Essay: Art as Imitation in Plato and Aristotle

greek_mirrorAncient Greek thought held that poetry, drama, and other forms of fine art were imitations of reality, a reality that could be actual or potential. Indeed, their phrase for what we think of as “fine art” was “imitative arts”, and great importance was attached to poetry as an integral part of the Greek education. Some questions naturally spring from this broad theory of art, for example: what exactly is being imitated by the poet or artist? How is it being imitated, is the imitation a straight copy, a distortion or an improvement in some way? Finally this leads us to questions of the end of poetry itself, and its justification for existence, that is, why imitate at all and can we obtain knowledge and/or pleasure through it?

Both Plato and Aristotle, the foremost philosophers of their time, arrived at widely different answers to the questions above. This is because art was held to be an imitation of nature or reality, and Plato and Aristotle’s theories on nature and reality were widely different, as were their ideas on the mechanism of imitation. Their differing views on mimesis, as outlined principally in The Republic and The Poetics, were thus partly a consequence of their differences in their ontological and epistemological views of the world. There are other factors, too, which complicate the matter.

In Book II of The Republic, Plato begins a discussion of poetry which is concerned with gods and heroes. He condemns much of this poetry as lies, “and still further because their lies are not attractive” (Republic, II, p24). Many stories, Plato is saying, are not imitations of any reality but are outright falsities, on the grounds that since gods and heroes are by definition better than men, they cannot perform such atrocious acts as shown for example in Homer and Aeschylus (the examples in Republic 26-29). Such portrayals provide justification for men to commit such acts themselves, and therefore these misrepresentations of gods and heroes are harmful to a general populace.

Such poetry, then, is lies and may be an imitation, but it is not an imitation of any truth and therefore must be condemned. Imitation proper appears in the Republic in Book III, where Plato begins to consider the more complicated case of poetry concerning men. He begins with imitation as it is incorporated within a character’s role, as where a poet or dramatist “makes himself resemble another in either voice or gesture” (Republic, III, p37). Here Plato shows a preference for straight narrative, in that by simply narrating events the poet may avoid entirely the explicit imitation of those characters he is speaking of, and the actors, too, can avoid placing themselves in a situation where they would imitate the evil acts of evil characters (as they would perhaps not normally do). When, however, imitation is used as a form of diction, Plato comes to the conclusion that any such imitation which mimics men who are not of upright and intelligent nature is undesirable in the ideal city. Plato therefore seems to cover the case of his own dialogues, where he speaks through the mouths of Socrates, Adeimantus and Glaucon. Sir Philip Sidney acknowledges this in The Defence of Poesie, saying that Plato made “mistress Philosophy very often borrow the masking raiment of Poesy” (Gilbert 428).

Plato’s account of imitation would seem to be relatively simple at this stage; mimesis appears to be translatable as “representation”, an expression of character whereby the poet (using dialogue) and the actor (in a dramatic presentation) imitate a character. Furthermore, where that imitated character has undesirable traits, the imitation is to be avoided. And later, in Book X, Plato claims that most poetry of necessity contains evil men (in order to produce interest and pleasure), and this too forms a basis for a wide-ranging condemnation of poetry.

That imitation has harmful effects is a complex matter; Plato’s argument rests on several crucial assumptions concerning the effect of poetry on an audience. In Book II he claims that “a young man must not be allowed to hear that he does nothing strange when he commits the most shocking offenses” (Republic, II, p25). Such a claim recalls the dialogue of The Ion, in which “a whole series of the inspired” (Ion, p13) arose from a poet’s recitations; that is, the poet is inspired by the Muse and the audience is in turn filled with inspiration by the poet.

A much stronger argument against imitation appears in Book X of The Republic, where Socrates begins by saying “all the imitative arts seem to me ruinous to the mental powers of all their hearers” (Republic, X, p42). Plato then begins a detailed discussion explaining imitation from first principles – its mechanism and its relation to truth. The argument is based largely on the theory of Forms and certain relations between the art of poetry and painting. In this argument all art is taken to be mimetic, as opposed to Book III’s more limited use of mimesis. All imitation, Plato argues, has little connection with truth; poets work in a similar way to a painter, who imitates the appearance of a bed which in turn is made by a craftsman from an idea in nature (and therefore the work of God). “An imitator” is defined by Plato in terms of painting; since painting is concerned only with appearances (as opposed to, say, the use to which objects can be put), Socrates says “you call him who is not in direct contact with nature an imitator” (Republic, X, p45). Furthermore, the imitator, being so far removed from the truth, can have little knowledge of what he imitates so can thus have little conception of the inherent goodness or badness of his work. Rather it is their function to deceive: “the imitator seems all-wise because he himself is unable to distinguish between knowledge and ignorance and imitation” (Republic, X, p46) and later: “though he knows only how to imitate, yet to those who are as ignorant as himself he really appears to know” (Republic, X, p48).

In order to produce pleasure, poets must of necessity imitate “the disturbed and unsettled character” (Republic, X, p52), and so the poet “sets up a badly governed state in the soul of each individual” (Republic, X, p52), that is, causing a harmful effect upon the individual, which thus corrupts the state if practised on a wide scale (the political state being the prime concern of Plato). In short, such imitation deludes the senses and does not appeal to reason; this claim is based on Plato’s categories of the soul. His conceptualisation of both the political state and the individual soul separates reason and will (operations of the mind) from pleasure and the passions (occupations of the senses). In the doctrine of the Line the similar attributes of knowledge vs. illusion are approximated into a linear scale. Since poetry appeals to the more illusory sense perception, it is placed lower in the scale; it cannot therefore have any access to the Forms, the highest reality possible.

Comparing poetry with holding up a mirror to reality and with painting suggest that imitation is merely a representation of how things appear; under Plato’s scheme the poet is “an imitator of what he knows nothing about, a mere appearance” (Republic, X, p48). As with painting, so with poetry, says Plato; he does not treat poetry on its own terms. Indeed, there are several crucial differences between the arts of painting and poetry (as pointed out in John Dryden’s essay “A Parallel Betwixt Painting and Poetry”); for example, that the function of painting is to provide pleasure, while poetry’s function is to instruct. Certainly these arts use very different methods and it is difficult to conceive their functions as identical as Plato makes out. Indeed, the parallel that Plato assumes has been described even as “non-sensical”.  Plato takes the object of imitation to be the same in both; that is, they imitate appearances of things (which are essentially static, not active). Much of Plato’s condemnations of poetry stem from the view that poetry should represent truth, and truth is obtained through knowledge. Knowledge however is located within the various crafts (shipbuilding, generalship etc.), but it is plainly impossible that any man can have a perfect knowledge of all crafts to the smallest detail. Even if there were such a man, Plato would “send him away to some other city” (Republic, III, p41) anyway! Such an argument (using crafts as the location of knowledge) is common within Plato’s writings.

There is little in Book X of The Republic that would reconcile Plato with the poets. Poetry is imitative and corrupting and its purpose is simply to give pleasure to an audience. Plato says little of a possible didactic end in poetry; some imitations, he admits in Book III, are not harmful, such as those which portray morally good men performing morally good actions. But these would seem to be few; as Julia Annas comments, “he tries to censor Homer, but clearly not very much will survive the blue pencil” (Annas 100). Plato himself argues in Book X that to be interesting and to give pleasure, poetry of necessity must imitate “the soul easily vexed” (Republic, X, p52), so Plato’s condemnation of Homer comes as no surprise.

As to a didactic end in poetry, this too Plato addresses. Here he comes up with a seemingly unanswerable argument that is still used today in attacks on fiction; its essence is that if poetry is instructive and contains a moral message, why bother with imitation and the “masking raiment of Poesy” at all? Plato uses this in a sustained attack on Homer (Republic, X, p46-48). Thus Plato covers the case where there is a moral structure within poetry itself; that is, evil actions that are clearly portrayed as evil actions and to be condemned. All too often, though, poetry shows unjust men prospering while good men suffer.

It can be said that Plato had a very dim view of imitation art due to an obsession with truth or “forms”. In Books II and III this claim can hardly be justified, however; Plato does not condemn all imitation, but that imitation which is harmful to the moral character of the receiver, namely the representations or misrepresentations of gods, heroes and men which show them to be evil or acting without proper decorum. But in Book X he sees poetry, and indeed the imitative arts in general, as generally corrupting: “with a very few exceptions” (Republic, X, p52). Plato’s conclusion that poetry is nearly exclusively harmful is, as we have seen, based upon the twin arguments that poetry is imitative and that imitation is corrupting; and “how can something offered as a simulation (a mere appearance, dramatisation, or fiction) justify itself?” (Halliwell p7).

In The Poetics Aristotle examines poetry on its own terms; he pays much more attention to such aspects as genres and specific metres than did Plato. Like Plato, however, he considers all art a form of mimesis, though Arisotle’s use of the term differs greatly from that of his former teacher.

In The Poetics Chapter IV Aristotle claims that “man is very imitative and obtains his first knowledge by imitation, and then everybody takes pleasure in imitation” (Poetics, IV, p72). He in one sense narrows down the object of imitation. Plato used a theory concerning the painter, who often imitates static objects (such as a bed), and whose creations are necessarily static, and extended this theory to poetry. But Aristole argues from what would seem to be an obvious premise yet one that seems to be ignored by Plato: that poetry imitates men in action; a dynamic basis, not a static one. Where Plato argued against poetry from its relation to truth (embodied in the theory of Forms), though, Aristotle makes some similar arguments in relation to nature. With the Greek mimesis in poetry, then, the notion of the “real” (Forms, or the governing principles of nature) is assumed to be the object of imitation, as opposed to, say, the “beautiful”; there were no links made between art and aesthetics.

Aristotle classifies genres in relation to their means of imitation, instead of the usual distinctions made according to prose, verse or metre. Thus the object of imitation in tragedy are men who are better than us, and in comedy men who are worse.

Clearly Aristotle is conceiving imitation as a different process from Plato. The medium of imitation is taken to be three-fold: rhythm, language and harmony are used by practitioners of the arts, either separately or combined. There is no question of holding a mirror up to nature or reality; to see how Aristotle explains the mechanisms of mimesis, as with Plato, it is necessary to outline Aristotle’s theories on the relation between art and nature, in particular his claims that there is a parallelism between objects of art and objects of nature. While Aristotle nowhere makes a clear exposition of his theories on the mechanism of imitation from first principles (as does Plato in Republic X), there is enough material in The Physics to construct a coherent account. Some critics have ignored the implications of this parallelism between art and nature, stating that “there is no suggestion that he [Aristotle] is using the word mimesis in any novel sense; clearly he means that the situations, actions, characters and emotions portrayed must strike one as true to life” (Grube 70). Elsewhere Aristotle’s conception of imitation has been described simply as “Platonic”. However, I shall attempt to show that there is a direct and illuminating correlation between concepts in The Physics with those of The Poetics, (whether many of the parallelisms were consciously intended or not).

Firstly there is the conceptual notion of form and matter as integral parts of objects of nature. Aristotle places much more importance on form than matter, in opposition to the majority of pre-Socratic philiosophers (the Ionians, for example, who sought the basic substance from which all objects in the universe were fashioned). Instead, “the common feature that characterizes [substances and objects] seems to be that they have within themselves a principle of movement (or change) and rest” (Physics, p107). That is, objects are characterised by their form, which undergoes change, and it is in this sense that objects have a “nature”. Furthermore, the changes of nature are teleological: matter exists for the sake of the form, and it is the form which is the telos, or end. Objects of nature possess an inherent tendency to change towards an ideal form (that may not ever be fully realised), a movement from potentiality to actuality, and it is in this sense that some things are “better” than others. Each step in this continuous chain is necessary for the sake of the end, and no step occurs simply by chance, but by a cause or combination of causes. Art, too, is teleological; the only difference between them that Aristotle sees in this respect is that “in nature the cause of an event or a product is internal, in human art external to the effect. Both are equally ‘for a purpose'” (Guthrie 108). That purpose is deliberate in nature Aristotle denies; similarly “art does not deliberate” (Physics 199b).

Aristotle’s demands for a coherent and unified plot structure in The Poetics bear a strong resemblance to this “teleological chain”. Each event in a plot must be related to the next one and the preceding one by a “causal link” or an “organic connection”; that is, by probability or necessity. As well the plot must be a unity, such that if any event were removed the plot would be irreparably damaged; it must be complete and entire, and of reasonable size. We could say that the “matter” of a poem or dramatic play consists of the events and characters portrayed, while the “form” is equivalent to the structure, i.e. the plot. The plot is the “first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy” (Poetics, VI, 78); this recalls Aristotle’s theories on the organic, where living beings are conceptualised as matter (=body) and form (=soul). Importantly, however, Aristotle recognises that the study of matter is not completely subservient to eidos, or form: “art imitates nature, and it is the part of the same discipline to know the form and the matter up to a point” (Physics, II,194a).

Given, however, that eidos is “that for the sake of which”, ie. the end, we can draw up a (somewhat simplified) table:

Nature: teleological: objects exist for the sake of the end
end = FORM
causal links: “each step…in the series is for the sake of the next” (Physics 199a)

Poetry: teleological: “end is more important than anything else” (Poetics, p77)
end = PLOT
causal links: “one thing happens after an-other according to necessity or probability” (Poetics 90)

Hence Aristotle’s condemnation of episodic plots, where episodes are unconnected by probability or necessity, and his belief that the best plots are those in which even chance events “seem to happen as a result of a cause” (Poetics, IX, p83); that is, nothing occurs without significance, no matter how astonishing, just as in nature nothing is without significance. All incidents should be “the result of a cause” (Poetics, IX, p83), just as the changes of nature are results of causes (of which Aristotle distinguishes four).

Can we say, then, that by “art imitates nature” the structure of art mimics the teleological processes of nature?
Certainly this is the case with poetry; many parts of The Poetics can be seen as direct applications of the principles set out in Physics to poetry and drama (the Arts were, after all, somewhat outside Aristotle’s main fields of expertise). Which is not to say that Aristotle did not turn the full force of his analytical mind upon the subject, merely that his observations on poetry are consonant with his over-all theory of Becoming.

Aristotle says that “generally art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and partly imitates her” (Physics 199a). As well, that art and nature imply each other. Here art may be taken to mean the various “useful arts” or crafts (such as shipbuilding), and by extension the “fine arts” such as painting and poetry. There are important differences between the two, however; indeed, the distinction between them “was first brought out fully by Aristotle” (Butcher 115). Useful arts complete nature by supplying her deficiencies in the sense that they move further along the teleological chain to realise an end; applying this principle to fine arts leads to difficulty. Fine arts (such as poetry) rather imitate nature in the sense that they do not complete her, as do the useful arts, but imitate the teleological process whereby nature moves toward a specific end.

Both fine and useful art, then, are alike in that they resemble nature in their teleological motivations and both are subject to mistakes and limitations (such as are found in nature).

This, then, is how “art imitates nature” in a general sense. In The Poetics Aristotle claims that “imitators imitate men who are doing something” (Poetics, I, p70), that “tragedy is an imitation not of men but of actions and life” (Poetics, VI, p77). The objects of imitation are the actions of men, and the poets can imitate men as they are or better or worse than they are. It follows from this that the poet has it within his power to imitate real or imagined events; as S.H. Butcher puts it, the artist “may place before him an unrealised ideal” (Butcher 122). Plato claims that poets have but scant knowledge of that which they imitate (since they merely reflect as a mirror does), and indeed knowledge is an antidote against the lies of the poet. Aristotle’s theory would seem to oppose this; if the poet imitates things not as they are but as they might be, surely imagination if not knowledge comes into play.

In Chapter IX Aristotle claims that “poetry deals more with things in a universal way…to deal with them universally is to say that according to probability or necessity it happens that a certain man does or says certain things, and poetry aims at this” (Poetics, IX, p81). The central pre-occupation of Greek philosophy was the relation between universals and particulars; in Physics Aristotle says “we must advance from generalities to particulars; for it is a whole that is best known to sense-perception, and a generality is a kind of whole, comprehending many things within it, like parts” (Physics 184a). Again we see the application of Aristotle’s general metaphysical principles applied to poetry; for a tragedy is “serious and complete”, ie. whole, but comprised of various parts. And these parts must, of necessity, form a coherent totality since poetry is understood through sense perception. A generality is “a kind of whole”; elsewhere he states that “it is what belongs to many that is called universal” (Met. Z b34-1039a2), and this is what poetry “aims at”.

Continuing on this point, Eduard Zeller claims that “imitation consists not in a simple reproduction of the sensible appearance of things by art; it has rather to represent their inner reality; their forms are types of general laws…[poetry] has the right to idealise” (Zeller 197). The “inner reality” of things is consonant with Aristotle’s theory, which places form within objects, a dynamic aspect of their nature, in fact a cause for their very existence (matter is continually arriving to form); “‘nature’ means two things, the matter and the form, of which the latter is the end” (Physics, II, 199a). (Plato’s theory held that the “Forms” were transcendental, static embodiments of the universal which existed completely separately from human reality, and of which the natural world was but a distorted copy.) Further, that “their forms are types of general laws”; by this it is meant that a particular (e.g. a character) is representative of a species (such is often claimed of Shakespeare’s characters). Thus a particular embodies the universal; “in the characters as in the arrangement of the actions one must ever seek for the necessary and probable” (Poetics, XV, p90). Characters must be consistent their actions; and it may be argued, they differ from real life people in this way, hence poetry’s “right to idealise”. The credible is also to be aimed at, the poet should choose “probable impossibilities rather than incredible possibilities” (Poetics, XXIV, p107), and if this is done properly then “idealisation” of events is the natural consequence. That the various components of poetry must “strike one as true to life” is clearly a conflictual view to poetry’s idealising function, for in life there are many forces and inconsistencies which we fail to understand; by idealising, poetry gives meaning to these where none had seemed possible before. Just because events must display verisimilitude does not mean that they should directly reflect life as it is commonly conceived.

Poetry, then, is an imitation of the actions of men, dealt with in a universal way, bringing about pity and fear and the catharsis of same. Now nature is in perpetual motion, a motion which is from the potential to the actual, a continual process of Becoming (as opposed to Plato’s theories of Being). Poetry and drama, being forms of art and thus imitations of nature (in the above sense), imitate this process of change. Nature is, by definition, a “principle of motion and change” (Physics 200b), and poetry is similarly defined as an imitation of an action. The action, being an action of men, hence necessarily involves metabasis (change of fortune), perhaps effected through what Aristotle calls peripety or recognition, for these produce pity and fear, and “tragedy is an imitation of actions producing these feelings” (Poetics, XI, p84):

Nature: Becoming: motion, a change of form from potentiality to actuality
Poetry: Plot: an action, a change of fortune (e.g. by peripety, recognition, etc.)

Just as Aristotle’s conception of Physics is as the study of the changes undergone by natural objects (ie. nature), poetry can be thought of as the study of or an expression of the changes undergone by man (e g. from misery to happiness, ignorance to knowledge etc.), expressed through his actions. By “dealing with things universally”, just as the philosophy of nature deals with collections of objects with the same attributes, poetry becomes “more philosophic and more serious than history” (Poetics, IX, p91) which deals only with particulars.

Returning to Aristotle’s assertion that “art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish” (Physics 199a), it would seem that poetry, through imitation of the methods of nature (ie. teleology, universal wholes etc), and in transgressing the particular, can be thought of as “going beyond” nature, though this concept is more aptly applied to the more practical arts.

Imitation need not be a straight copy of reality (or of transcendent forms); its goals are the aims of the artist who may envision things not as they are but as they could be or should be. Men are better or worse “as the painters have made them”, and hence the poets as well. In Poetics Chapter XXIV: “the poet should choose probable impossibilities rather than incredible possibilities” (Poetics, XXIV, p107). Here the word “choose”, together with the previous arguments, imply that the imitative process, to “make”, must involve some sort of creative input by the poet, as opposed to a merely mechanical copying. Whether this is a direct consequence of the “madness” of the poets is problematic; the process of imitation, according to Aristotle, is no mere reflection without technai. Neither is mimesis simply a distorted symbolic representation of reality; its domain is the possible and the probable. In one sense it could be thought of as an abstraction or extension upon reality; and art, through imitation, must obey “nature”, the very principles that govern the universe.

In Ion Plato argues that the poet, or the imitator, can have no knowledge of what he imitates, an argument that is based largely on the division of knowledge into professions. The charioteer, the physician, and the general are given as examples of people who have an intimate knowledge of their craft because they are aware of the uses to which it will be put. As Socrates tells Ion, “it is clear that you are not enabled to speak of Homer by skill and knowledge” (Ion, p12) and later “but a divine power that moves you” (Ion, p13). In Aristotle poetry is an imitation of human action; the poet’s province lies in accomplishing this. Whether they are correct upon certain details such as the intricacies of the art of charioteering (an example put to Ion in Ion p17) is irrelevant according to Aristotle: “we may ask whether the fault is one of those essential to the art or is only incidentally connected with it” (Poetics, XXV, p109). The faults with art occur within art itself, says Aristotle – the only fault is to represent things inartistically; in other words, a fault with the imitation itself.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines imitation in the arts as “the imaginative representation of the actions, motives, or natures of men or of their environments” (p1090, 1987 version). Though it is difficult for us to think of “imitation” as a process involving imagination, this is getting closer to the sense used by Aristotle. Here, then, I am willing to offer my own definition of imitation as it is used by Aristotle in The Poetics: Mimesis is that process where the poet “makes universal”; that is, the structure of his creations mimic the general principles of nature (the governing laws of the very universe itself); events are put into a causal relationship or framework, so that the actions (of men) portrayed form a unified and sensible whole, and particular details are chosen so as to embody the universal principles being communicated. In fact, the best art imitates nature in all of the ways that Aristotle outlines in the Physics, and as I have attempted to show in the exposition above.

Thus, just as “motion and change” define nature, mimesis, more than anything else, is the central characteristic feature of poetry. Indeed, imitation is what defines a poet: “he is a poet because of imitation and he imitates actions” (Poetics, IX, p82). Where in Plato there was a “quarrel between poetry and philosophy”, by Aristotle’s scheme poetry is more philosophic even than history (a chronicle of “real” events). Where Socrates puts it to Glaucon that an imitator is “he who is not in direct contact with nature”, with Aristotle the best poets, in order to work their imitations, must be closely allied with nature. By accessing the universal, mimesis – and hence poetry – provides access to the “real”, the forces that lie behind our very lives.

Annas, Julia. An Introduction to Plato’s. Republic. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1981.
Aristotle. The Poetics. Translated by Allan H. Gilbert in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1940.
Butcher, S. H. Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.
Dryden, John. “A Parallel Betwixt Poetry and Painting”. Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays (vol 2). London, Everyman, 1962.
Grube, G.M.A. The Greek and Roman Critics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.
Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy (vol VI). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
Plato. The Ion. Translated by Allan H. Gilbert in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1940.
Plato. The Republic. (Books II,III,and X). Translated by Allan H. Gilbert in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1940.
Ross, W.D, ed. The Works of Aristotle vol II, (incorporating Physica, trans. R.P. Hardie & R.K.Gaye). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.
Zeller, Eduard. Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1931.


3 thoughts on “Essay: Art as Imitation in Plato and Aristotle

  1. Pingback: Breezy Stories Vol. 8 No. 5 (July, 1919) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index

  2. Pingback: Plot or Character? « Anne Skyvington

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