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Plato vs. Grand Theft Auto

“What the box office needed at Epidaurus, as it needs in movies today, are characters that are unstable, impulsive, and violent. Thus Oedipus. Thus Hamlet. Thus the figures in Anti-Christ.”

It had been just an ordinary day at the office, metaphysically speaking, but it looked like ending with a bang. In a sunlit grove at the foot of the Acropolis, Plato was showing Aristotle something he’d found on the web:

I am one of them, the early adopters. I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto since the beginning… Grand Theft Auto III brought a level of immersion, a depth of play never before seen in videogames. Other games allow you to play God or a hero but GTA III came the closest to letting you play something far more basic and far more strange. It let you, in a way, play a person — an aberrant criminal killer of a person but a person nevertheless… You wanted to spend weeks building up a business or collecting a dandy wardrobe or raking in millions through gambling and robbery? Go for it.

What makes the GTA games so deliriously fun and so successful (beyond the genius of their mechanics and execution) is that you’re not playing reluctant heroes — you’re playing some straight-up thugs. No Name (aka Claude) from GTA III starts out a bank robber and all around amoral dude, and his quest for vengeance doesn’t exactly reform his character. And what about Tommy Vercetti? Tommy is a cold-blooded hitman coke dealer and you win the game by slaying your enemies and taking over Vice City’s underworld, not by recanting your evil ways.

CJ in San Andreas, the first black lead, starts the game out trying to put his gang back on top before being sucked into the machinations of a crooked cop. In other words, these were not your mom and dad’s action heroes. These dudes were straight bad. With Tommy or CJ as your moral compass, running folks over and robbing prostitutes (sometimes killing them in order to scoop their money) didn’t seem like too big a stretch… [Novelist Junot Diaz reviewing Grand Theft Auto IV last June in the Wall Street Journal.]

Fear not, it’s just Showbiz


Aristotle looked concerned but not alarmed. He was an early adopter himself, he told Plato, adding that his well-known remarks about theatre were not meant to legitimate coke dealing or running folks over or robbing vulnerable women. Nothing nasty like that. Theatre had a noble heritage, and would doubtless survive the deliriously fun straight-up thugs of Grand Theft Auto IV.

Plato said nothing — but his face said “told you so”. It was now more than 2,300 years since he warned about the likely effects of Showbiz Athenian style; by 2009, with millions of youngsters playing straight bad dudes as virtual criminals in a world of virtual crime, the new entertainment confirmed his prediction; this could be long-range forecasting’s greatest coup.

And perhaps he’s right, or partly right anyway: but to come to the point of our argument, do Plato’s views in The Republic have anything to tell us about Showbiz today? About games like Grand Theft Auto IV, or movies like The Dark Knight, and the moral universe these puerile pyrotechnic shoot-’em-ups endlessly come from? Or perhaps more immediately the movie Anti-Christ and its director Lars Von Trier, a man (if Charlotte Gainsbourg is to be believed, and I think she should be) who is plainly deeply disturbed. Who first identified theatrical outrageousness as the classical artistic faiblesse?

Plato’s teaching


Used judiciously and with a suitably grim humour I think Plato can be a help. On the one hand he suggests that the issues raised by the relation of Showbiz to the rest of society have changed little over more than two thousand years. On the other, that the myriad effects of high-tech modern illusionism, both social and political, should not be too casually brushed aside.

Plato’s disquiet starts with the idea of ‘mimesis’. Is it a good thing or a bad? The term translates as copying, imitation, mimicry, and impersonation — things known or done indirectly and at second hand — with overtones of dishonesty and inauthenticity. And for Plato (unlike Aristotle later) those moral overtones were more important than anything else.

He had come to believe that in the hands of the Showbiz set, given their priorities, the effects of mimesis were generally bad. Trust and truth are the foundations of what we today call civil society; they require stable identities from week to week and year to year; but if actors are professionally required to be all things to all men, how can one believe what they say? And how could anyone think that thespians (from the figures onstage at Epidaurus to Lars Von Trier’s cast today), were appropriate guides to things that really count?

He tackled this issue in three places in The Republic, Books Two, Three, and Ten, where his subject is the training of moral character — especially the education of a trustworthy, truthful, and responsible governing class. But the emphasis differs in each place. In the earlier parts of The Republic his concern is mainly with the message being imparted in the schools; in Book Ten it is more the ignorance and superficial character of the typical messenger (painter, poet, or actor) that arouses his indignation.

In ancient Greece dramatic recitation was an essential part of Greek education, and this involved acting roles and representing characters before other children. Moreover, if some of Eric A. Havelock’s argument in Preface to Plato is accepted, in those days most Greeks were still semi-literate at best, and in an oral culture continual recitation was how information was remembered and passed on: the works of Hesiod and Homer amounted to encyclopaedias, in poetic form, of all that the Hellenic peoples had learnt and known and done. Such recitations were quasi-theatrical performances, rhetorically embellished, for audiences who listened because most of them could not read.

Imitation and the moral life

Plato thought the characters presented should be exemplary, and that boys should model themselves on “men of courage, self-control, independence, and religious principle.” And because first impressions are important, he believed that dramatic impersonations of rogues and scoundrels could be dangerous for both actors and audiences.

Schoolchildren “must no more act a mean part than do a mean action or any other kind of wrong. For we soon reap the fruits of literature in life, and prolonged indulgence in any form of literature leaves its mark on the moral nature of a man, affecting not only the mind but physical poise and intonation.” (Book Three, 395, H.D.P. Lee translation)

This being the case, the curriculum in Athenian schools was downright scandalous. Those with little more than a gift for the gab had undue influence. Myths were being treated as matters of fact; drunken and violent gods were held up for emulation; all educational discourse was cast in poetic and histrionic forms. This was pernicious because “Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change; it is important that the first stories they hear shall aim at producing the right moral effect.” (Book Two, 378).

The theory of ideas

Things get more complicated in Book Ten. Metaphysics looms, along with his celebrated Theory of Ideas. This is hardly the place to summarise Plato’s philosophy, but to see where mimesis fits into the picture at least three elements should be understood. Ultimate reality resided in the “forms” — invisible, impenetrable except to God and largely unknowable by man, yet primary and fundamental. Second came visible life and tangible artefacts, copies of the forms. Third and finally came artistic representations — copies of copies.

This trinity can also be seen as a moral continuum from truth to falsehood (or, more theologically, from divinity to damnation), with thespian mimicry coming last. As Plato’s alter-ego Socrates puts it, “the artist’s representation stands at a third remove from reality.” And for those dedicated to truth that was not good enough. (Book Ten, 597)

Added to this was the importance of calm and reason — not unhinged romantic emotion — in public affairs. Our aggressive drives and sexual longings belong to the animal level of human existence: their restraint and management is the foundation of civilized life. But the arts invariably appeal to the less rational part of human nature, and working oneself up into an emotional state over nothing was something actors did every day. Furthermore (and think now of the lonely player of video games or the solitary surfer on the web) it is when a man is without the social constraint of company that he is most likely to give way to his worst impulses, and in these circumstances he may “say or do things he would be ashamed to let other people hear or see.” (Book Ten, 604)

Outrageousness and audiences

Again, Plato shows a keen understanding of why the arts favour outrageousness — and comes up with a Showbiz perennial. It had not escaped his notice that playwrights avoid mundane scenes showing ordinary people and ordinary life. For who would come to watch them? The trouble being that calm reasonableness is not dramatic.

What the box office needed at Epidaurus, as it needs in movies today, are characters that are unstable, impulsive, and violent. Thus Oedipus. Thus Hamlet. Thus the figures in Anti-Christ. But not your local butcher or baker or candlestick-maker working away at his trade. “If a playwright wants to build a popular reputation”, wrote Plato, (Book Ten, 605) “he will consciously devise dramas with characters that are unstable and irritable.” That way lies fame and fortune.

So what about Aristotle? Didn’t he also give mimesis a central place? He did, but with a very different emphasis. Aristotle was a critic rather than a moralist; an observer, not an advocate; a man who saw his scientific task as finding out how the devices, forms, structures, and mechanisms of poetry, music, and theatre work — without dwelling too much on political ideals, social effects, or moral consequences.

The imitative instinct

He was pretty laid back about mimesis. In Chapter Four of On the Art of Poetry he writes that “The instinct for imitation is inherent in man from his earliest days; he differs from other animals in that he is the most imitative of creatures, and he learns his earliest lessons by imitation. Also inborn is the instinct to enjoy works of imitation.”

That audiences might model their conduct on what they saw in the theater, or find pleasure in the vicarious company of madmen and ruffians, left Aristotle unfazed. He didn’t think in pedagogic terms. He didn’t ask that impersonations be exemplary. The characters to be found on the stage came in all sizes, shapes, and moral condition — good, bad, and indifferent — and by and large he was content that this was so.

Or anyway that’s how Aristotle felt until Grand Theft Auto IV. Despite appearances it had left him a bit rattled. Plato noticed this and teased him about the golden mean. As they strolled together through the dusk he remarked that his young friend was inclined to think “moderation in all things” would take care of evil. But it wouldn’t. Not with unbridled hedonism wrecking the lives of young and old.

Are some actions evil in themselves?

Aristotle calmly responded that he had covered this in The Nicomachean Ethics where, in Book Two, Chapter Six, he wrote that “the choice of a mean is not possible in every action; some actions are evil in themselves” — and as for the pleasure principle, in human affairs it was always necessary to take happiness (eudaimonia) into account.

That is why the pleasures of mimesis on the stage should be accepted. Of course theatrical mimicry involved lots of clever deception. But, he added, lightly touching the Master’s elbow, accepting the pleasure principle in art was one thing — justifying ‘noble lies’ to deceive the public was something else. Think where that had led!

Sometimes their disagreements, however intellectually fertile, were wearying: it occurred to Aristotle that Plato had become a bit of a killjoy and he wondered what the old man would be demanding next. Universal surveillance? Better to remember Pericles’ speech to the Athenians in 431 BC:

The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.

But here we shall leave them, debating long into the Athenian night an issue that is still with us today — is Showbiz a cause or an effect of the decline of civility in private and public life, and who should we blame, and what should we do?


Mimesis and Grand Theft Auto

We are all familiar enough with the perennial debate about whether identifying with nasty characters in literature (a) encourages nasty behaviour or (b) discourages it by providing sufficient outlet for impulses which are otherwise likely to result in nasty behaviour. GTA (and the technology associated with it) takes mimesis and empathetic identification a step further, which, paradoxically, might seem to strengthen both sides of the debate.

Much of course depends on the psyche of the person doing the identifying. While Plato had an exaggerated fear of the first possibility, Aristotle was (as Roger mentions) much more relaxed about mimesis as such, though his discussions of it relate to highly socialised genres such as tragedy and comedy. Thus the tragic effect requires the mimesis of suitable people; the spectator of tragedy could not identify with a thoroughly evil person. But would Aristotle have approved of the genre (rather than the technology as such) to which GTA belongs? It is scarcely conceivable that he would have, though we have no ancient approximations to such a genre. The mimesis of which he approved in tragedy was designed to stimulate very basic emotions (pity and fear), but to stimulate them in very sophisticated and controlled ways.

Perhaps the shows in the Roman amphitheatre provide an interesting kind of contrasting parallel to GTA. We might see them as taking modern reality TV a step further (as in The Running Man). Instead of merely humiliating people, why not kill them? The Roman shows and reality TV however approach the mimesis from, as it were, the opposite end. In GTA the ‘art work’ itself remains securely in the realm of the aesthetic or the virtual, but the spectator moves from the more imaginatively detached, though still empathetic, attitude one brings to conventional art to enter, as it were, the art work itself as its hero, though only in an imaginative, aesthetic or virtual sense.

But in the Roman arena the spectator retains the conventional distinctness or separation from the ‘art work’ (though of course ready and able to identify imaginatively and sadomasochistically with the performers), while the ‘art work’ itself shifts so that it no longer merely imitates reality; the slaughter really occurs. The relevant ancient philosopher here is the Stoic Seneca who, like Plato, was anxious about the effects of bad examples taken from art or from being in bad company about which, having been Nero’s tutor, he was something of an expert. He warns against attending the games because of the sort of people you rub shoulders with and the demoralising effects of the spectacle itself:

Nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for it is then that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure….I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman – because I have been among human beings.
(Seneca, Letter 7, Loeb translation).

Stuart Lawrence, Classical Studies, Massey University

Posted in Arts and Letters, Civilization, People, Theatre.

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