BMCR 2022.06.09

Platonic mimesis revisited

, , Platonic mimesis revisited. International Plato Studies, 40. Baden-Baden: Academia Verlag, 2021. Pp. 385. ISBN 9783896659781 €84,00.

This collection of essays on the topic of mimesis in Plato originated in a conference at Tübingen in 2019. I note the remarkably expeditious appearance of this publication. The wide-ranging papers and their authors include: Stephen Halliwell, “The Shifting Problems of Mimesis in Plato”; Michael Erler, “Performanz und Analyse. Mimesis als Nachmachen-ein Element traditioneller Paideia in Platons früheren Dialogen und seine Analyse in den Nomoi”; Andrea Capra, “Imitatio Socratis from the Theatre of Dionysus to Plato’s Academy”; Anna Pavani, “The Essential Imitation of Names: On Cratylean Mimesis”; Laura Candiotto, “Mimesis and Recollection”; Elenio Cicchini, “Der mimische Charakter. Mimus und Mimesis in der Philosophie Platons”; Justin Vlasits, “Plato on Poetic and Musical Representation;” Irmgard Männlein-Robert, “Mit Blick auf das Göttliche oder Mimesis für Philosophen in Politeia und Nomoi;” Lidia Palumbo, “Mimêsis teorizzata e mimêsis realizzata nel Sofista platonico:” Michele Abbate, “Der Sophist als mimêtês tôn ontôn (Soph.  235a1f). Ontologische Implicationen”; Alexander V. Alvân León, “Wolf im Hundpelz: Mimesis als Täuschung in der Kunst des Sophisten;” Benedikt Strobel, “Bild und falsche Meinung in Platons Sophistes;” Francesco Fronterotta, “Generation as μίμησις and κόσμος as μίμημα: Cosmological Model, Productive Function and the Arrangement of the χώρα in Plato’s Timaeus”; Antonino Spinelli, “Mimoumenoi tas tou theou periphoras. Die Mimesis des Kosmos als menschliche Aufgabe in Timaios”; José Antonio Giménez, “Gesetz und Mimesis in Politikos”; Julia Pfefferkorn, “Plato’s Dancing City: Why is Mimetic Choral Dance so Prominent in the Laws?” These papers are preceded by a scene-setting introduction by Pfefferkorn and Spinelli.

All those even marginally conversant with Plato’s dialogues and with Platonism would no doubt find it unsurprising to learn that mimesis or “imitation” is a central topic in his philosophy. In Plato’s hierarchical metaphysics, the sensible world is made by the demiurge of Timaeus to be an imitation of the intelligible world. The metaphysical imitation of the higher by the lower is, accordingly, reflected in various ways wherever production occurs within that framework. Within this framework, metaphor is an ontological concept. Thus, for example, the “birth in the presence of beauty” spoken of in Symposium is not only a metaphor for the generation of the sensible by the intelligible but also one manifestation of the overarching cosmology. To take just two more obvious examples, the ideas of philosophy as katharsis in Phaedo and as “assimilation to the divine” in Theaetetus depend for their cogency on the claims that there is essentially an imitative relation between “here” and “there” and on the manifest reality of deviation from that relation. As Pfefferkorn and Spinelli note in their introduction, a central aim of this collection is to broaden the study of imitation in Plato beyond aesthetic questions. Indeed, one way that this book succeeds, in my view, is by showing how even aesthetic questions, including those relating to music, painting, theatre, and dance, for example, cannot be effectively addressed in regard to Plato without reference to the widest possible metaphysical context.

In a short review, it would not I think be helpful to offer what would amount to nothing more than the briefest of abstracts for each of the 16 papers. The titles of these papers should give readers with at least some familiarity with Plato and with the secondary literature a rough idea of the topics discussed. None of the papers take up radically new approaches to the dialogues or to Platonic doctrine, but all of the papers invite the readers to broaden their understanding of the role of mimesis in the dialogues. This is not to suggest that these essays intentionally avoid scholarly debates. Especially in those papers that range over more than one dialogue, assumptions are made that may be questioned and conclusions are drawn that have inevitably been disputed elsewhere. I will limit myself to trying to say a bit more than a headline about those papers that struck me as especially stimulating.

Stephen Halliwell, who has written an influential work on the aesthetics of mimesis in antiquity, argues against the idea that Plato has a single unambiguous “doctrine” of mimesis. Halliwell describes his approach as “methodologically non-doctrinal” meaning that he withholds attribution to Plato “of any propositional views advanced in the text.” On this basis, Halliwell examines in detail the shifting vocabulary of mimesis especially in Republic and Sophist. He challenges the widely held view that in Sophist, the central conclusion regarding mimesis speaks to the distinction between “eikastic” and “phantastic” imitation, the former being intentionally accurate representation and the latter intentionally deceptive.  He argues that there is “conceptual fluidity” in the treatment of mimesis throughout the dialogues. He claims that Plato explores and then abandons an appeal to visual art and its use of a distinction between perspectival and non-perspectival representation as the basis for a distinction between “reliable and deceptive mimesis in general.”  It seems to me, though, that it is both true that Plato explores various semantic possibilities and metaphors for distinguishing two fundamentally different kinds of representation—as Halliwell shows—and that there is in fact no conceptual ambiguity in his distinction between sophistry and philosophy as indicated by a distinction between an intention to deceive and an attention not to deceive. This becomes all the more evident when seen within the doctrinal context that Halliwell eschews.

Laura Candiotto’s paper is an interesting counterpoint to Halliwell’s in that it assumes doctrinal unity across dialogues and seeks to situate mimesis within that. In particular, she argues that mimesis and recollection (anamnēsis) are closely connected. That is, recollection of our knowledge of the intelligible world is accomplished, according to Plato, by our recognition of the essentially mimetic character of the sensible world. Candiotto appeals not only to Phaedrus and Phaedo for her account of recollection but also, crucially, to Timaeus for an account of how the sensible world got to be a mimetic representation of the intelligible world.  Although Candiotto does not mention Sophist, it is clear that the mimesis practiced by the demiurge is the paradigm of the philosophical representation compared to which sophistry is the counterfeit. Candiotto adds, as Phaedo makes clear, that the philosophical and, indeed, erotic dimension of ontological mimesis relies on the fact that while many can recognize mimetic representations of Forms, only the philosophically-inclined, can see the inferiority of these representations, accurate though they may be.

Irmgard Männlein-Robert focuses on Republic and Laws to give an account of a specific type of philosophical mimesis, namely, mimesis of the Good via a way of life or bios. Accordingly, she sees “assimilation to god” (homoiōsis theōi) in Theaetetus as mimetic. Philosophical mimesis amounts to an innovation in relation to the traditional understanding of artistic mimesis. Philosophical mimesis, unlike the traditional forms, looks to an intelligible paradigm, ultimately the Good, attained solely by thought. Männlein-Robert appeals to a number of pertinent passages in Republic and in Laws which, read from her perspective, show clearly that Plato analogizes philosophical ascent to mimetic representation. This is clear both in the personal “assimilation to god” and in the putative representations of the Good by philosophical legislators. The distinction is between “mimesis for the few” and “mimesis for the many.” The author’s analysis reveals, I believe, that (aph)homoiōsis as an ethical practice needs to be included in a full consideration of the semantics of mimesis.

Lidia Palumbo focuses on Sophist and takes the essentially mimetic character of this dialogue in particular to show to the reader what is revealed about mimesis by the Eleatic Visitor to the other interlocutors. The sophist, whose métier is mimetic falsity, is himself represented as not just different from purveyors of truth, but as inferior. The picture of him presented by Plato shows what the fundamental argument of the dialogue is: namely, that falsity is not merely different from truth (since truth is equally different from falsity), but inferior in its attenuated connection to reality. For Palumbo, the Eleatic Visitor represents difference, and the elusive sophist a degenerative form of that. The Eleatic Visitor is a “reformed” Parmenides who recognizes the centrality of difference in any account of the purely intelligible really real world and even the quasi-intelligible sensible world. Palumbo concludes with an arresting insight about the Platonic dialogue as demiurgic rather than demonstrative, aiming to instill in the readers true representations of reality through their dramatic structure.

Benedikt Strobel provides a detailed analysis of the sophist’s production of falsity.  The type of mimesis in which he is engaged is the making of a special kind of image, namely, phantasmata. These are deceptive images giving the appearance of reality. He produces real opinions, but false ones. Here, as Strobel shows, the intention of the sophist is crucial. His aim is to deceive, that is, to give the impression to his listeners that he is wise so that his linguistic expressions will be taken to represent the truth. I would connect this insight to the larger Platonic metaphysical framework within which the very idea of intelligibility is understood as a relation between or among intellects. Thus, intention is inextricable from this process. The sophist betrays the paradigm of intelligible communication by his deceptive version of it. It is essential to him that he be understood, but it is also essential that his intention is concealed. The sophist is a false wise person (the way iron pyrite is false gold) producing false beliefs, which are yet real ones.

The last two papers I will mention are in fact companion pieces. Antonino Spinelli and Julia Pfefferkorn examine the remarkable way that Plato in his later dialogues tries to model educational and institutional practices on the imitation of the intelligible world by the ensouled cosmos.

Spinelli focuses on Timaeus and describes Plato’s speculation on how in the sciences and even in gymnastics, human life ought to be structured so as to imitate the imitation that is the sensible cosmos, ordered by the demiurge. Spinelli articulates a two step process: first the production of the cosmos by the demiurge and second the production of the mortal human creatures by the subordinate gods. The “descending” imitation initiated by the demiurge is then echoed by the “ascending” imitation of the cosmos in wholesome embodied practices and, of course, by intellectual attunement to the demiurge himself. Here we return to “assimilation to god” and, portentously, I think, to the later Platonic systematic representation of the “remaining” (monē), “procession” (proodos), and “reversion” (epistrophē) that is the fundamental architectural dynamic of the universe. Just as the demiurge urges the lesser gods to imitate his productive activity, so embodied humans are bidden to imitate the cosmos which is, in fact, an image of the demiurge himself in his perfect orderliness. The human body is assimilated to god via gymnastics and the human soul by harmonics and the study of astronomy. These amount to imitations of the products of the gods. Thus, embodied human rationality is given a prominence it does not have in earlier dialogues.

Pfefferkorn’s paper studies the prominence of mimetic choral dancing in Laws. She argues that the way dance is treated in Laws and the importance it is given can only be properly understood within the framework of the dialogue’s moral psychology. Choral dance is treated by Plato as an imitation of the embodied virtue of moderation. Thus, education in this art mirrors moral education.  Laws loosely defines moderation (sophrosunē) as the proper control of pleasure and pain. Pfefferkorn argues that moderation is the key virtue in Laws. The centrality of moderation as opposed to justice or wisdom is characteristic of the legal and practical framework of the dialogue, something quite different from Republic. Choral dance is a focus of moral education by transforming the uneducated disorderly pleasure into pleasure that is in line, ultimately, with the ordered cosmos. Refined choral dancing is the physical embodiment of the virtue of moderation. Choral dancing has this transforming effect precisely because it is mimetic. A specific choral dance is a mimetic unity that “encapsulates, displays, symbolises, [and] communicates a determinate action with moral value, whether a general action or one referring to a specific myth.”

The above essays in the collection are those that I found most thought-provoking. No doubt, other readers would arrive at a different or perhaps overlapping list. All of the essays, however, taken together, bring into focus a concept, that of mimesis, that one might have supposed is not as central as it in fact is in the dialogues. In this regard, and as a consequence of reading this collection of essays, it is easier to see that the Pre-Socratic analogy of the microcosm and the macrocosm has been thoroughly integrated by Plato into his philosophical world vision.