- The Image of a Second Sun: Plato on Poetry, Rhetoric, and the Technē of Mimēsis
There are two main discussions of poetry in Plato's Republic: the first one is in Books II and III, the other in Book X. Their conclusions are not entirely coherent. In Books II and III, only some poetry is considered imitative, and certain forms of it are allowed in the ideal city. In Book X all poetry is considered imitative, and all of it is banned from the city.
Jeff Mitscherling's book deals with Plato's criticism of poetry and art. It (i) reviews and discusses the main interpretations of the topic, paying special attention to those of Havelock (who argues that under attack is the Athenian educational system) and Gadamer (who argues the real target are the Sophists and their influence); (ii) discusses the prēPlatonic conception of poetry (Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, etc.); (iii) analyzes Plato's views on poetry in dialogues other than the Republic and (iv) in the Republic; and (v) outlines an aesthetics that, the author argues, can help us better understand Plato's criticism of poetry. The volume also contains indexes of the poets Plato quoted and/or referred to; a special index of passages from Iliad and Odyssey quoted and/or referred to; a review of Plato's quotations of Homer in the Republic; a bibliography; and its own general index.
Mitscherling's interpretation may be summarized as follows. Plato distinguishes between dramatic and nondramatic poetry, and his criticism of poetry is directed at the technē of mimēsis, namely at the "widespread, uncritical, and obsessive employment of this technē in all spheres of the cultural and intellectual life of Athens" (74). This view, Mitscherling acknowledges, owes much to Havelock's and Gadamer's interpretations: "These thoughts are not my own—it is only their novel synthesis that is mine" (11). The criticism in Book X should be understood as "an attack on illusionistic art, dramatic poetry, the use of poetry in the schools, and the activity of the Sophists. All of these come under attack precisely because they all have as their foundation, as the necessary condition of their existence, that technē of mimēsis which Plato regarded as indicative of a morally, and thus politically, corrupting force: the tendency toward ethical relativism" (257).
In the last chapter, drawing on the phenomenology of Roman Ingarden and the hermeneutics of Gadamer, Mitscherling outlines an aesthetics that, he argues, is consistently Platonic and enables us to understand Plato's criticism of art and poetry. His conclusion is that for Plato, the right enjoyment of art "demands the recognition of the symbolic nature of art, of poetry no less than of the visual arts." Thus, Plato's own allegories and myths "perform essentially the same symbolic function in Plato's dialogues as does the poetic image: they all point to some truth that can be indicated in no other or better way" (302). The work of the inspired poet, not that of the mere imitator, might "serve to undermine ethical relativism by turning the attention of the listener toward universal virtues." The listener, however, should be philosophically educated in order to appreciate the work of the inspired poet. In Plato, Mitscherling concludes, poetry and philosophy are not rivals, but companions: "The philosopher can say nothing about this real world of the Forms, and neither, strictly speaking, can the poet. The poet, however, can point to this world, thus rendering possible the vision of the true, the good, and the real. Heraclitus once wrote that 'education is a second sun to the educated' (DK B 134). It may well be the case that [End Page 371] Plato regarded poetry as the image of such a second sun" (304). But the author does not address the question of why Plato did not say this plainly, if this is what he really thought. If he believed that philosophy and poetry are not at all rivals, but companions, why did...