UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Imitation and inspiration : aspects of literary theory in early and middle-period platonic dialogues Evanson, Doris Muriel


Two theories of literature may be found in the dialogues of Plato: 1) the theory that the poet is inspired and his poetry the product of inspiration, and 2) the theory that the poet is an imitator and his poetry imitation. The two theories are distinct: inspiration is a theory of composition; imitation is a theory about the relation of language to its subject matter. Yet both theories are present in the Platonic corpus and in some cases in the same general context. This thesis will explore various aspects of these theories and will consider the problem of whether the two are in any way compatible. Our study will deal, in chronological order, with three of Plato's early and middle-period dialogues, the Ion, the Symposium, and the Republic. The Ion treats explicitly the topic of poetic inspiration and contains implicitly the concept of poetic imitation. The theory of inspiration presented in this dialogue differs from the traditional view in two significant ways: 1) in its exaggerated portrayal of the possessed poet, and 2) in its exaggerated emphasis on the element of inspiration in the poetic process. Plato here presents an exaggerated theory of inspiration in order to emphasize the dangers inherent in poetry and to discredit the poets' claims to wisdom and knowledge. The theory of imitation implicit in this dialogue is similarly exaggerated and pejorative. The Symposium repeats, with significant variations, the themes of the Ion. The inadequacy of the poet as regards wisdom is demonstrated in a literary agon between poet and philosopher. A new theory of inspiration is introduced, a theory of philosophic inspiration that transmutes and transcends the theory of poetic inspiration. The Republic deals explicitly with the topic of imitation and implicitly with the subject of inspiration. The theory of poetic imitation presented in Book X is an exaggeration of an earlier concept: the imitative poet of Book X is an "imitator" in the lowest and most pejorative sense of the word. Plato here, as in the Ion, presents an exaggerated theory of literature in order to refute the exaggerated claims made by and for the poets. Elsewhere in the Republic there are suggestions of a higher and truer concept of literary creativity. Various passages indicate that Plato conceived of both a theory of philosophic imitation and a theory of philosophic inspiration. In the Ion and in Book X of the Republic. Plato presents two diverse and incompatible theories in order to prove identical points. In both cases he exaggerates the deficiencies in order to emphasize the dangers of the poet and his poetry. Neither the theory of poetic inspiration in the Ion nor the theory of poetic imitation in Book X of the Republic is presented by Plato as a valid theory of literature. In the Symposium and in various passages throughout the Republic. Plato presents a theory of inspiration, and a theory of imitation that are valid and compatible. Here, both inspiration and imitation are taken up into the realm of philosophy. Philosophic imitation is imitation of the Forms; philosophic inspiration is inspiration by the Forms. At this highest level the two theories of literature coalesce .and become one: the ideal Form is, for the philosopher-poet, both his object of imitation and his source of inspiration.

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