Aristotle’s Belief on Art’s Permanency


This research paper makes an attempt to claim and gain the permanent notion of imitation in Aristotle’s masterpiece Poetics. Does art or poetry deceive our eyes and corrupt our minds? Plato believes that it did. Plato presents the idea that there is one and only, and full and finally the strong, economic, and enormous existence of idea in the world. According to him, whatever is presented or existed in the human earthly world, they all are the photocopied or d carbon copy or duplicate versions of that real or actual existence i.e. idea. Aristotle strongly differs with his master Plato that he has a different or a unique kind of ideal belief that poetry does not solely imitate whatever is brazen in nature but it significantly, very beautifully and equally powerfully decorates the nature and makes it represent ideal or eternal, full of heavenly pleasure. As Aristotle strongly states that the permanency of art is merely through Poetics as there is not only the existence of Platonic “ideal cat” full of experience, matter “the individual sensual cat” binding with imitation also coexists with it. “Demiurgic” (form or idea) is the adopted or revised version of “demiurge” which comes from a Greek diction that means “maker,” Aristotle tells the theory of forms does not make actual complete sense. How can there be a cat without flesh, bones, teeth or fur? Also, it’s not there that cats are constantly dynamic or changing in every respect. Despite their alternation of generation or changes, they are still cats, Plato! We can compare the “ideal” cat with the definition or statement of Charles Darwin: ‘A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which is not there.”

Heraclitus: Sensible realities are constantly changing.

Parmenides: Real being doesn’t change.

The Pythagoreans: Sensible reality imitates number.

Plato: I agree with all of you. (108)

Though Plato never set out to formulate a theory of poetry, he is considered to be the fountainhead of literary criticism. Plato discussed poetry in the course of conversation for dialogues with his friends and people. And there he raises certain fundamental questions about the nature and function of literature. Plato discusses poetry in relation to its broader political, ethical and philosophical concerns. Plato conceived of an ideal state and to run it, some guardians are needed. Also guardians must be educated in the best possible way. They will make an elite educated class comprising of the best, the wisest and the most virtuous. In this way, literature or poetry or music exists as a part of his curriculum. We can see his low estimate of poetry in the following hierarchy of disciplines:

  1. Music/ poetry/ fables (for the temperament of soul of the young guardians)
  2. Gymnastics (rhythm and harmony through physical training
  3. Intellectual studies (maths, geometry, anatomy)
  4. Intercommunion and connection of the science
  5. Philosophical training

Therefore poetry or literature has a very minimal and primary role in educating the guardians.

In Plato’s Ion and The Republic (book 2, 3, 10), Plato expresses his dismissal of poetry. Plato dismisses poetry on the following four grounds:

  1. Philosophical: In the book Republic, Plato has presented the Socratic notion about the ideal state through the conversation between Socrates and Glaucon. According to him, the state without an unhealthy and dirty struggle for power, position, and material prosperity is called an ideal state. The state without unhealthy or dirty or untidy competition for materiality is called ideal state. In such ideal state, only philosophers live. Plato clearly remarks that “true governors don’t like to govern; those who don’t like to govern are the best governors.’ The ideal world is real Platonic world, but the physical world is the world of illusion. For him, the world we experience through our senses is the world of illusion. The world of sensual experience is photocopied world of the ideal world. Whatever we see through our sense is not real but image or shadow of reality. About literature basically poets he is very angry. For him, literature is twice removed from reality because it imitates the physical world. Poets, for him, are misleaders of society who feed passion and sentiment to the youths. Poets feed the passion and kill courage and patriotic feelings in youths. That’s why/ a way he has suggested banishing the poets from an ideal state.
  2. Formal Ground: Plato discusses three forms of representation in literature; narrative, lyric and dramatic. He highly distrusts the dramatic mode of representation because actors assume many roles which they are incapable of playing in their real lives. In this way, they give a false representation of life. It does not appeal to the rational and the logical senses of the audience.
  3. Theological Ground: Poets attribute human qualities to gods and goddesses. They are often represented as greedy, lusty and belligerent. They do not offer any ideal image of their deities which could be imitated by human beings.
  4. Moral Ground: These poets often present a bleak and desperate picture of human life which may discourage human beings from leading a life of bravery. At the same time, literature has an effeminate on human beings.
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In nutshell, Plato finds literature practically futile and devoid of any sense of morality. He also depicts the power of literature to move and charm the soul of human beings. Thereby he affects a wholesale condemnation of imaginative literature. Similarly, “Plato also regards the artist as an imitator of imitations: the painters’ work is thrice removed from the essential nature of a thing: the artist imitates the physical object which is … ‘copy’ of the idea of the thing” (9).

Both, Aristotle and Plato boldly suggest merging and mingling art in terms of “Mimesis”, which means “imitation.” Sometimes this means, literally, to copy – while in other cases it may mean “representation,” “impersonation” or “mimicry.” Aristotle advocates studying through empiricism, which is his belief of idea that it’s only possible to determine any truth through actual experience. Now, what does the poet imitate? The poet imitates “things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be” according to the law or principle of probability or possibility and necessity as the matter of meditation or imagination. Poet’s function is to describe not about the thing that has already happened but about a kind of thing that might happen or about the probable incidents in the world. Aristotle invests imitation with a positive connotation, or significance, he observes it as a basic human instinct or natural talent or a natural aptitude. There is no human knowledge without imitation, and the creation of art by imagination or meditation is also a process of possession of something knowledgeable education. In his work, Poetics, he states that:

It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies (2-5).

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For Aristotle, imitation is both a mode of learning and associated with pleasure. Human beings rely on imitation to learn and run-on-learn. Another powerful notion of Aristotelian theory is meditation. He believes imitation is not a simple reflection or photographic representation of something on the basis of observation but it is a complex meditation upon reality. The art which can make anything more comprehensive through the means of meditation of reality to the readers by the use of artistic treatment, only that type of creation would be permanently valuable or beyond the horizon of time in the form of art and literature. The great works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, John Milton and various other extraordinarily, artistically and equally poetically talented literary figures are equally celebrated or praised till today because they can imagine or imitate divine artistic things of power, property, and prosperity. For instance, the very plot or the garlands of events of the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is the most approximate or suitable sample of such creation. To prove his this belief, Aristotle announces, “A likely possibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. (24) Also, let’s talk the illustration about Poetics, as the pen is the tongue of the mind, John Gassner thinks through his pen: “The Poetics is the first extant essay on art that is honestly exploratory. Such criticism was unusual in Aristotle’s time, and it continued to be rare long after his death when he was considered the supreme arbiter in esthetic judgment.” (39)

In the process of building or making an art eternal, Aristotle differs the ways of imitation in three ways, in the means of presentation, in the kinds of presentation and in the manner of presentation. The means can include color, shape, sound, rhythm, speech, and harmony. For Aristotle, poetic creation is the imitation of unique selection and combination of diction. Therefore, in the case of meditation or imitation of poetic creation, the means of presentation of language is most significant as every kind of literature is the creative product of language, or it can also be said any kind of literary art existed or created only through the means of language; and language varies according to the various genre of literature. The other doorway direction in which literary imitation draws so many demarcation lines from each other in the kinds of subjects addressed by them.

Aristotle considers tragedy to be the highest form of poetry that arouses the emotion of pity and fear with a view to their catharsis. Aristotle says tragedy is imitation of serious event which arouses pity and fear. The plot, for Aristotle, is the heart of tragedy as its body is a character. He basically talks about two kinds of plot i.e. simple and complex and favors the second one because, in the simple plot, actions or incidents are not closely interconnected. Creating a good plot there should be some necessary elements that include the principle of probability and necessity; reversal of situation, the scene of discovery and element of suffering. Among the three unities i.e. unity of time, unity of place and unity of action, Aristotle gives much focus on the final one in the plot. Unity of action refers to the situation where all the events and actions should be interrelated. According to Aristotle, “The agents must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are; in the same way as, with the painless, … and those of Dionysius just like ourselves.” (5-10) To be a perfect tragedy, the subject should be serious and dynamic. The protagonist must be from a noble family without any serious mistakes but “Hamartia” or tragic flaw. Though the protagonist does not have serious moral weaknesses, a minor error of judgment remains the course of his complete destruction which is called hamartia. In the climax, the protagonist realizes the error of judgment committed by him. The moment of self-realization about his mistake is called discovery (in other words, discovery is change from ignorance to knowledge) – such discovery creates mental pain and agony is called suffering. The plot of tragedy must have a single plot. Catharsis refers to the arousal of pity and fear created by the fall and the destruction of hero (in the mind of audiences), and pity and fear is the main aim of any successful art. When the audiences see the downfall of great heroes, it has cathartic effects on them. Catharsis warns audiences of committing the mistakes which will lead to their decline and destruction. There should also be proper poetic justice in tragedy. Poetic justice refers to the concept of reward and punishment – good and virtuous characters must be rewarded and bad characters of evil forces should be given due punishment they deserve.

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How intimately Aristotle’s account of the psychological function of tragedy enters into his recommendations on the construction of the drama can be seen most directly in his derivation of the approximate character of the hero. If we are to identify with a person, that is, to feel fear and pity, then he has to be sufficiently like us, and his suffering has to be undeserved. If he is very good we will simply be outraged, and if he is very evil we will feel that it served him right. Our best choice is neither: “there remains the intermediate kind of person, a man not outstanding in virtue and justice, nor falling into misfortune through evil and wickedness, but by some error [or flaw: hamartia].” … Fear is inspired more readily by our seeing that even the more fortunate are afflicted (356-357).

The final path in which imitation can be distinguished is in the manner of presentation. Aristotle allows only two basic types: narration and dramatic presentation in which the story is performed or acted out. Aristotle’s aim of imitation is to transform the work of art as a permanent phenomenon.

Cited Works

Aristotle. Poetics, cd. Ingram Bywater (On the Art of Poetry). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920), pp. 23-7, 28-30, 35, 8, 43, 45-5, 84, 85-6, 91.)

Adams, Hazard. Critical Theory since Plato. Library of Congress, USA, Revised Edition, 1970.

Edel, Abraham. Aristotle and His Philosophy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Gassner, John. “Aristotelian Literary Criticism.” Preface to Aristotle’s theory of Poetry and Fine Art. New York: Dover, 1951.

Habib, M.A.R. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory from Plato to the Present. Blackwell, 2008.

Kirszner, Laurie G. and Mandell, Stephen. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Library of Congress, USA. 4th Edition, 2008.

Lohani, Shreedhar., Sharma, Krishana Chandra., Gupto, Arun. and Sharma, Anand. Essays on Western Intellectual Tradition.M.K. Publishers and Distributors, Bhotahity, Kathmandu, 2012.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New Delhi: First East-West Press Edition, 2009.

Plato. The Republic, Book 10, translated by B. Jowett (3rd ed. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1888), pp. 307-9, 311-12.)

Proclus, “Commentary on the Parmenides.” 732. The translation is from: Proclus, “Commentary on the Parmenides,” trans. Glenn R. Morrow and John M. Dillon (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1987), P. 108

By Kushal Khatri


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