Plato, Aristotle, and Mimesis
As literary critics, Plato and Aristotle disagree profoundly about the value of art in human society. Plato attempts to strip artists of the power and prominence they enjoy in his society, while Aristotle tries to develop a method of inquiry to determine the merits of an individual work of art. It is interesting to note that these two disparate notions of art are based upon the same fundamental assumption: that art is a form of mimesis, imitation. Both philosophers are concerned with the artist’s ability to have significant impact on others. It is the imitative function of art which promotes disdain in Plato and curiosity in Aristotle. Examining the reality that art professes to imitate, the process of imitation, and the inherent strengths and weaknesses of imitation as a form of artistic expression may lead to understanding how these conflicting views of art could develop from a seemingly similar premise.
Both philosophers hold radically different notions of reality. The assumptions each man makes about truth, knowledge, and goodness directly affect their specific ideas about art. For Plato, art imitates a world that is already far removed from authentic reality, Truth. Truth exists only in intellectual abstraction, that is, paradoxically, more real than concrete objects. The universal essence, the Idea, the Form of a thing, is more real and thus more important than its physical substance. The physical world, the world of appearances experienced through the senses, does not harbor reality. This tangible world is an imperfect reflection of the universal world of Forms. Human observations based on these reflections are, therefore, highly suspect. At best, the tangible fruit of any human labor is "an indistinct expression of truth" (Republic X, 22). Because knowledge of truth and knowledge of good are virtually inseparable to Plato, he counsels rejection of the physical in favor of embracing reason in an abstract, intellectual, and ultimately more human, existence. Art is removed from any notion of real truth, an inherently flawed copy of an already imperfect world. Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real.
Aristotle approaches reality from a completely different premise. While his ideas do stand in sharp contrast to Plato's, they are not simply a refutation of his former mentor's views. To Aristotle, the world exists in an infinitely diverse series of parts. These various parts are open to human observation and scrutiny. Rather than an eternally regressing truth beyond the scope of human apprehension, knowledge of truth and good are rooted firmly in the observable universe; truth, or at least gestures toward it, lies in existence rather than essence. Aristotle encourages embracing the particular in order to possibly gain a sense of the universal. There is, however, no universal system of inquiry to investigate each part of the whole. Different parts require different methods of discourse. In The Poetics, Aristotle attempts to articulate a method of inquiry, not a rigid system or standard of evaluation, applicable to tragedy. Tragedy attempts to imitate the complex world of human actions, and yet tragedy is itself still part of a larger, more complicated world of human existence. Tragedy is a manifestation of the human desire to imitate. Because he asserts that each person "learns his lessons through imitation and we observe that all men find pleasure in imitations", the self referential function of tragedy gives it inherent relevance to Aristotle's concept of reality (Ch. 4, 44).
The actual process of imitation employed by the artist seems to underscore each philosopher's vision of reality. A Platonic artist lacks any substantial knowledge of the subject that is imitated. Three degrees of separation prevent the artist from providing an authentic representation or insight: the ethereal Form of a thing, the physical manifestation of a thing, and knowledge of the physical manifestation. An artist merely copies the surface, the appearance, of a thing without the need for understanding or even awareness of its substance. The artist is "an imitator of images and is very far removed from the truth" (Republic X, 27). This fact is obscured, Plato claims, because the artist is adept at manipulating the emotional responses of an audience. While it attempts to claim truth as its domain, art as a process of imitation is a deceptive but essentially superficial and imperfect enterprise.
Aristotle does not attempt to dispute the fact that imitation will not produce perfect copies of an original. Instead, he describes imitation as a creative process of selection, translation, and transformation from one media to another. Art attempts to imitate human action, not specific individuals. The literary artist seeks to portray accurately the general actions of human life (happiness, misery) within the confines of a consciously constructed sequence of particular events and characters. Poetry, for example, can thus be described as human action given new form by language. Tragedy, as an act of imitation, implies more than the act of copying because the artist is an active participant in the process. The artist is a maker, selecting certain details, excluding others, giving a work its particular shape, not a deceitful scribe. Where the historian is obsessed with absolute accuracy in cataloging events and actions, the artist attempts to transcend individual details to provide an audience with fleeting glimpses, insights about the truth of human existence.
To Aristotle, it is the attempt to point toward a broader sense of the truth of human existence, its concern with "the universal", which makes tragedy valuable (Ch. 9, 48). Not that tragedy always (or ever) succeeds completely (or at all). Tragedy's value, though, is inherently connected to the process of imitating not only the world as it is known, but the world as it should be. The artist encourages an audience to reconcile the actuality of existence with the human condition rather than ignoring it. Aristotle, in developing a method of inquiry, helps others understand how a tragedy operates (intellectually and practically) in its parts and as a whole. With tragedy as the catalyst, other specific lines of inquiry may also begin to develop, leading ever so slightly closer to the goal: knowledge in general and knowledge of good in specific. Tragedy, though an imperfect imitation, is to Aristotle an inherently ethical endeavor.
It is precisely this conception of art which threatens Plato's pursuit of truth. Because artists claim their imitations can speak to the true nature of things, circumventing the need for serious, calmly considered intellectual inquiry, art should not be pursued as a valuable endeavor. Art widens the gap between truth and the world of appearances, ironically by claiming to breach it. Whether in Plato's idealized Republic or his actual society, the threat art poses to attaining knowledge and becoming good is significant and ubiquitous. "The power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed) is surely an awful thing" (Republic X, 28). Art cannot promote falsehood and remain neutral in this debate. A binary relationship exists. False imitations breed false hopes by claiming to point toward the truth. Either/or: either art is perfect in its mimetic process (in which case its claims are upheld) or art is flawed, and therefore not only worthless, but a challenge to truth in general. Since the physical universe Plato describes is itself a pale imitation of its true form, art is also imperfect and must be controlled and delegitmized.
Though both critics use the word mimetic to describe art, the definition derived by each philosopher is profoundly different. In order to construct a coherent, wide-ranging philosophy, art and its impact on society must be reckoned with, whether as an imitation of a system far removed or a system in our midst. The process of imitation is used in both cases to promote the particular version of reality espoused by each man. While such a study is beneficial in tracing the philosophical conflict regarding the usage and importance of imitation in art, what is most apparent, perhaps, is the discovery that language itself is an imperfect imitation of meaning, capable of fostering such conflicts.
Aristotle. “Poetics” The Critical Tradition. Ed., David H.
Richter, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Plato. “Republic, Book X” The Critical Tradition. Ed.,
David H. Richter, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.