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  • Plato and the Platonic TraditionThe Image Beyond the Image
  • James I. Porter (bio)

The universe is an image (eikōn) that reproduces itself continuously (aei eikonizomenos).

Plotinus, Enneads 2.3 [52].18.16–17

Plato’s thought, from his metaphysics to his poetics, is unthinkable apart from his theory of the image. Images occupy the center of Plato’s universe for the same reason that imitation does: Platonic metaphysics rests on the assumption of an image that is copied in successive stages, each suffering a derogation from the original Form or idea (shape, image). The phenomenal world is a (bad) copy of an original image. Art and poetry are necessarily caught up in the same metaphysical process of imitation (mimēsis) and copy, producing images that lie at an even farther remove from the original Forms. There would seem to be no escaping the image in a Platonic world.1

Or is there? The idea of a Form is paradoxical in any number of ways, but the most salient and relevant of these is the question why Forms are called Forms at all. If they are shapes or images, what do they look like? But even to put the question in this way is to open up a Pandora’s box of problems. Surely Forms cannot “look like” something else in the sense of resembling a more perfect image, else we would encounter a vicious regress, with each step leading to another image that prompts the same question: What does it look [End Page 75] like? Forms may resemble their more imperfect cognate images below them on the metaphysical hierarchy, but this resemblance cannot be determinative; the causality is supposed to go the other way round, with earthly objects resembling Forms, their ultimate causes. The other half of the problem is that Forms, in their pristine purity, ought not to look like anything at all: they ought to have no shape, be possessed of no imagistic qualities, have no visible, dimensional, or palpable features whatsoever. But if this is the case, then in what sense can entities below them on the metaphysical ladder be thought to resemble them? How do you make a copy of an entity that has no obvious features?2

The whole assemblage of ideas based on mimesis appears to be founded on a paradox. It may well be. My aim in the present essay is not to solve the dilemmas that issue from the paradox of Forms, but merely to explore one part of these, namely, what might be called Plato’s theory of the image beyond the image. For, although Plato works hard in his dialogues to develop a sense of the way in which the world descends from the Forms, he also works just as hard to show how the world yearns, desperately and almost erotically, to transcend itself and to pass beyond its own phenomenal constraints in order to join the highest realms of reality, where the Forms reside in a state of unimaginable Formlessness. This effort to reach beyond the limits of the senses and the sensible is in ways less a theory of representation than a theory of the unrepresentable—a theory of what lies beyond representability, beyond imagery, beyond sensation, beyond even the imaginable. Such a theory is best conceived as a theory of the sublime (though it is carried out in the name of the Beautiful), and as an honorable precursor to Longinus’ much later theory of the sublime (hypsos). The essentials of Plato’s theory were carried on in the later Platonic tradition, first among Plato’s interpreters from the Roman era, and then among the Neoplatonists, who took Plato’s thought to another level altogether. I will briefly trace the outlines of this development in what follows, illustrating the theory and its interpretation through part of one dialogue in particular, the Phaedrus; then I will consider the contribution made to the tradition by one of its greatest innovators after Plato, Plotinus.

“Beyond the Heavens” in the Phaedrus

The central myth of Phaedrus offers a stirring depiction of the life cycle of the soul. Plato’s aim in this myth is to capture the immortal qualities of...


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pp. 75-103
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