Aristotle was born in Macedonia in 384 BCE. At the age of seventeen, he came to Athens and joined the circle of researchers and scholars who had gathered around Plato in his Academy. This association between Plato and Aristotle has had a tremendous influence on the history of human thoughts, with reference to mimesis, we see the two intellectuals working on a number of similar concepts which have gone on to form the basis of much of Western philosophy.
Between 347 BCE, the year when Plato died, and 335 BCE Aristotle stayed away from Athens most probably because of certain political reasons, and in these twelve years, he was associated with another important figure who cast a very long shadow in human history. A few years into his political exile from Athens, Aristotle was appointed as the tutor of Alexander by his father King Philip. The number of years that Aristotle taught Alexander is uncertain and we also don’t know much about the amount of influence that Aristotle might have had over the young Alexander. But it is tempting to make certain connections here. Plato, the teacher of Aristotle, was born during a time when in Athens the time tested model of democratic government was faltering. Indeed, Plato himself was one of the most prominent critiques of the democratic form of government as is evident from his works like The Republic. Plato’s student was Aristotle and it was Aristotle who taught Alexander, the man who would comprehensively wipe away the vestiges of democracy from the Greek world and become the founder of one of the largest empires in the world. However, tempting though it might be to connect Plato, Aristotle and Alexander in this way, we really cannot be certain about how much Aristotle moulded Alexander’s political views and his desire to establish an empire. What we can be sure of is Aristotle’s influence on a later generation of Greek philosophers who gathered in his school Lyceum which he established in Athens after returning back to the city-state in 335 BCE. He again left Athens in 322 BCE and died the same year in a place called Chalcis.
One of the earliest catalogues of Aristotle’s work that is still extant today was produced by the Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius. He lists about 550 books that were supposedly written by Aristotle. Now this list is not absolutely reliable and in fact, it does not mention some of the key works that are today ascribed to Aristotle while mentioning some works which might not have been authored by him. But in spite of these ambiguities, the list bears witness to the staggering achievements of Aristotle as a scholar. What is even more astonishing than the number of books that Aristotle wrote is the number of topics that he covered in them. The scope of Aristotle’s work included among other things rhetoric, poetics, sciences, especially the science of biology, politics, ethics, metaphysics…and in all of these subjects, Aristotle remained an undisputed authority for more than a thousand years after his death. It is therefore not surprising that the medieval Christian poet Dante, even while relegating the pagan Aristotle to the zone of hell in his famous book The Divine Comedy would nevertheless refer to him as “The master of those who know”.
Unfortunately, the writings of Aristotle that have survived are only about one-fifth of the total corpus that is mentioned by Laertius. And even more, unfortunately, most of the writings that Aristotle consciously prepared for publication have been lost. What survives are mostly lecture notes which are often cryptic in nature and lack the polished quality of a work that has been expressly prepared for publication and circulation. Thus, reading the available writings of Aristotle after being exposed to the exquisitely wrought dialogues of Plato can come as a disappointment in terms of literary style. However, if we can put aside the question of literary finesse, we are bound to be enthralled by the quality of discourse that we encounter in the surviving writings of Aristotle. Like most of his surviving writings, Poetics too reads like a set of cryptic notes that Aristotle might have prepared for his lectures in Lyceum. Therefore, it has an unvarnished quality and carries a sense of incompleteness because many of the key ideas including mimesis are mentioned but not elaborated. However, Poetics has an incomplete character in another very different way. It is assumed that the volume that we are familiar with today is only one part of a larger work. Indeed, the present volume which focuses especially on the literary form of tragedy had a complimentary volume on Comedy which is now lost. The volume can be divided into three related segments. The first segment which includes Part 1 to Part 5 of the volume acts as a kind of general introduction to artistic mimesis and its classifications. The second segment covering Parts 6 to 22 discusses in details tragedy as a form of mimesis. And then the last segment covering parts 23 to 26 situates the form of tragedy vis-à-vis the form of epic poetry and presents a comparative study of them.
It has long been part of the received knowledge that Aristotle’s Poetics was a conscious effort to challenge the negative views that Plato posed about artistic mimesis in his works like the Republic. But it is very difficult to conclusively prove this assertion because the text of Poetics itself does not mention either Plato or the Republic. In fact, to anyone who approaches this text without having read about Plato’s writings on mimesis, Poetics will appear to be a perfectly self-sustained work that does not need to be tagged on to earlier work for better understanding. However, those who are more aware of Plato’s writings will glimpse unmistakable traces of Aristotle’s engagement with his teacher in the Poetics both in what the text mentions and what it neglects to mention. Thus, when Aristotle in his Poetics sings high praise for Homer, it becomes difficult not to read it as a counter to Plato’s condemnation of Homer in his Republic. This is also true about the more general idea of artistic mimesis. Whereas Plato banished the mimetics and especially the mimetic poets from his ideal republic, Aristotle invites back the poets with open arms and establishes artistic mimesis as an integral aspect of human civilization.
One of the reasons why mimesis is not defined at the very onset in Poetics maybe because it was written in the shorthand form of lecture notes where certain things were more or less understood by the intended audience and therefore needed no elaboration. However, a more probable explanation is that Aristotle intended Poetics to be an engagement with Plato’s idea of mimesis. Therefore it was expected that the reader of Poetics will already be familiar with the general contours of the discussion about mimesis from the works of Plato and thus would not require an introductory definition. In other words, Poetics was conceptualized as a continuation as well as a critique of Plato’s writings like the Republic and not as a separate work with a separate starting point.
The first major distinction that we observe while comparing Aristotle’s treatment of mimesis in Poetics with Plato’s treatment of the same idea is the insistence of the former that mimesis is “natural”. For Plato mimesis was fake, an illusion, and a deceptive copy which was far removed from the true nature of things. In sharp contrast, Aristotle writes in the fourth part of his Poetics: “Poetry, in general, seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that 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.” The idea that mimesis cannot be simply dismissed as fake comes out even more strongly in the introductory segment of Poetics when it emphasizes the fact that mimesis, including the mimetic form of poetry, involves craft which means each mimetic form of representation involves its own distinct medium, object, and manner.
In the first three chapters of Poetics, Aristotle draws our attention to how a mimetic artist depending on what kind of a craftsman he chooses his medium of imitation like language, tune or rhythmic movements…selects the object which he seeks to express through his mediums of mimesis, be it the actions of exalted individuals or lowly men…and also selects the manner of his craft of imitation. Thus a poet for instance after choosing a language as his medium and the actions of exalted men as his object will still need to decide whether he is going to present his imitation in the manner of a play or an epic. This means that depending upon the medium of mimesis, its object of imitation and the manner employed to imitate the object we will encounter different kinds of mimetic products. And though these may be all forms of artistic mimesis they are not one and the same thing. At the root of this difference lies the fact that mimesis is a craft; and just like different kinds of crafts produce different kinds of end products, similarly different kinds of mimesis produces different kinds of artistic imitation.
One of the reasons why mimesis was considered fake by Plato was because this attempt at transparently mirroring an object was prone to deceptive illusion. According to Plato, the mimetic artist fails not because he deliberately wants to misrepresent the object, but rather because his very effort to produce a mirror image of the object was dependent on faulty perception. If a stick is immersed in water and the painter paints the stick as bent, then it results in a fake representation of the stick not because the painter deliberately wants to mislead us but rather because he wants to produce a mirror image of what he perceives in front of him. Aristotle’s insistence that mimesis is a craft critique this notion of transparent mirroring.
A painting, no matter how realistic it is, is not a mirroring surface. And the reason why even a realistic painting is not a mirroring surface is because the ability of a painter to represent or mimic an object is shaped as well as limited by the tools, mediums and manners of his craft. His canvas, his colours, his palette and all such things that he employs to create his painting shape the kind of imitation that he is able to produce.
To judge mimesis as a faulty mirroring would be a misplaced judgement. No mimesis is an act of mirroring, faulty or otherwise, and all mimesis is determined, shaped and limited by the requirements of particular mimetic crafts. Two important things follow from this change in perspective. The first is that looking at mimetic products as pale and faulty mirror images of the original is incorrect. A mimetic product should be studied and appreciated by itself as an instance of a particular kind of craftsmanship. This is in fact highlighted at the very opening of Poetics which begins with the words “I propose to treat of Poetry in itself…”
One significant way in which Aristotle critiques Plato’s position on mimesis is by redefining the relationship between the mimetic process and the object of mimesis. Aristotle presents mimesis as an icon-making process. If the relationship between mimesis with the object of imitation is not that of transparent mirroring, then what other kinds of imitation is possible? To answer this question, let us first look into these lines which we find in Book IV of Poetics:
“Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such other cause.”Note here that according to Aristotle, the chief pleasure that mimesis or mimetic art offers is the pleasure of recognition. A likeness is produced through mimesis, and when the audience or the reader or the spectator of this mimetic product confronts the likeness she experiences a rapturous sense of recognition… “Ah, that is he”. Indeed, without this act of recognition in which the likeness of the object of mimesis is located by the audience within the mimetic product, the effect of mimesis seems to fall flat. As Aristotle points out, “if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such other cause”. The word likeness here and the stress on the idea of recognition might lead us to believe that Aristotle, like Plato, is here presenting mimesis as a form of transparent mirroring. We might assume that for Aristotle the chief pleasure offered by a mimetic product like a painting of an animal, a horse, for example, is provided by the spectator recognizing how accurately the artist has reflected or mirrored a real horse upon the canvas by working on the minutest of details. This interpretation of Aristotle’s view on mimesis is however problematized if we place the lines quoted above from Book IV against these lines that appear in Book XXV:
“Within the art of poetry itself, there are two kinds of faults- those which touch its essence, and those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something, [but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the error is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a wrong choice- if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, for example, or in any other art- the error is not essential to the poetry.”
In the quoted lines, Aristotle talks about two kinds of errors that we can encounter in mimetic production and classifies them as “essential” and “non-essential”. This classification is also a kind of gradation. The latter kind of error is not a very serious one whereas the former can seriously degrade the quality of the mimetic product. What is a non-essential error? According to Aristotle, if a mimetic artist represents a galloping horse throwing both of its front legs in the air then it is regarded as a non-essential error. Since horses in real life do not throw their off legs together while galloping, it is an error but nonetheless an error of a kind that is not essential to the mimetic product. Indeed, in Book XXV Aristotle even excuses the portrayal of such impossibilities by mimetic artists by saying that “If he describes the impossible, he is guilty of an error; but the error may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained […]- if, that is, the effect of this or any other part of the poem is thus rendered more striking”.
Now as far as transparent mirroring is concerned, portraying a galloping horse with both its front legs up, be it in poetry or painting or any other mimetic form, is a grave error. If what is being portrayed is an impossibility then it cannot be called a mirror image of a real-life object. Yet Aristotle seems to be perfectly accommodative of such errors as far as mimesis is concerned. He says in Book XXV “not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically”. The inherent error here is the lack of the artistic skill of the painter which may arise for instance if a painter doesn’t know the use of the tools of his craft properly – if let us say he cannot properly paint with a brush or mix the colours. The question of how accurate the painting of the hind is vis-à-vis a hind in the real life is regarded as a less serious or non-essential error.
How can you recognize the likeness of an original in a mimetic product if the mimetic artist portrays the details inaccurately? It is here that we need to bring in the notion of the icon. If you think about it, a mirror image is only one of the many ways in which things can be represented to our consciousness. The semiotician C. S. Peirce talks about three major ways in which representation can be done. They can be done through symbol, through index, and through icon. All of these three things have two constant elements. One is called the signified, which is the object that is being represented. This object can be something concrete like a pencil or a horse or an aeroplane or it can be something abstract like a thought or a concept or a plan. The other constant element is called the signifier which is the visual or auditory mark that is used to represent the signified. Now in the case of a symbol, there is no inherent connection between the signifier and the signified. The connection is in fact absolutely arbitrary.
An example of a symbol would be any word that we use to refer to the world outside. For instance, when I utter the word “tree” you will immediately recognize that I am talking about a thing rooted in the soil with a brown woody stem supporting a green leafy top. But the word “tree” is a symbol because there is no inherent connection between that word and the thing with a woody stem and green leafy top that it signifies. This is proved by the fact that I can refer to that same signified by using completely different sounding words if I shift from one language to another. If I were to signify the thing in Bangla I would call it a “gaach”…and again if I were to shift to German I would refer to the same thing as “baum”. I can do this shifting and refer to the same thing by using different words like tree, gaach or baum because neither of these three words have any inherent connection with the signified. Rather the connection is culturally learned.
An index is a way of referring to a signified by drawing attention to a mark that establishes its presence. For instance, fire produces smoke. Smoke, therefore, is a mark of the presence of fire. Smoke is thus categorized as an index of fire. Similarly, a thumbprint is an index of a thumb. An icon on the other hand is a way of representing in which there is a significant and inherent overlapping between the signifier and the signified.
Mimesis can also be of impossible things like neckless human beings for instance. But in order for it to be successful mimesis, it has to be recognized as a likeness or a representation of something else. Now whether or not it will be so recognized will depend upon the notion of probability… and the sense of what is probable and what is not is in turn dependent on the conventions that underline the cultural context shared by the mimetic artist and her reader or audience or spectator. Aristotle argues that a mimetic production yields the pleasure of recognition because it deals with probability. A Shakespearean tragedy like King Lear is a successful mimesis not because we actually know of a king called Lear who had to undergo such torture at the hands of two of his daughters named Goneril and Regan. Rather it is a successful mimesis because the plot narrates a sequence of events that are accepted as probable… at least by the people who share the cultural milieu that enables an understanding of Shakespearean tragedies. This probable plot structure can have technical faulty details like horses galloping with their two front legs thrown up in the air. But as you will understand now that doesn’t impede the process of recognition.
According to Aristotle, it is precisely this notion of probability that distinguishes a tragedy from a history. History can only narrate events which have actually happened and which are therefore all in the domain of possibility. A tragedy on the other hand depicts human actions based on probability and not on possibility.
One of the reasons why Plato complained about mimetic poetry was because it stirred emotions and thereby suppressed the functioning of reason. Here again, Aristotle uses Plato’s theory as a point of departure. Referring to tragedy, which is a variety of mimetic poetry, Aristotle argues that it does indeed give rise to such emotions as pity and fear. But he then goes on to argue that the stirring even of such painful emotions like pity and fear does not pose any problem. This is because a rational man experiences a catharsis of these emotions when he encounters them in the form of a mimetic product. The first popular interpretation of catharsis is to understand it as a process of purgation. And this purgation theory is mostly associated with the German scholar Jakob Bernays who suggested that the pity and fear evoked in a tragedy act like “pharmakon”. The Greek word “pharmakon”, from which the modern English word pharmacy is derived, can be understood both as medicine and as poison. The basic idea behind pharmakon is that the same substance which is poisonous, when administered in well-regulated doses can act like a medicine and cure the effects of that very poison. So looking from this perspective someone like Bernays would argue that tragedy by producing emotions like fear and pity in a regulated way helps purge the excess of such noxious emotions.
Another theory regarding catharsis is that it has an educative purpose. Fear and pity, when encountered in real life are problematic to deal with and can easily overwhelm us. However, when experienced in the form of a mimetic product we can observe and study them from a sufficient distance. By repeatedly encountering the emotions like pity and fear that a tragedy evokes the spectator is also able to associate them with the right kind of objects. In fact, through such a process of repeated encounter, the spectator gets to know as well as train his emotions in a way which is not possible otherwise in circumstances where the emotion overwhelms that person