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Plato on Poetry: Imitation or Inspiration?



A passage in Plato’s Laws (719c) offers a fresh look at Plato’s theory of poetry and art. Only here does Plato call poetry both mimêsis “imitation, representation,” and the product of enthousiasmos “inspiration, possession.” The Republic and Sophist examine poetic imitation; the Ion and Phaedrus (with passages in Apology and Meno) develop a theory of artistic inspiration; but Plato does not confront the two descriptions together outside this paragraph. After all, mimêsis fuels an attack on poetry, while enthousiasmos is sometimes used to attack it, sometimes to praise it. The explanation evidently lies in Plato’s understanding of drama, which in the Laws has grown more precise, from simply the presentation of characters to the presentation of multiple characters engaged in dramatic conflict.