Aristotle’s Concept of Imitation | Is Imitation Twice Away From Reality?

  • December 5, 2021
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Word imitation has great importance in literature. Aristotle explained meaning of this word in order to defend poetry which is called Aristotle’s concept/theory of imitation. Although he was not first to use this word yet he comes first in redefining its meanings. Word “imitation” was used as a synonym of copy of copy before Aristotle. Plato used this word for the first time. He was of the considerable view that poetry was shadow of a shadow, thus, it was twice away from reality.

It is better to understand meanings of imitation as demonstrated by Plato before discussing Aristotle’s concept/theory of imitation.

On thing should be remembered that poetry does not mean only the modern poetry. It nowadays is a genre of literature but in the past, drama, comedy and epic poem was in poetic form. Furthermore, everything was called poetry and writers were called poets. Hence, when we (or Aristotle) mentions poets it should be considered every writers whether he is dramatist, novelist or poet. Likewise, poetry means whole literature.

Plato’s Concept/Theory of Imitation:

Plato was against poetry and poets. He said that the poets used to present a copy of nature in poetry. He quoted example of a painter and said that a painter first saw nature and then created its copy on the canvas. Plato was of the view that the world had been created from an idea; the idea was an original thing, whereas this world was its copy.

Let’s look at an example to clarify it; when a carpenter builds a chair, he has an idea in his mind, which can be called a blueprint. When he builds chair, it is a copy of that idea. Similarly, this world was created from an an idea, therefore, it was not original but a copy. A poet imitates nature in his poetry which is already a copy. Hence, he makes copy of a copy. In this way, poetry is twice away from reality.

Aristotle’s Concept/Theory of Imitation:

Aristotle answered Plato and refuted charge against poets. He redefined meanings of imitation. Regardless of that whole concept of idea and copy remained the same. In simple words, Aristotle agreed that the world was created from an idea and the world was its copy. He also agreed that a poet imitated the reality/nature but meaning of word imitation did not mean mere copy. He did not consider poetry twice away from reality

Imitation is a Creative Process:

Imitation is a creative process in the eyes of Aristotle. He links poetry with music instead of painting. He says that poetry is pleasant just like a flute’s sound that is full of harmony, therefore, it is not right to compare poets with painters and poetry with painting. A poet, further says Aristotle, does not present things as they appear but bestows them his imagination. Hence, poetry is not the process of seeing things and simply converting it to words; a poet reinvents things with his imagination and experiences.  Aristotle’s concept/theory of imitation can be concluded in following words:-

“objects which in themselves we view with disgust, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and dead bodies.”

Aristotle – Poetics

Thus, poetry is more philosophical, more conducive to understand than philosophy itself. He further says:-

“idealised representation of character, emotion, action—under forms manifest in sense.”

Aristotle – Poetics

Thus, a poet does not tell a lie. He imitates things from his mental power which can touch the senses, therefore he brings the nature closer to reality.

Three Modes of Imitation in Aristotle’s Concept/Theory:

Aristotle’s concept/theory describes three modes of imitation. First chapter of the poetics is relevant in this regard, in which he tries to explain mode of imitation. Important portion is reproduced as under:-

“Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, as also the music of the flute and the lyre in most of their forms, are in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however, from one another in three respects—their medium, objects and the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.”

Aristotle – Poetics

There are three modes of imitation in the eyes of Aristotle.

  • Tragedy,
  • Comedy and
  • Epic Poetry.

Poetry Presents Men in Action:

In tragedy and poetry, manner of poet is action, whereas in the remaining one, his manner is narrative. Aristotle’s concept/theory of imitation emphasizes on “Men in action”. Supernatural elements cannot be shown in dramatic forms on the stage, therefore, they can be included in epic poetry. Tragedy presents men better then they are but comedy presents them worse. However, purpose remains the same that is to imitate things with the power of imagination.

Realistic Poetry:

Aristotle has not mentioned the third form of poetry. Critics raise objection on it. They say that Aristotle is not aware with the third form i.e. reality. Many dramatists, in the modern world, are sketching realism but it does not mean that they have no creative powers. Though reality is being presented yet there are feelings and emotions in it. Moreover, emotions and feelings can only be added if the poet/dramatist has a good imaginative powers. A true poet illustrates the pain and sorrows of life, which are real but it always effects.

Imitation Vs. Reality and History:

If imitation is the name of copying facts then there must be no creativity in poetry. As mentioned earlier, Aristotle argues that a poet presents men in action. He presents men as they were or are or as they ought to be. If men are being presented as they are without any blend of imagination and creative power then it is not poetry but history. Creativity differentiates history from poetry. A historian may also write about the sorrows and pains, suffered by humans, but it would not necessarily be filled with emotions. Strong power of imagination is required to convert ordinary and simple incidents to extraordinary events so that they cause “catharsis”. Aristotle’s redefined “imitation” is the only concept/theory, through which poetry becomes highly effective.

Upshot of the above discussion is that Aristotle has encouraged the poets to write poetry. He blows a new soul to the word “imitation”. Plato’s charges against the poets have successfully been refuted by Aristotle in his book “Poetics”. Aristotle’s concept/theory of imitation shows the world that it is not mere a procedure of copying things but a creative process, which requires high imaginative powers. Hence, it cannot be called duplicating things. It is a process of creating something astonishing from ordinary things with the help of strong vision. A poet, hence, through imitation brings things closer to reality instead of taking them twice away from reality.

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