CriticaLink | Aristotle: Poetics | Guide to Book II

The Objects of Imitation
In the opening lines of this brief chapter Aristotle makes the somewhat startling suggestion that all poetry is the representation of the actions of human beings. While we might expect a discussion of the "objects" of poetic representation to include natural phenomena such as landscapes or animals, Aristotle views poetry in distinctly moral terms: as a human product, poetry must fundamentally be "about" the activities and qualities that shape human experience.

Representations of human beings in poetry can be sorted into three categories: 1) depictions of humans as better than they really are, 2) depictions of humans as they are in reality, and 3) depictions of humans as worse than they really are.

Aristotle seems to recognize here that particular poets may represent humans differently in the same genre, as in the example of Timotheus and Philoxenus, who represent the Cyclopes differently in their works. Some general generic distinctions, however, can be made, especially between comedy, which tends to represent its characters in negative terms, and tragedy, which portrays humans as more noble than they are in actuality.