Chapter 1. "Art as Imitation and the Form of Beauty" by Plato

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from The Republic and The Symposium
The Reading Selection from The Republic
The Reading Selection from the Symposium
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Plato adapted from University of St. Andrews

About the author …

Early in life, Plato became interested in painting and poetry but soon became discouraged upon comparing his writing with Homer's verse. Chancing to hear the discourses of Socrates, he became fascinated with philosophy. Following the death of his mentor and time spent abroad, Plato founded the Academy, a school of philosophy named after Academus, the public garden in Athens where he had lectured years earlier. At the grove of Academus, persons would gather before monuments placed among the trees along the stream Cephissus. There Plato taught that the eternal soul existing before birth knows the essences of things, and the soul during life seeks to recollect what it knew in its former state: viz. the apprehension of the Ideas or Forms—the immaterial essences of all that is real. The everyday world, he thinks, is a changing, vague imitation of the perfect beauty of universal concepts or the "World of Forms." Moreover, in his dialogue Ion, Plato debunks the classical ideal of the artist having an irrationally inspired intuition of the eternal world of the Ideal Forms. Even so, Plato's alternative account of the soul's quest for perfect beauty as told by Diotima in The Symposium perhaps has had more influence on Western Šsthetics than his imitation theory of art expressed in Ion and in Book X of the Republic. The account of the divinely inspired artist described in the Symposium, whose work represents the quest for eternal truth, influenced Western philosophy through the fashioning of the neo-Platonic theory of Plotinus.

About the work …

In his Book X of The Republic,[1] Plato argues that artists and poets threaten the stability of an ideal government, and the works of painters, musicians, and poets should be censored since they can irrationally inflame the passions of the populace. Even so, he thought the arts, if carefully controlled, could help mold the character of the young. In this selection from Book X, Socrates explains how the artist and poet simply and imperfectly imitate the everyday world of sensations and appearances which are in turn merely poor copies of the unchanging "real" world of perfect essences. For Plato, the good life, is a life spent in the rational pursuit of universal knowledge. Such a pursuit, he thinks, can be achieved in an ideal society where philosophers become kings. In the selection from The Symposium,[2] Diotoma explains to Socrates that the desire for beauty is the ultimately part of the quest for attaining our immortality by means of "giving birth" to such eternal goods as virtue and wisdom.

Ideas of Interest from The Republic and The Symposium

  1. Explain what Socrates means by the Ideas or Forms of things. What kinds of Ideas or Forms exist?

  2. Why, according to the argument put forward by Socrates, cannot there be ideal or real things in the world of appearances or in art?

  3. How does Socrates prove that artists lack concern for truth?

  4. What are the two principles of soul discussed by Socrates? What do artists and poets have in common?

  5. Why does Socrates believe poetry to be dangerous?

  6. What does Diotima mean when she says "Love [is] neither fair nor good"?

  7. Why is beauty to be desired? How does Diotima define love?

  8. According to Diotima, what is the source of wisdom, beauty, temperance, and justice?

  9. How does Diotima describe the attainment of the reality and essence of beauty?

Notes

[1]

Plato. The Republic. 360 B.C. in The Dialogues of Plato Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1875.

[2]

The Symposium. 360 B.C. in The Dialogues of Plato Translated by Benjamin Jowlett. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1875.