Plato vs Aristotle on the Nature of Art

In Book 10 of The Republic, Socrates says of the artist, “if he does not make that which exists, he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence”. He uses the example of a bed to demonstrate that everything in the world has three forms: the ideal form created by God, a form created by the carpenter, and finally a form created by the painter: “You may look at a bed from different points of view, obliquely or directly or any other point of view, and the bed will appear different, but there is no difference in reality. And the same of all things.” Plato, through his characterization of Socrates, believes that painters are “creators of appearances”, and the “imitator of that which others make”, thrice removed from the ideal form of the subjects they paint. A bed painted by an artist is an imitation of a bed made by a carpenter, which is itself only a copy of the ideal bed. This is in accordance with his Theory of Forms, and suggests that art cannot represent reality, because reality itself is a world of appearances, of imperfect versions of the ideal world. He posits that artists are inferior to makers and users because they can only create imitations of a subject, without knowing anything about the subject itself, saying that “the real artist, who knew what he was imitating, would be interested in realities and not in appearances”. This introduces the idea of mimesis, or imitation: that all forms of art are imitations of that which already exists. 

            In Plato’s view, art needs to be utilitarian in nature; it needs to “educate and improve man-kind”. The poet, like the painter, is also an imitator, who “with his words and phrases may be said to lay on the colours of the several arts, himself understanding their nature only enough to imitate them”. He criticized Homer’s plays about the gods being capricious and vengeful, because stories full of such passion and drama speak are intended not “to please or to affect the rational principal of the soul”, but rather the spirited principle of the soul because it is easier to imitate. Plato believed that art needs a moral component, because it has the power to stir feelings and corrupt, as is the case when the imitative poet “implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature”. A story told by poets should promote values like courage, self-discipline, and a resistance to laughter, instead of being so dramatic and emotional that it “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up”. For a society to be virtuous, its passions should be controlled, not amplified. Because of this, Plato wanted poetry to be limited to “hymns to the gods and praises of famous men”. Otherwise, one who is “under the excitement of poetry will neglect justice and virtue”.

            Similar to Plato, Aristotle also believed that all art, including theatre and poetry, are imitations (forms of mimesis). Unlike Plato, though, this doesn’t mean it isn’t still useful, because “imitations come naturally to human beings from childhood […] having a strong propensity for imitation and learning their earliest lessons through imitation”. While he agreed that tragedies and dramatic poetry appealed to the appetitive soul, he viewed this as advantageous, because it means that art can serve as a medium to get rid of negative emotions in a controlled, healthy way: “effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions”. This is known as catharsis, the arousal of powerful and irrational emotions in order to purge them. Here we see that Aristotle and Plato shared the same view that art should be utilitarian in nature, but the difference is that Plato believed that only art that teaches positive values like virtue and courage is useful, while Aristotle believed that dramatic poetry such as Sophocles’ plays were useful in a separate way. He disagreed with Plato’s opinion that narrative is better than poetry, stating instead that “poetry tends to express universals” – by which he means “the kind of speech or action that is consonant with a person of a given kind in accordance with probability or necessity”. It has the ability to discard the mundane and irrelevant aspects of real life to more easily represent the essential. However, there are specific guidelines that should be followed to create the right kind of art that is useful to society, as outlined in Poetics. For example, a tragedy should not be overly vulgar, invoking fear and pity for the sake of sensation or spectacle (such as with unnecessary violence). Rather, the plot should trigger a deeper emotion in the audience, filling them with horror and pity because of their understanding of the events in the story, instead of simply through shock value.

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