Plato distrusted art as a dangerous deception. But his fear of images came from his appreciation of their the power. As every embodied being, Plato lived in an inescapable world of images and he used them powerfully to communicate his ideas, writes Radcliffe Edmonds.
Images are powerful; they strike our senses – whether through vision, hearing or touch – and they impress themselves on our minds. Plato is notorious for his distrust of images and the people who make them; his Republic is filled with discussions about banning the poets from the city and restricting what, when and how images can be circulated. But Plato’s suspicions stem from his appreciation of the power of images and his fears about how that power can be misused.
That same appreciation shows itself in Plato’s own use of images, not just his elaborate myths filled with vivid imagery of the torments of the afterlife or the shape of the heavens, but even in his chosen form of writing. The dialogue, the genre which Plato chose instead of the expository treatise, is a representation of conversations, filled with details of persons, places, and things imitated through the medium of writing. These images – of Socrates drinking the hemlock while his friends weep around him, of the drunken Alcibiades in the doorway trailing garlands of ivy and violets, of the charioteer of the soul pulling violently back on the reins when he catches sight of the beloved – all stick in the mind and the memory.
For Plato, the basic problem of images is that they both resemble and differ from the real thing...Images always involves some distortion of reality.
How then do we grapple with the power of images? We know that what they show is not actually in front of our eyes. An image re-presents something else; it makes that other thing present to the observer, but in a mediated way. For Plato, the basic problem of images is that they both resemble and differ from the real thing. This means that an image may easily be mistaken for the real thing, but also that it gives the viewer a false impression. Images always involves some distortion of reality.
If, to use Socrates’ example of illusion in Plato’s Republic, we reach for the image of the stick under water where it appears to be, we will miss it; if we think that the stick is as bent as it appears, we fail to understand its actual straight form. Likewise, the moon is not ‘a ghostly galleon’ tossed on a stormy sea. There is no ship sailing through the sky, glowing with eerie light, nor is the sky really an ocean roiled by a tempest.
The solution is to treat images as signs or analogies that can help us to see beyond the image to the real world. We see that the moon appears to go in and out of the clouds like a ship tossed by the waves, and we can reason that the apparently bent stick will seem straight when pulled out of the water. If we look beyond the immediate impression that the image makes, we can use our reason to judge it more accurately.
The more powerful the image, however, the greater the danger that we fixate on the image itself without thinking about what it represents. As Socrates points out in the Phaedo, we most easily drawn in by the images which produce a pleasurable or painful reaction in us, especially visual phenomena. For Plato, it is beauty that most powerfully affects us, driving us mad with longing. In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that, of all the realities such as justice or wisdom, beauty is the one that is most readily perceptible to our senses. Thus, when we perceive a beautiful image, we are awestruck, smitten with longing for its divine form.
He who is freshly initiated, who once upon a time was among those who saw much of true reality, whenever he beholds a godlike face or some form of a body which is a good image of beauty, first he shudders and something of that former awe comes upon him, and, gazing at it, he reveres it as a god, and if he weren’t afraid of seeming exceedingly mad, he would make sacrifice to his beloved as if to a statue and a god. (Phaedrus 251a)
To take the image itself as the object of our longing, however, is like trying to make love to a statue of our beloved instead of interacting with the beloved himself. Plato uses that erotic yearning as an image for philosophy, the desire to perceive the truth behind the appearances.
Like any set of images, language both fails to convey what it represents and runs the risk of misleading the hearer into thinking it is reality.
We cannot, however, truly access the reality behind the appearances, any more than we can stare directly at an eclipse. We must, as Socrates says in the Phaedo, study reality through its image reflected in water or some other medium.
It seemed to me, since I had sworn off looking closely at the real things, that I should be careful not to suffer what those gazing at the sun during an eclipse and looking closely at it suffer. For some of them wreck their eyes, unless they look closely at the image of it in the water or some such thing. (Phaedo 99de)
As embodied beings we cannot do without images and representations; we are inevitably reliant on our senses to provide us with signs to interpret. For Plato, even language is merely a more abstract set of signs and images. Like any set of images, language both fails to convey what it represents and runs the risk of misleading the hearer into thinking it is reality. Such signs must be treated as a kind of game, not taken too seriously in themselves, but used as a way to follow the tracks to what is behind them.
In the contemporary world, we cannot escape the problem of seductive, powerful images simply by banning advertising or censoring Tiktok and violent videogames. Those media may indeed include images that are harmful to those who receive them. But the problem is more fundamental and it lies in how we think about images of all kinds. We can choose to be deceived by images (and to accept the pleasure or pain they bring) or we can use our reason to evaluate what is behind them. To evoke one of Plato’s most memorable images, the Allegory of the Cave, we must not remain entranced by the play of shadows on the wall, we have to turn ourselves around and seek out what produces those images, the true things to which the images merely point as signs.
We can never avoid the danger that the images we create will be misused and misunderstood.
Like Plato, we all can also make use of the power of images – indeed we must employ images if we ever hope to communicate. All words, spoken or written, are a kind of image. However, we can never avoid the danger that the images we create will be misused and misunderstood. The rivers of fire in the underworld is one of Plato’s images. How would he feel seeing it being appropriated by evangelical preachers threatening damnation? Nevertheless, Plato crafted unforgettable images to communicate his philosophical ideas to his students in his Academy. Two and a half millennia later, his images still have the power to stir our souls.