Epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and music by pipe or lyre are all forms of imitation, Aristotle says, but they differ from each other in three ways: their medium, object, and/or mode of imitation.
Aristotle’s description of poetry as a form of imitation aligns with theoretical concepts popular during ancient times. Art was considered by many to be an imitation of the natural world (including human nature), and Aristotle confirms here that he supports the theory of art as a form of imitation. Furthermore, Aristotle considers poetry in particular to be a form of art and therefore a form of imitation, and he defines exactly what he considers poetry to be.
2.1 Medium. The medium of color and shape is used by some people to create various imitations in the form of visual art, and some create imitations with voice. Others create art through the medium of rhythm, language, and melody, as is the case with the arts Aristotle mentioned in the previous chapter. Each of these mediums can be used alone or together. For instance, art created by pipe or lyre uses melody and rhythm, whereas dance uses rhythm alone.
The medium of color and shape described here refers to painters and other visual artists who use different visual elements in their paintings, sculptures, etc. Imitations created with voice is likely a reference to mimicry, like animal noises or calls. Aristotle is chiefly concerned with poetry, as the previous chapter states, which imitates by means of rhythmic language or song.
The art produced through the medium of language alone does not have an official name. There is not a descriptive name for Socratic dialogues, nor is there a name for art written in iambic trimeters or any other form of verse. This art is often referred to as “poetry,” and the people who produce it are “poets.” Yet if someone writes a scientific text in verse, the same term is used. Aristotle points out that Homer has nothing in common with Empedocles other than the medium they both used; calling Empedocles a “poet” doesn’t feel quite right.
Socratic dialogue is a genre of writing used in Ancient Greece, most notably by Plato, in which a philosophical question is discussed by characters (one of whom is often Socrates himself) in dialogue form. As the first work of literary theory, Poetics formally defines the art of “poetry” for the first time, thereby giving poetry and poets an official name. Empedocles was a Greek philosopher from the 5th century B.C.E. who wrote about cosmogonic theory, which is concerned with the cosmos and the universe. Empedocles often wrote in poetic verse, but Aristotle means to make a distinction between poetry and scientific writing—even though Empedocles wrote in poetic form, Aristotle doesn’t consider his writing poetry.
Some arts, including dithyrambic poetry, tragedy, and comedy, combine the use of rhythm, melody, and language. The only differences among these arts is how they use the different media. Arts like dithyrambic poetry use all the media at the same time, while comedy and tragedy use them in different parts of the same work.
Aristotle implies that even though tragedy, comedy, and dithyrambic poetry (dance) seem incredibly different, the only way they truly differ is in how they imitate something. This kind of systematic classification is common in the field of literary theory.
2.2 Object. Aristotle claims that in order to create an imitation, one needs an object to imitate, and these objects are either admirable or inferior. Characters especially fall under one of these two distinctions because characters imitate people, and people are either admirable or inferior. Characters must be better, worse, or the same as people in general, so it is clear if the character is admirable or inferior.
The distinction between the imitation of admirable objects and inferior objects can be made through music and dance or through language and verse. For instance, Homer imitates those who are better than people in general, Cleophon imitates those who are similar, and Hegemon of Thasos imitates those who are worse. This distinction is the difference between tragedy and comedy: tragedies imitate people who are better than people in general, whereas comedies imitate those who are worse.
As Aristotle argues that comedy imitates inferior people, he implies that comedy is for inferior audiences and tragedy is for admirable audiences, which reflects Aristotle’s argument that tragedy is a superior form of poetic expression. Hegemon was a known epic poet from the 5th century B.C.E. Cleophon may refer to a tragic poet from the 4th century B.C.E.; however, since Aristotle’s text is so old, knowing all the writers he references with certainty is difficult.
2.3 Mode. The last difference among imitations is the mode in which artists imitate an object. An object can be imitated through narration, or an object can be imitated by actors on a stage. In this way, Sophocles is an imitator just like Homer, as they both imitate admirable people (that is, they have an object in common). But in another way, Sophocles is also like Aristophanes, as they both imitate via actors on a stage—they use the same mode. In summary, imitations differ only in medium, object, and/or mode.
Homer is an epic poet, whereas Sophocles is a tragic playwright. The difference between their work is that Homer imitates via narration (a story), and Sophocles imitates via actors. Conversely, Aristophanes and Sophocles both imitate through actors on a stage, only Aristophanes imitates comedy and Sophocles tragedy. Thus, according to Aristotle’s argument, Aristophanes and Sophocles are similar since they share the same mode of imitation.