Aristotle’s theory of Imitation and Catharsis | Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s “Poetics” is an important work in the history of English literary criticism. It was developed as an extension together with an evaluation of Plato’s “Republic”. According to Plato, mimesis was a delusion, a false copy that was far removed from reality. On the other hand, according to Aristotle, mimesis was “natural”.

Aristotle classified mimesis not only as an instinct that is to be discovered in people even as a child but he also emphasizes it as one of the crucial characteristics which forms us what we are as mankind and which differentiates us from other animals. So in Aristotle’s view, imitation is neither a copy nor unimportant.

Aristotle’s concept of imitation

Aristotle replies to Plato’s accusation that poetry is two-times removed from reality. According to Plato, imitation is simply a copy of reality. But according to Aristotle, Imitation is not just merely a copy of reality, but the recreating or revamping of it; it includes materials from nature and by the imaginative power of the poet, transforming or refracting them into something new. So for Aristotle, imitation is the recreation of life. Thus rather than only copiers, poets and artists are creators; they construct an ideal world from this existing world. Therefore, even an unpleasant thing well-copied turns into a source of delight and happiness. 

Read More: Aristotle’s concept of tragedy

Aristotle states that every branch of knowledge is a product of imitation because as human beings we all gather or acquire knowledge through imitation. However, Aristotle distinguishes between different types of knowledge. For example, history gives us all the knowledge that has already occurred or happened, but a poet tells us what might occur or happen. Thus the poet constructs or creates something that formerly did not happen. Therefore, poetic imitation is not just a photographic representation. It is the probable truth of nature. The poet emulates the present nature but he does not merely produce a copy of that nature. He produces an ideal world that is an imitation of the actual world.

Aristotle’s concept of Catharsis

Among the factors why Plato criticized mimetic poetry on the grounds that it evoked emotions and therefore repressed the working of logic and reason. In his famous work “Poetics”, Aristotle employs Plato’s concept as an escape and produces his own theory of Catharsis. Aristotle acknowledged that Tragedy, which is a form of mimetic art, does surely causes emotions such as pity and terror. But Aristotle stated that evoking even such distasteful feelings like pity and terror, does not create any difficulties. They do not have any detrimental consequences. His explanation is that a sensible and logical man experiences a catharsis or purification of these distasteful feelings when he experiences them in the form of an imitative product.

Catharsis as a process of purgation

There are several contrasting explanations as regards to why Aristotle believes catharsis as a useful final product of tragedy.

A group of critics consider Catharsis as an exercise of purification. This purification concept is primarily connected with the German critic Jacob Bernays, who proposed that the pity and terror stirred in a tragedy work just like “pharmakon”. This Greek word “pharmakon” from which the term “pharmacy” originated can be explained in two ways. It can be explained concurrently as medication and poison. The same thing which is noxious when regulated in a well-balanced amount can work as a medicine and can heal the repercussions of that poison. Thereby we can say that Tragedy by evoking emotions such as pity and terror in a well-balanced way assists purify the surplus of these destructive and dangerous emotions. 

Catharsis as a learning procedure

Pity and terror when experienced in actual life are difficult to manage and they can clearly overwhelm us. But if we experience an imitative product, such as tragedy, we can discover and learn pity and terror from an adequate distance. By frequently experiencing the feelings such as  pity and terror from an adequate distance the audience able to learn together with edify his feelings. It is a subject of constant habituation. So, as it is a learning procedure the more you experience these feelings, the more you master the proper things onto which you have to devote these emotions.


So in the end we can say that both of these explanations can be employed to criticize Plato. For instance, if catharsis is explained as purification then tragedy does not repress logic and rationality by evoking emotions. Instead a logical and reasonable man is liberated from the adverse reactions of poisonous emotions through the purification of those feelings by catharsis. Catharsis purges or purifies noxious emotions and that is what makes reason and logic more than ever achievable. Furthermore, if the catharsis is explained as a learning procedure, even then logic and rationality are not repressed because catharsis then transforms into a teaching process by which a young audience could master to control his emotions logically towards the proper things. 

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