The Aesthetics of Aristotle


an appendix from










Professor of Oratory and Aesthetic Criticism in the College of New Jersey at Princeton ; author of “Poetry as a Representative Art”, etc.



New York , London




















[The Aesthetics of Aristotle by G.L. Raymond, page 001]






ARISTOTLE was the first of writers whose works are still extant, to analyze art in the spirit of modem criticism, and, from his deductions, to build up a consistent, and, so far as it went, a scientific system of aesthetics. Many of his methods accord strictly with those of modern times, and some of his conclusions reach as far as any that have yet been advanced.  To get a clear conception of what these conclusions were, it seems best to begin with a brief survey of the line of thought in his “Rhetoric.”  This course will show the general range of his conceptions of art, and how closely he connected-just as Plato did, but as most modem so-called Aristotelians do not-the effects of, at least, literary art with those of intellection and morality. The “Rhetoric” is very comprehensive, touching not alone upon the subject indicated in the title, but also upon logic and ethics. The first book opens with definitions of the different kinds of orations, but quickly passes to a consideration of the themes treated in these, and of the attitudes of mind of those to whom they are to be addressed. This turn of the thought leads to discussions of good and evil, of the forms of government regulating these, of the honorable and the dishonorable, of injury and pleasure, of the just and the unjust, and of proof artificial and not artificial.  In the second book, beliefs are discussed, and the influence upon them of anger, and how this can be appeased or removed. The same subject is continued by showing the influence upon beliefs of love, friends, enmity, hatred, fear, assurance, shame, grace, favor, pity, compassion, indignation, envy, and emulation. After this, it is shown how beliefs can be modified by youth, age, middle-life, noble station, riches, power; and, in conclusion, what are the effects upon methods of presentation of facts, examples, similitudes, fables, propositions, principles, arguments, amplifications, and extensions.  


In reading these chapters one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the








*Being a part of a paper read in 1903, at Washington , D. C., before the

Society for Philosophic Inquiry.  Published in this form in 1909 in "Art in Theory"


[The Aesthetics of Aristotle by G.L. Raymond, page 002]


practical turn of Aristotle's mind. As an associate and teacher, it is possible that to many he was much more interesting than Plato, though, as is likely, less inspiring. Aristotle shows, in many places, that if he wished, he too, like the great idealist, could soar, but he always remains somewhat nearer the ground, near enough to suggest that he could walk to his goal if only he had time to do so. He is no absent-minded philosopher, but seems constantly to have his eyes open. Nor could any modem essayist, trained in the office of a newspaper furnish more shrewd observations than he, when describing, for instance, the peculiarities and foibles of youth as contrasted with those of middle or old age; e. g., the optimistic rashness and generosity of the first of these, and the pessimistic conservatism and penuriousness of the last of them, as character has been gradually developed by the experience of life, especially of its disappointments. It is particularly interesting to notice what he says of the indifference to the opinions and wishes of others-of the snobbishness, as we term it in our day-that begins to manifest itself in individuals and classes when they acquire wealth and cease to be dependent upon others. His portrayal reveals a condition of society in Greece , proving that human nature then and there was precisely what it is now and here. We are accustomed to ascribe to Athens in its prime an aristocracy of intelligence. But if this had ever existed it had already begun, before the time of Aristotle, to give place, just as it seems to do everywhere, to class-distinctions founded upon the degrees in which men are able to exert the most influence in material and practical direction.


In the third book of the “Rhetoric,” Aristotle treats of what is termed elocution or pronunciation. But of this, in the parts of the book that are extant, very little is said. The discussion centres mainly about such subjects as the choice of words, epithets and metaphors, the use of purity and decency of language, and attention to style, arrangement, narratives, questions, answers, jests, and to the climax of all as given in the peroration.


It is from the “Poetics,” however, that we derive the clearest indications of Aristotle's aesthetic position. Turning to this essay we find that it opens with the statement, as translated, that all the arts are “entirely imitations”; and a distinction is drawn between imitation in poetry, music, and painting, the differences being attributed to the use in each of these arts of different means with different objects, and in a different manner. The author then, in Chapter 4, traces the causes and progress of poetry. He points out that imitation is natural to children. As they grow older, men of a more venerable character imitate beautiful actions, while the more ignoble imitate their opposite. The latter come to compose vituperative verses according to the same method in which the former come to compose hymns and

[The Aesthetics of Aristotle by G.L. Raymond, page 003]

encomiums. These two different forms of expression, when developed, lead respectively, he says, to comedy and tragedy, both of which originated in extemporaneous efforts-comedy from those who sang the phallic verses, which, as he observes, with a very decided suggestion of disapproval, “even now remain in use in many cities,” and tragedy from those who led the dithyram or sacred hymn. Comedy, he says again, differs from tragedy in having a simple metre, in being a narration, and in being of a different length. Of tragedy, he remarks in Chapter 5, that “he who knows what is good or bad tragedy, knows the same in respect to epic poetry; for those things which the epic possesses are to be found in tragedy; but everything which tragedy contains is not in the epic.”


From Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, in Chapter 6, we begin to get a conception of his understanding of “imitation” as applied to all art as well as to poetry.  “Tragedy,” he says, “is an imitation of a worthy or illustrious and perfect action, possessing magnitude, in pleasing language, using separately the several species of imitation in its parts, by men acting and not through narration, and through pity and fear effecting a purification of such like passions.” What Aristotle means in claiming that the influence of tragedy is to effect a “purification” etc., has been much discussed; but in view of his opinions upon other like subjects, it ought not to be difficult to determine. He holds, for instance, that punishment is justified not because giving a man what he deserves, and thus satisfying, as some Christian theologians maintain, an individual, corporate, or divine sense of justice; but because giving him an experience fitted to reform his character. Notice, among other passages, a reference to the curative agency of punishment in the “Rhetoric,” I; 14. So in this definition, the conception seems to be that tragedy gives a man an experience having the same reforming or purifying tendency. What he means we may infer, perhaps, from a modem example of reform wrought through literature. When we recall the Puritanism, the bigotry, and the sectarianism of the last century, we cannot fail to contrast them with the humaneness and the liberality of thought and feeling prevailing in our own times; and, if we ask what has wrought the change, we are forced to ascribe it, very largely, to the influence of the modem novel. Through portrayals of people entirely different in motives, manners, customs, and characters from those with whom the novel's readers have associated, these readers have been enabled to become well acquainted with conditions of thought and of life foreign to their own. The effect has been to broaden their knowledge of the world and of human nature, and to increase almost infinitely their sympathies with men of “all sorts and conditions.” In other words the novel bas given millions of people whose real experience, perhaps, has been necessarily confined



[The Aesthetics of Aristotle by G.L. Raymond, page 004]

to the narrow limits of a single village, a substitute in the way of an imaginative experience almost as effective as anything obtained by actual travel. That one normal result of such an imaginative experience is to purify mind and heart through developing wisdom and charity, has been proved by the effects which can unmistakably be traced to this form of literature. Aristotle's conception seems to have been that a similar result could be produced by tragedy. This conception, as win be noticed, was based upon a far more accurate, not to say modern, view of the legitimate influence of art than was held by Plato. Notice what is said on pages 254 to 259 [of Art in Theory].


After defining tragedy, as just indicated, Aristotle goes on in Chapters 6 to 12, to speak of its form and end, of its parts and plot, of its length and action, and of the unity of its fable, or as we should say, its story. He shows the difference between history and poetry, and distinguishes a story that is simple from one that is compound, i.e., he distinguishes the development of one series of events from that of a complicated series of events. After this, as far as to chapter 22, he discusses the essentials of a tragic theme, the characteristics that cause terror and pity, the demeanour of the persons in the play, and how their actions should appeal to the knowledge. memory and reasoning of the audience, as well as how the poet should compose by feeling and seeing what be writes, and should express himself suitably and tersely. In addition, be argues that the poet should pay regard to sentiment and diction; and to the latter as manifested not only in individual syllables, but in words, and in these, whether conjunctions, articles, nouns, or verbs, and whether native or foreign, derived, invented or changed, as well as whether used metaphorically or plainly, or whether singly or combined in phrases and sentences. Diction, he says, should be characterized by clearness and freedom from meanness, i.e., by dignity.


In the chapters following 22, epic poetry is discussed - its character, parts, power of extension, metre, etc. “Homer,” he says, “appears divine when compared with other poets, excelling them all in diction and sentiment.” The “Iliad” is simple and pathetic, the “Odessey” is complex for through the whole of it there is discovery and moral. The twenty-fifth chapter of the Poetics is devoted to removing certain objections to Homer; and the twenty-sixth chapter to weighing the respective merits of tragic and epic poetry. His general conclusion is that tragic poetry is the superior of the two, because it possesses everything that the epic has and more. It may use metre and may also use music and scenery; and yet it has perspicuity, both when read and when acted, and has more unity than the epic. The end of the tragic form of imitation too-and here we may notice the influence of the Hellenic regard for simplicity and unity-is confined within a narrow compass. This causes the result to be more


[The Aesthetics of Aristotle by G.L. Raymond, page 005]

pleasing than if the course of the action were diffused through a longer period.


Such, in brief, is the general line of thought unfolded by Aristotle in his “Rhetoric” and “Poetics”; and it accords with his references to art in his other works.  Our chief interest in these works, at present, lies in determining the difference between what he really laid in them, and what he has been represented as saying.  There is no doubt that if we consider only his words, we shall find him affirming that “all art is imitation.”  But if we interpret these words in the light which his own explanations have thrown upon them, it is possible that we may discover that what he meant was very different from that which superficial reading has led many to infer.  The remark supposed to have originated with Coleridge, that all men must be either Platonists or Aristotelians, has come to be accepted almost as a truism; but it is only true as applied to the mental characteristics of the two men-not to the opinions held by them. While Plato undoubtedly represents extreme idealism, Aristotle by no means represents the opposite, either in his general philosophic system, or in his aesthetics. Only with the latter, however, are we concerned at present. The attempt to make him the father of materialism in art was not due to the earlier writers either in or out of the Christian Church. These usually recognized his idealism. The attempt began in the middle of the eighteenth century with the Abbe Charles Batteau. In his two books, one the “Cour de Belles-Lettres” and the other “Les Beaux-Arts Reduit a un Meme Principe,” books in which he claimed to be a follower of Aristotle, he emphasized much more than, as we shall find, Aristotle himself did, the imitative character of art. In doing this, he was followed by Voltaire, Diderot, and Emeric David, and, as already indicated on pages 111 and 112, by writers like Hazlitt and Sir Charles Bell, in England . But only in recent times does the influence of this conception of art seem to have had its “perfect work.” What certain modern views are, both in Europe and our own country, and what are their effects, have been already brought out in other volumes of this series and need not be repeated here. See pages xli-xlviii of this volume, pages vi. and vii. of “Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts,” and pages xvi.-xxii. and 235-237 of “Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music.” In this place, it is sufficient to say--what might be inferred without reading the extravagant statements that prove it-that the general result of emphasizing unduly the imitative side of aesthetics is to lead men to consider art merely a reproduction of reality as manifested in form, and not to consider it, in any important sense, a representation of ideality, or an expression of human thought and feeling. Is there anything in Aristotle's conception of art as imitation to justify a deduction that he did not



[The Aesthetics of Aristotle by G.L. Raymond, page 006]

consider it to be an expression of human thought and feeling? -- Strange as it may appear to some, nothing whatever. His own explanation of what he meant by imitation or mimicry (μίμησις) includes all that most idealists would desire to have included in the conception of that which art should do. “Homer,” says Aristotle (Chap. 2.), “imitates better men than exist,” and again, in Chap. 25., “the poet,” he says, “being an imitator, like the painter or any other artist, must, of necessity, always imitate one of three things,--either such as they were or are ; or such as they are said to be or appear to be; or such as they ought to be.” (Thomas Taylor translation). If the conception of imitating “better things than exist,” or things “as they ought to be,” do not include the conception of ideal representation, it is difficult to understand how this conception could be expressed in any words whatever. But Aristotle was not content with this explanation of what he meant by imitation. The larger part of his “Poetics” is devoted to discussing the representation of ideas through poetic form, and very much of it to the representation of the subject, fable, or story-the very thing the importance of which those who, to-day, claim to be his followers are accustomed to depreciate. Chapter 7, for instance, treats of the unity of the fable; Chapter 9 of the differences between history and poetry, and how historic matter should be used in poetry. Chapters 10 and 11 consider the fable as either simple or compound. Chapter 12 discusses the parts of a tragedy; Chapter 13 the essentials of a tragic plot; and Chapters 14 to 19 the methods of representing terror, pity, etc. All these applications of the principle which Aristotle is made, in modern translations, to term imitation, show that the Greek word which he used did not mean exactly the same as the modern word through which we translate it. One cannot imitate things which appear to be, without a greater use of his imaginative powers; nor imitate things as they ought to be without a greater use of his moral powers, than is implied in our word imitate. In what sense then did Aristotle use the word? There may be two answers to this: He may have used it in a similar sense to our own; but have given the word a broader application than we do. He may have used it to indicate the copying not merely of a whole product, to which we refer when we use the term, but to indicate the copying of any small part of a whole product, and therefore of different parts of different whole products, from which parts, when combined together, the artist could secure an entirely new product--a product representing, not that which was, but that which appeared to be or ought to be. But this is exactly the work of the constructive imagination attributed to the artist by the idealist. See pages 3, 4, 90-95 of this volume. Again, however, we may suppose that Aristotle in using the term imitation meant to express the thought which we should express by using




[The Aesthetics of Aristotle by G.L. Raymond, page 007]

the term imaging. Either supposition of his meaning would involve the same interpretation of his theory. It is this: in art, imitation or imaging is a means not an end, -- means of representing through accurate imitations or images of external objects that which is, or appears to be, or ought to be. This seems to be the only fair interpretation to be put upon Aristotle's word: and this interpretation reveals at once the depth and the comprehensiveness of his aesthetic insight. It would be difficult in a single term to describe art, especially poetic art, which Aristotle in this treatise was discussing more accurately. When we get to the bottom of the subject, that which distinguishes prose from poetry is that the latter influences us through the use of imitation or through imaging. As shown on pages 208 to 212 of “Poetry as a Representative Art,” we can present the thoughts and feelings which an appearance of nature suggest, in plain language, i.e., in prose, if we choose.  But if so, we do not present them artistically, or poetically. We do the latter only when we repeat the methods of nature, and re-present that which nature presents. Just as we re-present the natural inflections of the voice in musical melody, the figures and scenes of nature in painting and sculpture, so in poetry, we re-present through descriptive or figurative language. In one sense it is true, as the modern so-called Aristotelians tell us, that the effects of art, even in poetry, do not depend upon the subject. They depend upon the appeal which the subject makes to the imagination, and this depends upon the imaging, or upon what Aristotle terms the imitation.  At times, but only at times, the subject itself is such that necessarily, the moment it is presented, the imagination thinks of a picture. At other times this is not the case. When it is not, the poet, through the use of imitative or imaging language, or, as we say, of figurative language, must make the different parts of the subject seem picturesque. But all this is discussed and explained in Chapters XVIII. and XIX. of “Poetry as a Representative Art,” At present, it is necessary merely to direct attention to the general fact. It remains to be observed only that if what has been said be true of poetry, it must be much more true of painting and sculpture, in which imaging through the use of natural appearances is much more unmistakable.


But if, in this paper, the right interpretation have been given to the term imitation as used by Aristotle, it follows that there is nothing in his theory to justify the inferences of modern so-called Aristotelians; nor, in view of what is advanced on pages 257 to 259, is there anything in this theory to which a Platonist, without sacrificing anything really essential to the consistency of his own system, might not fully subscribe.




[The Genesis of Art-Form by G.L. Raymond, chapter I, page 008]