Aristotle and the Mimesis of the Praxis

Written by on July 17th, 2013. Subject: Literature. Filed in Criticism, about Aristotle Art Greek

|||Aristotle, and S. H. Butcher. Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art: With a Critical Text and Translation of The Poetics. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.|||

Aristotle with Bust of Homer 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. Poetics 1488b5-10 p. 15.

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘Harmony’and rhythm, metres being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry. Poetics 1488b20-25. P. 17.

We are told by Aristotle that “ἡ τέχνη μιμεῖται τὴν φύσιν (Art imitates nature).” But the phrase has suffered from much equivocation over the years. For τέχνη (art) certainly is not art as we commonly mean it, and φύσις (nature) means more “the productive principle of the universe” than it does physical objects or the material world. It is important to keep this in mind as we move onward to discuss μίμησις (imitation), since such an imitation extends beyond what we mean now by art into that of useful things. For the same process of imitation enables ship-builders to build ships as poets to write poetry.1 But unlike the builder who builds ships according to its use, poetry and the other imitative arts (or free arts) imitate without limit. Such a concept is difficult to express without much explanation and equivocation. But when a builder builds a ship he does so not so that the ship may exist, but for it to be used for sailing. A poet, on the other hand, makes poetry for no reason other than so that the poem will exist–not even so that it might be read, although it would be a shame for a good poem to remain unread. Poetry and the other free arts are not limited by what has actually occurred but may recreate as they could have or ought to have occurred; works of arts are not copies, but likenesses; likenesses not of things but of experiences, which is to say sensation that has been stored in memory and upon which the intellect has formed a universal judgment. Poetry can create “a likeness or reproduction of this experience, and not a symbolic representation of it.” This likeness exists as a phantasy, or image, which is created by the “spontaneous and necessary union of intellect and sense,2” and which is analogous to actual experience. The process of imitation, then, is something like the creation of an experience, which is a thing understood by the intellect, although we understand it in terms of sensation. And we say art imitates something when the artists creates a likeness which is experienceable.

For Aristotle the three objects of imitation (in the figurative sense) which go toward forming this artistic experience are moral qualities, dispositions of the mind, and actions. These are ἔθος (from which we get the word ‘ethics’), πάθη (from which we get the word ‘pathos’), and πράξις (from which we get the word ‘practice and praxis’) respectively.3 We could, if we wish, follow S.H. Butcher and render these simply as character, emotion, and action. But in any case, the collaboration of the three are what necessitate that the proper purview of art is human life, and not “landscapes and animals;” “the whole universe is not conceived of as the raw material of art.”4 For it would make no sense to say that a field is melancholy, only that it evokes melancholy in us; and while we often anthropomorphize animals we must remember that they do not emote in the same way we do. Because art is understood by the human intellect the process of art-making (whatever it is) cannot be separate from human experience. That is, at its core, all art must be experienceable by humans. The lower art, we could say, would deal indirectly with human experience, while the higher directly. Once such a concession is made, that art deals with human experience, we find that the only intelligible measure of art is through πράξις (action), since any action about which an experience could be formed would imply, by necessity, both ἔθος (character) and πάθος (emotion). We cannot imagine an action which is devoid of the human judgement or emotion, since such things are necessary for experience. And while it is a simple thing to state at the outset that all “art imitates men in action,” we must always have in our mind that πράξις is “a psychical energy working outwards,” which “spring[s] from an inward act of the will,” and that “such actions are not necessarily processes extending over a period of time: they may realize themselves in a single moment; they may be summed up in a particular mood, a given situation;” most importantly, we must recognize that what we mean by it is “virtually an equivalent for the ἤθη, πάθη, πράξεις above enumerated.” And in addition that the experience which this action forms is a unified and complete experience. It is an experience understandable without reference to any other experience, although, I suppose, we would admit if we were forced, that other experiences increase our understanding.

This entire process, of art as an imitation of a human experience is presumed, even if it is not obvious. Any description is described as it is sensible by the senses, and any discussion of what we have sensed–how we differentiate the various sensations and why–will come about through the judgment in the terms describing experience. Likewise, a painting is always painted with sensible color whose arrangement is meaningful. On the whole, the art is greater whose organization of sensation is more understandable as an experience. Such an understanding comes about only through a certain logical completeness; we must both be provided all the sense-data (to be crude) necessary to form and understand the experience and we must not be given so much sense-data that the experience becomes obscured.

About B. R. Mullikin

B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. Shipbuilding or housebuilding was, for Aristotle, an art which imitates nature. We are told in the Physics that should nature produce something it would be done in the same way as man makes it through art (which is, we remember, through imitation). Physics, ch. 2 bk. 8. 

  2. pp.125-127. 

  3. p. 123. 

  4. “Aristotle’s theory is in agreement with the practice of the Greek poets and artists of the classical period, who introduced the external world only so far as it forms a background of action, and enters as an emotional element into man’s life and heightens the human interest.” p. 124.