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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 406-423

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Symposium: Cervantes

Two Kinds of Knowing in Plato, Cervantes, and Aristotle

Anthony J. Cascardi


Twice in Don Quixote, Part I, Cervantes alludes to a question that puts Plato in the forefront of our minds. In Chapter 47, the Canon of Toledo launches his famous diatribe against the romances of chivalry, which he describes as "harmful to the republic." Then, two chapters later, Don Quixote introduces his defense of the romances by alluding to the Canon's views of the dangers of fiction: "It seems to me, my dear sir, that what you have sought to persuade me is that knights errant have never existed, and that all books of chivalry are lies and untruths, dangerous as well as useless to our country, and that I've done wrong in reading them, and still worse in believing them, and worst of all in imitating them, taking on myself the harsh profession of knight errantry in which they offer instruction, for you deny that there have been any folk such as Amadís (neither Amadís of Gaul nor Amadís of Greece) nor any of the other knights of whom these books say so much" (I, 49). 1 What, then, is the place of fiction in the civic state? And what is the role of imaginative literature in the formation of those who would aspire to full participation in it?

In addressing the critique of romance, critics have been drawn to Cervantes's engagement with Aristotle rather than Plato, especially since Renaissance reinterpretations of the Poetics posed questions about imitation and verisimilitude in ways that sharpened opposing interests in either condemning or legitimizing the marvels of romance. 2 Taking Aristotle's views in the Poetics as a point of departure, it may be surprising to find that concerns over the way in which literature could represent the truth (or fail to represent it) were seen as dependent [End Page 406] upon achieving the closest possible likeness to nature. Aristotle allowed for a distinction between history and poetry that could have lightened this burden considerably. Cervantes's college graduate, Sansón Carrasco, knows Aristotle well and cites the view nearly verbatim: "It's one thing to write as a poet, and very different to write as a historian. The poet can show us things not as they actually happened, but as they should have happened, but the historian has to record them not as they ought to have been, but as they actually were, without adding or subtracting anything whatsoever from the truth" (II, 3). Poetry relies on verisimilitude to create the semblance of things as they ought to be; yet in the hands of tough-minded critics in the Quixote like the Canon, the Barber, and the Priest, the basis of any similitude is a standard of truth drawn from the realm of nature, which represents the measure of the "real." Indeed, even Don Quixote seems bent on insisting that the heroes of romance had a real existence. The difficulty stems as much from a confusion of history and poetry (e.g. mixing references to Greece and Gaul with claims that Amadís must have existed in fact) as from the entanglement of Aristotle's ideas with notions drawn from Plato's critique of mimesis in Republic, book X.

As long as the Aristotelian distinction between history and poetry is seen as hinging on Plato's contrast between truthfulness to nature and art's "imitation" of it, we fail to recognize the ways in which some of Aristotle's other works offered substantial opportunities for re-interpretation of the Platonic critique of mimesis. It was this re-interpretation to which Cervantes was especially sensitive. The widespread view was, and continues to be, that Plato portrays artists as fashioning works that are hopelessly, and dangerously, distanced from the truth of nature precisely because they are imitations. Among the three kinds of makers mentioned in the Republic--painters, carpenters, and gods--the painter is said to stand farthest from the truth because...


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