“Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of art, beauty, and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty.” (Google.com: definition).
Aristotle has not devoted even a single page of written matter on aesthetics. However, his writing included suggestive and influential ideas on poetry. There were two books, out of which only one survived and the easiest starting point to consider Aristotelian aesthetics is provided by the banishment of poetry from the ‘ideal state’ by Plato. Plato treated arts as if it wasn’t worthy. However, his very own poetic impulse shows an internal conflict. Plato vehemently attacked poetry and framed with a personal anecdote, by suggesting that he was renouncing his passion for poetry. Poetry had been considered an enemy to philosophy, and Socrates multiple times has mentioned of the long-standing quarrel.
The treatise written by Aristotle includes survey of poetry in relation to other art forms, classification of arts’ principles genres, and the history of its development. Discussion of tragedy is the bulk of the work, followed by a shorter treatment of epic, solutions to some problems in literary criticism and a comparative evaluation of tragedy and epic. The lost book probably had a discussion on comedy. Aristotle made a point that if work by a historian was put into verse, it would still count as history. However, there was discrimination to be noted that mimes, dialogues dramatic sketches, and conversations in prose are considered to be ‘poetic’ art. Plato attacked poetry and considered it. to be an insult, however his passion for poetry showed a conflict of interest, he was ready renounce his passion in order to prove his point.
The conclusion is that Plato’s attack was misguided because it misrepresented the nature and impact of fiction. Aristotle’s goal was to not give an account of all that should be called ‘poetry,’ rather it was to be examine the foundation of the two fictional genres. He not only answered Plato, he also bridged the gap between Philosophy and Poetry. To have shown that Poetic fiction can be the ally of sciences and philosophy rather than an enemy was a great contribution towards philosophy of art.
In one of his works, Plato uses the concept of mimesis to denigrate artists and poets, the concept was no less central to Aristotle’s aesthetics than it had been to Plato’s. But Aristotle used it to restore poets to a great place of honour. The poetics began by classifying major genres along with music, dance and visual arts by differentiating according to the media used, the objects represented, and the mode of representation. Unfortunately, poetics has no explicit definition of mimêsis itself. In the broadest possible explanation, it can be explained as ‘making or doing something which resembles something else.’ This is idea quite implicit to be useful. From its English derivatives – mime and mimicry – it can also mean enactment or impersonation. Plato had condemned poetry as mimetic, not in the mimicry sense, rather how it has a wider representation of objects, people, scenes or events. Plato however has blurred the very lines he himself drew.
In Poetics it is not clear what two kinds of mimêsis Aristotle had in mind. With poetry there is no clear answer, as in his early history he traced two causes, both natural. The art of imitating, for e.g. children learning by observing. And the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm for e.g. taking delight in viewing patterned objects. We increase our knowledge and understanding of the world by making representations of ourselves and viewing others’. By taking into account both of these causes – the impulse to compose fiction and the widespread enjoyment of it – Aristotle reveals a trail back to nature.
It is often objected that Aristotle is merely recognising and appreciating the art and that neither aesthetic pleasure nor artistic merit depends upon the level of imitation and the distinction between the original and the art, as it is possible for the viewer to be unknown to the original and still receive pleasure from the work. In reply to this, the issue is said to be the recognition of the likeliness as typifying a class of subjects and highlighting the characteristic of the class. Aristotle’s contention was that fiction deals with universals rather than particulars. Even though the work was based off on an individual, it was still largely generalised actions or features. His pronouns are demonstrative not sortal and if we do not change them, he is only speaking of identifying the individual, for e.g. the person in this work of art is that person. This does not do anything but simply identifies the individual and then the question arises how does the identification of an individual contribute to the pleasure received by observing a work of art?
A parallel work by Aristotle named Rhetoric anticipated that the Poetics stresses upon ‘inference’ and ‘learning’ from representation, even if the art is based on objects that are painful, however it is not limited to human likeliness, since we can observe the use of neutral pronouns. The passage notes that the pleasure lies within identifying something that is implicitly made known, it is the idea to ask questions about it, grow curious, it is based on the idea behind pleasure being taken from learning is derived from the concept of ‘wonder.’ All of this can summarised to: a representational work of art that demands interpretation.
This point is important to note as Aristotle’s conception of mimêsis undermines Plato’s claim that poetic fiction is harmful or obstructive to subjects that are based on facts. Aristotle distinguishes poetic mimêsis from assertions of natural sciences, philosophy or history. He says that mimêsis lays no claim of telling the truth, that it makes no claim at all. And that whatever truth it contains, it is implicit, and it is left for the viewers to seek out. In Aristotle’s remarks about organic structure in tragic plot, in the distinction between poetic fiction and history, and in his concept of mimêsis in epic, the above mention notion of mimêsis is quite prominent.
Organic concepts and illustrations frequently occur in the Poetics. They stem from the Aristotelian concept of poetic fiction as a mimêsis of its subject. Aristotle thinks of the subject of art as a living organism. Greeks used the same word to describe for ‘picture’ and ‘animal.’ and the noun used to describe ‘drawing’ or ‘painting’ shows a connection between those arts and the living subjects they drew.
Plato had already observed that in any composition, an organic principle should govern the ordering of the materials. Whereas, Aristotle used the organic model to clearly explain broad aesthetic principles, these principles influence upon artistic composition and criticism has extended far beyond tragedy. Aristotle defines tragedy as ‘imitation of something serious that has magnitude in itself,’ from its essential nature he deduces six qualitative parts: plot, character, thought, diction, choral ode and spectacle.
The most important ‘part’ of tragedy is the plot and is of prime importance. The plot is called ‘first importance and, so to speak, its soul.’ The psychology behind it is that the soul is the determinant of physical make-up of the body and directs every stage of growth, similarly the plot of tragedy determines everything that happens, from the beginning to the end. The visual analogy behind this is that the plot serves as an outline of the sketch and lays out the structure of the reveal. The plot should represent the connection between the events, arranged in a way that each is rendered necessary, or at least follows a sequence. This is the only way fictional mimêsis can exhibit the sorts of casual connection that hold in the real world. Aristotle has an issue with the plots that are episodic, as plot is disjointed, lacks casual connection between the events and cannot suggest those general truths about human characteristics. The length of the plot is also important and holds the beauty of the tragedy. The plot should have a balance between the parts, should be large enough that the parts are separately discernible and not that large that viewers lose sense of unity.
Aristotle emphasizes on the unity of the plot, his remarks have a wider aesthetics relevance, however, unity in the plot sometimes lacks the basis of the text. Poetics does not mention ‘unity of time’ or ‘unity of place,’ all it demands is ‘unity of action.’ It does not mean to just string together unrelated episodes rather there should be a reason within the plot. A grasp of relation, the understanding of the plot is important for Aristotle. As only through survey of the entire action can we connect the play to the real world. The foregoing remarks by Aristotle is what bridged the contrast between ‘poetry’ and history.
A historian’s task is to recall events that have already happened, whereas a poet’s job is to create events that can possibly occur in the future. Here Aristotle rejects the characterization of the poet by Plato. Poetic fiction generalises as that is its main purpose. Aristotle points out the difference between history and fiction, that history is used to record particular events not exhibit general truth, the historians have belief that these events occurred whereas authors of fiction have an open hand and are free to exhibit whatever general truths they wish to suggest. The distinction between poetic and historical aims is easily understandable in comedy than in tragedy. Aristotle’s remarks thus make poetry more serious and philosophical than history as it can be applied universally whereas history deals with particulars. However, we need to understand that poetic mimêsis does not claim rather just suggest these generalisations. Aristotle further argued that this contrast does not stop poets to base their work on facts, and that if we were to believe poetic facts that would eradicate the purpose of his perspective altogether.
We have discussed how mimêsis generally means ‘representation’ rather than mimicry, but Aristotle put his discussion once more in doubt by a passage mentioned in his treatise. Plato had said that characters should speak in his own person in contrast to Homer’s suggestion that characters should speak directly. If this is what Aristotle suggests then he is switching from mimêsis being representation to mimesis being mimicry and if he is suggesting this then he restricts mimêsis even more so than his treatise suggests, as it would mean that only direct speech is genuine mimêtês. At the end, Aristotle condemns artists who failed to attain the truth and misrepresented the very nature of the enterprise.