Aristotle Theory of Mimesis

Mimesis or Imitation is perhaps the most debated word in the Poetics. Before Aristotle, Plato used the word in The Republic in the sense of mere copying of the appearances of things, actions and behaviours. But Aristotle breathed into it a new and definite meaning so that poetic imitation is no longer considered mere copying, but is regarded as an act of imaginative creation by which the poet makes something new out of it.

Theory of imitation by Aristotle

According to Aristotle, the concept of imitation unites poetry with other fine arts. Imitation is the common basis of all the fine arts, and it is this fact of imitation which differentiates the fine arts from another category of arts. When Plato had equated poetry with painting, Aristotle equates it with music.

It does not remain a mere servile representation of the surface of things, however, in his theory, it becomes a representation of the passions and emotions of men, which are also imitated by music. Thus Aristotle by his theory enlarged the object of imitation. According to Aristotle, epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dancing, music, flute playing, painting etc. are all modes of imitation. The various arts different from one another in three ways -

1. medium of imitation; 
2. in their objects of imitation and
3. in their manner of imitation.

The medium of imitation means the vehicle or the material through which the artist imitates. The painter imitates through form and colour. The poet imitates through language, rhythm, and harmony. The musician imitates through rhythm and harmony. Thus the mediums of the poet and the painter are different. Poetry is nearer to music than painting.
Aristotle Theory of Mimesis
As regards the objects of imitation, Aristotle says that the objects of poetic imitation are ‘men in action’, and these men must be either of a higher or lower type. According to Aristotle, there are three objects of artistic imitation -

1. Ethos
2. Pathos and
3. Praxis

Ethos represents the permanent mental dispositions which are revealed in human character. Pathos stands for those emotional moods and feelings which are transitory. Praxis has to be understood as an action which is inward. We are told that ‘men in action’ are the objects of imitation, and thus enables us to believe that the poet has to imitate human thoughts, will, feelings, and emotions. Poetry, then, is an imitation of human life; it is an imitation of the inward life of man. Thus Aristotle's imitation is not the servile copying of the surface of things, but it is a representation of real life. As regards the manner of imitation, Aristotle says that there may be three ways of imitation:

1. The poet may use the narrative method, as Homer does
2. He may use the dramatic method; and
3. He may use a combination of these two methods.

He may narrate a part of his story, and represent part of it through a dialogue between assumed characters. On the basis of the manner of imitation poetry is classified as epic or narrative, and dramatic. In dramatic poetry, the dramatic personages act the story, in epic poetry a poet narrates the story, as well as tells it through a dialogue between assumed characters. He use both the narrative and the dramatic method.
Poetry may imitate men as better or worse than they are in real life. The poet gives us a truth of an ideal or universal kind. He tells us not what men are but what they can be or what they ought to be.

It isn't the function of the poet to relate what has happened but what may happen- according to the laws of probability or necessity.
History tells us what actually happened; poetry tells us what may happen. Poetry tends to express the universal, history express the particular. In this way, Aristotle showed the superiority of poetry over history.

The poet also shares the philosopher's quest for ultimate truth. There is a universal element in great poetry, and hence it has a permanent appeal. Aristotle thus equates poetry with philosophy and shows that both are means of a higher truth; both contribute to a better understanding of man and his life. Thus the poet constantly rises from the particular to the general. He studies the particular, and on the basis of his study devises principles of general application. The poet transcends the limits of real life, without violating the essential laws of human nature.

Plato blamed poetry on the ground that in the very nature of things poets can have no idea of truth. According to Plato, the poet holds up a mirror to material objects; and thus he catches a reflection of the world around him. But the world around him is itself a reflection of the world of ideas. So his imitation is a reflection of a reflection, a copy of a copy; and this imitation is therefore twice removed from the ideal world and from the ideal truth. Hence the poets are liars; they deceive us with lies which they tell in their poetry.

Poetry is, therefore, the mother of lies
On the contrary, Aristotle tells us that art imitates not the mere show of things, but the ‘ideal reality’, embodied in every object of the world. The process of nature is a ‘creative process’, all over in ‘nature there's constant and upward progress’, everything in nature is constantly growing and moving up, and the poet imitates this upward movement of nature.

Art reproduces the original not as it's, but it appears to the senses. Art moves in the world of images, and reproduces the external, according to the idea or image in his mind. Thus the poet doesn't copy the external world but creates according to his ‘idea’ of it.

Thus Aristotle contemptuously and cogently refuted the charges of Plato and provided a defence of poetry which has ever since been used by lovers of poetry in justification of their muse. Aristotle breathed new life and soul into the concept of poetic imitation, enlarged its scope, and showed that it's, in reality, a creative process.

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