‘Imitation’ (mimesis) in Plato and the pig example

The story of the imitator of the grunting of pigs (who was making a fortune with his ability – let us call it art) taken from East Indian culture, is reminiscent of some of the key concepts in Plato’s philosophy, namely those of mimesis (imitation) and eikeia (reflections or images). The artist or artisan imitates nature in its various productions, and so he is engaged in a second order activity. The work of the artist is directed by an idea (paradigm) in his mind, but this idea is only a reflection of an archetype, which alone is real. In the case, for example, of a painted table, this work of art is second removed from reality. Thus, Plato had in general a deem view of artists, musicians, mythologists, poets – to the point of castigating even the likes of Homer – , on account of their distortion of reality. This is however a complex subject, and there is still a widespread misunderstanding (even among professors of philosophy!) of the actual thinking of Plato with regard of poetry and music – which, for him, one can briefly say, are too important to be left to the regular or average poets and musicians of the day (good poetry and good music – which cannot but touch the divine – can impart noble ideas and models in the minds of the young, and the not so young).

Thus, the eikon (reflection, image) is a product of the artist’s activity (mimesis), far removed from what can be called real (the Platonic Ideas or Archetypes). There are “things” (phenomena) that have an even lower ontological status, such as reflections on water or mirages, which are images of images, natural objects being themselves images (eikones) of a higher reality. That would be the lowest step in the ascending ladder, which, in his philosophy, reaches up to the highest archetype, ‘the Good’.

The famous myth of the cave is also an illustration of the degrees of reality in Plato’s philosophy. The prisoners in the cave are prevented from looking back to see the source of light and actual objects in daylight, and can only see their shadows reflected on a wall in front of them. This takes us back to the Indian story. The prisoners in Plato’s  cave cannot see “real” or actual things (of course, this is only a “myth”), but the throngs of people going to the imitator’s tent are quite happy, and entertained, listening to the grunts of the imitator of pigs, and not so by those of an actual, live, pig. Is this the power of art, of fiction, illusion, which keeps us enthralled, oblivious of the actual beauty around us (and inside us)? But art is art, and, even though it cannot have the last word, there are necessarily degrees of perfection, of real beauty, and thus of inspiration, in its productions. The (spiritual) master in the story was saying that few are the ones who are interested in the highest Reality (Atman), in the same way that Plato wrote that, if many are the bearers of adornments (thyrsus) in a procession, few are the philosophers among them.

                            (mañana en español)


About amartingarcia

General surgeon (retired). Studied Western philosophy at U of Toronto. Afterwards interest turned to advaita vedanta and non-duality for past 20 yrs, plus a long interlude in Sufism coinciding with that period. Now contributing in ’Advaita Vision’ with regular posts and discussions.
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