Imitation: Plato’s Republic and Myron’s Athena and Marsyas

Athena Marsyas Reconstruction@0


The Greek sculptor Myron was born in Eleutherae, probably sometime before 500 b.c.e. Pliny the Elder names Hageladas, a caster of bronzes in Argos, as his teacher. Myron himself sculpted almost exclusively in bronze, and though no originals of his are known to survive, a few of his works have survived in marble copies, including the Diskobolos and a group composition with Athena and the stayr Marsyas. His most active period appears to have been the decades following Greek victories over the Persians in 480 b.c.e.

Athena and Marsyas

None of Myron’s original works, including the Athena and Marsyas, are known to survive; the only records we have of them are found in written references and later copies. Pausanias, a geographer of Ancient Greece, and Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia both mention a group of figures on the Athenian Acropolis that are thought to refer to Myron’s original Athena and Marsyas. Scholars generally consider the fragment of Marsyas in the Lateran Museum in Rome and the fragment of Athena in the Frankfurt Liebighaus (both pictured below) as the closest copies to the original figures, based partly on images from ancient coins representing the group together. (The reconstruction pictured above is of a much later date, based on the evidence cited here.)


Plato was born around 428 b.c.e. into an elite family in Athens. Though little is known of his early training elsewhere, he was certainly a follower of Socrates, Socrates, a stonemason of lower class despite his high public profile as a teacher and citizen, forms the central figure in most of Plato’s writings, which take the form of philosophical dialogues on a variety of topics. Plato withdrew from Athens for some time following Socrates’ execution in 399 b.c.e. During his travels, he established relationships with the rulers in Syracuse on Sicily. Later in life he established his Academy in Athens, which remained open until the 6th century A.D.

The Republic 

Plato is generally considered to have written the Republic during his “middle period,” though there is no certain date to attach to the work, nor a certain place in a set order of all his dialogues. The middle period dialogues (others include the Phaedo, Symposium, Cratylus and the Phaedrus) are characterized as such by the way Plato introduces his own ideas into the dialogues by way of the character of Socrates, whereas in earlier works Socrates is presented more directly in his own right as a philosopher. The Republic is perhaps Plato’s most ambitious work, in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine the nature of justice by way of the construction of an ideal State.

Related Books and References

Plato. The Republic.

Weis, H. Anne. “The “Marsyas” of Myron: Old Problems and New Evidence.” American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 83, No. 2 (Apr., 1979): 214-219.

Plato on the Evils of Art

 Plato does not tend in his dialogues to make criticisms of particular works of visual art or artists. However, the Republic is noted for Socrates’ condemnation of poets and artists in general for the deleterious effect they have on people’s ideas of what is true and right in human conduct. In constructing their ideal State, the interlocutors of the dialogue agree in the end that, as Socrates puts it “. . . painting or drawing, and imitation in general, when doing their proper work, are far removed from truth . . . and they have no true or healthy aim.” Indeed, Socrates finally convinces his companions (in Book X of the dialogue) that the poet, like the painter, is

“concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man . . . the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he . . . is a manufacturer of images and very far removed from the truth.”

Are there moral dangers generally in how imitative arts appeal to and stimulate our emotional and physical feelings? In depicting immoral or ignorant actions, can imitative art divert us from good conduct and true knowledge of things? Should we distrust the kind of fascination that a good imitation of things seems to have for us? Can we argue against Plato that art, imitative or otherwise, may appeal to our reason as much as to our emotions? Or, is art inherently emotional and/or physical in its effect?

Myron and the Imitative Impulse

Myron is generally credited with introducing a new naturalism into Classical Greek statuary, a generation or two before Plato flourished. Myron was admired especially for his ability to convey a sense of motion in his figures (another of his major works, the Discobolus or Discuss Thrower, is well-known in this regard). In Plato’s terms, Myron’s work signaled the advent of imitative sculpture in Greek art. Myron’s dynamic figures marked a radical departure from the statuary of the “archaic” figures exemplified by the “kuros,” a standing male nude (such as that pictured below) that represented the ideal of young masculinity.

Such developments in the arts in ancient Greece give us some insight into the context of Plato’s concerns about imitative art. We may ask with Plato: is an illusion of reality the only or best goal for art? If not, what others are there, and do they have different aims than imitative or illusionistic art? Do other forms of art (abstract, or decorative, for example) avoid the dangers Plato saw in the imitative?

In a related vein, our interest in art’s imitative abilities seems to have led over time to our increasing ability to produce illusions of reality. Certainly, we might argue that some current art forms are far more powerful in capturing natural motion than Myron’s statuary. Is our sense of art’s naturalism relative, however? Could Myron’s advances have impressed his contemporaries as much as we are impressed by our advances in imitative capacity over his?

Does such advancing naturalism help make sense of Plato’s apprehensions about art? Does our ability to imitate reality bring us closer to it, or make the difference between the real and the illusion more difficult to grasp? Further, does greater ability to imitate suggest greater moral dangers of the kind that Plato warns of? Consider, for example, the kinds of arguments that are often proposed against violent and sexual content in movies, television and video games in our own time.

(Note the influence of older Epytian depictions of figures: the stylized rendering and relative simplicity of the pose, including the emphasis on the figure’s orientation in space through the one striding leg.)

see also:

Poetics and Politics

 How do we read a public work of art like Myron’s group of Athena and Marsyas in light of Plato’s distrust of their effect on the political life of the State? Without knowing whether Plato had Myron’s works specifically in mind (though he would probably have known them), what do you make of the philosopher’s reasons for excluding artists from the ideal State? Would we do better to remove such sculptures (like Myron’s and others on the Athenian Acropolis) or other public works of imitation from our own public spaces? Are there any resonances in our own debates about the proper kinds of and places for public art in Plato’s remarks in the Republic against painters and poets?

Imitating Imitation?

In the passage from Pausanias describing Myron’s group, the goddess, having been laughed at for how she looked when playing the aulos flute she’d invented, is “striking the silen Marsyas for picking up the flutes she had wanted discarded.” Marsyas later engaged the god Apollo to a contest in music, and was flayed alive when the Muses judged Apollo the winner.

Is Myron’s theme in his group sympathetic to or inimical to Plato’s criticisms of imitative art? We might take Myron, like Plato, to be warning against the dangers of art – that it involves impulsivity, hubris and lack of modesty or propriety. Yet both Plato and Myron produce a kind of imitative art. Can we square such critiques of art with the artfulness with which they are delivered? Are different kinds of art more or less reliable for ascertaining and representing the truth, or what is good in human conduct? (Dialogue or sculpture in the present case; are there others?) What do you make of the idea of one kind of art critiquing – even criticizing – another? Can the arts compete, socially, economically, politically, artistically?

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