Plato, Aristotle, and the Imitation of Reason
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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 382-401

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the Ancients Now

Bo Earle

Plato, Aristotle, and the Imitation of Reason

THE DEBATE BETWEEN the philosophers and the poets was already "ancient" when Plato made his contribution. 1 Yet, as an ostensibly analytical "debate," there is a sense in which this dispute was always rigged in the philosophers' favor. This is due to the fact that an integral part of philosophy consists in accounting for philosophy's place among the other disciplines and practices, whereas such accounting is not necessarily a part of poetry. Consequently, framing the debate in these terms obscures what is really at stake in it. For, what has made poetry such a longstanding source of irritation for philosophers is not that it pretends to offer an alternative account of the order of the disciplines and practices, but precisely that it does not pretend to offer such an account, does not engage that pursuit. The most obvious way to juxtapose Plato and Aristotle with respect to this difference is to say that Plato saw it as a difference of incompatibility, Aristotle as one of complementarity. But this is again already to approach the issue on the philosopher's terms. On the other hand, saying that poetry simply defies philosophical containment can all too easily lead to a romantic valorization of incommensurability that merely inverts Plato's repudiation. The following attempts to show that the tension between philosophy and poetry is registered by Plato's and Aristotle's philosophies of [End Page 382] poetry in a way that doctrines of complementarity and incommensurability cannot explain, and that thus illustrates both the ethical stakes of philosophical praxis, and the philosophical value of poetic elucidation of such praxis.

Plato's philosophical objection to poetic imitation is two-fold, based in metaphysics and epistemology, on the one hand, and in ethics, on the other. The metaphysical-epistemological objection is that poetry has no stake in truth and thus cannot contribute to knowledge. There is no way of distinguishing valid from invalid interpretations of poems, Socrates complains in Protagoras, because the poets do not submit to dialectical interrogation about their work: "we cannot ask them questions about what they say." 2 If they cannot account for what they do, Socrates concludes that the work of the poets should be counted among the phenomena of nature and the acts of gods: "poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets." 3 Socrates criticizes poetry for seeming to penetrate the world's mysteries when it in fact propagates them.

Yet Socrates' claim is not that poetry makes us take something to be true that actually is false. Rather, his point is that poetry simply has no stake in the truth to begin with. The problem with debates about poetry, Socrates continues in Protagoras, is that the disputants "wind up arguing about something they can never finally decide" (347e); consequently Socrates proposes that we "should put the poets aside and converse directly with each other, testing the truth and our own ideas" (Pr, 348a). The subject matter presented to us by poetry is directly contrasted with that which admits of dialectical truth-testing. That is, poetry does not "lie," it does not disguise falsehoods as truths; rather, it turns its back on the pursuit of truth altogether. It is something with respect to which truth oriented arguments "can never finally be decided" because it is something to which the category of truth does not apply. Indeed, our interest in poetic imitation derives precisely from the fact that such imitation does not pretend to be what it imitates, that it is liberated, in a sense, from the question of 'the truth' of the things, people and events it imitates belong. Since the poet offers "no worthwhile knowledge of the things he imitates," Socrates concludes that poetic "imitation is a kind of game and not something to be taken seriously" (R, 602b). Such imitation is disengaged from the realm of knowledge and truth-testing entirely, constituting an...