In and Out of Character: Socratic Mimēsis

Dissertation, Cuny Graduate Center (2020)
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In the "Republic," Plato has Socrates attack poetry’s use of mimēsis, often translated as ‘imitation’ or ‘representation.’ Various scholars (e.g. Blondell 2002; Frank 2018; Halliwell 2009; K. Morgan 2004) have noticed the tension between Socrates’ theory critical of mimēsis and Plato’s literary practice of speaking through various characters in his dialogues. However, none of these scholars have addressed that it is not only Plato the writer who uses mimēsis but also his own character, Socrates. At crucial moments in several dialogues, Socrates takes on a role and speaks as someone else. I call these moments “Socratic mimēsis.” While previous commentators have noticed some of these moments, they have either overstated their rarity or they have not studied them collectively. My dissertation is the first in-depth investigation of this phenomenon in the dialogues. Socrates’ dramatic imitation of others is way of teaching in a voice separate from his own, and it is also a way for Plato to speak to, and to educate, different kinds of audiences. Although “Socratic mimēsis” occurs throughout the Platonic corpus, I focus on three passages from three different dialogues, which are paradigm instances: [1] in the "Crito" Socrates plays the part of ‘the Laws’ (50a-54c); [2] in the "Theaetetus" he acts the part of ‘Protagoras’ (166a-168c); and [3] in the "Menexenus" he recites a funeral speech learned from ‘Aspasia’ (236d-249c). Instead of one-sidedly reading the dialogues as either only literary works of art or as only a series of philosophical arguments, this study gleans philosophic insights from the literary and dramatic details of the dialogues. In chapter one I argue that in the "Crito" Socrates tries to convince Crito of a universal and absolute ethics based on never committing injustice, but Crito is not able to understand. In order to make Crito more just—but not yet at the level of Socratic ethics—Socrates creates ‘the Laws’ to persuade Crito to expand his personal notion of justice. Socrates instills a political obedience in place of Crito’s existing lawlessness as a second-best recourse. Plato expects the astute listener or reader to see the contrast between Socrates’ earlier ethical principles, said in his own voice, with what he says in the voice of ‘the Laws.’ In chapter two I argue that in the part of the "Theaetetus" where Socrates defends Protagoras (often called ‘the Defense’), Socrates, by imitating ‘Protagoras,’ is actually criticizing Protagorean relativism. The Protagorean theory cannot account for mimēsis and Socrates’ mimetic act performatively contradicts the identity of appearance and reality, which the theory presupposes. Finally, in chapter three I argue that in the Menexenus the funeral oration that Socrates recounts for Menexenus that he heard from ‘Aspasia’ is actually a disguised criticism of political rhetoric and of Athenian imperialism. Although the speech is never interrogated within the dialogue, Plato provokes the listener or reader outside the dialogue to question its message and to see how it conflicts with many of Socrates’ positions in other dialogues. Beyond reconsidering the long-standing and persistent view that Plato was against poetry and mimetic performance, I re-examine the role that performance and role-playing can have in philosophy and pedagogy more generally. Actors, by taking on other personas, and audience members, in observing actors and their actions, are both involved in acts of imagination that can expand their horizon of thinking and feeling.

Author's Profile

Mateo Duque
State University of New York at Binghamton


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