Prepared for delivery at the Brown University Political Philosophy Workshop
Thursday November29, 2007.
DRAFT. Comments welcome. Please do not cite or circulate without author’s permission.
It would be an understatement to say that Plato’s treatment of mimesis in the Republic has elicited a vast array of discussion and criticism by different audiences over the centuries. Even though the term was used in various aesthetic and cultural contexts in 5th and 4th century Athens, Plato is widely believed to have been the first to extensively theorize and establish a doctrine of mimesis, thereby inaugurating the mimeticist tradition of art criticism.1 However, literary and art critics were by no means the only people fascinated with Plato’s treatment of mimesis. Political theorists have always tried to understand the ethical and political implications of Plato’s treatment of mimesis. Aristotle’s Poetics, Rousseau’s Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment all engage Plato’s arguments about mimesis, especially as these are articulated in Republic 10. It has even been argued that Republic 10 was written at a later date than the other books in order to respond to an early version of Aristotle’s Poetics.2 So Plato himself may well have entered the ongoing debate about his own theories of mimesis, refining and deepening them in response to Aristotle’s criticism.
For much of the twentieth century, scholarly studies of Plato’s doctrine of mimesis have focused on whether or not there is a consistent doctrine or definition to be found in the Republic. To state the problem very briefly: In Republic 3, Plato seems to banish only some forms of mimesis while allowing and even requiring his guardians to practice another form: i.e. they are to imitate or emulate only the actions of good men. Republic 10, however, opens with the statement that they (Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus) have been correct to banish all mimetic poetry from their ideal republic (Rep. 10.595a). And yet even in this book Plato goes on to allow some forms of mimesis back into their ideal republic: i.e. hymns to the gods and encomia of good men (Rep. 10.607a).3
A number of scholars have argued that there is no way to rescue Plato from charges of inconsistency or self-contradiction and Julia Annas has infamously described Republic 10 as an “excrescence” and Plato himself as confused about his own arguments.4 Others have argued that Plato consciously employs a number of different senses of mimesis throughout the Republic, some of which he inherits from his own culture and some of which he creates for the first time.5 Although the attempt to find a shift in the sense of mimesis from Republic 3 to Republic 10 is quite predominant in the scholarship (most common is the shift from impersonation/imitation in Republic 3 to representation in Republic 10), there is no agreement about just what these different senses are. The range of senses identified by scholars includes: imitation, impersonation, emulation, dramatic enactment, identification, imitativeness, mimicking, likening, acting as if, resemblance, correspondence, equivalence, metaphysical conformity, representation, expression, approximation, participation, transformation, simulation.6 Still others have argued for consistency in the sense of mimesis across Republic 3 and Republic 10.7 The most predominant strain in this tradition of scholarship has been to argue that it is “imitativeness” or “theatricality” or “versatile imitation” that Plato consistently condemns in both Republic 3 and Republic 10 and not the simple imitation of good men.8
Another tendency in the Platonic scholarship on mimesis emphasizes the fact that it is not just the sense but also the referent of Plato’s discussions of mimesis that seems to shift in the course of the dialogue. Even within this sub-group there seems to be at least three different variations: The first is to notice the shifts in who is producing the mimetic object/activity, who is performing it, and who is witnessing it.9 The sense of mimesis might well shift between the various discussions of it precisely because Plato is explicitly focusing on different people involved at various stages of the production and reception of mimetic works: poets, actors and spectators. Mimesis in Republic 2 is what the poet does: he creates likenesses, images, myths, allegories, metaphors, and pseudai (fictions/falsehoods/lies) that provide children with models of justice prior to the full development of their rational capacities. Mimesis in Republic 3 (impersonation) is what the actor/young guardian does: he performs or acts as if he is a good and just character in order to eventually become one. Mimesis in Republic 10 (representation) focuses on how audiences (especially democratic, mass audiences) judge or spectate poetic performances (Rep. 10.599a, 10.602b).10 The second variation is to argue that Plato is referring to two different groups of people or stages of life: children and young guardians in Republic 2 and 3, adults in Republic 10.11 Here it is argued that mimesis as impersonation or emulation is important for young guardians who need to have a model of the just person stamped onto their psyches through imitation of ethically good characters. On the other hand, Republic 10’s hymns to the gods and the encomia of good men correspond to the kinds of poetry that will serve the civic function of reinforcing unity in the ideal republic.12 Finally, a whole set of interpreters focuses on the object of the imitation to distinguish a “good” kind of mimesis that imitates universals or the Forms and a “bad” kind that imitates sense particulars or the empirical world.13
There are far more subtle variations than I can possibly outline in this paper,14 but it should at least be clear that Plato’s Republic presents the reader with a staggering number of different senses and referents of one of its central terms, mimesis. Ironically enough a bad kind of Platonism may well have lurked behind some of the earlier attempts to extract a unitary definition of mimesis from Plato: that is the tendency to “think what a concept means in itself.”15 But, in recent years, there has been a change in the direction of analysis away from questions of whether Plato has a consistent doctrine of mimesis to what political work is being done by Plato’s definitions, examples, and uses of mimesis in the Republic. What is Plato doing by defining and then re-defining mimesis, censoring the poets and then re-censoring them, critiquing the production of images and then producing some of the most memorable images in the history of philosophy: i.e. the image of the cave?16 The virtues of this kind of approach are twofold. First, it explicitly foregrounds the historical, social and political aspects of Plato’s treatment of mimesis.17 As Gebauer and Wulf (1992, 3) put it, “The history of mimesis is a history of disputes over the power to make symbolic worlds, that is, the power to represent the self and others and interpret the world. To this extent mimesis possesses a political dimension and is part of the history of power relations.”18 It thus allows us to see just how the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry (referred to at Rep. 10.607b5) is actually re-staged in the dialogue itself as an agon (contest, struggle) and as an implicitly and overtly political one. Plato’s treatment of mimesis is, at least in part, a political struggle with the mimetic artists (both poets and painters) over the power to re-shape the symbolic world of his contemporary and future audiences.19
As I will argue in what follows it allows us to see Plato, not as a thinker who naively subordinates the aesthetic to political considerations, but rather as a thinker who is interested in the interconnections between the aesthetic and the political. The Republic is an investigation of the very logic by which one introduces new meanings and contests old ones within one’s conceptual schema. If who we are as a collective entity actually changes in and through the process of collective reflection and deliberation then the referent of a term (like “mimesis” or “justice”) might well change precisely because we are no longer the same person or collective body that first entered into the process. As Danielle Allen (2000, 263) puts it, “The Republic is itself a drama. It poses the question not only of how to define justice but also the question of how efforts to define justice impact the behavior of those people who are engaged in the enterprise of definition.”20 Seen from this perspective Plato’s alleged confusions or shifting referents are actually meant to show us how we come to see something new about ourselves and our collective concepts in and through our mimetic engagements with others in the polity. If we politicize Plato’s treatment of mimesis then we can see that he is not only focusing on what poets, actors and spectators do or ought to do in relation to a work of art or dramatic performance, he is also focusing on how participants to a deliberation enter into and contest a realm of shared meaning. Thus corresponding to his seminal aesthetic study of metaphor/analogy/fictions (Republic 2), impersonation or performativity (Republic 3) and representation or reflection (Republic 10), Plato presents the first sustained treatment on the three different aspects of meaningfulness or communicative competency: normative rightness (Republic 2) sincerity (Republic 3) and truth/reference (Republic 10).
Secondly, this new approach allows one to ask what kind of politics is being done by a thinker who doesn’t actually present the reader with a monolithic “doctrine” but rather with a series of “exploratory, shifting and inconclusive arguments on the subject.”21 A number of theorists have recently argued that Plato’s treatment of mimesis is far more open and even self-subverting than the authoritarian and closed imposition of meaning it is often taken to be.22 These theorists have focused primarily on how this is related to Plato’s own attempt to introduce and in turn provoke the very activities of critical thinking and dialectic so central to Platonic philosophizing. Instead, in this paper I want to focus on how this is meant as both a critique and engagement with the Athenian democratic politics of establishing authoritative meanings in the polis.23 If as Stephen Halliwell has recently argued, Plato’s treatment of mimesis has been fundamentally misunderstood as the monolithic notion of world-reflection or “mirroring”, rather than as the complex exploration of the two poles of world-reflection and world-creation, then translating this to the aesthetico-political dimension means coming to terms with a Plato who is simultaneously exploring the conservative (world-reflecting) and revolutionary (world-creating) potentials within his own democratic polity. Here I will argue that Plato’s treatment of mimesis as a pharmakon (a poison and a cure) and his ambivalence towards its power as a communicative medium reflects his insight that it can foster our entry into new realms of shared meaning or it can be the very psychic barrier that prevents this.
Finally, this new political approach prompts a further question about (and unique answer to) just what connects Plato’s inaugural treatment of mimesis to his inaugural treatment of thumos and the tri-partite soul in the Republic.24 This is a question that is not frequently asked by theorists of either of these two highly contested Platonic doctrines. But I will be arguing that the key to understanding these two new theories of the psyche and their relation to the polity lies in understanding their interconnectedness. For Plato, thumos is that part of the soul by which we take to heart or ponder (enthumeomai25) the very paradigms, images and symbols that play such a key role in our mimetic engagement with others in the polity. Plato will encapsulate his teaching on the potentials and dangers of mimetic education in the Republic with his statement to Adeimantus, that “the starting point of a man’s education sets the course of what follows too. Or doesn’t like always call forth like (ê ouk aei to homoion on homoion parakalei” (Rep. 4.425b9)?26 And the unique awareness that will be characteristic of philosophic thumos – the simultaneous awareness of how we are both like and unlike the others with whom we engage - is precisely the kind of wakefulness necessary to prevent the problematic mimetic tendency of mistaking a likeness for the thing that it is like and thus completely identifying with others both inside and outside the polity.27 Throughout the Republic Plato constantly talks about a debased and a healthy form of mimesis, and as I will show in what follows, this corresponds to a debased and a healthy form of thumos. This is because as John Cooper (1999, 273-274) puts it, thumos desires are directed towards the kala or aesthetic things such as order, symmetry and determinateness. What thumos desires desire is to “fit” in with others and ourselves, both of whom we continually discover to be simultaneously like and unlike whatever current conception or paradigm we collectively have of our self or that ‘other.’
Situating the Republic in the Athenian Democratic Context:
This political interpretation of Plato’s treatment of mimesis has been facilitated by a lot of recent scholarship, which has reconstructed the Athenian democratic normative imaginary that serves as the direct political background to Plato’s dialogues. One variant of this latter type of scholarship has illuminated the association between Athenian democracy and tragedy or theater-going more generally.28 Much of this focuses on how Athenian tragedy served both as a representation of the Athenian political and social order and as an opportunity to subject this order to analysis and criticism. Not just the elite, but also a large portion of the Athenian population attended the dramatic festivals, especially the City (or Great) Dionysia. Even prisoners were released on bail for the occasion and full citizens on the deme register received a subsidy (theriôkon) to cover the expenses of tickets for the tragedies and comedies and other festival expenses.29 More importantly, seating at the theater replicated the seating in the Assembly, certain portions of the theater were reserved for the Council (Boulê), and directly following the theatrical performances the Assembly actually held a meeting in the Dionysiac theater “at which officials’ conduct of the festival was evaluated.”30 Such regular theater attendance facilitated the development of the deliberative skills necessary to be a citizen in democratic Athens: “self-criticism, empathy, appreciation of the complexity of moral issues, recognition that things are not always as they seem, and an ability to enter the thoughts of another.”31 Also the kind of ‘active spectating’ that took place in the theater - where audience members made their judgments of the plays known through heckling, yelling, etc., - resembled the kinds of judgments encountered by anyone addressing the mass audience in either the Assembly or the law-courts.32
The aesthetic and the political were thus already intricately interconnected within the symbolic and political practices of democratic Athens. And the Republic alludes to these very practices at numerous points both in terms of its explicit setting and in terms of the discussion that occurs between Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus. A number of commentators have noted that the dramatic setting of the Republic in the Piraeus, the port of Athens, points to one of the central themes of the dialogue: the similarities and differences between philosophical discussion and democratic politics.33 More importantly, this connection is made specifically within the Athenian democratic practice of festival and theater-going. The opening line of the dialogue: katebênchthes eis Peiraia … tên heortên boulomenos theasasthai tina tropon poiêsousin hate nun prôton agontes (“I went down to the Piraeus yesterday… [because] I wanted to spectate/observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time” (Rep. 1.372a)), parallels the cave analogy where the philosopher is also said to go down to into the cave to spectate/observe the dark things there (katabateon … ta skoteina theasasthaiRep. 5.520c1-3).34
Socrates’ desire to go down to the Piraeus to witness a new and foreign spectacle ties him to the Athenian democracy, which was also renowned for craving new and innovative spectacles and festivals.35 But the specific festival that Socrates goes to see is also extremely important for understanding the central themes of the dialogue: It is a Thracian import in Athens honoring the goddess Bendis.36 In Athens, Bendis was represented with a male figure named Deloptes whose iconography was most probably that of Asklepios, associated with the medical or healing arts and the themes of birth and re-birth.37 The Athenian torch-race staged during the Panathanea (which is also mentioned as an enticement for Socrates to stay in the Piraeus) also emphasized the themes of birth and re-birth. The passing of the flame was a re-enactment of “the continuing life of the sun’s light and of the promise of the sun’s renewal after its descent into the realm of perpetual night.”38 The theme of birth and re-birth gets taken up again in the remainder of the Republic and is utilized most memorably in the Myth of Er, but only after what it means to give birth to a new self has changed considerably. The Republic turns out to be a dialogue about how outlooks are formed and changed and what constitutes a good outlook, which itself simultaneously illustrates the very activity of changing and giving birth to new outlooks (Lear 2006, 25). The theme of medicine and healing or purging is also significant in the remainder of the dialogue. However, the new drug or medicine (pharmakon) which Socrates’ will introduce to his fellow Athenians consists of a new poetic-philosophical activity that is encapsulated in Plato’s teaching on mimesis and thumos and that is dramatized by the new Platonic Socrates who, together with his co-founders, Glaucon and Adeimantus, revise key components of the Athenian democratic normative imaginary in Republic 2 through 10.
The narrative (as opposed to the dramatic) context of the Republic also suggests (perhaps even more directly) the theme of contesting meanings in the Athenian democratic setting of theater-going and festival attendance. We learn from the introduction to the Timaeus that the Republic is narrated by Socrates in the first person to four interlocutors: Critias, Timaeus, Hermocrates and an unnamed fourth person. It recounts a conversation he had “yesterday” in the Piraeus, but the narrative itself falls on the day of the Lesser Panathanea, and its scene is thus likely to be the city or the Acropolis.39 The Greater and Lesser Panathanea were two Athenian festivals in honor of Athena, the patron goddess of the city. The Republic itself contains numerous illusions to the processions, sacrifices, and athletic, poetic and artistic contests that formed an integral part of these important civic and political festivals. For example, Republic 1 mentions the torch-races that were held in honor of the goddess at these festivals (Rep. 1.328a). In Republic 2 Socrates describes Glaucon’s elaborate descriptions of the just and unjust man as polishing statues to be judged for a prize competition (Rep. 2.361d3), which was also a part of the Panathanea. Republic 8 contains a reference to the richly embroidered peplos (gown/cloak) that was carried through the streets of Athens to the Acropolis to clothe the statue of the goddess on the occasion of such festivals (Rep. 8.529c-d).40
Putting all of these allusions together, I believe that Plato writes the Republic itself as an offering to his fellow Athenians that is meant as a kind of pharmakon (poison/cure) to purge and transform what he takes to be problematic in their specific worldview.41 He introduces not only a brand new meaning of justice into their conceptual schema, but also a new poetic-philosophic activity that fashions new symbols and revises concepts central to their worldviews “to force them to conceive of what had been to them inconceivable”42, while simultaneously interrogating the psychic tools by which such an activity is done. This new philosophic activity is meant to cure not only what ails the luxurious or “feverish city” (phlegmainousan polin) first introduced by Glaucon at Rep. 2.372e4, but also the psychic indigestion that the Athenian citizens, Glaucon and Adeimantus, both suffer from.43
Glaucon and Adeimantus’ Psychic Ailments:
At the beginning of Book 2, Glaucon and Adeimantus enter the discussion with a bad case of psychic indigestion or aporia (perplexity)44: As Glaucon tells Socrates, "I'm not yet satisfied by the argument [for or against the just life ] on either side. ... I'm perplexed, indeed, and my ears are deafened listening to Thrasymachus and countless others. But I've yet to hear anyone defend justice in the way I want, proving that it is better than injustice. I want to hear it praised by itself, and I think that I'm most likely to hear this from you" (Rep. 2.358b3-d1). Glaucon's psychic predicament is complex: He constructs an image of the unjust life that appears to be logically coherent to him but which he professes not to be able to fully believe, that is, he refuses to give assent to it as the model for his own actions. He gives a vivid description of the life of the unjust man that makes him "like a god among humans", and that includes his ability to confiscate property, have sex with anyone he wishes, and to kill anyone with impunity (Rep. 2.360b86-c1).45 He also constructs an image of the just life which he wishes were true and which he wants Socrates to defend, but which he also claims not to be able to believe because he finds no support for it in the stories he's been told or in the world around him (Rep. 2.358b1-361d2). Thus, Glaucon's predicament is that of the agnostic: he has not assented to or rejected either view, but these pictures haunt his life as possible paradigms or worldviews which he cannot fully assent to and thus bring to life.46 The completely just and unjust men whom he depicts are like a pair of statues skillfully scoured for an art competition (Rep. 2.361d3-4), but which nevertheless remain lifeless works of art for him.
What Glaucon fears is that he might be oriented or "hooked up" to the world in a fundamentally incorrect way, and that only a godlike person could live up to the picture of justice which he wants Socrates to defend: "Indeed, if anyone can show that what we've said is false and has adequate knowledge that justice is best, he'll surely be full not of anger but of forgiveness for the unjust. He knows that, apart from someone of godlike character who is disgusted by injustice or one who has gained knowledge and avoids injustice for that reason, no one is just willingly." ( 366c2-10) At this point, his view of the world is a potentially tragic one because he feels that the answers to his predicament might not be within his reach.47 Indeed, in a completely corrupt world, such fantasy images of justice might well be the only place where justice actually exists.
And this view of his predicament could lend itself to an expressionist and formalist conception of art as an imaginative depiction that "creates a new reality arising from the artist's own phantasy,"48 the essence of which "is supposed to lie in its inner harmony, i.e. its formal beauty."49 Glaucon is erotically inclined to the nobility of his fantasy image of justice, which expresses his own deepest wishes about how the world should be; and a purely formalist aesthetics might well argue that the inner harmony of the work is enough for it to be of value or significance. "For its nature is to be not a part, nor yet a copy, of the real world (as we commonly understand that phrase), but to be a world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully you must enter the world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions which belong to you in the other world of reality."50 Glaucon and Adeimantus' fantasy life might well be a realm of aesthetic enjoyment that offers at least some repose from the corruptness of the world around them. What Socrates must cure them off then is not so much an overweaning political ambition to enter the frey in democratic Athens but a tragic withdrawal from engaging with this politics as hopelessly corrupt.51
But Socrates' response to their predicament reveals a much more complicated notion of the role of images and models in the life of human beings. The conception of a work of art outlined above assumes, in the first place, that the construction of fantastical images is simply a projection of an already completed self or an inner life that is somehow unaffected by its surroundings. Secondly, it assumes that those who behold the work of art can enter this "independent and autonomous world" by simply leaving behind the conditions, beliefs and aims that have formed them. Finally, it assumes that once they have entered this world they will all have access to the same immanent and formal laws with which to judge the work. But a self that is constructed in a dynamical relation to the world around it will always express both something of itself and reflect something of its environment when either constructing or beholding a work of art or an image of the best life in words.52 Glaucon and Adeimantus' self-expression shows as much about themselves and their particular characters as it does about their upbringing under the authoritative laws and poetry of Athens. It is an expression of their deepest desires and hopes and a reflection of a reality that is independent of them, and both are complexly interwoven into their creations. Thus any one-sidedly formalistic notion of these images collapses when one takes into consideration Plato's theory of education. The images of the just and the unjust life that they construct are as much copies of the external world around them as they are expressions of what is hidden in their psyche, and Socrates' response to them reveals his appreciation of this fact. This explains why, as Stephen Halliwell has argued, Plato’s treatment of mimesis oscillates between a world-reflecting or mirroring conception of art to an world-creating or expressive conception.53 It is not just that Plato is exploring and developing these as aesthetic possibilities, but that he is articulating how the aesthetic values of formalism, expressivism and realism are embedded in the more fundamental “life” values that ground our engagements with the world and with others.
What Socrates goes on to do for them is to construct an image of a city and a soul in speech which begins from the very education and upbringing that they have experienced, but he then precedes to alter or purges these images in response to all of their concerns as these are expressed in Republic 2, and as they are contested, altered and transformed in the course of the conversation. The dialectical engagement between Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus dramatized in the Republic is itself an image of the sort of mimetic interaction between the psyche and the environment that occurs in any process of education and movement into meaning or logos (reason/speech/thought). Glaucon and Adeimantus both want to live for a while with Socrates and experience what he knows and feels so that they can better understand themselves. But this seductive performance then engages them in an activity that involves the active criticism of their own tendency to remain passive spectators of the works of others, rather than active investigators into the first principles of their own actions. The work illustrates how the mimetic pleasures of poetry can themselves be utilized to entice someone to enter a way of life that will then involve a retroactive critique of the very images and shadows, dreams and fantasies that first drew them into this practice. And this means that any attempt to judge or to defend an image of the just life must not treat this image as a static and unchanging model that can simply be measured against the present state of one's soul or the external world that it purports to imitate. The issue of the "truth" of one's images and the adequacy of one's defense thus becomes a very complicated matter.54
Truth and Falsity in Models and Images:
Glaucon and Adeimantus want Socrates to defend their fantasy image of justice but it is important, first, to ask how many different ways Socrates might show them that it is "correct". The image that they have constructed might be correct, in the sense of being internally consistent, but it might simply not be predicable of the world around them. In Republic 5, Socrates will state a theory of aesthetics which reveals that he fully understood the formalist conception of art as a creation of a reality whose judgment requires no reference to the empirical world: "Do you think that someone is a worse painter if, having painted a model of what the finest and most beautiful human being would be like and having rendered every detail of his picture adequately, he could not prove that such a man could come into being” (Rep. 5.472d4-6)? What Socrates might show them is that their image of the just person is correct but cannot be predicated of the world around them, and that instead of the world reflecting this model it may represent only an inevitable approximation to and falling away from the model.
Or their image of justice might be correct and applicable to the world, but they themselves cannot recognize those who instantiate the concept of justice because they have no previous experience of it by which to judge.55 Part of their fantasy image of justice consisted of the fact that, "Though [the just man] does no injustice, he must have the greatest reputation for it... Let him stay like that unchanged until he dies -- just, but all his life believed to be unjust" (Rep. 2.361c8). Of course the person standing before them, i.e., Socrates, is the particular individual that instantiates this image. Tried for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates' justice was seen by Athens to be an instantiation of injustice and they sentenced him to death. In a sense, Glaucon and Adeimantus have their just man right in front of them but cannot recognize him as an instance of this concept because they cannot recognize or place Socrates' way of life within their current beliefs about justice and injustice. They will have to reorient themselves in order to fit this new understanding of justice into their set of beliefs, or it will remain forever a fantasy image or myth about the perfectly just man. They simply have no experience of Socrates' way of life from which to judge it, but the conversation they are about to embark upon might well be the means by which they come to absorb something of his way of life and his viewpoint on the human condition.
Finally, their fantasy image of justice might well be correct, but they simply cannot predicate it of their own lives because it is not an aspect of the moral life (i.e., the life of obedience to the authoritative laws and myths of Athens), but rather of the more philosophic one which they are about to experience in their discussion with Socrates (i.e., the life devoted to discussing and bringing into consciousness the first principles of one's existence and one’s regime.) In other words, the moral and law-abiding life that Glaucon and Adeimantus now lead might simply not be the type of life which could allow them to be perfectly and completely just, but this does not preclude a certain transformative experience that will allow them to experience or get a taste of the type of life to which this image might be more applicable.56 This may well require a painful process of coming to terms with the limitations of their own moralistic way of life and to choose the sorts of activities that will instantiate this new kind of justice to the highest degree.
The rest of the Republic is, in fact, a brilliant elaboration of all of these possibilities dramatized by the conversation Socrates has with Glaucon and Adeimantus in which he tries to get them to come to these realizations for themselves. Glaucon and Adeimantus' fantasy image of justice, which they have inculcated from the poetic stories told to them as children, thus has some truth in it and is in some limited sense correct from the very beginning.57 Yet it is also the sort of image which could be "given the lie"58 because its truth is a truth which they must make for themselves by coming to live a certain way and to cope with the inevitable disappointments and new prospects for action which they will face in the course of the dialogue. Accordingly, the first detailed discussion of mimesis in the Republic focuses on the complex interaction between truth and falsehood that characterizes the stories (muthoi/logoi) children are told as part of their education into the normative paradigms and patterns of their polity.59 The Mimetic Activity of World-Creation in Muthoi and Logoi:
If Glaucon and Adeimantus are both in some sense held captive by a picture60: i.e., the tragic worldview that has been constructed for them by the poets concerning justice and injustice, then it makes sense that Socrates examines the logic of just how these stories hold sway over human lives, while simultaneously getting them to join him in the construction of a new kind of story. In a sense they become like children again because they pretend or play at being founders of a city in speech who legislate the patterns (paradeigma and tupoi) to the poets. (Here Plato himself constantly plays on the ambiguity between fiction and falsehood that gradually developed in the Greek noun pseudos, and the adjective psuedês, beginning with Homer.61)
The connection between this discussion of muthoi (stories/fables/myths) in Republic 2 and the explicit discussion of mimesis as impersonation in Republic 3 lies in the fact that Plato is concerned with the inculcation or internalization of norms through engagement with paradigmatic figures: gods, heroes and good men, which serve as tupoi (models/stamps/images) that are impressed on the souls of children and young guardians.62 However, few commentators have noticed the crucial difference between the kinds of internalization or engagement that Plato is concerned with in Republic 2 and 3.63 In Republic 2 Plato is concerned with how stories directly influence our character and indirectly influence our actions via the fantasy life of children.64 As Ferrari (1989, 111) puts it, Plato is not saying that children will simply ape the actions of the gods (e.g. killing fathers and eating children) and that this is why censorship is required (this sense of mimesis is not elaborated until Republic 3). Instead, “he is saying that such stories influence childhood fantasy, and fantasy has an effect on the development of character. The sway of poetry over actions, then, is only indirect, insofar as action stems from character.” If children live in a world dominated by fantasy and imagination, then it is important to ensure that there is “method in this madness.”65 Otherwise, there is a great danger that the myths of ethical corruption which the Athenian poets depict will become a self-fulfilling prophecy because they will turn out children and then adults haunted by these models of behavior.66 Cephalus serves as the prime example of the kind of ticking time bomb these stories can be for adults under their sway. Cephalus tells Socrates that these stories didn’t really affect him until now, when he is approaching death (Rep. 1. 330e1-2). As Lear (2006, 29) puts it, “The elderly anxiety combines with the early childhood stories, and together they disrupt any previous self-understandings and give a new, anxious meaning to Cephalus’ life.67
These stories also operate at a very different level than the conscious first principles of action that the young guardians learn by impersonating or emulating the actions of good men in Republic 3. They are at a lower level of consciousness but for that very reason at a higher-level of meaning because they supply the paradigms or pictures that orient whatever specific strategic actions or true statements a person can subsequently choose to make in the world. In learning the story about the “wrath of Achilles” from Homer the Athenian child is not (or not only) learning propositional or ethical facts about the world, but rather is acquiring an entire framework or paradigm for seeing the world in a specific way, which then provides or grounds the very possibility of strategic and cognitive rationality (de Sousa 2001, 203).
Thus, even though Glaucon and Adeimantus claim to be skeptical or unable to fully believe and thus act upon either of their images of the life of complete justice or injustice, they do believe that these are the only two possibilities for how to live the good life. The two pictures of justice and injustice that they paint for Socrates depend on an already existing background that configures human existence in terms of these two possibilities. They do not want to give up their desire for omnipotence and self-sufficiency, they just want Socrates to show them how they can have this while leading the just life. Because they are no longer children they do not literally believe in the story of Achilles and they can recognize its allegorical character, but their perspective is still “Achillized” because their entire outlook or paradigm disposes them to see the world in terms of these two existential possibilities.68 In a certain sense simply reasoning with them would come too late because the paradigm that orients their lives already “predisposes them to recognize good and bad arguments in terms of that outlook” (Lear 2006, 25). Again, Plato’s solution to their predicament involves not reasoning with them, but getting them to engage in the kind of serious and imaginative play that is involved in pretending to be founders of a city in speech.
The Initial Connection between Thumos and Mimesis:
It is, moreover, just the kind of serious and imaginative play that is made possible by the thumotic element of the soul, which is itself first discussed in the passages of the Republic which immediately precede Plato’s explicit discussion of myths, fictions, falsehoods, analogies and metaphors. Socrates and Glaucon introduce thumos in their discussion of the kind of natures fit or suited for the guardianship of a city (phuseis epitêdeiai eis poleôs phulakên) (Rep. 2.374e). Here it is important to note that the Greek verb phulassô can mean both guarding in the sense of watching out for what others could do to you and watching out for others (as a sentinel) or watching over them, protecting them, cherishing them (Liddell and Scott 1996, 1961). The noun phulax can mean a watcher, guard, sentinel, protector, keeper and even an observer (Liddell and Scott 1996, 1960). And the subsequent argument relies on Plato’s clever use of the ambiguity of these meanings and the subtle difference between guards and guardians. As the city/soul analogy suggests thumos is the part of the soul that guards, protects, maintains, recognizes or observes what is on either side of the boundary between inside and outside the person’s psyche. But this kind of awareness involves simultaneously looking in two directions at once in order to recognize just how we are both like and unlike those others we continuously encounter at the edges of our permeable or not-so permeable boundaries between self and world.
The character of this kind of awareness is first dramatized by Socrates’ elaboration of thumos through his analogy between the nature of a well-born puppy (gennaiou skulakos) and a well-born young lad (neaniskou eugenous) (Rep. 2.375a3). Here, he asks Glaucon whether he (Glaucon) can discern any difference between the two in the following respects: “Well, surely both of them need sharp senses, speed to catch what they perceive, and finally, strength if they have to fight it out with what they have caught” (Rep. 2.375a). Socrates uses an analogy to show the likeness between well-born puppies and lads, but of course analogies work by drawing similarities between different things. Understanding an analogy is to understand the ways in which both sides of the analogy are both alike and different from one another. An analogy is thus both a truth? and a falsehood at the same time: It gets us to simultaneously perceive how the one side of an analogy is both true and false about the other side. When we describe or speak about an analogy in logos (speech, account, reason) we have to describe the likeness and difference between the two sides successively, but when we first ponder, entertain or take the analogy to heart (enthumeomai), we are in some sense simultaneously looking in both directions at once.
How do we recognize the value or worth of an image or analogy that is offered to us? It would seem that we do this by simultaneously repudiating and assenting to it, or seeing simultaneously how we are both like and unlike this image that is meant to capture everything in the world that is of value or worth recognizing. If thumos is the part of the soul that allows us to ponder or take symbols and images to heart, and if images and symbols can “contain a whole bundle of principles, even ones that would be mutually contradictory if reduced to their purely ideational equivalents,” (Burke 1969, 87; cited by Allen 2000, 245) then thumos must have the capacity of somehow holding together contraries. And if Glaucon and Adeimantus are to seriously play at being founders of a city in speech then they must continually maintain the awareness of just how this activity and the paradigms it produces are both like and unlike the authoritative horizons of their own democratic Athens. The simultaneous awareness of similarity and difference that is required for this kind of interrogation and reform of one’s own authoritative horizons will only be preserved by a thumotic awareness that avoids the pathological disease of “believing a likeness of something to be not a likeness, but rather the thing itself to which it is like.” (Rep. 5. 475d8). Their properly harmonized and balanced thumos must thus ensure that their various mimetic activities with Socrates do not degenerate into simple mimicry or into the indiscriminate and greedy consumption of images, which characterizes the unhealthy democrats of Republic 8. For Plato, even if the images his Socrates constructs are more beautiful and lawful than the tragedians who “make hymns to tyranny” (Rep. 8, 568b8), they will still remain a poison rather than a cure if his interlocutors, both past and present, do not have the right kind of thumotic awareness to digest them properly.