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Plato and Aristotle on Learning through Imitation

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Learning through imitation is a form of gaining knowledge through interpretation. Since early youth, humans learn through imitation. “Imitation 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 first by imitation. ” (Aristotle 1457) By learning through imitation, one learns a variation of the sources knowledge. Plato argues that art is far from the truth. Plato believes that art, such as poetry, is mimetic, and can only ever be an imitation and a lie. (Plato 576) Plato’s statements could be true if we knew what absolute truth was.

Within an always-changing world, it is important to learn from new perspectives. Learning from imitation may cause variation from the original source, but learning about a subject from imitation is better than not learning about the subject at all. By allowing ourselves to learn from various secondary sources, evaluating the possibilities of the absolute truth become clearer. In De Poetica, Aristotle explores the possibilities of learning through imitation. He describes how people find imitations less disturbing and easier to learn from than the real subjects.

Rather than witnessing a gruesome war, learning about the war through art or literature is easier to mentally handle. “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. ” (Aristotle 1457) One must be careful to account for possible embellishments on the actual events or subjects within a mimetic work of art. By figuring out what is embellished in the work, we are able to learn the truth.

The differences in the imitation of these arts come under three heads, their means, their objects, and their manner. ” (Aristotle 1457) Aristotle describes imitation through the material and medium, the subject imitated, and the way in which a piece is produced. In his 1868 painting, Josephine Gaujean, Edgar Degas creates a portrait of a woman. The painting is not physically the woman Josephine Gaujean. The painting merely represents her. Degas may have exaggerated certain elements of the painting, but by viewing his interpretation, others can learn about his subject.

Degas uses oil paint as the means of imitation, a woman named Josephine Gaujean as the object of imitation, and a realistic, heavily shadowed painting as the manner of imitation. Degas fosters a gloomy mood by creating the subject dressed in all black, intense shadows and an indifferent, solemn facial expression. Although the subject is portrayed with these gloomy emotions, she almost certainly has other emotions not displayed in the piece. As a viewer, one must understand that this is not her only state, just the state in which Degas chose to illustrate her.

A viewer must look beyond the artist’s stylistic choices within the imitation. By viewing the static details of the mimetic art piece, such as style and decor, one can gain knowledge about the time period. John Singer Sargent creates mimetic art with his 1882 piece, El Jaleo. Singer uses oil on canvas as a means of imitation, a dancing woman and men playing guitars as the objects of imitation, and deep shadows and heavy brushstrokes as a manner of imitation. Sargent creates a clear foreground of a dancing woman, but creates a heavily shadowed, blurry background displaying movement.

The figures in the background appear to be playing guitars and dancing in their seats. The painting generates an emotion of excitement within the viewer. The dark lighting creates a nighttime scene with colorful figures full of life. Although the main figure in the center of the foreground does not have much color, she stands out with her bright skirt. Sargent uses very light shades of white and tan on the subject’s skirt and skin to contrast with the intense lines of shadow, which create a glowing effect. Although this painting merely represents the party scene, the viewer sees into the perspective of that time.

El Jaleo” means the spontaneous clapping and shouting that comes like an “Olay! ” at the apex of a performance. (Hughes) The viewer gains a sense of the culture during the time period portrayed. People find learning from art enjoyable. “The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind. ” (Aristotle 1457) People incorporate knowledge and perspective into their works of art. By viewing works of art, we analyze, interpret and learn from the artist’s imitations.

When we learn about past cultures, we do not only gain knowledge for ourselves, but also knowledge to be passed on to the rest of the world. A variation of the original source is passed down as knowledge through mimetic art. Imitative art often offers knowledge otherwise not available, although viewers must be careful to decipher fact from artistic expression. Plato “invites us to call such divisions eidetic or ponderable parts in order to distinguish them from mere pieces into which any whole may be thoughtlessly-or even methodically-broken. (Dobbs) Plato opposes Aristotle’s viewpoint of the ability to learn from imitation.

Plato saw imitation as a lie, that even his own writing was a deviation from the truth. One can disagree with Plato’s viewpoint in seeing that people are able to learn from mimetic art even if it does not fully represent the truth. By observing certain repetitive exaggerations within art pieces, one can interpret desires and perceptions from the time period. Mimetic art may require more analysis and resources than a first hand account of an event, but it can be very educational.

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