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Imitation reconsidered (1: the Ideal)

These days, to be a true artist, you must not imitate. You've got to be original.

In fact, you've got to be an original.

But this is not the way it used to be. Indeed, one way to understand all of history is to take note of when people stopped imitating.

(In art history, imitation stopped around the end of the 19th century. This was the same time for the loss of God across the board in many disciplines. In biology, for example, it was the advent of Darwinian thinking: life comes not from above, it comes from random processes; and selection by power and exertion).

But when Paul exhorted his readers to "be imitators of me," he was living in a culture that highly valued imitation.

Hands down the most educated of the New Testament writers, Paul was no doubt well aware of the Platonic-Aristotelian teachings on mimesis, or imitation. Many threads of meaning were woven into this word mimesis, threads that permeated the Greco-Roman worldview, a worldview that, say what you will about it, influenced the stability of the Western world for nearly two thousand years.

Here is an example: artists used to be trained by apprenticeship. In order to be an artist, you basically set aside any life you had, and you moved into the life-world of the master artist you apprenticed for. You ate, lived, and worked under him.

You imitated him.

This is because you did not imitate him; you imitated the living ideal his work stood for. Somehow in the hands of the master, this material world is transcended, and an ideal world can be ushered in through the work of his hands.

This was the basis for BEAUTY in art.

So, the first thread of meaning for mimesis from that old world is this: Imitation was not to copy what is in front of you. Imitation was the only way to bring into this world truth from a heavenly world.

That was the business of art.

It was the business of being beautiful.

Now, Paul recognized there was a problem with the Greco-Roman view of imitation. Simply put: the Platonic ideal suitable for imitation existed in a vague immaterial world called "the Good." You never knew for sure how to get to this Good.

But the advent of Christ not only defined "the Good," it brought the Good down to earth, to tabernacle with men.

And those who gave their lives over to Christ the master, as Paul did, were worthy of imitation.

It was the key to a beautiful life.


I Corinthians 4.16 I urge you, then, be imitators (μιμηταί) of me.

Hebrews 13.7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

John 1.14 And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of an only begotten of a father, full of grace and truth. (Young's translation).

For this thread of mimesis in Plato, see Republic X. The Jowett translation of Republic X is readily available at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.11.x.html

For one study of how early Christian writers used concepts from the Hellenistic worldview see Niketas Siniossoglou, Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance (Cambridge University Press, 2008). The author of this book does not take a Christian-friendly view, but for that reason is all the more worth reading.


Daniel Leslie Peterson September 5, 2009 at 7:14 AM  

Very well put, my friend!

And the incarnation makes it possible for us to imitate God himself: "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5:1-2)

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