Imitation comes naturally to human beings, Aristotle says, which is what makes people fundamentally different from animals. Humans, especially during childhood, learn through imitation, and they have a strong tendency to imitate people and things. Pleasure through imitation also comes naturally to people. Humans take pleasure in viewing accurate imitations of things that are generally considered to be distressing, like a wild animal or a corpse.
Aristotle’s argument that imitation is natural to humans suggests that art and poetry are natural, too. As such, imitation (mimesis) is more than just a question of good or bad for Aristotle. If imitation is natural, than it can reasonably be expected that art, including poetry, will always be a part of the human experience.
Aristotle argues that the pleasure humans take in viewing a distressing imitation comes from their understanding of that imitation. The idea is that people view an imitation, recognize and understand the thing meant to be imitated, and thus find pleasure in their knowledge and understanding. If pleasure is found in an imitation one does not recognize, Aristotle explains, that pleasure is related to color, execution, or some other factor. Since human beings have a natural proclivity to imitation, as well as to melody and rhythm, it is no wonder that creating poetry is a natural human inclination, especially since verse is a form of rhythm.
Here, Aristotle deepens his argument of imitation as a natural human tendency. In addition to imitation, human beings also have a specific liking for melody and rhythm—this makes people especially inclined to produce imitation through poetry, since poetry is imitation through the medium of rhythm and melody. Again, it is impossible for Aristotle to write off imitation and poetry as “bad” as other philosophers of the time did, since it’s a normal and expected development. Plato also examines the human tendency for song and rhythm in his book the Laws.
3.2 Early History. Early in history, poetry branched into two separate types, and these types correspond with the kinds of characters they represent. Serious people imitate admirable people, and unimportant people imitate those who are inferior. Aristotle admits that there must have been many serious people before Homer—but since there is little known about them, Aristotle’s argument begins with Homer. Homer was a serious person, and he imitated admirable people. He developed the form of iambic verse and is known for his epic poetry.
Aristotle again implies that some poetry, like Homer’s epic poetry, imitates morally good people and is meant for an admirable and therefore superior audience—as opposed to comedy, which imitates inferior people for inferior audiences. Aristotle ultimately argues that tragedy is better than epic; however, epic targets admirable audiences, just like tragedy. Aristotle credits Homer with many of the poetic developments in history, such as the iambic form, which is typically used in poetry (and especially during Aristotle’s time).
However, Homer also wrote lampoons, and Homer’s Margites is as important to comedy as the Iliad and the Odyssey are to tragedy. When comedy and tragedy first emerged, poets became known as either poets of comedy (not lampoons), or poets of tragedy (not epics). The reason for this, Aristotle argues, is that tragedies and comedies are more highly regarded than lampoons or epics.
Homer’s Margites is a narrative comedy in which the main character is so senseless that he doesn’t know which of his parents gave birth to him. Most of Margites did not survive antiquity. Aristotle’s point is that lampoons and epics have been around for a long time (hundreds of years before Aristotle) and have always been considered second-rate compared to comedy and tragedy—which, as modes of imitation, rely on actors rather than narration.
3.3 Tragedy. Now is not the time to debate whether tragedy is fully developed regarding its parts, Aristotle says, but he does note that tragedy was born from improvisation. The same can be said for comedy; however, tragedy came specifically from dithyrambic poetry. From there, tragedy was enhanced and transformed into its “natural state.” Aeschylus increased the number of actors to two, and Sophocles added a third actor and introduced scene-painting. Plot became more complex, satire was abandoned, and tragedy became associated with dignified people. Iambic form took the place of trochaic tetrameter—tetrameter is more like a dance, whereas iambic verse mimics that of natural speech.
Aristotle’s statement that it isn’t the time to debate if tragedy is fully developed, along with his reference to the current state of tragedy as its “natural state,” imply that he believes tragedy is fully developed regarding its parts. Tragedy has developed into a state that Aristotle considers “natural,” which is to say that its current state is perfect—or at least as close to perfect as possible. In early drama, plays consisted of a single actor interacting with the chorus, until Aeschylus increased the single actor to two, followed by Sophocles’s addition of a third actor. In early dramatic performances, a single actor played multiple parts.
3.4 Comedy. Aristotle argues that comedy is the imitation of inferior people but that such people are not inferior in every way. “Laughable errors” or disgraces do not involve pain: for instance, a comedic mask may be “ugly and distorted,” but it does not reflect pain. Comedy has not always been taken seriously, so little attention was initially paid to it. It took a long time for the comic chorus to become a standard feature, and it is unclear which poets were responsible for the development of comedy. However, it is clear that construction of plot came from Sicily, and Crates was the first to develop universal storylines rather than just lampoons.
Aristotle does not mean to imply that the people imitated in a comedy are all morally bad, which would mean that those imitated in tragedy are all morally good. Of course, this isn’t the case. Instead, Aristotle means to draw attention to the type of emotion comedy brings out in an audience: a “laughable error” may bring about feelings of embarrassment or joy in an audience, but not painful emotions like fear or pity, which are reserved for tragedy.
3.5 Epic. Like tragedy, epic poetry is the imitation of admirable people. The difference between tragedy and epic is that epic uses only verse and is narrative. Epics are also longer; tragedies are often limited to the events of a single day. Some component parts of epic are also common in tragedy, but some parts are found in tragedy only. Generally speaking, those who understand what makes a tragedy good or bad will understand the same about an epic. All that is present in epic poetry can be found in tragedy, but all that is present in tragedy cannot be found in epic.
In saying that epic poetry uses only verse and is narrative, Aristotle means to say that epic poetry does not include song or spectacle. Additionally, epic poetry is usually told through the lens of a single character’s narration, not through multiple actors on a stage as is the case in tragedy. Aristotle argues that tragedy has more parts than epic poetry, which is one of the reasons why he considers tragedy superior to epic.