Like other comprehensive terms, the word "classical" can be approached or used in many ways. Since it is an appealing word, it is often applied abstractly to certain qualities of art or thought that a particular critic believes desirable. But the word is most concretely and perhaps most profitably used when it is applied, as a historical term, to the principles and values that characterized the art and thought of ancient Greece, and also to the later attitudes and developments in Western culture that were most obviously and directly influenced by these principles and values. In the conception of art and especially literature that arose in Greece and has persisted throughout the classical tradition, the various aspects are compactly interwoven with each other. Perhaps the most convenient starting point — and one that immediately begins to involve all the other attitudes — is the basic classical premise that art is an imitation of nature.
To say that art is an imitation of nature at once implies the existence of something outside the artist's own mind which he is trying to imitate. This external reality is the primary concern; the classical attitude has always meant a comparative lack of interest, therefore, in the artist himself — in the psychological character of his imagination, for example, and especially in his own subjective feelings. In judging an 'imitation' of something, the first and last consideration is the success with which the imitation is able to duplicate what is most essential and important in its original model. Hence art should seek to be 'objective'. To the classical writer, it would have been meaningless to hold up, as an end in itself, what the romantics later called "originality." For one can be "original" in any number of ways. For example, to react counter to the truth in every respect is, after all, a form of "originality." On the other hand, if "original" is equated with "unusual" or "rare," nothing is more "original" than really to react in accordance with the truth. The term, in fact, is meaningless as an ideal for which to strive. The end is awareness or insight; and whether the awareness is "original" is not even secondary but irrelevant.
It is important to note why such romantic catchwords as "originality," "imagination," and "creative" are absent in classical criticism. For it is sometimes assumed that classical thought is opposed to the qualities such words suggest. It is not. It is concerned with another aim; to know, and to employ art in order to duplicate and transmit that knowledge. In the pursuit of this aim, "originality" may or may not be present. According to classical standards the "imagination" is of value to the degree that it helps give substance to the insight and make it concrete. As for being " creative " — the Greek word for poet, after all, is " maker ," and to fashion an imitation is to make or create — everything depends on the value and truth of what is being created; on whether the artist, in Aristotle's words, is "creative according to a true idea." In short, if art is regarded as imitation, its ideal or purpose can never be to communicate the artist's own feelings, however well informed his feelings may be, or however much they may be directed to an objective reality outside himself. Such feelings will necessarily enter into the work of art, of course. The artist could not very well create or even be alive without reactions. But to admit this is different from urging his aim, his ideal, should be to express those reactions or feelings. Rather, the aim is to descry the total character, meaning, and form of his model, and to imitate it with truth and vitality. He can achieve this aim only by using his reactions and, in fact, every form of awareness he has, as fully and vividly as possible.
Moreover, if art is said to imitate nature, then the character of art is governed by one's conception of what it imitates. The classical theory of art, therefore, is firmly based upon the far more important conception of what constitutes nature itself. In this sense, the foundation of the classical tradition is its confidence in a rationally ordered and harmonious universe, working according to fixed laws, principles, and forms. The universe is not a meaningless hurly-burly of atoms; least of all is it something the qualities and characteristics of which are made up in our own minds. Rather, the universe is regarded as a meaningful process, in which all the parts are interrelated with the living whole; and because of their confidence in such an ordered universe and their eager desire to pierce through to increasingly more basic and general principles, the Greeks succeeded in creating philosophy as we know it — systematic philosophical thinking, in place of the isolated maxims and observations of earlier civilizations. According to this philosophy universal forms and principles constitute the essential character of nature. Plato held the extreme conviction that these forms are the sole genuine reality; while Aristotle after him maintained the modified view that the universal forms must work through the material and the concrete in order to fulfill themselves, i.e., they must have something to form in order to become forming agents, although the concrete itself is nothing except as it is being formed. But in the views of both Plato and Aristotle, as well as in Greek thought generally, the focal point of interest is the permanent rules that govern and pervade all events.
Art, as an imitation of what is essential in nature, is therefore concerned with persisting, objective forms. Thus the classical theory of art as imitation by no means implies what we now call realism, and the realistic concentration on concrete detail for its own sake. For, to begin with, the very subject matter on which art focuses is that which is permanent and ordered rather than isolated and particular. Hence Aristotle says that poetry is "more philosophical" than history. For history relates circumstances as they occurred in time, one after another. Only as it tries to be philosophical does history concentrate on the causal interconnection of things, leaving out details that are irrelevant to the general pattern or meaning. Now poetry, like philosophy, looks at once for the general form: it is selective, and omits all particular events or characteristics that do not emphasize or lead directly to the general order it is trying to disclose. Accordingly, poetry is concerned with the "ideal," or "what ought to be." The "ideal," in most classical writing, refers to the way things would be if the form, the principle, that is operating through them were carried out to its completion or logical fulfillment.
Poetry, says Aristotle, rests upon two instincts in man — the instinct for imitation, and the instinct for harmony. And in addition to taking general truths and persisting forms as its model, as its subject matter, art also subdues and recasts the imitation it is making into a new harmony — a harmonious treatment, this time, of the materials through which a given medium of art works — of line and colour in painting, of sounds in music, of words in poetry. Art, that is, attempts to duplicate nature, within the particular medium into which it is transposing its subject. The classical term "imitation" is thus to be viewed in a flexible, imaginative way. It is especially important to cut off any associations of the term with photographic copying. In the middle and late eighteenth century, the meaning of the word "imitation" became narrower, and it was then set up in opposition to words like "creativity" and "originality." Because this more restricted definition implied literal copying, it seemed strange, for example, to call music an "imitative" art — to call any art "imitative," for that matter, except painting and sculpture. But the original Greek use of the term was more liberal and far-reaching, and was quite applicable to music. Thus, in Aristotle's suggestive discussion of music in his Politics (and it is characteristically Greek that, in an analysis of statecraft, the educational value of music should have a prominent place), music is viewed as an even more valuable and essential form of "imitation" than painting. For music can "imitate" the "moral habits" and "states of feeling" that take place in the human mind or soul. The soul is an "activity"; so is music. Feeling, moral persuasions, habits of reacting, all take place in time; they have duration. Music, unlike painting, also has duration. Sounds following one another, the use of melody and rhythm, make up a pattern or form that exists through the passage of time. Music can thus "imitate" directly the ebb and flow of feeling, states of mind, "moral habits," and different varieties of "character"; it can especially imitate more highly ordered feelings, attitudes, or traits of character than we ordinarily have, and then infiltrate them directly into our feelings, at once deepening the intensity of our feeling and molding and channeling it by a harmonious and ordered form. Painting, however, is confined to figures and colours. It must work through them, and try to use them symbolically if it is going to suggest anything beyond the mere spatial shape and colour. For
"figures and colours are not imitations; they are only [symbols or] signs of moral habits — indications which the body gives of states of feeling."
The points to be stressed in attempting to understand the classical conception of "imitation" are (1) that "imitation" should generally be construed in a more liberal sense than we now use it; (2) that "imitation" is less a detailed copying than an attempt to offer an active counterpart of its model; (3) that in so far as it can, "imitation" takes as its model the essential and persisting forms of nature; and (4) that in translating its subject or object of imitation into a new form or medium — words, sounds, or shapes — art employs forms appropriate to the particular materials it is using, and by doing so it presents a living imitation or counterpart. Through a harmonious design bent toward a logical end and a finished totality, art thus offers an active rival or duplication of the ordered process of nature itself. This view explains the general classical concern with form in the arts: with completeness of outline and with subduing the part to the whole — or rather with treating the part only as it contributes to or emerges into a rounded finality of structure. General examples would be the classical emphasis on plot rather than character in the drama, on the total figure rather than individual features in sculpture, and on line rather than colour in painting. In every case, form is stressed, not because it gives us a change from our daily lives, not because it shows inventive or technical cleverness on the part of the artist, but because it is believed to be the transmuting or duplicating of what is real (i.e., what pervades and controls nature itself), and because we are the better for knowing what is true with as vivid and full a realization as we can. Accordingly, the classical qualities of decorum and balance — of rhythm, symmetry, and integration of parts — are not pursued as ends in themselves (classicism is not deliberate and self-conscious formalism). They evolve as by-products of the attempt to imitate or duplicate an ordered nature or reality — of the attempt to offer a heightened and harmonious presentation of truth.