False Variety: Plato’s Fear of the Mass Media

Hua-kuei Ho


Plato’s criticisms against poetry in the Republic X has been compared to the modern élitist criticisms against television in the 1970s and 80s by Alexander Nehamas. In his “Plato and the Mass Media” (1988), Nehamas explained that the poetry attacked by Plato—either Homer’s epics or the celebrated tragedies performed in theatres—was in the form of “popular entertainment” in the cultural context of Athens in the fifth century B.C.. The aim of my paper is not to endorse the élitist attitude toward the popular entertainment. What I wish to argue is that the variety shown by media does not entail our free choices among the various items. One significant feature of the mass media revealed by Nehamas is that the mimesis (representation/imitation) in it is “transparent.” The “transparent mimesis” is the representation which mirrors things simply as how they appear to the audience. Due to the transparency, the work of popular entertainment “requires little or no interpretation.” In this paper, I will explore the concept of the “transparent mimesis” in Plato and compare it with some views in the contemporary aesthetics. On freedom, I will compare it with Adorno. As for the variety shown in the transparent mimesis, I will challenge the idea that Greek art is “realistic,” by consulting the studies of aesthetics by Gombrich, Wollheim, and Halliwell. Mimeisis is not simply resembling the real things, but the things which appear to certain fixed points of views. In contrast with the popular impression that Plato is a variety-hater, my paper aims to show that Plato’s attacks on the mimetic arts come from his defence of our free choices against the false variety. Plato’s fear is not of variety, but of the false variety. The false variety in media imposes simplified fixed points of view on us via “transparent mimesis” which constrains our perceptions. This deprives us of freedom in Plato’s sense and of our perceptions of the real variety in the aesthetic sense.


Plato, mimesis, perception, the Republic, aesthetics

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.6667/interface.4.2017.33


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