Plato’s Argument: Art is an Imitation of an Imitation

Plato by Raphael, 1509. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This painting by Raphael, 1509, depicts Plato. Image by unknown photographer.

Plato (427-347 BC) has had an enormous influence on Western philosophy. His teacher was Socrates, who was condemned to death for his so-called “subversive influence” on the youth of Athens. Socrates appears in many of Plato’s dialogues.

In his great work, The Republic, Plato describes his idea of the ideal state, which would be organised into the Guardians, ie. the governing class, and the Auxiliaries, ie. the soldiers. Through these classes, the state would control the masses.

This important Greek philosopher had little respect for art or poetry.

Plato’s Views on Art

Art can never truly represent reality, for life itself, of which art is merely a copy, does not represent reality, according to Plato. Our world “…as we experience it, is an illusion, a collection of mere appearances like reflections in a mirror or shadows on a wall.” (Quoted by Rosalind Hursthouse in “Truth and Representation,” Philosphical Aesthetics.)  

For Plato, the only true reality is the unchanging world of the Forms, created by God, for example, the perfect form of the cat, the bird, the table, the chair. There is just one perfect copy of each of these Forms. We need to “escape from the cave and see…the real objects, the Forms… and gain true knowledge,” quotes Hursthouse.

Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Cave Allegory (or story with a hidden meaning) concerns people chained up and facing the blank wall of a cave. The people see only shadows of forms on the wall, projected from a fire burning behind them. This is the closest the people can come to perceiving reality. The philosopher, however, is like a person freed from the cave, who perceives that the shadows are not reality. The philosopher sees the true reality rather than the shadows.

Plato asks us to accept the concept that even apparently man-made objects like beds and chairs have an original form belonging to a changeless, eternal world of Forms created by God, leading to his conclusion that life, and art itself, is not a reality.

Therefore, for Plato, artistic representation is at best a third remove from reality; the removes counted inclusively by the Greek method.

In order to represent God’s truth or reality, restrictions must be placed upon representation.

The difficulty is that Plato’s premise that “God is perfectly good, and therefore changeless and incapable of deceit,” as described in The Republic, is not provable.

From the above follows Plato’s second premise, that nothing good is harmful or can do harm. Therefore, God cannot be responsible for everything as is commonly said, but only for a small part of human life. Therefore, Plato argues, we cannot make God responsible for the evil in the world. We must find some other way to account for evil.

Plato’s third premise is that since badness cannot be God, it is an illusion. From this it follows that evil represented in art is an illusion. It is not God, it is not real and should be treated with caution in artistic representation.

Allegory of the Cave, 1604, Sanraedam,

Sanraedam engraved this representation of the Allegory of the Cave in 1604. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

God is Unchanging

God, as a perfect and divine being, encompassing beauty and moral truth, could only change for the worse. Therefore, Plato’s conclusion is that “…it must be impossible for a god to wish to change himself.” (The Republic)

If Plato’s first arguments (premises) about the nature of God are founded in truth, this would seem to be a logical conclusion, for through experience we know the world and the state of humankind is one of constant change. By representing the good in art, we strive to reach true knowledge in this world of illusion.

Good is Reflection, Bad is Illusion

The argument against the representation of the bad in the arts rests on the following: (i) it is a falsehood, (ii) it is wicked or sinful because it is about serious matters and (iii) it corrupts the young.

Rosalind Hursthouse points out that this last point is a strong argument for censorship today and is an end in itself. However, it is an inconsistency in Plato’s argument, since it suggests that corrupting material might possibly approach truth in life, and, naturally, it would follow, in artistic representation.

Plato’s main argument, that art can only be a reflection that resembles the good, and an illusion in respect of evil, is one that, for most modern readers, would represent a false reality in a world artistically represented as containing both good and evil.

To summarise, says Hursthouse, Plato seems to be saying that art cannot represent reality because it is only a mirror, reflecting what is not, in any case, reality. We can strive towards enlightenment through seeking truth by depicting in artistic representation what is good and is, therefore, a reflection of beauty and moral truth. Only in this way, are we to achieve enlightenment, “…and see, in the light of the sun and the fire, the real objects, the Forms, face-to-face and gain true knowledge for the first time.”

Plato: Soul and Society

Plato believed in the soul, and that when a person dies, they are reincarnated into a new form of life. His Utopian society, however, was a hierarchical, undemocratic society, and he has been criticised by some philosophers, including Bertrand Russel, for his “totalitarianism.” For Plato, there was no personal freedom and no question of the rights of the individual.

In spite of his lack of empathy for the individual, Plato was a thinker of diverse interests and he was dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge. He holds the distinction of being the first Western thinker whose work has survived intact, and his ideas have greatly influenced the development of Western philosophy.

Resources:

Hursthouse, R. Truth and Representation: Philosophical Aesthetics. (1992). Blackwell Publishers.

Plato. Readings 1 and 9, Art, Context and Value. (1992). The Open University,

Plato. The Republic. Translated and Introduced by A.D. Lindsay. Heron Books with J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd..