikē]” (595a). A metaphysical charge against certain works of poetry - that they are forms of imitation, “at a third remove from the truth” - is thus used to justify an ethical charge: that these works cripple our thought and corrupt our souls. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear how to understand the connection between the two charges. We can see how they are related in a loose way: imitators are concerned with images far removed from the truth about what they represent (596a-598b); many people are too foolish to distinguish imitation from reality and thus accept ignorant imitators as experts and guides (598c-602b); imitation appeals to and thereby strengthens an inferior part of the soul unconcerned with truth (602c ff.); worst of all, the charms of imitation can seduce even those who generally know better (605c-607a). But when we try to make Book 10's argument more precise, trouble ensues. Plato certainly never spells out the connection between the metaphysics of imitation and the charge of ethical harm. Moreover, he seems in the end (603c ff.) to abandon metaphysical considerations and give a straightforward argument against tragedy and the works of Homer based on their content - they represent people behaving immoderately - and psychological effect: as audience we weep and wail and behave as immoderately as the characters, and this undermines the order of our souls. This argument makes no mention of imitation or ignorance or removes from truth; what, then, is the relevance of the metaphysical charge, to which Plato devotes so much discussion?