I’ve been working my way through Plato’s Republic again, and this time, I was struck by the oddness of Socrates’ discussion of narration in poetry and theater. Although brief and strange, this passage might help us think about character formation, particularly given the ubiquity of entertainment dependent upon storytelling and acting. At the least, I suspect it will help us uncover certain of our assumptions about how virtue relates to imitation and the forms of entertainment. I should add at the outset that I haven’t read any secondary literature on this topic or read and reread the argument many times over, so my reading of the Republic on this point is somewhat provisional.
In this passage, Socrates discusses not merely the content of poetry and theater, which is what most of us evaluate when assessing the moral worth of entertainment. Socrates also focuses upon their form, and the key issue of form is imitation (mimesis).
Socrates begins his discussion of imitation by distinguishing between two kinds of narration (392c and following). In one kind, the poet speaks in his own voice, narrating the tale as himself. In the second, he speaks in the voice of another, “mak[ing] his own voice as much like that of the indicated speaker as possible” (393). This is imitation. In other words, Socrates contends, imitation is the poet’s attempt to “hide” himself in the persona of another narrator or a character. While it is curious that, for Socrates, the poet’s adoption of other narrative voices constitutes imitating other people, the more interesting feature of the passage is Socrates’s apparent belief that successful imitation requires that the moral character of the one imitated be adopted by the imitator.
While Socrates leaves this point unstated, it is, I think, implicit in his discussion of how the guardians should relate to poetry, theater, and imitation. He first asks whether the city’s guardians should be imitators. Earlier, he reminds his interlocutors, he argued that “each individual would do a fine job at one occupation” but would be a mediocrity if he tried his hand at many (395e). The same holds, Socrates claims, for imitation: “a single individual can’t imitate many things as well as he can imitate one.” To prove his point, he shows that different actors feature in different kinds of plays. The same person is not well-suited for both tragedy and comedy (395b).
From this, Socrates concludes that, if the guardians are to be good guardians (i.e. “do a fine job at one occupation”), they must be either forbidden from imitating or else permitted to imitate only conduct “appropriate for them” (395c). Socrates worries that, if guardians begin imitating the wrong things, they’ll develop a taste for the wrong things.
There’s a possible tension in Socrates’ understanding of imitation, however. On the one hand, he argues that only a certain kind of person can imitate a particular character well. The same actor is unlikely to be accomplished in both tragedy and comedy, ostensibly because the kinds of people presented in each—and the manner of their presentation—differ markedly. This indicates that the actor’s competence at the one is due to an innate or developed disposition toward it which cannot be easily suppressed. One cannot easily hide in an alien persona. On the other hand, however, Socrates worries the guardians will successfully imitate those they are not like and, in so doing, become like them. Thus, a man cannot successfully imitate someone he’s not like, but a man may become like someone he imitates. How do these cohere?
The most obvious solution is simply that Socrates thinks trying on vicious personae will gradually make someone vicious, especially someone young and impressionable. One may mostly fail at early attempts to imitate a vicious man, but he will eventually begin succeeding, and therein lies the danger. This solution is confirmed when Socrates claims, anticipating Aristotle, that “Imitations practiced from youth become a part of nature and settle into habits” (395d).
But once vicious imitations become part of our nature, what hope do we have? Are all of us consigned to our youthful follies?
Socrates’ discussion of imitation bears striking resemblance to Augustine’s treatment of habit in book 10 of his Confessions. For Augustine, sinners gradually become habituated to sinful lust. Once habituated, sinful people cannot merely resist lusts of the flesh through a decision of the will. The lust of the flesh (sexual or not) takes captive those who succumb to it—and everyone succumbs. Hence, as Augustine put it, he was enslaved to “habitual practices” which would “reabsorb” him and hold him “in their grip.” Those who are so held—again, all of us—are unable to break free on our own. Augustine takes St. Paul’s horror at himself in Romans 7 to epitomize this condition. Even the convert, having repented of his former life, cannot escape enslavement to sinful habit.
At any rate, he cannot escape quickly. Augustine does hold out hope that freedom from at least certain lusts is possible. God’s medicine, Christ Jesus, “is still more potent” than man’s diseases. How if not at the “moment” of conversion, how does Christ heal? By giving “the price of my redemption” to me in bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. Only heavenly medicine heals. Augustine’s belief in Eucharistic healing should not be confused with contemporary theological trends that propose liturgy or ritual as healing balms in their own right—as though mere repetition could free us from ourselves. Rather, for Augustine, the Eucharist is supernatural rehabituation, and indeed, supernatural imitation. In the Eucharist, we pattern ourselves after Christ and are united to Him in His life, death, and resurrection. We gradually put on Christ, hide in Christ, and become imitators of Christ.