From The Aristotelian “Mimesis” to the Contemporary One

The Transformation of the Platonic Concept of Mimesis into a Theory of Literature by Aristotle

Essay 1990 34 Pages

Philosophy - Philosophy of the Ancient World




1. “The First Appearance” of the Concept of Imitation

2. The Evolution of the Concept of Mimesis in Plato’s Thought

3. The Two Basic Differences in the Way Plato and Aristotle Conceive the Concept of Mimesis

4. The Basic Concepts of Aristotle’s Method (Formal Analysis) of Literature

5. The Concept of Pleasure in Aristotle’s Poetics

6. The Mimesis in Our Century (A Brief Overview)

Chicago School, Myth Criticism

The New Criticism, Phenomenological and Existential Criticism, Hermeneutics, Reader-Response Criticism, Literary Structuralism, Semiotics

De-Constructive Criticism




When dealing with the “Poetics” of Aristotle, we can select (as a tool through which we will better analyse the concept of literature which he has produced) between the analysis of some standard – basic concepts which are found in his treatise; for example the concept of hamartia, the concept of katharsis, the concept of simple and complex tragedy, the concept of mimesis or to analyze the tragic character as it is presented in Aristotle.

I chose to use the concept of mimesis since, it is a more technical concept (or at least semi-technical) and in this way it is more related to the technical analysis of the contemporary literary criticism.

I also chose this tool in order to check if the theory of mimesis in Aristotle and in Plato coincide or not (some authors take it as synonymous).

My text is divided into six parts.

- The first part will deal with a fictional presentation (view) of when the concept of imitation first appeared.
- The second part I will deal with the duplicity of the ‘mimeisthai’ in Plato’s works.
- In the third part I will present two basic differences in the way Aristotle and Plato conceive the concept of mimesis[1].
- In the fourth part I’ll deal with the basic concepts of Aristotle’s method (formal analysis).
- In the fifth part I will examine the concept of pleasure[2] in Aristotle’s Poetics.
- The sixth part will deal with theories which tried to bring something of the technicalities and the spirit of the Aristotelian analysis in our century. I will also present the modern schools of literary criticism which make much of what Plato disqualifies in mimesis: the mask, the disappearance of the author, the simulacrum, anonymity, apocryphal textuality and so on.

Before I begin, however, I’d like to make two comments.

The first involves the difficulties in the presentation and interpretation of the Aristotelian text. The meaning of a text, writes E. D. Ηirsch, it is not a physical object that shows different configurations when viewed from different positions: “Meaning is an object that exists only by virtue of a single, privileged pre-critical approach. No matter how much critics may differ in critical approach, they must understand a text through the same pre-critical approach if they are to understand it at all.”[3]

And to manage that, they must avoid three basic fallacies, first the historic fallacy which he calls the fallacy of inscrutable past, secondly the fallacy of the homogenous past and thirdly the fallacy of the homogenous present day perspective.

“Meaning is understood from the perspective that lends existence to meaning. Any other procedure is not interpretation but authorship.”[4]

All the above are very difficult to be implemented and many times the effort to “lend existence to a meaning” (to the meaning of a concept of the “Poetics” for example) results in reading into Aristotle our own aesthetic and other doctrines.

Let’s take as an example the way Butcher[5] interprets two pieces of chapter 4 of the 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” and “Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for harmony and rhythm.”

If taken literary at his word, Aristotle would be classified as an instinct theorist. There is same reason to believe, however, that it is Butcher, the translator, who is the instinct theorist and not Aristotle.

Let’s see now how Halliwell[6] interprets the same extracts of chapter 4: “Poetry in general can be seen to owe its existence to two causes, and these two causes are rooted in nature.

First, there is man’s natural propensity, from childhood onwards, to engage in mimetic activity“ and “given, then, that mimetic activity comes naturally to us – together with melody and rhythm.”

From the second translation it seems that Aristotle took no position on the problem of the source of imitativeness. I know that it is neither the right moment, nor it is my aim to take on the problem of imitativeness. I just wanted to show with the juxtaposition of these two different translations, the fact of how difficult it is for one to have a definite view about the real meaning of Aristotle’s text.

N. Miller and J. Dollard in their book “Social Learning and Imitation”[7] suggest that neither was he a learning theorist, since in Aristotle’s time the instinct versus learning theory dilemma was not conceptualized but this argument is obviously incorrect.

Aristotle certainly believed that imitative behaviour appeared early and was essential in human learning as well as in artistic representation.

My work will not be a sterile juxtaposition of various technicalities that are found in the treatise, in addition although I recognise the anthropological aspect in Aristotle’s work (an aspect which Genette[8] defines as “attention to the broad diatheses that divide up and inform the literary sensitivity of mankind” and as “a typology of an imagination of behaviour, situations, human relationships, a dramatic imagination, in the broad sense of the term, which strongly animates the production of consumption of theatrical and fictional work”), I will not further pursue it.

1. “The First Appearance” of the Concept of Imitation

There are opinions that support[9] the view that the history of mimesis becomes in part the history of the psychological movements in which the imitation theories have been immersed and that the most general statement that can be made about theories of imitation is that they follow the psychology current at the time in which they are propounded.

I tend to agree with these views and my opinion is that an element such as mimesis that has a particular value in a certain period will completely change its function in another period and it is in this continual change of function, that the true value of that element is to be found.

But it is not my aim to analyse in this text as I stated in my introduction the concept of mimesis per se.

A view which I consider that describes quite well the first appearance of the concept of mimesis is the view put forward by A. Danto[10] and I’ll present it as well as I can (I think that he takes into account Nietzche’s position on that issue).

Danto believes that the mimetic art arose self-consciously together with philosophy in Greece (“almost as if the latter found in the former a paradigm for the entire range of problems to which metaphysics is the response”[11] ).

Though there was art in Egypt and Mesopotamia and elsewhere, it is not clear that it was seen as what we today would call art – representations in the semantic rather than in the magical sense of the term. It is Danto’s view that art as art, as something that contrasts with reality, arose together with Greek philosophy.

The concept of reality can happen only when a contrast is available between reality and something else – appearance, illusion, representation, art, which “sets reality off in a total way and puts it a distance”.[12] Artworks, as a class, wrote Danto, contrast with real things in just the way in which words do, even if they are in “every other sense” real.

Danto makes it clear that art differs from reality in much the same way that language does, when language is employed descriptively – this is not at all to say that art is a language, but “only that its ontology is of a piece with that language, and that the contrast which exists between reality and it, is the contrast which exists between reality and discourse”[13].

So Danto arrives at a dual conception of representation.

First is a re-presentation in which case the artist had the power of making a given reality present again in an alien medium. This accounts for the magicality often associated with art, in this case the relation was that of identity – in seeing the appearance one was seeing the thing.

Secondly we have that concept of representation in which the relation was that of designation, as a gap opened up between reality and its representations, comparable to, if not indeed the same as the gap that is perceived to separate language from reality when the former is understood in its representational or descriptive capacity.

At the moment the concept of imitation appeared (which coincided with the first appearance of art and philosophy) images were seen contrasting with reality they were previously supposed to participate in.

Because a distance between art and reality was finally beginning to be discerned, certain questions could for the first time be raised about art, since for the first time it was seen as standing in this new relationship to the world.

2. The Evolution of the Concept of Mimesis in Plato’s Thought

It is in the discussion in the second and third book of the Republic that we first come across the Platonic theory of art as imitation or mimesis[14]. Poetry and art must represent life and the representation must be true.

In the latter part of the Republic we find a new meaning of mimesis – that of impersonation. Poets and storytellers, Plato tells us, proceed either by narration or impersonation or by mixture of the two.

Believing as he does that impersonation makes the emotional impact stronger and that we become like that we imitate, Plato severely restricts arts which are imitative in this sense and forbids all impersonation of evil characters or actions on the stage. Not all poetry is banished however since encomia of good men, hymns to the gods, even dramatization of good actions might remain.

It is here that we, for the first time, meet the main characteristic of the Platonian reasoning: the internal duplicity of the mimeisthai that “Plato seems to want to cut in two”[15], in order to separate good mimesis (which reproduces faithfully and truly, yet is already threatened by the simple fact of its duplication) from bad, which must be contained like madness and harmful play.

We come across another attack in the tenth and last book of the Republic. He now attacks poetry on the basis of the psychological and metaphysical theories, which he had developed in the intervening books.

The psychological argument offers little difficulty: Plato’s accusation here is that the poet appeals only to the passionate part of the soul (the other two being the reasonable part and the spirited part) which is the seat of the essential human desires such as hunger, thirst and sex. And that happens because it is the most violently passionate internal states of the soul, which are the favorite material for tragedy. We, the spectators, identify ourselves emotionally with the characters on the stage and we become like what we imitate.

It is the metaphysical argument, which has caused a good deal of confusion. The whole Republic has argued the need for knowledge of the ideal Forms, the only true realities, on the part of the philosopher, the ruler and the educator. Plato, with his famous argument on the form of bad, denies this knowledge to the poet. Therefore, the poet cannot imitate the Form directly. So, poetry and art can only imitate particular things and scenes in a photographic way.

There are elsewhere in Plato’s works even in the Republic hints of a different kind of art, of artists who have such knowledge, of artists who can combine different aspects of existing things to make something which does not exist in the actual world. Yet, despite of these hints, Plato’s discussion of both poetry and rhetoric is essentially negative.

But in the latter dialogues his attitude is not so negative. Poetic inspiration in Phaedrus is seen as the third of four kinds of madness sent by gods (the other three being prophecy, mystery rites and love); but “whoever comes to the gates of poetry without the Muses madness, believing that technical skill will make him an adequate poet, is himself ineffectual, and the poetry of this same man vanishes before that of the man who is mad”[16]. But as Grube points out, this is the language of myth and “madness which comes from the gods” and means passion properly directed, much the same in fact as what “in the more sober prose of the Republic Plato called desire directed by Reason”.[17] There is then no actual contradiction but obviously there is a strong change on emphasis, a much clearer recognition of passion as essential to great poetry.

The same dialogue establishes a distinction between Form and content and states the following principles:

a) The speaker or writer must have knowledge of his subject.
b) The writer must define his subject.
c) Every discourse should be like a living organism, with each part in its place and in tune with all the other parts and with the whole.
d) The writer should be able to analyze his subject logically.


[1] Some say that Plato is negative as regards poetry and art in general by determining them as mimetic arts (mimesis being an objectionable act for him-they say). But Aristotle absorbed the objectionable parts of art and created something else producing in the Poetics the concept of literature that reigned until the nineteenth century. In order for Aristotle to be able to produce a method (formal analysis) he had to make some adjustments, some improvements in the perception of the concept of mimesis. So I’ll try to show what made the difference in these two men as regards mimesis.

[2] Although pleasure is not a technical concept and although –as I said before- I will not present concepts as those of hamartia, tragic character, simple and complex tragedy and so on, I found it necessary to say something about pleasure, as I believe that by not presenting it, the chain of the Aristotelian method will be incomplete.

[3] E.D. HIRCSH JR.: Faulty perspectives in “Modern criticism and theory”, Edited by David Lodge, Longman Group UK Limited (1988), page 255.

[4] IBID, page 256

[5] S.H.BUTCHER: “The Poetics of Aristotle, edited with critical notes and translation” (Fourth Edition), Mac Millan and Co.Limited, St. Martin’s street, London (1911).

[6] STEPHEN HALLIWELL: “The Poetics of Aristotle, translation and commentary”, Duckworth, London (1987).

[7] N. MILLER and J. DOLLARD: “Social learning and imitation”, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner @Co LTD, London (1941).

[8] GERARD GENETTE: “Structuralism and literary criticism” in “Modern criticism and theory”. Edited by David Lodge, Longman Group UK limited (1988), page 72.

[9] N. MILLER and J. DOLLARD: “Social learning and imitation”, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co LTD, London (1941), page 259.

[10] ARTHUR DANTO: “The transfiguration of the commonplace, a philosophy of art”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1981).

[11] IBID (page 76).

[12] IBID (page 85).

[13] IBID (page 86)

[14] I based my discussion on Plato’s views and especially on the place and evolution of the concept of mimesis in Plato’s thought in two sources: the first is V. GOLDSCHMITDT’s “Essai sur le Cratyle“(1940), translated from French in the Greek Review of contemporary criticism EPOPTEIA (Volume 10, October 1980) and the second is G.M.A.GRUBE’s article on “Rhetoric and literary theory in Platonism in the “Dictionary of ideas – Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas” Philip Wiener, Ed. Peter Sullivan, Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1973.

[15] JACQUES DERRIDA: “Dissemination”. Translated, with an Introduction and Additional Notes, by Barbara Johnson. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1981), page 186.

[16] PLATO, excerpt from the “Phaedrus”: translation by G.M.A. GRUBE, in his article on “Rhetoric and literary theory in Platonism” in the “Dictionary of ideas – Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas” Philip Wiener, Ed. Peter Sullivan, Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1973, page 499.

[17] G.M.A. GRUBE: “Rhetoric and literary theory in Platonism” in the “Dictionary of ideas – Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas” Philip Wiener, Ed. Peter Sullivan, Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1973, page 499.




Title: From The Aristotelian “Mimesis” to the Contemporary One