Aristotle’s Theory of ‘Poetic Imitation’: Salient Features of Theory of Imitation and Contrast with those of Plato

  “Mimesis, then, or imitation is, in Aristotle’s view, the essential in a fine art. It is that which distinguishes creative or fine art from all other products of the human mind” -


In Aristotle’s view, poetic imitation is an act of imaginative creation by which the poet draws his poetic material from the phenomenal world, and makes something new out of it. 

Plato and Aristotle on Poetic Imitation: It was Plato, not Aristotle who invented the term ‘Imitation’. In Platos’ view, a work of art is no more than an imitation of imitation. He argues that a carpenter can make no more than an imitation of the reality, and the bed he makes is once removed from the truth. But, the painter’s bed is, argues Plato, twice removed from the truth. Read More Drama It is an imitation of imitation. In like manner the poet too creates only a copy of a copy, Aristotle holds that poetry, or for that matter any fine art, is not an imitation of imitation, but imitation of reality. In his view, Imitation is the objective representation of life in literature. It is the imaginative reconstruction of life. Thus, “Imitation distinguishes what we call creative literature from literature which is didactic” (Scott-James).

Medium, Object, and Manner of Treatment: Aristotle begins his inquiry by confining it to Epic Poetry, Tragedy, comedy and Dithyrambic Poetry, along with the music of the flute and the lyre which accompanied them. Aristotle distinguishes the subject treated (which he calls the object imitated), the medium in which it is treated, and the manner of treatment. Objects of poetic imitation, according to Aristotle, are “men in action.” In his view, Imitation is not a mere photographic representation of the surface of things, but it is a creative process.Read More Drama The poet selects and orders his material, and in this way he recreates reality. In the process of selection the poet prefers, according to Aristotle, probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities. He also brings in the element of universality by asking the poet to rise constantly from the particular to the general. Read More Criticism  Gradually the particularities are dropped and discarded, generalities are accepted and adopted. And thus universality is attained. The medium of the poet is language, rhythm and harmony. The painter imitates through form and colour. The musician imitates through rhythm and harmony. Read More Drama Thus, the mediums of the poet, the painter, and the musician differ from one another. The manner of treatment also differs. In the case of the poet, the manner of treatment differs from genre to genre. Epic is a narrative art. Tragedy is an imitation of action. Its manner is dramatic.

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Imitation of the Creative Power of Nature: In Aristotle’s view, “Art imitates Nature”. In ‘The Poetics’ he says, “the objects of imitation are men in action.” By Nature Aristotle means “the creative force, the productive principle, of the universe.” In modern terminology we may call it the life-force, the ‘elan vital’, the ‘inherent nature’.Read More Drama Thus, by imitation of Nature, Aristotle does not mean imitation of external nature. By it he means imitation of the creative impulse. Man is the supreme creation of God. He is endowed with this creative impulse. He has an urge to rise upward. Read More Criticism  The poet imitates this ceaseless upward rising of man. ‘What ought to be’ is the principle to be followed by the poet, according to Aristotle. 

Imitation of Inward Activity: Objects of action are “men in action.” Men’s actions are external as well as internal. The internal action may be the action within the soul caused by all that befalls a man. Thus, all that is aroused in human heart- emotions, passions, feelings, finds expression in art as imitation of reality. The external world acts only as a background to the inward activity of the human soul.

Aristotle’s great Contribution: Plato had considered poetry an imitation of imitation, imitation of ‘shadow of shadows’, twice removed from truth. According to him, the phenomenal world was created by God according to the idea in His mind. The idea is the reality. An imitation of that idea is just a copy of the reality. The poet imitates this copy; hence his imitation is imitation of imitation. Aristotle proclaimed that the poet imitates “the ideal reality,” not the mere shadow of things. Thus, the poet does not copy the external world. He creates something new according to his own “idea” of it. Thus, even ugly object well-imitated becomes a source of pleasure. It becomes a thing of beauty, hence a joy forever.  Poetry is thus a creative process. The real and the ideal from Aristotle’s point of view are not opposites. The ideal is the real. Thus, Aristotle quite successfully refuted the contention of Plato. He provided a strong defense of poetry by blowing off Plato’s theory of Poetic Imitation. He gave quite a new interpretation to the theory of Poetic Imitation. While Plato had discarded Poetry and commanded that the poets be banished from his ideal Republic, Aristotle put  Poetry on the highest pedestal of honour, and accorded a respectable place to the poet. He recognized poetic imitation as a creative process. That was Aristotle’s great contribution in the field of literary criticism. 

Conclusion: Aristotle’s theory of Imitation is a great landmark in the history of literary criticism. It has been accepted all over the world as a guiding principle. By declaring poetic Imitation a creative process Aristotle has given  Poetry a very high place in the realm of Art and literature.