Die erste philosophische Literaturtheorie in Europa: Aristoteles’ Mimesistheorie

Hauptsächlicher Artikelinhalt

Arbogast Schmitt


It is Aristotle to whom we owe the first philosophical theory of poetic art fully extant from antiquity. He recognized the origin of art and poetry in man’s capacity for theory and his pleasure in it, for he considered imitation (mímēsis) as the beginning and basis of cognition. He understood imitation not as a mere act of copying but as the realization and re-implementation of a single person’s general disposition to act, which is to say his or her disposition to turn towards the world aiming to seek pleasure or to avoid pain. The poet’s task is to represent such a way of acting, real or fictitious, in some medium in a certain way. An orderly representation of this kind starts from an (again, real or fictitious) person’s decision to prefer or avoid something. It closely follows this agent’s ‘quality’ (poiótēs), which is to say his or her character. Thereby, the poet can achieve a congruence of all parts of the entire action with one another and with the whole. This is what, in Aristotle’s view, is the poet’s task. At the time of the reception of Aristotle’s “Poetics” around 1500 AD, the understanding of poetry was widely shaped by Horace and Cicero and hence had a strongly rhetorical character. For Horace, it is true, the poet ought to be an imitator, as well, even though an ‘erudite’ imitator. In Horace’s view, however, his knowledge regards the general manners of man. Therefore, the poet, gifted as such with ‘prophetic eye’ and ‘wisdom,’ has the ability to express this knowledge in vivid and concrete terms (communia proprie dicere). This knowledge, which men, parents, brothers, politicians, judges, military commanders, etc. use to act was considered to be learnable according to the rules of rhetoric, although it is only by the poet’s individual talent that it can become art. It was believed that what Aristotle had called the ‘probable’ could be equated with this skill based on acquired experience and genius. As a consequence of this reinterpretation, Aristotelian probability, which makes a certain man talk and act in a certain way in accordance with his character, changed into the probability of the course of the world. The order of the action was turned into the order of things as the object of imitation. The development of art and literature as well as of the aesthetic theories of the modern age was essentially influenced by the concept of an order of things and thus impedes access to the rationality of poetry envisioned by Aristotle.


Schmitt, A. 2022. Die erste philosophische Literaturtheorie in Europa: Aristoteles’ Mimesistheorie. Internationale Zeitschrift für Kulturkomparatistik. 5 (2022), 17–70. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25353/ubtr-izfk-e62d-a6b5.