THE CONCEPT OF IMITATION IN PLATO AND ARISTOTLE Abstract Plato and Aristotle argue that artist (Demiurge) and poet imitate nature, thus, a work of art is a reflection of nature. However, they have different views on the functions of imitation in art and literature. Plato believes in the existence of the ideal world, where exists a real form of every object found in nature. A work of art –which reflects nature is twice far from the reality it represents. Aristotle, on the other hand, does not deal with the ideal world, instead he analyses nature. He argues that a work of art does not imitate nature as it is, but as it should be.
In this sense, an artist does not violate the truth but reflects the reality. Key Words: Imitation, art, literature, mimesis, etymology, ethic. Introduction Plato and Aristotle attribute different meanings to the term ‘mimesis’; Plato considers ‘mimesis’ in ethical and political context, Aristotle uses ‘mimesis’ as an aesthetic phenomenon. They both agree that poetry is mimetic but they have different idea about poetry and ‘mimesis’. The present paper aims first to define ‘mimesis’ and explain the historical and linguistic background of the term, then to analyze the concept of ‘mimesis’ in Plato and Aristotle.
In literature the word ‘mimesis’ has two diverse applications; it is used “to define the nature of literature and other arts and to indicate the relation of one literary work, which serves as a model. ” Plato and Aristotle take ‘mimesis’ to define the nature of art, yet they ascribe different meanings and value to it. Plato and Aristotle consider the historical and etymological background of the term, therefore, it is necessary to know about the linguistic and historical background of the term ‘mimesis’ to understand what kinds of meaning and value they attribute to the concept.
Linguistically, the root word is ‘mimos’; mimesthia, mimesis, mimetes, mimetikos, and mimema are derived from ‘mimos’. Mimesthia denotes imitation, representation or portrayal; mimos and mimetes designate the person who imitates or represents, whereby ‘mimos’ originally refers to the recitation or dramatic performance in the context of dramatic action. The mime, which is a kind of banquets given by wealthy man, is most probably derived from mimos The noun ‘mimesis’ as well as corresponding verb mimeisthai refer to the re-enactment and dance through itual and myth. In Athenian drama the re-enactment is equivalent to acting out the role of a mythical figure and ‘mimesis’ in such a context connotes the imitation of the earlier re-enactment of the myth and rituals. Historically, the word ‘mimesis’ as re-enactment first appears in such rituals, and the historical origin of the term, as located in Dionysian cult drama, coincides this meaning in that ‘mimesis’ in both cases refers to imitation, representation and expression.
It is argued that myth, and divine symbols of the rituals are transformed to artistic-dramatic representation through which it became possible to represent the divinity and gods in drama. Tragedy, for instance is the transformation of the myth and rituals. In a different context ‘mimesis’ may refer to identification. People identify themselves by means of their mimetic ability when they see themselves in the other and perceive a state of mutual equality. In this sense, ‘mimesis’ is distinct from mimicry, which implies only a physical, and no mental relation.
That is, a person regards the ‘Other’ as equal and assumes the ‘Other’ to be doing the same in reverse. Associated with the physical aspect of ‘mimesis’ is its performative aspect, as an actualization, a presentation of what has been mimetically indicated. Thus, the term ‘mimesis’ is combined with an action-oriented speaking. The term ‘mimesis’ may also refer the simile, similarity and representation; it may refer to the symbolization of the world when we take it as a transformation of myth. Mimesis’ has also been cited since classical times in the exploration of relationships between art and reality. The meanings and applications of the term changes according to the context it is used. Therefore, Plato and Aristotle ascribes different meanings and value to ‘mimesis’ with respect to the contexts they use it. The Concept of Imitation in Plato takes the term ‘mimesis’ with several meanings and connotations in the dialogues and alters the meaning of the term according to the context in which he uses it.
He uses ‘mimesis’ in the context of the education of the youth; he discusses the function of ‘mimesis’ as likening oneself to another in speech and bodily behaviour and as addressing the lower part of man’s soul; he also refers to the epistemology and metaphysics of the concept. He takes the word ‘mimesis’ with pedagogic attributes and uses it in educational and ethical context when he says ‘guardians of an ideal state should be educated to imitate only what is appropriate’.
In the third book of the Republic, for instance, Plato provides further definitions of ‘mimesis’, centering on the relation between ‘mimesis’ and poetry, ‘mimesis’ and education and also poetry and education. ‘Since young people learn essentially through imitation, it is significant to select the models’. ‘Mimesis suggests unfavourable effect on the part of the young people’ and ‘poetry is one important source of the youth’s experience with examples and models’; therefore, if the world of models and examples ought to be controlled in the interest of education, poetry must be likewise subject to control.
Plato argues the case in the Republic as follow: The youth cannot distinguish what is allegorical from what is not, and the belief they acquire at the age are hard to expunge and usually remain unchanged. That is important that the first stories they hear should be well told and dispose them to virtue. The contents, forms, and representational modes of poetry play an important ethical role in the education of guardians and should, because of the effects they exercise through mimetic process, be based on ethical principles.
Young people should only imitate brave, sober, pious and noble men, which will increase their strength and will not infect them with weakness. In this sense, it is argued in the Republic that tragedy and comedy, as mimetic poetry, represent injustice among the gods in the assertion that gods are responsible for unhappiness among people. In the Platonic conception, gods cannot be evil; heroes cannot be weak. The poet’s representation violates the truth and by representing the deficiencies of gods and heroes, has negative effect on the community and the education of youth.
Mimetic poetry not only misrepresents gods and heroes and leads young people to immoral behaviours but also appeals to and strengthens the lower, desiring part of the soul. According to Plato, poetry encourages short-term indulgence in our emotions when reason would forbid their gratification because it is useless or harmful for the citizen who considers life as a whole. ‘Reason is a capacity that enables moral quality and authorities.
Poetry is intuitive and stirs up a part of a citizen that ought to be kept quiet and fosters the lower part of the soul against the rule of higher part, reason’ Poetry becomes a dangerous rival to morality, which ‘is able to corrupt even good man and is a very dangerous thing encouraging all the lower desires and making them hard to cope with suffering in the theatre, and taking pleasure in laughing at comedies tends to affect our attitudes in real life and make us cynical and unserious.
Sex, anger, and all desires, pleasure and pains are fostered by poetic imitation, thus, Homer and tragic poets are not true example for a citizen’. Poetry, then, taking its theme as human emotion and human frailty, threatens to disturb the balance and rational disposition of the individual for the individual, by way of his mimetic abilities, is infected through poetry. Philosophy provides wisdom and truth in the education but poetry has a potential capacity to demoralize mind.
For example, Homer’s poetry was drawn on for educational purposes as a collection of knowledge and wisdom and enter in to competition with philosophy, it should therefore, be censored. It is obvious that poetry endangers the ideal citizens who can control and manage their feelings and remain reasonable, thus should be censored. While being an aspect of misrepresentation and something used in a dangerous way for the education of young people, ‘mimesis’ may also come to mean re-enactment in Plato’s dialogue when it refers to the imitation of a man in action in drama.
In the Republic, Plato uses the term to refer to the behaviour of the philosopher: “As he looks upon and contemplates things that are ordered and ever the same, that do no wrong, are not wronged by, each other, being all in rational order. He imitates them and tries to become like them as he can” A similar process occurs in tragedy, which is the artistic and dramatic re-enactment of ritual and myth and transformation of religion. Through tragedy it becomes possible for a man to represent the divinity and gods.
For instance, the re-enactment, in Athenian drama, is equivalent to acting out the role of a mythical figure. ‘Mimesis’, in such a context, designates the imitation of earlier re-enactment, the instances of which is taken from myth and rituals. The nature of ritual is spiritual and pleasing and such primitive rituals serve communal interests, in that each member of community gets rid of self. A tragic play may lead to self alienation; and may lead to identification with the fallen character and with the hero. The process of re-enactment, then, leads one to enter into another’s feelings and suffering.
Plato insists that no one of truly noble character could suffer as a tragic hero does, since one whose soul is in a state of harmony is not to be influenced and hurt. Therefore, he objects to the re-enactment of ritual. Mimetic behaviour should be avoided because it may lead to identification with fallen characters and with the hero. Plato in the Republic argues that ‘or have you not observed that imitations, if conditioned, settle down youth’s life, and turn into habits and become second nature in the body, the speech and the thought .
Apart from this, people identify themselves by means of their mimetic ability when they see themselves in the other and perceive a state of mutual equality. In this sense ‘mimesis’ is distinct from mimicry, which implies only a physical and no mental, relation: a person regards the ‘Other’ as equal and assumes the ‘Other ‘ to be doing the same in reverse. In this respect, a person who imitates is doomed to self-sacrifice and lack of self-identity.
Moreover, the process of mimetic identification becomes a source of pleasure in the form of tragedy, which correspondingly frames the myth or re-enacts to substitute the myth in the form of dramatic representation. In the seventh book of the Republic, which is about law, he states ‘we are ourselves authors of tragedy, and that the finest and the best we know how to make’. In fact, our whole polity has been constructed as a dramatization (mimetic) of noble and perfect life; that is what we hold to be truth in the most of real tragedies’. However, in art, ‘mimesis’ has a different function.
Aesthetically, ‘mimesis’ refers to misrepresentation. Reality and truth can only be understood through reason. The artist works with inspiration and imagination: the two faculties don’t give us the true image of reality, and the end of tragedy is a partial loss of moral identity. On the one hand, there is ‘mimesis’ as a re-enactment of Dionysian rituals in the form of tragedy which leads to self-sacrifice and wrong identity and which addresses the lower part of the soul and corrupts the ethical development of the youth. On the other hand, there is ‘mimesis’ as an imitative, imperfect image of reality.
In a sense, Plato’s resistance to ‘mimesis’ is not only due to the fact that tragedy (mimetic art) may lead the audiences back to the ritual and irrational mode of primitive society but also due to the fact that mimetic art is an imitation of objects (eidon), which are imitations themselves. He objects to ‘mimesis’ for the fact there is no relationship between what is imitated and what is real. ‘Mimesis’ designates the ability to create expression and representation on the part of poet, painter and actor, both in a general and specific sense.
For example, the painter produces a relationship between an image he created and the object. If the relationship consists in the production of similarity, then, there arises a question of where the similarity between image and object lies. If the images he creates don’t make a reference to reality and real object, and if the relationship between object and image is on the level of similarity created by the poet through art, then, there appears a lack of link between true and false. But in Plato’s philosophy the relationship between objects and reality does not consist of likeness or similarity.
According to Plato, Demiurge creates the idea and by beholding the idea Demiurge produces the object; his ability is exalted in the imitation of the Idea. The poet, on the other hand, creates the images neither by seeing the idea nor from more substantive knowledge of the object since he produces nothing but phenomena by holding up a mirror. In this sense, the artist produces appearance and his work cannot provide us with true insight. Then, when a poet writes about the bed, for instance, it is not a bed manufactured by the craftsman from the idea nor does it have any relation to the real bed; it is only simulation and phenomena.
There is also a difference between the knowledge of the poet and the knowledge of the craftsman. Man makes things and makes images. The craftsman makes the things following the original copy or model; the poet follows the image of the model or copy; therefore he gives only a proportion of reality. The proportion of knowledge and opinion, truth and falsity plays a contrasting role in distinguishing imitation as proportion of being to appearance. Plato argues that to understand the image, one needs to know the reality and the path to reality is in philosophy and reason, not in poetry and emotion.
Although Plato admits that every object in nature is a reflection of the Idea, he doesn’t object to the reflection of object in nature. Plato uses mirror and water as constant metaphors to clarify the relationship between reality and the reflection of eidon. Plato argues that the poet holds up mirror to nature and in his work we see the reflection of nature not reality. He objects to the reflection of objects in the mirror, since things are divided into two parts: visible and intelligible. The first of the visible things is the class of copies, which includes shadows and reflections in the mirror.
The second class of visible things is that of which the previous is a likeliness or copy. Plato objects to the reflection of object in the mirror, since mirror (poet) imprisons and limits the image. And he also objects to the imitation, since the poet imitates without knowledge. Therefore, it is not its imitative character but its lack of truth and knowledge, which brings poetry to its low estate. Homer and all the poetic tribe are imitators of images of virtue and other things but they do not rely on truth. Poetry, after all, is a madness that seizes the soul when it contemplates in true knowledge of goods.
Plato’s objection to ‘mimesis’ may also interpreted as a reaction to the sophistic thinking that aims to produce images that the listener will regard as real, all of which take place in the world of phenomena. Image, thought, and opinion combine into a world of appearance characterized by nonbeing, a phenomenal nature and similarity. And as long as illusion and reality are not distinguished, science, ignorance, and appearance merge together. Within the concept of ‘mimesis’, then, Plato creates an independent sphere of the aesthetic consisting of appearance, image and illusion and excludes it from the domain of philosophy.
He insists that there are no phenomena without being, no images without reality, no ‘mimesis’ without a model. Yet reality and idea cannot be represented without knowledge and images are not part of reality. Plato, in the Republic, in Ion, and in Symposium uses the concept of ‘mimesis’ with several meanings. He refers to the education of the young in Book X of the Republic; in Ion he develops a metaphysical discourse on the concept of imitation, and in Book III of the Republic he objects to imitation because ‘mimesis’addresses and strengthens the lower part of the spirit.
Plato refers to ethical aspects of ‘mimesis’ whenever he refers to the concept of imitation. That is, ‘mimesis’ is an ethical matter in Plato’s dialogues. He is not interested in the aesthetic aspect of ‘mimesis’; therefore, he does not pay attention to the form and matter of ‘mimesis’and art. Plato deals with the value of ‘mimesis’. Aristotle is the first to deal with ‘mimesis’ as a theory of art. He dwells on the concept of ‘mimesis’ as an aesthetic theory of art and ‘considers imitation in terms of the form in which it is embodied’.
By imitation, ‘he means something like representation’ through which ‘mimesis’ becomes the equivalent of artistic and aesthetic enterprise’. Unlike Plato, Aristotle also argues that ‘mimesis’ is not morally destructive since reason controls art. II. The Concept of Imitation in Aristotle Aristotle states that all human actions are mimetic and that men learn through imitation. In particular, ‘mimesis’ is the distinguishing quality of an artist. He argues that ‘public classifies all those who write in meter as poets and completely misses the point that the capacity to produce an imitation is the essential quality of the poet’.
The poet is distinguished from the rest of mankind with the ‘essential ability to produce imitation’. A poet may imitate in one of three styles in poetry; he may use pure narrative, in which he speaks in his own person without imitation, as in the dithyrambs, or he may use mimetic narrative and speaks in the person of his characters, as in comedy and tragedy. A poet may use mixed narrative, in which he speaks now in his own person and now in the person of his character, as in epic poetry. Mimetic poetry may also differ according to the object of imitation.
In this respect, tragedy differs from comedy in that it makes its characters better rather than worse. ‘Mimesis’, particularly, becomes a central term when Aristotle discusses the nature and function of art. In the Poetics, he defines tragedy as: ‘as an imitation of human action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with every kind of artistic ornament, the various kinds being found in different parts of the play; it represents man in action rather than using narrative, through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotion’.
Aristotle is interested in the form of imitation and goes on to consider plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song as constituting elements of a typical tragedy. The action of plot must be complete in itself with a proper beginning, middle and an end. All parts of action must be equally essential to the whole. Each part of the tragedy is imitation itself. Character in tragedy imitates the action of noble man who has to be a man of some social standing and personal reputation, but he has to be presented us in terms of his weaknesses because it is his weakness that will make his fall believable.
Aristotle thinks that all types of art are mimetic but each may differ in the manner, means, and object of imitation. Music imitates in sound and rhythm, painting in color and poetry in action and word. Aristotle’s ‘mimesis’ does not refer to the imitation of Idea and appearances, like that of Plato. He argues that each area of knowledge is imitation in the sense that as a human being we all learn through imitation. However, he carefully makes a distinction between different kinds of knowledge.
For instance, he claims that art and philosophy deal with different kind of truth; philosophy deals with concrete and absolute truth, whereas art deals with aesthetic and universal truth. The difference, for instance, between mimetic poetry and history is stated as ‘one writes about what has actually happened, while the other deals with what might happen’. Art, unlike science, doesn’t abstract universal form but imitates the form of individual things and unites the separate parts presenting what is universal and particular.
Therefore, the function of poetry is not to portray what has happened but to portray what may have happened in accord with the principle of probability and necessity. Since poetry deals with universal truth, history considers only particular facts; poetry is more philosophical and deserves more serious attention. In addition, aesthetic representation of reality is not technical, factual, philosophical, and historical. Aristotle compares aesthetic process (mimesis) with the process that takes place in nature.
While nature moves through internal principles, art moves through organic principles like plot, action, characters, diction, and there is a unity among them. In a sense, art imitates nature and the deficiencies of nature are supplemented in the process of imitation, and art follows the same method, as nature would have employed. Thus, ‘if a house were natural product, it would pass through the same stages that in fact it passes through when it is produced by art, they would move along the same lines the natural process actually takes’. Poets, like nature, are capable of creating matter and form.
The origin of nature is nature itself and the origin of art is the artist and the defining characteristic of the artist is the ability to create, through imitation, as nature does. The artist constructs the plot as an organizing principle, character constitutes the relation and carries on the action and style gives pleasure. For instance, the plot of tragedy and Dionysian rituals display similar organization. The rituals begin with the spring, which is a striking and beautiful time of the year, and they represent the strength of gods and nature upon primitive society.
Tragedy, like the image of spring, has a striking and fascinating beginning and, like ritual, a tragic play pervades and shapes the feelings of the audiences. Dionysian ritual is a sacrifice of human being for gods and nature in the hope for a better and peaceful beginning. Similarly, the tragic hero is symbolically sacrificed after which there appears a peace. Then, the poet takes tragedy, as a mimetic representation of myth, from the natural course of an event that takes place in nature and reorganizes it.
In this sense, ‘mimesis’ designates the imitation and the manner in which, as in nature, creation takes place. Mimesis, as Aristotle takes it, is an active aesthetic process. He argues that ‘imitation is given us by nature and men are endowed with these gifts, gradually develop them and finally create the art of poetry’. The poet does not imitate reality but brings reality into existence through ‘mimesis’. The poet recreates and reorganizes already known facts and presents them in a fresh and attractive way; therefore, though audiences know the story of Sophocles’ Oedipus, they go and watch it.
The reality as presented to us through ‘mimesis’ is superior and universal not only because we are pleased to learn through imitation but also because such reality is better. Homer, for instance, depicts Achilles not only as a bad character but also depicts his goodness. Mimesis is thus copying and changing. The poet creates something that previously did not exist and for which there are no available models. Even in dealing with historical materials, the poet needs to fashion it in accord with his art rising to a higher level than is found in reality.
Art is fictitious but the mimetic and aesthetic nature of art pervades the fictitious deviation and a work of art forces the thing to appear as something more beautiful and better than that nature and human being posses in common, ‘for it is always writer’s duty to make world better’. It can be argued that Aristotle defines and argues about art with respect to ‘mimesis’, and the concept of imitation in Aristotle is an aesthetic matter. Mimesis is not only ‘origin of art but also a distinguishing quality of man, since imitation is natural to mankind from childhood on’; in addition ‘all men find pleasure in imitation’.
He claims that there are ‘things that distress us when we see them in reality, but the most accurate representation of these same things we view with pleasure. In this sense, catharsis is not a moral and psychological matter but a natural end of the aesthetic act as Salkaver discusses below: Fear and pity are dangerous emotions: painful and troubled feelings arise from the imagination of an imminent evil and cause destruction and pain. Pity, in particular, is a kind of pain upon seeing deadly or painful evil happening to one who does not deserve.
However, in the representation of such feelings one feels empathy and gets rid of them. So, a work of art gives a man an opportunity to get rid of painful and troubled feelings arising from the imagination of an imminent evil that may cause destruction and pain on the part of the citizen. Aristotle develops a consistent theory of art upon the concept of imitation. He begins saying that all human actions are imitation, then, he focuses on poetry and other areas of studies like history and philosophy. Lastly, he dwells on the poet and the concept of imitation as taken and practiced by playwrights.
All his arguments upon ‘mimesis’ are, both in general and in specific sense, have aesthetics quality, since he does not take imitation as social, moral or political phenomena but as an activity of the artist. CONCLUSION Plato’s main concern is with the public recitation of dramatic and epic poetry and in Plato there is emulation between philosophy and poetry. The poet influences the character of the young in every way and has corruptive impact upon the education of the young mind. In addition, poets don’t have a true knowledge of the things.
Plato suggests that the emotional appeal is a threat to reason, that mimetic art is remote from reality, that the poet is not serious and knows nothing about poetry and cannot give satisfactory information about his art. It is obvious that he resists the concept of imitation in the case of poetic composition. Tragedy, in particular, and poetry, in general are concerned with pleasure rather than instruction and since it is not possible to imitate a wise and quiet person in the play, since such a person does not fit the content of tragedy, ‘mimesis’ is ethically distracting.
Therefore, the function of various discussions of mimetic art in the Republic is ethical: wherever he mentions art he discusses it in relation to education and ethics. Although Aristotle agrees with Plato that poetry has the power to stimulate emotions, he does not pay much attention to the ethical and epistemological aspects of ‘mimesis’. Yet he dwells on the pleasure that men take in learning and argues that tragedy discharges the feelings and spectators leave the play in a state of calm, free of passions.
He does not restrict art and poetry and the concept of ‘mimesis’. Aristotle’s ‘mimesis’ is defined by mythos and praxis’, which brings the concept close to areas of time and action- in contrast to Platonic ‘mimesis’, which is closer to image, imagination and imitation. He argues that tragedy is the imitation (mimesis) of a man in action. Aristotle’s ‘mimesis’ is active and creative; and he gives a dynamic character to ‘mimesis’ by introducing mythos and praxis, thus, defines art as ‘mimesis’ and the artist as character.
Plato worries about the moral effect of poetry, while Aristotle strikes to psychology and returns repeatedly to shuddering terror (phobos) and pity (eleos) that the tragedy is creating in the spectator, who therefore repeats or imitates what has already taken place on stage. Plato argues that there is a duality between art (mimesis and narrative art) and ethics. The more poetic the poems are the less suited are they to the ears of men. Artistically, the better the comedy is, the worst it is, since the more attractive and perfect the comedy is the more disastrous its effects are.
For instance, Homer, in the “Iliad” tells us or narrates the story of cypresses, as he was himself a cypress. He tells the story as far as it makes the audience feel that not Homer is the speaker, but the priest, an old man. This manner of representation (impersonation), according to Plato, leads to the loss-of-self or transformation of identity and becomes a matter of moral destruction. Aristotle takes the same activity of impersonation in a different way.
He praises Homer for not telling excessively in his own voice since, after a few words he immediately brings on stage a man or woman or some other characters that represent the action with larger perspective. As a conclusion, ‘mimesis’ has since the antiquity been discussed to refer to the relation between reality and representation. The nature of discussion upon the concept of ‘mimesis’ as a theory of art changes according to the person who discusses the term and the way he deals with the term.
Auerbach, for instance, distinguishes the reality and ‘mimesis’ in literature with respect to the narrative techniques and argues that Homeric epic is not mimetic but realistic since; narration of the tales comprehends every detail and leaves no space for interpretation. Plato, on the other hand, agrees that reality cannot be represented; therefore, ‘mimesis’ is misrepresentation of truth. Aristotle becomes the defender of ‘mimesis’ against Plato and develops a theory of art with reference to ‘mimesis’ and claims that art (mimetic art) is superior to philosophy and histpry.