A Mini-Course In Rhetoric For Writers. Concept 2.9: Imitation And Emulation With An Eye On Competition

Concept 2.9. Imitation and emulation with an eye on competition. The ancient Greek teacher Longinus is among the first thinkers to address what would become a recurrent theme in the history of writing, and most especially, literary criticism: the sublime (elevated wonder, ecstasy, and beauty mixed with terror). His reflections on the sublime can be found in On Sublimity (first century CE), but it is also there that he addresses another key issue of special concern to rhetoric: imitation and emulation (an attempt to match) with an eye on competition (an attempt to surpass). He invites would-be writers to enter into “the way of imitation and emulation of great writers of the past” (142).

The poet Homer, for Longinus, is the highest standard for imitation; he is the writer that both the historian Herodotus and the philosopher Plato read closely, looking for hints as to how their writing might produce in readers “wonder and astonishment” as opposed to language that is “merely persuasive and pleasant” (137). The distinction between wonder and something merely pleasant is important here, for Homer wrote more of sublime things (grand things, war, death) than merely beautiful or small things (items on a banquet table; a flower), as in this line from the Iliad (vi, 146): “Even as the generations of leaves, so are also those of men.” Leaves are beautiful, to be sure, but Homer emphasizes here their relation to life, death, history—and, implicitly, meaning (or rather, the seeming lack of meaning, as humans, from the vantage of cosmic time, come and go as leaves).

And here are some lines, also from the Iliad, in which Ajax—strongest of all Achaean (Greek) warriors in the poem—prays eloquently, but also sublimely, for the lifting of fog during war, the prayer having a literal and immediate meaning (Ajax beseeching Jove that his troops might see in the fog of war), but also a larger, existential meaning (Ajax perplexed by mortal, sublunary life—life as lived beneath the moon—with human vision lacking a higher vantage and played out in the fog of strife, the gods not interfering, but hidden and silent):

A veil of cloud

O’er men and horses all around is spread.

O Father Jove, from o’er the sons of Greece

Remove this cloudy darkness; clear the sky,

That we may see our fate, and die at least,

If such thy will, in the open light of day. (xvii, 644-47)

Agon. The way that Herodotus and Plato read Homer was, in Longinus’s view, not merely imitative, but agonistic (competitive, emulative, and rivalrous). If you’re a writer, you read a poet like Homer not just with the aspiration of learning from him, but of also matching or outdoing him: “Plato could not have put such a brilliant finish on his philosophical doctrines or so often risen to poetical subjects and poetical language, if he had not tried, wholeheartedly, to compete for the prize against Homer” (142). This idea of writing as competition was broadly shared by the Greeks, where, for instance, Athens’s most famous ancient playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) wrote for competitions put on each spring in honor of the god Dionysus. In Freudian terms, we might also say that competition is oedipal (akin to a son attempting to vanquish a father to obtain access to power and mates). And the Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, also concerned with competition in writing, uses the term belated to describe the ambitious writer—belated in the sense that he arrives late to the party, a line of great writers having already written original things before him. If you’re a playwright, for instance, how do you write a better or more original play than one of Shakespeare’s? How do you explore the shifts and somersaults of the human mind and emotions better than Hamlet? But your deficit—your belatedness—is also your advantage. You cannot speak before Shakespeare, but Shakespeare cannot speak to your time. Only you and your contemporaries can do that. Will you find a way to address your era that Shakespeare didn’t already anticipate and rehearse? Can you, in the poet Ezra Pound’s phrase, “make it new”?

In goading you to making it new, Longinus recommends having great writers with a severe eye present to consciousness (143):

[I]t is good to imagine how Homer would have said the same thing, […] [G]reat figures [in the history of writing], presented to us as objects of emulation and, as it were, shining before our gaze, will somehow elevate our minds to the greatness of which we form a mental image. They will be even more effective if we ask ourselves ‘How would Homer or Demosthenes have reacted to what I am saying, if he had been here? What would his feelings have been?’ It makes it a great occasion if you imagine such a jury or audience […] and pretend that you are answering for what you write.

In other words, imagine great writers as your audience.

Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of books. It should be emphasized that by imitation Longinus is not advocating plagiarism. Rather, he likens the close reader of model writers to Pythia, famed priestess of Apollo at Delphi, who, when prophesying, stood in the midst of divine vapors that exhaled from a “cleft in the ground” (142). This provides a hint as to how steeped in the aromatic liquors of great books Longinus thinks the serious aspirant to sublime writing should be. Reading books should get you high, and you should bask in them as lovers bask in the sunlight of one another. If you want to be an exemplary writer, it makes sense to be a sensuous, cult-like devotee of sublime authors. The end, however, is not in losing yourself in another’s vision, but in learning, then finding, your own voice.

Seneca on novelty. Seneca, the Roman Stoic, writing in the same century as Longinus, was also concerned with competition and surpassing his mentors, himself inventing a new literary genre (form) of writing. Through his letter writing to his friend Lucilius, Seneca created the genre we now recognize as the essay. (Essay in Latin means attempt, as in an attempt to get one’s head around an issue.) Seneca’s letters, as a genre, tend to be short, focused meditations in an informal voice, directed to an intelligent reader, which in Seneca’s case is Lucilius. One translator of Seneca, in an introduction to his writings, observes that his “one hundred and twenty four letters to Lucilius comprise something entirely new in literature. For in these, which were his most conspicuous and immediate literary success, Seneca if anyone is the founder of the Essay” (Campbell 20).

In Seneca’s thirty-third letter to Lucilius, he addresses the dangers of over-reliance on the writings and thoughts of others. And midway through his letter’s cautioning admonitions, he writes the following:

‘Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? ‘Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others’ orders? Assume authority for yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources. (80)

In other words, for Seneca, quoting authorities and leaving it at that amounts to intellectual outsourcing akin to plagiarism. It arrests one’s own thought, robbing a person of his or her chance at self-expression and self-development. To rely on the thoughts and words of others, with or without attribution, is to leave your own thinking to atrophy—or never to develop at all. “This is why,” says Seneca, “I look on people like this as a spiritless lot—the people who are forever acting as interpreters and never as creators, always lurking in someone else’s shadow” (ibid.). Instead, Seneca admonishes Lucilius to come out from the shadows and cease being a mere imitator of other people’s voices, memorizing their words and reciting them uncritically to others. An appeal to authority, or deploying its near cousins, plagiarism or mere summary writing, threatens to arrest thought. Seneca writes on imitation with caustic brilliance: “a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking” (81).

Outer v. inner direction. In thinking of rhetoric and writing as agon (struggle and competition), it may be useful to reflect on the influential philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), whose philosophy surrounding history and art is one of relentless conflict. His ideas influenced figures of his own century, such as Karl Marx and Nietzsche, and they continue to have a wide circulation among contemporary intellectuals today.

For Hegel, coming into ever greater self-consciousness through contest is what human beings are doing on Earth. Unlike other animals, whose consciousness—to the extent that they possess any—appears to be directed outward toward survival and reproduction, and not much else, human beings are directed inward, toward an ever greater knowledge of themselves as geist (spirit).

Geist with a capital ‘G.’ And what is this spirit to which each individual is aware of possessing? Who are you, really? Hegel’s answer is that you are an emanation of the World Spirit—the Geist with a capital “G”—and that Geist comes into ever greater awareness of itself through you in conflict. In this sense, you’re special. You’re connected to the bigger world, and that world is channeling and clashing through you. You are a locus for forces of conflict. When Geist is mirrored perfectly back to itself by the world as a whole—that is, when the Geist’s essential unity with all that exists is realized in history, Hegel claims it will be the end of history. But since we’re not at the end of history yet, we are in a process of increasing self-awareness. That would be you.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. So how does self-awareness grow, according to Hegel? How do you discover who you really are? Hegel’s answer: by living; by crashing into people and things and learning what you’re made of. It is through life’s demolition derby that you discover whether, and in what sense, you are a noble dominator of existence or a mere handmaid to forces greater than yourself. Sometimes you’re being defeated and incorporated into some larger existence or goal that you didn’t choose, but to which you submit; at other times, you’re incorporating other people and things into your own larger existence and vision. In either case, Geist–the World Spirit–is coming to discover itself through you, history, and struggle. It is the dialectical movement of thesis (assertion), antithesis (resistance), and synthesis (unity). For Hegel, the ultimate dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is when Geist and the universe face off in one last round and Geist wins, reaching a final unity on its own terms, and transcending history. In the meantime, we live in the midst of our peculiar Zeitgeist (the Spirit as manifested in our present age and culture), and rhetoric and writing might thus be thought of, in this state of affairs, as akin to what Carl von Clausewitz called politics: “war by other means.”

The Master-Slave dialectic: being for itself v. being for others. If you are what you eat and digest (or what you are eaten by and digested into), then where is this eating and being eaten taking place? For Hegel, there are four key arenas for the spirit’s struggle:

in physical labor (wrestling with material resistances to your existence, desires, and thriving)

in ideas

in art

with others

With regard to others, your first experience of being self-conscious is in the breaking of your unity with them; of a recognition that you are not alone, but in a diverse world with diverse others which, as Hegel puts it in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), have other “shapes of consciousness” from your own.

On encountering another person, therefore, you discover the paradox that your very existence as a “being for itself”—a self-assertive being—is dependent upon your also being a “being for others” (that is, a part of the object world of other self-assertive beings, potentially as their masters or in their service). If it is necessary for you to acknowledge that another person exists to realize your own self-assertive existence (this is mine; that is yours), it also follows that she or he must acknowledge you. And this leads to a face-off. What will be the terms of this acknowledgment? Whose vision will be essential and whose will be secondary or absorbed?

This dilemma is Hegel’s famous (or infamous) Master-Slave dialectic, in which two people, being “unequal and opposed,” and therefore not yet synthesized into a unity, must contend for dominance:

[T]hey exist as two opposed shapes of consciousness; one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another. The former is lord [Herr], the other is bondsman [Knecht]. (544)

And who is to be independent and who dependent is discovered in struggle:

[The lord’s] essential nature is to exist only for himself; […] he is the pure, essential action in this relationship, while the action of the bondsman is impure and unessential. […] The outcome is a recognition that is one-sided and unequal. (545)

Discovering inner power through work. In the Master-Slave dialectic, what does it mean to lose, to be a loser? Two things. First, it means to be “seized with dread,” for she or he has had a foreboding of the ultimate submission to death, “the absolute Lord.” In being “quite unmanned,” the loser trembles “in every fibre,” for “everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations” (545). In the loser’s upheaval, however, a substitute satisfaction is discovered that leads to a rediscovery of her or his own inner power, her or his “being for itself”: work.

In thought and physical labor directed to some triumph over a material problem, the bondsman rediscovers an inner strength that the lord does not enjoy. The lord, in deriving pleasure from material things by setting others to labor on her or his behalf, is actually alienated from the material world (one step removed). The bondsman, however, finds in the shaping of material reality (rather than shaping people or the master), dignity and self-knowledge:

[I]n fashioning the thing [as opposed to persons or the master], he becomes aware that being-for-itself belongs to him, that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right. (546)

There is a great lesson for writers here. Writing–the command and control of words on a page–can empower the otherwise powerless and dispirited; it can recover in them their sense of being-for-oneself; of the possession of an inner directed purpose. Karl Marx was influenced by Hegel here, asserting that capitalism, in its exploitative nature and ever finer divisions of labor in the name of efficiency, alienates both workers and bourgeois consumers from full enjoyment of what is actually produced, undercutting the dignity that Hegel accorded to losers in the Master-Slave dialectic. So what human satisfaction demands, at minimum, on Hegelian and Marxist terms, is command over a process of fashioning from start to finish. A product made wholly by themselves, and owned by them. The generation of an excellent piece of writing, of course, is one way this satisfaction might be achieved, empowering an individual.

The symbolic, classical, and romantic in art. Since, for Hegel, the master-slave dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is what spiritual beings, in their embodiment as humans, are up to, he applies this dialectic to ideas and art, which are also part of the historical process by which Geist comes to self-knowledge. With regard to art, for example, Hegel offers a very particular, three-stage historical progression for its evolution. These consist of “the symbolic, classical, and romantic” stages, and they represent the three strategies “in the striving for, the attainment, and the transcendence of the Ideal as the true Idea of beauty” (555).

Nature as wholly other—wholly alien—from you, and beyond your control. What Hegel calls “the symbolic” is art that focuses on setting before the mind one’s relation to alien nature: there is a whole world out there functioning independent of you and that does not submit to you. It defies your attempts at meaning. Hegel’s example is “the early artistic pantheism of the East” in which the subjects for art entail “even the most worthless objects,” and in which they may appear “bizarre, grotesque, and tasteless,” making any potential human victories over them seem futile (“null and evanescent”). This first historical form of art, “with its quest, its fermentation, its mysteriousness, and its sublimity,” sets out the terms against which any being-for-itself must struggle (552).

How Hegel’s speculation as to the first stage in the evolution of art might translate to the experience of the individual writer is in thinking about the first draft. It may present itself to the writer’s gaze as a hodgepodge of sentences and paragraphs without coherence, lacking rhyme or reason. What is needed is a governing thesis that will make order of the disorder–but that thesis has yet to appear.

The Greek body in art as synthesis of spirit and Nature. Hegel’s “classical stage” is the art innovation of the ancient Greeks, in which Nature is overcome by man. The struggles and victories of the Geist—the Ideal spirit—are represented by the synthesis of the human spirit and body with Nature: “[P]ersonification and anthropomorphism have often been maligned as a degradation of the spiritual, but in so far as art’s task is to bring the spiritual before our eyes in a sensuous manner,” it is necessary. In other words, Hegel suggests that the fashioning spirit of the human being is mirrored and symbolized in depictions of the fashioning actions of the body, and the body fashioned (either nude or elegantly clothed). On Hegel’s account, the Greeks understood, as have subsequent sculptors and painters, that the human body is the intersection of spirit and Nature, for “spirit appears sensuously in a satisfying way only in its body” (553). Thus for Hegel the first two stages in the history of art emphasize Nature, particularly wild Nature, and the human spirit as thesis and antithesis: two forces to be reckoned with and brought into contemplation, then conflict (agon), then unity.

Thus the application to the individual writer could not be more clear: the rough draft, as first thesis; as wild nature; as first essay (attempt) at energetic thoughts put on the page, is now in need of an antithesis; a counter force for introducing order and discipline: the edit of the author.

Moving inward, toward Geist with a capital “G.” For Hegel, it belonged to the romantic stage to move art to its next level—not the synthesis of spirit and Nature, but the wholly inward turn—what Hegel calls “the inwardness of self-consciousness”; the synthesis of the human spirit with the Geist itself: “[M]an breaks the barrier of his implicit and immediate [animal] character, so that precisely because he knows that he is an animal, he ceases to be an animal and attains knowledge of himself as spirit.” This romantic turn is associated, for Hegel, with Christianity: “Christiantiy brings God before our imagination as spirit, not as an individual, particular spirit, but as absolute in spirit and in truth” (554). And so the “inner world constitutes the content of the romantic sphere […] its true reality and manifestation it can seek and achieve only within itself.” Thus it is that romantic art functions paradoxically: “[R]omantic art is the self-transcendence of art, but within its own sphere and in the form of art itself.” (555). In the romantic stage, one does not struggle to shape art into a mirror reflecting the union of spirit and Nature, but to somehow reflect instead the truth of one’s inwardness and power solely, though it is, literally speaking, invisible.

In other words, if we apply Hegel’s romantic stage of development to the writer, rather than the artist, the moment of beholding one’s final literary product is not from afar, witnessing a representation of wild nature synthesized with order, but as in a mirror. That is, one beholds in the writing oneself. The writing is one’s deepest, fashioning self made material; made flesh on the page. What is mirrored on the page is you.

What you see when you look in the mirror. In short, Hegel is a Jacob-wrestling-the-angel kind of person, and so, in answer to the question—How do I come to know myself?—his answer is: by encountering and attempting to shape the material world, ideas, art, writing–and even others–in such a manner that when you contemplate them, they are in your service, mirroring back to you your triumphant, independent, fashioning spirit. The objects and people you have influenced and fashioned in the world reflect you. You look at them and experience a form of self-consciousness: that’s me in material manifestation. Of course, if you look, and discover that they don’t reflect you well, or are independent of you, or are out of your control, then this makes for another form of self-consciousness. You become aware of your weakness; your defeat; of perhaps being a secondary and dependent being in service to them.

Writing 2.9.1. In a piece of writing, express empathy for a person, group, non-human animal, or ecosystem, and justify your empathy. Then write another piece in which you withhold empathy from a person, group, non-human animal or ecosystem, and justify the withholding. After writing your paragraphs, observe the contrasts in the feeling tones of the two pieces of writing, noting the different aspects of the human psyche they appeal to—the better and worse “angels of our nature.”

Writing 2.9.2. In a piece of writing, intermix some appeals to the conventionally better angels of our nature with some conventionally worse angels of our nature, and see if what you write possesses a more-than-usual interest. Is your writing more energetic than otherwise for entertaining such tensions—or does it feel less coherent, hopeful, and inspiring? (This experiment may entail working with a dialogical, as opposed to a monological, voice.)

Writing 2.9.3. The tone of your writing primes readers to adopt and track your attitudes and energies. But if you’re not careful here, you may lose them immediately. So imagine you are starting a longer piece of writing on a topic of your choice and ask yourself this question: “What angel of human nature should I try to evoke to start a piece of writing on my topic—humor, empathy, sobriety, cooperation, selfishness, enthusiasm, snark, lust, etc.?” After you pick either a better or worse angel of our nature to start the hypothetical piece, actually write a couple of sentences—or even a full paragraph—attempting to evoke your chosen attitude. After you write those opening sentences, read them out to another person and ask what tones of voice and energies your hearer actually inferred from them. You should be able to answer all of these questions: (1) What’s my topic? (2) Do I have a thesis and thesis statement that’s clear as a bell? (3) What’s my genre? (4)

Writing 2.9.4. Reflect on a writer you regard as exceptional and worthy of imitation. What makes their writing work?

Writing 2.9.5. Write a paragraph or more reflecting on competition, and whether it is something you take to be valuable in relation to writing. Do you think the ancient Greeks and Romans had it right, turning writing into an agon (a struggle with precursors and contemporaries)?

Writing 2.9.6. Select a paragraph from a book by a sublime author you especially admire and wish to emulate and write the paragraph out, word for word, by hand, slowly, noticing how the rhythm of the sentences function, how punctuation is used, etc. Then attempt to write some paragraphs in the style of that writer. Imagine the writer at your shoulder as your audience. Please and surprise them. Justify your authorial choices to them. Edit according to the suggestions you imagine them offering. Pretend you are them, the gifted and sublime author, and see what happens to your writing.


A selection from Longinus’ On Sublimity begins on pg. 136 of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (edited by of Vincent Leitch, et. al., 2nd edition, 2010). An introduction to Hegel with selections from his Phenomenology of Spirit and Lectures on Fine Art can also be found in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd edition, 2010), beginning on page 547.


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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in aesthetics, atheism, atomism, critical thinking, donald trump, education, edward feser, God, Hegel, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, science, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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