Aristotle Theory of Imitation in Poetics

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      The term 'imitation' was not used for the first time by Aristotle. The term had already been used by Plato in his Republic. But Aristotle's use of the term is fraught with new dimensions. He gave to it a greater precision of meaning and a greater scope. We have to see what Plato implied by the term imitation before we can realize how Aristotle enlarged its implications and meaning.

Plato's Idea of Imitation: Poetry is Twice Removed from Reality

      Plato in his Republic had distinguished between the useful arts and the imitative arts. The useful arts, such as medicine and agriculture, serve our requirements. The imitative arts did not have such a utility. Poetry belonged to the category of the imitative arts. And poetry like all other imitative arts, is an imitator of appearance and not the Truth. To Plato, the 'idea' was the Truth or the reality. The world of senses, i.e. what we see and feel, is a mere representation of the reality. Poetry by imitating this world of appearances was thus twice removed from the Truth. It was an imitator or "shadow of shadows".

      A carpenter who makes a bed is working on the basis of his idea of a bed. The idea is real. What he makes, is a copy of that reality. So, too, God created the world as we see it, on the basis of an idea. The idea is Truth, and thus real. The world, as we see it, is a mere copy. The poet, who creates on the basis of this world, is basing his creation on a copy. Hence his work is a copy of a copy and is thus twice removed from reality. Plato's Republic had no place for poets and poetry, which he called the mother of all lies. Yet, one should remember that Plato's rather severe indictment" against poetry and poets was made in a particular context - that of building an ideal state with disciplined citizens and statesmen.

Aristotle's Concept of Imitation: New Dimensions

      Aristotle thus was not the originator of the term 'mimesis' in connection with the fine arts. But he added new dimensions to the term. He gave it a significance, which removed the sense of inferiority attached to it by Plato. The concept of imitation, according to Aristotle, unites poetry and all other fine arts. Art, however, imitates not merely the appearances or the externals of this world. Art deals with the very essence of things. There is a creative reproduction of the external world in accordance with the artist's idea. Poetry is thus an imitation of a shadow, but it is the imitation of the ideal reality.

      Poetry achieves idealization by dealing with the essential, while discarding the accidental and transient. Poetry deals with the universal and the ideal. The significance of poetic truth is that it is universal and essential and permanent. Thus, Aristotle defended poetry, and offered a wider scope and greater significance to the term imitation'. This imitation is not mere slavish copying. It is not a mere representation of the outward appearances. This imitation is of the deeper reality, or the very basic elements of human nature.

Poetry Linked with Music in Aristotle's Concept of Imitation

      A tragic poet represents a man with a nature better than average. This would not be possible in an imitation which copied external appearances alone. It would be possible only if the poet represented an idea of human nature. Significantly, Aristotle links poetry with music. Music, obviously enough, is not an imitation in the sense of mere copying of appearances.

      As Hamilton Fyre observes a composer of a pastoral? symphony does not try to make noise like pigs and chickens, but creates a special atmosphere with his artistic skill and makes the hearer feel the emotion he felt in the countryside. It is in this sense that a poet communicates his emotion by imitating or recreating life. It is a presentation of the inner feelings and moods and emotions of human nature. So, poetry is an imitation of the deep inner feelings and ideas of man. The poet's imagination colors this imitation. Thus poetic imitation becomes significant; it is creative.

The Medium of Poetic Imitation

      All art, then, is a mode of imitation. Yet there are differences between the various modes of imitation. One such difference lies in their medium of imitation. Painting, like other forms of art, is also a mode of imitation. The mediums of the poet and the painter are different. The painter's medium of imitation is color and form. The poet's is rhythm and harmony. Aristotle finds an affinity between and music. The musician, too, imitates through rhythm and harmony. Poetry is nearer to music than to painting, as it, too, imitates through harmony and rhythm. To this, it adds language as well. The linking of poetry and music is significant, as it suggests that poetry is something above mere mimicry. Poetry itself is of different kinds, differing from each other in their manner of imitation' or in their object of imitation'.

The Objects of Poetic Imitation

      The next aspect of the three-fold classification propounded by Aristotle is that of the object of imitation. The objects of poetic imitation are men in action. These men may be either better than or lower than the average man in real life: "Men as they were or are, or as they ought to be." Thus 'imitation' in poetry is clearly distinct from photographic presentation. It is a process involving the creative imagination and the intellectual faculty of the poet. Tragedy and epic deal with men better than in real life. Comedy and Satire imitate men worse than they are in real life. Aristotle does not give much importance to those that present men exactly as they are found in real life.

      In this connection, it would be necessary to resolve the slight confusion that arises because of what Aristotle said elsewhere, namely that "Art imitates Nature". At first sight, this seems to be at variance with what he says in the Poetics, that, "the objects of imitation are men in action. But the ambiguity is easily resolved. When Aristotle talks of Nature, he does not mean the visible created things of nature. He is referring to the process, not to the object, of imitation. The poet, according to his theory, imitated the creative processes of nature; but his subject matter was man, and the objects of poetic imitation' were human life in all its manifestations. He means the creative force, the productive principle of the universe", when he is talking of Nature being imitated in art. Art seeks to reproduce an inward process, a psychical energy working outwards; deeds, incidents, events, situations, being under it so far as these spring from an inward act of will or elicit activity of thought or feeling, as Butcher observes.

Imitation of Outward, as well as Inner Activity

      In this connection, we must deal a little in detail with Aristotle's concept of character, and the elements of human life that are presented in poetry. There are mental dispositions in human nature which have a permanent quality about them. Then there are the emotional moods and feelings. These are transitory aspects of human psyche. Now, 'men in action' includes their thoughts, feelings, will, motives, and emotions. Poetry is an imitation of human life. Action involves the inward life of man as well, not merely the outward events, which in any case, are the result of inward motives. Aristotle, in observing that poetry is concerned with men in action, excludes from the sphere of poetry, the physical world containing landscapes and animals. Thus the whole universe is not considered a material for poetry.

      The poet is concerned with human beings and their actions. But in this imitation is involved the effort of creative imagination. The poet does not produce a literal copy of world as he sees it. The landscape and animals might form only a background to the inward activity of the soul of man. Thus we see that the inner world of man is very much the object of imitation in poetry. Aristotle, it might be remarked, did not know much about the fleshly' school of fiction, as R.A. Scott-James remarks. But one might say that the imagination is taxed all the more if it has to "create life as it might be, rather than represent it as it actually is. It is when the imagination conceives of life as it might be, that it is an exciting activity; imagination then becomes an impulse capable of inspiring poetry.

The Manner of Poetic Imitation

      Yet another way in which the different arts may differ is in their manner of imitation. Poetry itself is of different types because of the different manner of imitation involved in different types. There is the purely narrative poet, who may continue speaking in the same person Without change. Another kind of poetry is that in which the poet may imitate by now speaking in narrative, and now in an assumed role. Aristotle gives the example of Homer. The third manner of imitation is that in which the whole story is represented in the form of an action carried out by several persons, as in real life. This, of course, is the dramatic mode of poetry. Abercrombie rightly remarks: "Within the scope, Aristotle has assigned to his subject, all poems may be classified either as narrative or dramatic. Thus poems which resemble each other in the object (imitation of human life) may differ in the manner of imitation, and the other way round. Sophocles as a tragic poet might be classed with Homer, but as a dramatic poet with Aristophanes."

Imitation: A Creative Act, or A Process of Imaginative Re-creation

      Aristotle brought a new implication to the term 'imitation'. His Concept of imitation made the poetic process out to be, not one of mere copying, but an act of creative vision, through which the poet, while taking material from phenomena of life was enabled to make something new out of the real and actual. The poet could take "things as they are, things as they were said to be or thought to be, or things as they ought to be". He could, in other words, deal with facts past or present, with established beliefs, or with ideals unrealized. In each instance, a process of transformation was implied. For all practical purposes, as Atkins remarks, Aristotle considered imitation' to be nothing else but 're-creation'. It is this concept of 'creative imitation' that is the basis of the other concept of Aristotle, namely his conception of poetry as a revelation of the permanent and universal characteristics of human life and thought. Poetry is no mere transcript of life, but is also something more than pure illusion.

The Universal Truth of Poetry: Imitation of Ideals

      Poetic imitation involves a creative faculty, for it implies the transformation of material into art. Poetry is not mere photographic representation. It is not a mere copy of the world as we see it. Out of the confused and chaotic muddle of everyday life, the poet tries to create a work of art which has a permanent relevance. Poets deal with the basic essentials of human nature, or the possibilities of human nature. Aristotle asserts: "It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened but what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity". Poetry is thus very much different from history. Poetry thus becomes more philosophical than history. Poetry is concerned with the universal, not with the particular. Aristotle makes clear what he means by the term 'universal'. It implies "how a certain type or nature will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity". As Butcher observes, Aristotle's theory encompasses for poetic imitation, the characteristic moral qualities, the permanent disposition of the mind, the passing emotions and feelings, which are all actions, and so the proper objects of imitation.

Artistic Imitation: A Process of Ordering and Arranging

      Dramatic art is the imitation which reproduces life's emotions rather than life's sense impressions. But in the reproduction is implied artistic selection and arrangement of material. Aristotle insists upon the law of probability and necessity. There has to be an inevitability about the action. There is an implied rationality in the imitation involved in art. Poetry has no place for the irrelevant. The material has to be pruned". The chaos of life has to be brought under a design, a pattern, and an order. This is imperative for the poetry to gain universality and truth. Thus the reproduction of life is combined with the necessity of imposing an artistic design conforming to the law of probability and necessity. This is the poetic imitation which Aristotle propounds. It is closely connected with universality and the concept of inevitability.

Imitation Requires both Extension and limitation

      Aristotle took the word "imitation" from Plato, but read a new and wider significance into it. However, his theory of imitation, too, is not without difficulties. It includes both presentations of objects with a photographic realism and the reproduction of emotional states which cannot be realistic in a photographic sense. It includes presentation, both idealistic and caricature. Aristotle does not fully explain or resolve the ambiguities involved in the term, "imitation". As a consequence, his theory requires extension and limitations.

      Aristotle declares that poetry imitates men in action. Such a statement seems to exclude all expressive or lyrical forms of poetry which apparently do not seek to imitate men in action. The theory seems to fit the representational or the dramatic mode alone. In this context, the theory of imitation has to be extended by trying to understand its implications. The actions of men are really the external manifestation of their inner motives-feelings, passion, thoughts and will. The phrase "imitation of men in action" can be understood as an imitation of the inner forces which determine a man's behavior. Thus Aristotle's theory can be extended to include lyrics as well, for this form "imitates" the feelings and emotions of man.

      The idea of "imitation" in literature was rather uncertainly suggested by Aristotle, as Graham Hough remarks. Aristotle suggests that it is the "mimetic quality which distinguishes poetry from other forms of discourse. But actually, the point is not that literature imitates objects in the real world, for that is done even by history and scientific writing. The point is that literature creates fictitious objects. The mimetic quality" that distinguishes poetry from history is clearly not imitative in the sense of presenting actual facts which exist or have happened in the world around us. It is the fictional or imaginary quality which differentiates poetry from history. It is thus that Homer imitates' the shield of Achilles though no such shield has ever existed. Thus the "imitation" involved in literature is concerned not so much with things "as they are" as with things which "can be" or ought to be"

Possible Limitations in Aristotle's Concept of Imitation

      Critics have found Aristotle somewhat inconsistent in his use of the word imitation. In the Republic, Plato compares the imitative artist with the narrative poet who reveals his own person, i.e., speaks of himself. Aristotle comments that the poet should not speak in his own person, "for this does not make him an imitator". Yet he allows the poet the scope of imitating through narration.

      Aristotle's concept of the tragic character as being better than average, and the comic character as worse than real life, may not be quite valid for all tragedy and comedy. A Shakespearean tragedy like Macbeth conceives of a tragic character not better than average in the moral sense of the term. (Yet, one might argue, that. Macbeth shows a higher than average courage and determination in the face of a adversity and misfortune).


      Aristotle took the term 'imitation' from Plato. He gave to the term a wider significance. He refuted the charge that poetry was a pack of lies. He brought out the higher truth involved in poetry, which made it higher than history. He gives the term imitation a more precise as well as deeper significance. He brought creative imagination within the scope of poetic 'imitation'. F.R. Lucas observes: Mimesis (whence our "mime") covers both representations of objects with a realism so photographic that, says Plato (Republic), "children or simple folk may be taken in", and at the opposite extreme, reproduction of emotional states by means so far from realistic that Aristotle can even call music "the most mimetic of the arts". It also includes the representation that idealizes and the representation that caricatures - a difficult word. Neither, Plato, nor Aristotle seems to me adequately to disengage its ambiguities. Its essence is the artificial reproduction of things in real life of recreation by re-creation."

      J.W. Atkins remarks: "Into the term imitation' he read a new and definite meaning which made the poetic process out to be not mere copying, but an act of creative vision, by means of which the poet, while drawing for his material on the phenomena of life, was enabled of make something new out of the real and actual...(For) all practical purposes, 'imitation to Aristotle was none other than re-creation.


1. Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two cases, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, and difference between him and other animals being he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

2. Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the music of flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however, from one another in three respects - the medium, the object, the manner or mode of imitation, being in each different.

3. Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily posses certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify action themselves, and these - thought and character - are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again, all success or failure depends.

4. is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen - what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.

5. Poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a certain type will on occasion speak or act according to the law of probability or necessity.


1. Examine critically the salient features of Aristotle's theory of imitation, and contrast these views with those of Plato.
2. "Imitation requires both extension and limitation". Elucidate Aristotle's concept of Imitation in the light of this statement.
3. Does Aristotle's view that all art is "imitation" conflict with the view that it is creative?
4. On what grounds did Plato attack poetry? What was Aristotle's defense of it?

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