Republic: The Imitator’s Imitation?

Earlier on in Plato’s “Republic”, Socrates and Adeimantus set out to determine the kind of education that the guardians of Kallipolis should receive.  While doing this, Socrates gives his opinion on what he thinks should and should not be conveyed in the work of artists.  In order to complete his consideration of art, Socrates decides that it is necessary to investigate the style in which artists portray their work, reasoning that, in doing such, he and Adeimantus “…will have completely investigated both what [artists] should say and how they should say it” (Plato 73).  Socrates then brings up the “Iliad” as an example.  At the beginning of the “Iliad”, Socrates points out that the author “…himself is speaking and is not trying to make us think that the speaker is anyone but himself.  After that, however, he  speaks as if he himself were Chryses, and tries as hard as he can to make us think that the speaker is not Homer, but the priest himself…”(Plato 74).  According to Socrates, Homer, by narrating the “Iliad” through the eyes of his characters, is trying to “imitate” (Plato 74) the people in his story.  In stating this, Socrates goes on to hold that artists should not try and imitate anyone other than themselves, on the grounds that doing so would result in the artist not being “…able to practice any pursuit worth taking about…” (Plato 76).  After all, doesn’t Socrates argue that everyone is suited for only one kind of job alone?  Hence, while reading this, I became very confused.  Throughout the “Republic”, Plato uses Socrates as a sort of mouthpiece to express his thoughts and opinions and never actually appears in the dialogue itself.  Furthermore, all the characters, with the exception of Thrasymachus, seem to utilize Socrates as a way of expressing their views, for they simply nod and agree after pretty much everything Socrates says.  If this is true, then, by his own definition, isn’t Plato (and Socrates) acting as an “imitator” himself?

Later, in Book 5, Plato addresses the way in which his ideal city will conduct war.  As Kallipolis is a Greek city, Socrates suggests that, when it is at war with another Greek city, the warriors of Kallipolis should show them mercy and not take any Greek prisoners nor burn down their houses nor ravage their land.  On the other hand, Kallipolis, as part of the Greek race, is “strange and foreign” in relation to the non-Greek “barbarians” (Plato 162).  As a result, Socrates proposes that: “When Greeks fight with barbarians, then, or barbarians with Greeks, we will say that it is warfare, that they are natural enemies, and that such hostilities should be called war.  But when Greeks engage in such things with Greeks, we will say that they are natural friends, that Greece is sick and divided into factions in such a situation…” (Plato 163).  Being a city of supposed near justice, Kallipolis represents what Plato sees as a form of justice itself.  However, back in Book 1, during the examination of Polemarchus, didn’t Socrates establish that “…neither justice nor the just consists in benefiting friends and harming enemies…” (Plato 12)?  Thus, I am a bit perplexed about this whole situation and would appreciate it if someone could shed some light on this whole thing.  For, as it appears to me, Plato is subtly undermining his own argument.  And if the philosopher himself cannot uphold his own philosophy, then how can he expect others to do as he proposes?


3 thoughts on “Republic: The Imitator’s Imitation?”

  1. As discussed in seminar, I think both of your questions are very good ones. I honestly have no idea what to do with the second problem. If, as Socrates and his interlocutors agree at 335e (p. 12), “it is never just to harm anyone” whether friend or enemy, then why is it permissible to harm “barbarians” (but not Greeks)? I can’t think of a good answer Plato might have (in seminar there was that answer that maybe they don’t think of barbarians as full humans, but I’d like to think that isn’t his answer…I could very well be wrong, though).

    For the first one, the problem is that they don’t want the guardians to imitate people who aren’t like what they themselves ought to be, because one “will hardly be able to practice any pursuit worth talking about while at the same time imitating lots of things …” (76). So the problem is in acting like someone who is different from the sort of person you should be. Thus, as I mentioned in seminar, I think it’s okay for Plato to imitate Socrates, and Glaucon, and Adeimantus, for they aren’t that different from the sort of person Plato would want to take himself to be. But he is also imitating Thrasymachus, who is a very different sort of person. Which seems confusing.

    But just today I found this passage, at 396d, p. 78: “When he comes upon a character who is beneath him, however, he will be unwilling to make himself resemble this inferior character in any serious way–except perhaps for a brief period in which he is doing something good.”

    Now, you can take that last part two ways: when the person who is doing the imitating is doing something good by the imitation (which would exonerate Plato), or (what is the more likely interpretation), when the person who is imitated is doing something good, even though generally he has a bad character. I’m not sure if that second interpretation helps Plato out at all.

    Then there’s one other thing I thought of. What Plato is mostly concerned about is people acting in a morally bad or shameful way (see 395c-e, p. 77). Thrasymachus isn’t doing that; he’s actually doing the sort of thing Plato thinks is good, namely trying to engage in a philosophical discussion. He is not as open-minded as one might want, and a bit arrogant of course, but he’s still doing something that is generally a good thing. The view he espouses is not what Plato would agree with, but the activity itself isn’t bad. Maybe there’s something in that?

    1. *Please note that all the quotes are from the copy of the novel with the sun on the front cover, so the page numbers mentioned in this post will be in accordance with that copy of the text.*

      I’ve been thinking about what you have said here since it was posted and, to be honest, I still cannot come up with a satisfactory answer to my second question. Though it is possible that Plato could have thought that barbarians don’t count as complete humans and, thus, don’t deserve to be treated in the same manner as the Greeks, I agree with you and would like to think that this isn’t the case….However, in Book 6, when Socrates discusses how the very nature of a philosophical person can lead to its own destruction, he describes a philosophical person who has been praised and honoured for his nature since childhood. Socrates goes on say that such a person would “be filled with an impractical expectation and think himself capable of managing the affairs, not only of the Greeks, but of the barbarians….And won’t he exalt himself to great heights, as a result, and be brimming with pretension and empty, senseless pride?” (494c 7-d 1, pg. 188). In this quote, it seems as though Plato thinks of the barbarians as some wild, uncontrollable force that cannot be tamed by anyone of the civilized Greek society. So, it does seem likely that Plato, perhaps, thought that barbarians were so different from Greek society that they couldn’t even be thought of as being part of the same human species.

      As for what you have said about my first question, I think that what you proposed in the second paragraph of your comment makes a lot of sense. In Book 6, Socrates states that in order for a person to become a true philosopher, they must look at and contemplate “things that are overly and always the same, that neither do injustice to one another nor suffer it, being all in a rational order, he imitates them and tries to become as like them as he can” (500 a, pg. 194). He then goes on to ask Adeimantus the following: “Or do you think there is any way to prevent someone from associating with something he admires without imitating it?” And Adeimantus replies “He can’t possibly”. According to this, it is okay for someone to imitate something that they admire and are trying to be like. For, the only way a person can become close to what he admires is by imitating it. Thus, because Socrates, Adeimantus, and Glaucon are, as you said, the kind of people that Plato would have wanted to be himself, on the basis of this last excerpt, Plato’s imitation of these three people would be considered okay.
      But, then there is Thrasymachus to consider. Both the quotes I found and the selection you picked from the novel (394e 8, pg. 76) would not apply in this case. After all, Plato had no desire to be like Thrasymachus. However, I do think that the passage that you found at 396d on page 78 is definitely applicable to Plato’s imitation of Thrasymachus. If you interpret this quote from either perspective (Plato is doing something good by imitating Thrasymachus, or Thrasymachus, the person being imitated, is doing something good, even though he generally has a bad character), it is possible for Plato’s imitation of Thrasymachus to be cast in a good light, I think. For, it is by Thrasymachus doing something good, which is participating in a philosophical discussion, but by generally being a bad character, that drives Socrates to prove that justice is not simply “that which is advantageous for the stronger” (340b 5, pg. 17), and what, ultimately, allowed Plato to write the “Republic”. Thus, because imitating Thyrasymachus allowed Plato to do something that he considered to be good and just, then, by his own reasoning, Plato should be allowed to imitate Thrasymachus.

      I don’t know if any of what I mentioned above is correct and if you don’t agree with anything that I said, that’s fine. But, these are just a few of the things I thought about after reading your comment.

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