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  • Plato on Mimesis and Mirrors
  • Rebecca Bensen Cain

The mirror analogy in Book X of Plato’s Republic (596c–e) helps Socrates formulate the conception of mimesis used to make the initial argument that the painter is an imitator and his works are inferior, being three times removed from truth and reality. The metaphysical argument, as I will call it, includes what seems to be a simple analogy between painting and holding a mirror to the world (596a–598d). But the analogy is not a simple one. It provides a visualizing mechanism that helps Glaucon to conceptualize the hierarchical schema of form, artifact, and image upon which the metaphysical argument is built, preparing the way for the key distinction that Glaucon makes between appearance and reality. It conjures up the idea that the mirror holder is a sophistic know-it-all who can “make” all things, and places painters in the same class as sophistic mirror holders.

In my reading of the mirror passage, three imaging devices are constructed. I call both analogy and metaphor “imaging devices,” since they have similar rhetorical and educational functions in helping Glaucon arrive at conclusions that Socrates wishes him to accept. First is the analogy that focuses on the resemblance between images created in mirrors and in paintings. Socrates leads Glaucon to understand what it is that the painter “makes,” and to deduce its inferior ontological status. The second imaging device is also an analogy, related to the first, that compares a painter, without qualification, to a mirror holder who turns the mirror round and round, pretending to “make” all things. This shows that Socrates’s mirror holder is not an innocent, anonymous someone. [End Page 187] The third imaging device is a metaphor. The idea that a mirror makes images is transferred to the art of painting: painting is holding a mirror to the world. The idea that mirror holders claim to know more than anyone could possibly know is transferred to painters, who belong to the same class of imitators as mirror holders. Painters are sophistic mirror holders.

In my view, the mirror analogy and its imaging devices give Socrates a dialectical advantage that he would not otherwise have. The metaphysical argument is a dialectical one, and it depends heavily on Glaucon’s receptivity to the model of the mirror. The painter is classified as an impostor in what is ultimately an attempt to impugn the poet. The classification is achieved by an unfair assimilation of the painter with the sophistic mirror holder. If Socrates succeeds with Glaucon in his attempt to show that painters and poets are imitators, his success is primarily due to the mirror analogy and its metaphorical imagery.1 By constructing such images, Plato appears to violate his own precept: he (seemingly) has Socrates do the very thing he rails against. Socrates takes only a small piece of the whole of something, focuses attention simply on how it appears, and presents it in a misleading way (598b; see also 392e). If one understands the mirror passage as I suggest, the dialectical backbone of the metaphysical argument will be revealed as satisfying Socrates’s desire to provide Glaucon with an antidote: an argument and a set of images necessary to back it up.


Book X begins with Socrates’s comment that mimetic poetry as discussed in Book III (396b–398b) has been rightly restricted and, in light of what he and Glaucon had discovered about the nature of the soul (595a–b), should perhaps be banned altogether. Socrates expresses a special concern for the “minds of the audience” and the harm that may come to those who do not have within them the kind of knowledge that provides an “antidote” (pharmakon) to ward off the negative effects of tragic poetry (595b6–7).2 The remark suggests that by the end of the discussion Glaucon will have a sort of immunity to the seductions of artistic mimesis; in particular, tragic poetry. Socrates then says he will explain further and, with apologies and all due respect to Homer, he begins a series of arguments. The potential harm to the soul isn’t addressed fully until 603c, when they turn...


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pp. 187-195
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