Laws in the Cave; rules of the philosophy game
In the work generally acknowledged to be his last, Laws, Plato returns to the themes of Republic and once again tries to imagine an ideal city-state. In Laws, however, the role of mimesis is fundamentally different.
Athenian: And, if any of the serious poets, as they are termed, who write tragedy, come to us and say-“O strangers, may we go to your city and country or may we not, and shall we bring with us our poetry-what is your will about these matters?”-how shall we answer the divine men? I think that our answer should be as follows:-Best of strangers, we will say to them, we also according to our ability are tragic poets, and our tragedy is the best and noblest; for our whole constitution [politeia] is an identificative performance [mimesis (or what did you think?)] of the best and noblest life, which we affirm to be indeed the truest tragedy. You are poets and we are poets, both makers of the same strains, rivals and antagonists in the noblest of dramas, which true law can alone perfect, as our hope is. Do not then suppose that we shall all in a moment allow you to erect your stage in the agora, or introduce the fair voices of your actors, speaking above our own, and permit you to harangue our women and children, and the common people, about our institutions, in language other than our own, and very often the opposite of our own. For a state would be mad which gave you this licence, until the magistrates had determined whether your poetry might be recited, and was fit for publication or not. Wherefore, O ye sons and scions of the softer Muses, first of all show your songs to the magistrates, and let them compare them with our own, and if they are the same or better we will give you a chorus; but if not, then, my friends, we cannot.
“Constitution,” politeia, is a word frequently translated “republic.” It also happens to be the title of the work of the same name. I don’t think Plato could have said any more clearly that his work, whether you want to call that work “philosophy” or “dialectic” (which really just means “conversation,” for goodness’ sake) or “meta-musical mimetic,” is the same kind of thing the people in the cave are doing. It’s mimetic. It’s ludic.
It’s going to take a few posts to unpack the implications of this passage. Let me wind this one up by telegraphing the connection to games a bit more clearly.
Alright, fine–even I am willing to admit that Bioshock has received more than enough attention, so although I’m going to be talking in detail about its signal moment, the confrontation with Andrew Ryan, as I continue this series, let me say that despite Bioshock being the only mainstream game thus far that emphatically thematizes the disruption of the cave-culture-game, games are increasingly making use of their closed mimetic constitution to make at least a part of their meaning.
The example of Tale of Tales’ The Path (2009) (see also Kieron Gillen’s extremely lucid review of the game), whatever we think about the game’s content (Plato’s lawmakers would, I believe, most certainly not approve) comes in nicely here. The theme of that game is arguably the inevitability of corruption, and the game uses the falsification of its own interactivity to express that theme. There is no way to avoid the wolves and yet play the game (to avoid the wolves is, precisely, not to play): to play the game is to go to meet your characters’ corruption, willingly or unwillingly. The theme itself is tragic, as opposed to philosophical, and thus precisely what Plato would seek to disqualify from enactment in the city of Laws.
The situation in Republic is much more complex and interesting. From the standpoint of Republic, The Path would seem to be disqualified not because of its theme but because of its mimetic nature. But here we come up against it, because Republic itself is mimesis—a mimesis that carries the story of how the philosopher tried to get the prisoners in the cave to turn their heads away from the shadow-puppet play, and failed. While The Path has no such grand and urgent intent, it’s nevertheless a game to be played on Plato’s new console: it makes the player perform as characters under the compulsion of mimesis. It’s an act of mimesis as Republic is an act of mimesis: both games make us sensible that, as The Matrix puts it, the world has been pulled over our eyes.