Poetry in general can be seen to owe its existence to two causes, and these are rooted in nature. First, there is man's natural propensity, from childhood onwards, to engage in mimetic activity (and this distinguishes man from other creatures, that he is thoroughly mimetic and through mimesis takes his first steps in understanding). Second, there is the pleasure which all men take in mimetic objects.

Aristotle's Poetics, part 4

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    I believe we are compelled to express our intelligence creatively, because to repress it would somehow cause us psychic pain and/or some sort of mental blockage inhibiting future brilliant thoughts or ideas. Thinking is pleasurable, and if we want to continue to enjoy it we must first clear the way through sublime communication of our previous discoveries. Doing so provides us with a sense of closure. – Bread Mar 1 '19 at 2:34
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    Mimesis was a standard theory for explaining art in ancient Greece. – Conifold Mar 1 '19 at 11:30
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    What text of Aristotle are you referring to when you say "this text"? Are you quoting him? – Geremia Mar 1 '19 at 23:57
  • The following link may be helpful : iep.utm.edu/anc-aest/#SSH3aii – Saint James Dec 29 '19 at 17:21

What Aristotle means is I think caught by Jonathan Lear in his article, 'Katharsis'. Your question centres on two topics - mimetic activity and mimetic pleasure.


Aristotle's account of the origins of poetry

It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation [mimesis] is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns atfirst by imitation. And it is also naturalfor all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience; though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher, but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning and reasoning [sullogidzesthai] what each thing is, e.g. that this is that; for if one has not seen the thing before, one's pleasure will not be in the picture as an imitation of it, but will be due to the execution or coloring or some similar cause." (Aristotle, Poetics, 4, 1448b4-1; J. Lear, 'Katharsis', ' Phronesis, Vol. 33, No. 3 (1988), pp. 297-326: 307.)

Only the origins

We need to note that while Aristotle was well aware of different genres if poetry - epic, comedy, and tragedy - it is on tragedy that the text of the Poetics as it has come down to us fixes its main attention. As well:

It is important to note that Aristotle is here concerned with the origins of a process which culminates in the development of tragedy. Children begin learning by their early imitations of the adults around them, and in learning they derive a rudimentary form of cognitive pleasure: but this is only an explanation of how elementary forms of imitation naturally arise among humans. It is not an explanation of the peculiar pleasure of tragedy. (Lear: 308.)


To move onto your second topic, mimetic pleasure:

Pleasure in learning and pleasure in viewing

One must also be cautious in interpreting Aristotle's claim about the pleasure in learning. Aristotle is trying to explain why we take pleasure in viewing imitations of objects that are themselves painful to look at. Now it is tempting to assimilate this passage with Aristotle's admonition in the Parts of Animals that one should not shy away "with childish aversion" from studying blood and guts and even the humblest of animals: for the study of even the lowest of animals yields a pleasure which derives from discovering the intelligible causes of its functioning and the absence of chance." [Aristotle, Parts of Animals 1.5, 5, 645a4-3.] For Aristotle there contrasts the cognitive pleasure derived from coming to understand causes from the pleasure derived from an imitation:

For even if some [animals] are not pleasing to the sense of sight, nevertheless, creating nature provides extraordinary pleasures for those who are capable of understanding causes and who are by nature philosophical. Indeed, it would be unreasonable and strange if mimetic representations of them were attractive, because they disclose the mimetic skill of the painter or sculptor, and the original realities themselves were not more interesting, to all at any rate who have eyes to discern the reasons that determined their formation.(Aristotle, Parts of Animals 1.5, 645a8-15.)

Aristotle is saying that there are two distinct pleasures to be derived from animals that are in themselves unpleasant to look at: a cognitive pleasure in understanding their causes, and a 'mimetic pleasure' in appreciating an artist's skill in accurately portraying these ugly creatures. It is this dis- tinctively 'mimetic pleasure' that Aristotle is concentrating on in Poetics 4. The reason why he focuses on the artistic representation of an ugly animal is that he wants to be sure he is isolating the pleasure derived from the mimesis, rather than the pleasure one might derive from the beauty of the animal itself. In explaining this 'mimetic pleasure', Aristotle does allude to the pleasure derived from learning. But that Aristotle has only the most rudimentary form of 'learning' in mind is made clear by his claim that this pleasure in learning is available not only to the philosophically minded, but to all of mankind however small their capacity for it. What one is 'learning' is that this is that: i.e. that this (picture of a dead mouse) is (an accurate representation of) that ([a] dead mouse). The 'reasoning' one is doing is confined to realizing that one thing (an artistic representation) is an in- stance of another. The pleasure, Aristotle says, is precisely that which would be unavailable to someone incapable of formulating this elementary realization: that is, to someone who had never seen a mouse.6 Such a person would not be able to recognize representation as a representation, and thus his pleasure would be confined to appreciating the colors and shapes in the painting. Thus it is a mistake to interpret this passage as suggesting that the reasoning is in any sense a reasoning about causes. Poetics 4, then, is about the most elementary pleasures which can be derived from the most elementary of mimeseis. Although this is a first step towards an understanding of tragic pleasure, it does not lend support to the thesis that tragic pleasure is a species of cognitive pleasure.(Lear: 308-9.)

  • It might be interesting for those interested in this question as it might relate to the origin of poetic expression to read Giambattista Vico's, "The Origin of Language in Poetry". CMS – Charles M Saunders Dec 29 '19 at 20:23

Let's take a look at the meaning of Mimetic-

"Mimesis is a critical and philosophical term that carries a wide range of meanings, which include imitation, representation, mimicry, imitatio, receptivity, nonsensuous similarity, the act of resembling, the act of expression, and the presentation of the self." -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimesis

When we are children, we often learn from observing others and imitating their actions, which is why it's so funny to see a toddler wearing their parent's shoes or sunglasses. Through these imitations and people's reactions to them, we develop an understanding of things which we draw upon throughout our lives, some positive and some negative.

Sometimes these experiences have a major impact on our lives, which is what inspires one to write a poem and the appreciation we have to observe and learn from other's perspectives gives reason to read poetry and share our own.

  • Would you have a source for the quote giving the meaning of Mimetic. References support an answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Mar 3 '19 at 19:50
  • Well spelled out and quite sensitively expressed thought on the manifold nature of mimesis. Cheers Charles M Saunders – Charles M Saunders Apr 4 '19 at 18:55

This is a subtle point, and I'm a bit surprised that Aristotle didn't spend more time explaining it. Perhaps it merely seemed obvious to him, or perhaps it was part of a larger dialog in Greek philosophy that hasn't survived the test of time.

At any rate, Aristotle is suggesting that we all naturally engage in mimesis: the imitative representation of things we perceive in the world around us. Almost from infancy we observe and try to copy what we perceive. We smile when other people smile at us; we imitate the sounds of animals like cats, dogs, and cows; we watch others work and play and copy their movements so we can do it too; we learn language by repeating sounds and associating them with objects and actions... When a parents, teachers, or mentors say "do it this way," they are expecting you to mimic their actions until you have a firm representation in your head of how the action should be performed. That is the nature of learning.

That is one of the foundations of art. A painting isn't just pretty swirls of color, a play isn't just people walking around on stage saying whatever, a song isn't just carefully arranged tones. All of these things gain power and beauty when they trigger our inner representations of the world, bringing up emotions and memories and making new associations. A well-crafted piece of art offers us a representation of the world that is grounded in what we already know but opens us up to what we hadn't considered. It offers us something new to imitate in our heads.

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