Stephen Conway 1996 Plato, Aristotle, and Mimesis
As literary critics, Plato and Aristotle disagree profoundly about the value of art in human society. Plato attempts to strip artists of the power and prominence they enjoy in his society, while Aristotle tries to develop a method of inquiry to determine the merits of an individual work of art. It is interesting to note that these two disparatenotions of art are based upon the same fundamental assumption: that art is a form of mimesis, imitation. Both philosophers are concerned with the artist’s ability to have significant impact on others. It is the imitative function of art which promotes disdain in Plato and curiosity in Aristotle. Examining the reality that art professes to imitate, the process of imitation, and the inherentstrengths and weaknesses of imitation as a form of artistic expression may lead to understanding how these conflicting views of art could develop from a seemingly similar premise. Both philosophers hold radically different notions of reality. The assumptions each man makes about truth, knowledge, and goodness directly affect their specific ideas about art. For Plato, art imitates a world that is alreadyfar removed from authentic reality, Truth. Truth exists only in intellectual abstraction, that is, paradoxically, more real than concrete objects. The universal essence, the Idea, the Form of a thing, is more real and thus more important than its physical substance.
The physical world, the world of appearances experienced through the senses, does not harbor reality. This tangible world is animperfect reflection of the universal world of Forms. Human observations based on these reflections are, therefore, highly suspect. At best, the tangible fruit of any human labor is "an indistinct expression of truth" (Republic X, 22). Because knowledge of truth and knowledge of good are virtually inseparable to Plato, he counsels rejection of the physical in favor of embracing reason in anabstract, intellectual, and ultimately more human, existence. Art is removed from any notion of real truth, an inherently flawed copy of an already imperfect world. Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real. Aristotle approaches reality from a completely different premise. While his ideas do stand in sharp contrast to Plato's, they are not simply a refutation of his former mentor's views. ToAristotle, the world exists in an infinitely diverse series of parts. These various parts are open to human observation and scrutiny. Rather than an eternally regressing truth beyond the scope of human apprehension, knowledge of truth and good are rooted firmly in the observable universe; truth, or at least gestures toward it, lies in existence rather than essence. Aristotle encourages embracing theparticular in order to possibly gain a sense of the universal. There is, however, no universal system of inquiry to investigate each part of the whole. Different parts require different methods of discourse. In The Poetics, Aristotle attempts to articulate a method of inquiry, not a rigid system or standard of evaluation, applicable to
tragedy. Tragedy attempts to imitate the complex world ofhuman actions, and yet tragedy is itself still part of a larger, more complicated world of human existence. Tragedy is a manifestation of the human desire to imitate. Because he asserts that each person "learns his lessons through imitation and we observe that all men find pleasure in imitations", the self referential function of tragedy gives it inherent relevance to Aristotle's concept ofreality (Ch. 4, 44). The actual process of imitation employed by the artist seems to underscore each philosopher's vision of reality. A Platonic artist lacks any substantial knowledge of the subject that is imitated. Three degrees of separation prevent the artist from providing an authentic representation or insight: the ethereal Form of a thing, the physical manifestation of a thing, and knowledge of...
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