Thursday, March 8, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics: Is Imitative Art The Sincerest Form of Philosophy?

Sketch of Aristotle studying animals (1791).
In Poetics, Aristotle argues that poetry "seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature." The first of these is the "instinct of imitation." This instinct enables man to feel pleasure and contemplate pain. While Plato's Republic condemns poetry and other forms of art as a false imitation of life, Aristotle's Poetics defends poetry as  "a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular" (Aristotle IX). He argues that the mimesis that Plato objects to enables art forms like poetry and tragedy to evoke fear and pity through character and action, leading to a catharsis that can reveal truth to an audience.

Imitation frames how Aristotle explains the divergence among poets that creates Comedy and Tragedy. Aristotle says that there are two kinds of poets that use different means to balance the two instincts. The distinction lies between the "graver spirits" who imitate noble actions and the actions of good men through "hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men" and "the more trivial sort" who imitate the actions of "meaner persons" by composing satire (Aristotle IV).

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), 
a detail of The School of Athens
a fresco by Raphael
Aristotle uses the distinction between the two kinds of poets to evaluate Comedy and Tragedy. He argues that Comedy is an imitation of characters, while Tragedy is an imitation of actions. Like the rest of Greek society, Aristotle gives priority to action, which can reveal character, whereas character without action cannot reveal truth. Through action, the poet "brings in character at the same time and then character can reveal "choice of what to pursue and avoid" (Nussbaum 264).

Aristotle argues any poet's effort to "give pleasure to all" mandates that he should "be the maker of plots rather than of verse; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions" rather than addressing particular individuals which an audience may not know (Aristotle IX). Plato's objection to poetry and imitation (or mimesis) stems from Socrates' radical departure from Homer and the Greek tragic poets. 

Though Socrates denied to have moral knowledge, he  argued that "a good man cannot be harmed" and that "nothing among humans is worth much seriousness" (Nussbaum 263). Aristotle rejects the idea that Tragedy should disgust a "good man" because it represents pity that is undeserved and fear that should be stoically rejected (269). Aristotle believes Tragic poetry should "admit room for both pity and fear to be legitimate emotions" (Nussbaum 270). 

Aristotle argues that imitation plays a pivotal role allowing the audience a "proper purgation of these emotions" (Aristotle VI). He argues, "the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation" (Aristotle XIV). Nussbaum summarizes Aristotle's belief espoused in Rhetoric that imitation is essential to human emotions because catharsis connects an audience to reality through the tragic hero. 

"At his best, man is the noblest of all animals;
separated from law and justice he is the worst."

Imitation to makes audiences understand "whatever we pity when it happens to another, we fear lest it should happen to ourselves- and conversely" (Nussbaum 274). Though Plato asserts that "people who believe nothing bad can happen to them will have no fear," Aristotle argues that because "fear takes as its object the hero described as 'similar,'" the audience will fear the downfall of a person like them and the related possibilities for themselves that the tragic hero imitates (Nussbaum 275). 

Through imitation, poets connect an audience to the universal experiences which art aims to express. While the characters and actions in Tragedy, Comedy and Poetry may be fictitious, Aristotle implies imitative arts might bring the audience closer to knowledge than reality. 

Works Cited
Aristotle. "Aristotle - Poetics." Athenaeum Library of Philosophy. Web. 15 Feb 2012. 
Nussbaum, Martha C. "Tragedy and Self-sufficiency: Plato and Aristotle on Fear and Pity." Essays on Aristotle's Poetics. (1992): 261-290. Print.