Plato considers mimesis in ethical and political contexts; Aristotle uses mimesis as an aesthetic phenomenon. They both agree that poetry is mimetic but they have different ideas about poetry and mimesis.
Plato, in the Republic, uses the argument of mimesis to attack poets, asserting that poets and artists should have no place in the ideal state because their work is far removed from the truth as it is mere imitation or representation of ideas/reality. According to him, there is first the metaphysical world/reality, then the world of appearance/world of ‘becoming’ and lastly, the mimetic world.
Plato has a problem with this mimetic world. He wants to make a distinction between truth and falsity, right and wrong. To understand this mimetic world, one needs to know the reality and the path to reality is in philosophy and reason, not in poetry and emotion. [Note: It is, in fact, not Plato who begins with such a notion of criticism. He comes in the line of people who judge in terms of truth/falsity – called the Kritai.]
These as we can see, lead naturally to the questions of ‘ethics’, which in turn played an important role in Plato’s arguments regarding his ‘ideal state/community’. Interestingly, we can see ideas of the ‘ideal community’ echoed in several works later on, Utopia for instance. Both, Republic and Utopia are political treatises talking about reorganizing society that existed at that time.
For Plato, true literature is that which helps in recognizing the ideal world and also helps us in understanding that what we’re doing is just the manifestation of that world.
Republic is not a treatise on literature, as one might mistakenly think it is, rather, it is a political organization/sketch of what should comprise an ‘ideal state’. It is in this context of creating such a state that he talks of mimesis and banning poetry from the ‘ideal state.’
But Plato’s attitude to poetry is neither simple nor consistent: when he banishes poetry he does so in terms which suggest the renunciation of a sinful love in the interests of a higher good; equally, when he speaks of the poet as divinely inspired [Laws 719c], that image does not carry with it an unambiguous respect for the poet’s message. The ambivalence of Plato’s presentation of poets and poetry in his dialogues has generated an extraordinary variety and range of responses.
By ignoring the ironic resonances of Plato’s concept of poetic inspiration and by reinterpreting the famous ‘mirror’ motif of Republic Book X as a means of exploring the relationship between nature and art in a positive way, later writers, and particularly those inspired by Neoplatonism, were able to respond to Plato’s provocation by developing a defence of poetry which was constructed out of Plato’s own work. Thus, for example, Plotinus, the influential Neoplatonist philosopher of the third century AD, transformed Plato’s view by declaring that the artist bypasses the sensible world and looks to the Forms themselves, enabling him to create works of beauty which improve on the imperfections of nature. And the long tradition of the apologias for poetry from Aristotle’s Poetics to Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poetry (1595) to Shelly’s essay of the same name (1821) can all be seen as responses to the challenge that Plato issued when he banished poetry from his Republic.
For Plato poetry is not an object of study in itself; his concerns for poetry and art are ultimately subordinated to his larger philosophical aims, whether epistemological, ontological or ethical, hence his discussions of poetry are always embedded in some wider context. With Aristotle's Poetics, however, we arrive at the first work of theoretical criticism devoted specifically to poetry in the Western tradition.
Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, was no poet. His treatise is written in a spirit of scientific detachment, and he treats poetry no differently from any other field of inquiry – be it politics, logic or biology. Poetry for him is an independent art with its own internal logic and his emphasis is primarily on its formal aspects without reference to the social, political or religious dimensions which had so preoccupied Plato.
Aristotle makes a distinction between the political and the aesthetic world. The reality in the two is not the same. The reality called ‘history’ – that is, a recording of real facts or happenings – is not what literature (poetry) claims to record. The world of literature constitutes of an alternate (aesthetic) reality. Thus, Aristotle created this break or separation between philosophical and aesthetic works. For instance, he claims that art and philosophy deal with different kinds of truth; philosophy deals with concrete and absolute truth, whereas art deals with aesthetic and universal truth. The difference between mimetic poetry and history is stated as ‘one (history) writes about what has actually happened, while the other (poetry) 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.
Poetry, he asserts, are objects in their own right which can best be understood through the analysis of their structure and form; whereas Plato concentrated on textual existence and emphasized on performance.
The Poetics is in part a response to Plato’s strictures against poetry, and the Platonic background is crucial to our understanding of Aristotle's arguments. Whereas Plato views poetry as an inspired, and therefore irrational, activity, Aristotle treats it as the product of skill or art, which is based on rational or intelligible principles.
For Plato the poet has no real knowledge, as the imitations which he produces are far removed from the ultimate reality; for Aristotle each area of knowledge is imitation in the sense that as a human being we all learn through imitation; there is a close relationship between imitation and learning, both at the simplest level (human beings ‘differ from other animals in that we are the most imitative of creatures, and learn our earliest lessons by imitation’, Poetics 1448b), and at the much more sophisticated level where the ‘universal’ situations of poetry are said to be more philosophical than the particulars of historical narration (1451b). Since poetry presents us with ‘the kinds of things that might happen’ in human life, it gives us a generalized view of human nature from which we can learn more than we can from particular facts.
Plato regards poetry, and especially tragedy, as morally harmful in that it stimulates emotions which ought to be suppressed; according to Aristotle, the ability to engage our emotions is an essential feature of tragedy, and one that is positively beneficial in its effects.
Pleasure, which for Plato is the source of poetry’s greatest danger, is for Aristotle an intrinsic part of our response to poetry, since all human beings instinctively take delight in ‘imitations’ (chapter 4).
Aristotle takes over from Plato the idea that poetry, together with other arts such as painting, sculpture, music and dance, is a form of mimesis, but, unlike Plato, he nowhere explains what he means by this term. So the obvious worry is whether it should be translated as ‘imitation’ or ‘representation’, but Aristotle's usage includes both of these meanings. According to Aristotle, the instinct for imitation is a basic element in human nature: we have a natural propensity to engage in imitation, we learn from it, and we instinctively take pleasure in works of imitation. As he explains in chapter 4, we enjoy looking at representations, even if they are of things which we would find painful to see in real life, because we enjoy recognizing the similarities between the image and the thing which it represents. Perceiving likeness and working out resemblances is a positive pleasure for human beings because it satisfies our natural desire to learn. Hence the enjoyment of imitative arts like poetry and painting is rooted in human nature, and the pleasure they afford has cognitive value.
A final note for those who wonder about the relevance of Plato and Aristotle’s arguments on ethics, mimesis and poetry/art in today’s world: Note the criticism levelled by some today against violence and sex in the media. They argue that violence and sex in the media cause us to be a more violent, sexually obsessed culture. This affects not just the people who consume the violent images, but the entire community of which they are a part. There is then a whole other school of argument made today in defence of graphically sexual or violent art or even of pornography or of violence on television. It is defended to be a purging of negative emotions by a dose of (harmless) negative emotions, therapeutic in nature and part of a healthy life for an individual. Ring any bells?
[REFERENCES: Mr. Pinto’s class notes; Literary Theory and Criticism, Patricia Waugh; Classical Literary Criticism, Penguin Classics; The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch; Plato on Beauty, Wisdom and the Arts, Julia Annas; Internet resources]