Aristotle, Poetics

         Aristotle was Plato's student, but his thinking differed so much from his teacher's that he did not succeed Plato as head of the Athenian Academy, but rather struck out on his own, eventually serving as the tutor to the son and heir of Philip of Macedon, a boy later known as Alexander the Great.  Aristotelian philosophy teaches that knowing material reality can be achieved by properly identifying the essential traits of things and distinguishing things from other things by forming classification schemes based on those traits.  The theory's great power is that it can produce useful, independently verifiable categories of analysis--if we all can agree on the epic's essential traits, then we can conduct reasonable scholarly discussions about epics.  Since Aristotle also was interested (like his teacher, Plato) in the proper organization of human communities, from the one-family "oikos" (whence "economy") to the city-state of the "polis," he also tried to describe the social functions of literature.  This continues to be an important line of study in modern literary theory.  One of the method's weakness arises from disagreements about what, if anything, can be called essential from the start ("a priori"), outside some kind of social, political, historical processes that made it.  A second weakness, shared by some practitioners of Structuralism (q.v.), is Aristotle's fondness for definition and categorization  by "binary oppositions": states which are supposed to be mutually exclusive, such as "live or dead," "on or off," in that you can't be both, but must be one or the other.  Many of the oppositions by which he constructed his literary analysis are suspect or simply wrong, at least in our own era (e.g., "comedy or tragedy" has become confused with tragi-comedy and satire).  Post-Aristotelian thinking tends to avoid relying upon unexamined binary oppositions and to look backwards, in order to situate literature's traits in the processes which created them, but otherwise we owe a great methodological debt to "The Philosopher," as he was known to medieval readers.   To read the complete "Poetics," click here.

After Aristotle:  Neo-Aristotelian critics in the Renaissance, like Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro, codified Aristotle's general observations about the need for some kind of unity in a work to create the (needless) aesthetic rule that all great plays must obey the "four unities" of form, time, action, and place.  The authority of this early Neo-Aristotelian criticism soon was exploded by the emergence of mixed genres like "tragi-comedy," successful leaps of time between acts of plays or chapters of novels, audience enjoyment of sub-plots and complex plots, and great popularity of travel narratives.  Twentieth-Century Neo-Aristotelianism is generally associated with the University of Chicago school of critics, including Elder Olsen, R. S. Crane, and Richard McKeon Wayne Booth and E. D. Hirsch developed important New Criticism methods based on Aristotelian ways of thinking.

        Some Aristotelian principles--

1)  Genre and generic attributes
        Aristotle sought to anchor his definitions of literary genres in exemplary works and authors.  Of tragedians, he considered Sophocles the best, and his Oedipus Tyrannus ("Oedipus the King") the finest example.  That's immediately debatable because great works by two other major tragedians survived (Aeschylus and Euripides).  In the case of epics, his task was easier because only one author's works were widely known to him, those of Homer.  According to Aristotle, the lost Homeric mock battle narrative, Margites, is to comic  drama as the Iliad and the Odyssey are to tragedy.  Note that this suggests genres originate in pairs, each balancing qualities the other excels in with qualities it lacks and its partner has in abundance.  When distinguishing between epic and tragedy, he said epic has a multiplicity of  plots, each of which is fully developed in the epic's larger  scope, but the tragedy is a compressed development of a single  plot.  Aristotle says epics have a major advantage over tragedy  because of their multiplicity of incident, the capacity  to enlarge its action to incorporate several series of events  which may have happened simultaneously [representing them in  narrative series by means of flashbacks, etc.].

2)  Mimesis / Imitation
        For Aristotle, all literature is an art of imitation (Gk. mimesis, whence "mime").  As artists imitated life to produce their literature, audiences would be inspired to imitate, in some fashion, what they read, heard or saw on the stage.   The social function of epic as an exemplar of good behavior was easier for Aristotle to assume in Classical Greece.  Recently, the hero-aesthetic has been dethroned as a necessary and great model of human aspiration, at least as it motivates citizens to become warriors.  Comedy produced an immediate problem for Aristotle, however, since comedies tend to be about bad behavior and people doing ugly, immoral, or ridiculous things.  He accepted that the primary object of comedy is imitation: imitation of low  characters--not morally bad, but ludicrous, ugly but not painful or destructive.  He defended comedies' mimetic representation of ludicrous behavior because it would incite audiences to avoid its imitation.

3)  Proper proportion
        A tragedy imitates action that is serious, complete, and of  an appropriate magnitude (neither trivial nor too vast).

4)  Literature's function
        The tragedy evokes two kinds of emotions, pity and fear, in order to cleanse the  mind of dangerous but natural human tendencies, especially overgrown pride in our accomplishments.  This emotional purging (katharsis), when shared by the whole population, restored the city to health.

5)  Character construction
        Tragic characters all have two qualities by which we  judge them: thought and character.  In order of importance,  proper characters should have the following qualities: goodness in a moral sense, appropriateness to social mores,  truth to life (probability in small details), and consistency (i.e.,  not disturbingly divided in nature).

6)  Sub-components of dramatic theater
        Tragedies have these six parts: plot, character, diction,  thought, spectacle (today, "special effects"), and song.

7)  Literature and human nature
        According to Aristotle, our qualities are determined by our characters, those basic combinations of traits we were born with or develop as we grow, but we are made happy or wretched by our actions.  Therefore, the great literature concentrates on showing us those actions at crucial moments and the "first principle" of any drama is its plot (i.e., the action).  A perfect tragedy should imitate complex actions (see #12) that  excite pity and fear (#4) while leading a man who is extraordinarily  good and just to misfortune by some error of judgment or frailty  of character.  That "frailty of character" is the famous "tragic flaw" or hamartia, actually something closer to a "tragic imbalance"

8)  Completeness of a work of literature ("unities of form and time")
        The key qualities in the construction of a tragedy's plot  are: it has a beginning, middle, and end (i.e., is complete); and it  is of appropriate size to be "easily embraced in one view" or  "easily embraced by the memory" [long enough to move a character  "from calamity to good fortune, or from good fortune to calamity"].  For this reason, Aristotle says good plays resemble living organisms.  (This idea has a rebirth in Romanticism's "organic form" theory.)  An "episodic" plot is: one that moves from incident to  incident without necessary or probable cause.  You can still find modern literary reviews that condemn a work's plot as "episodic," though since Modernism, fiction has tended to test that boundary and many of the rest Aristotle tried to establish. 

9)  "Unity of action"
        In addition to unity of form and time, Aristotle also said a plot should be unified.  However, definitions of this tend to be circular: the  plot centers around an action that is unified.

10)  Poetry vs. history--the "truth" problem
        The ancients and medieval theorists were troubled that poetic works of all kinds (narrative fiction, drama, lyrics) are technically lies.  Isn't lying a bad thing, something to be punished?  Aristotle saw the poet and historian as his opposing binary opposites to solve this problem.  The poet's job differs from the historian's in that: the  historian must relate what happened, but the poet may relate what  may (or may have) happened.  (Also see Sidney, "Defense of Poesy.")

11)  Simple vs. complex plots
        While Aristotle tended to favor literary traits that unified, he was not against complexity, itself.  For him, a complex plot is distinguished from a simple one because it  has one or both of these special features which produce important  effects in the audience: reversal of expectations ("peripeteia")  and/or recognition (usually of someone's identity, often of one's  own true identity ["anagnorisis"]).  Both of these events occur nearly simultaneously near the end of Oedipus Tyrannus.  Aristotelian analysis divides the play's action into two  parts complication and unraveling, the latter of which might begin with the reversal of expectations and end with the self-discovery or recognition scene.

12)  Literature and the "agon"
        Like most Classical Greeks, Aristotle saw most of the universe as a pattern of struggle, or "agon," in which opposed forces battled for supremacy.  Tragedy and epic, alike, according to Aristotle, might develop a kind of collision between opposing character types in which one must subdue the other.  He said tragedy should have a "double thread," which can be identified by: its  concern for two groups of actors whose ends are opposite because  of their opposite natures (e.g., in epic, Odysseus' triumphant return vs. the  suitors' destruction; in tragedy, Antigone's unwavering insistence on the old burial customs' vs. Creon's equally stubborn demand that she obey the city's law as he has articulated it).

13)  Spectacle / Special Effects vs. Tragic or Comic effects
        Aristotle distinguished clearly between works which operated upon the audience's minds by manipulating the emotions via thoughtful processes from those which sought their impact by shocking the audience with scenes which were taboo in ordinary social life (e.g., murders, open sexuality, violent accidents).  The movies, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, and all their many imitators, are examples of  tragedies that use spectacle to move the audience's emotions.  An alternative means of moving the audience's  emotions is having painful circumstances strike those who are  either friends or related to each other (esp. blood relations).

14)  Tradition and the Individual Talent
        T.S. Eliot's essay by that name (in The Sacred Wood, 816 E421Ks) describes the process by which great art derives from the teachings and examples of previous eras' greatest works.  However, this raises the question of how much change can be made in plots or characters or situations borrowed from previous works.  For the Greeks, the problem was religious, since the mythic stories of the gods and heroes which were adapted by the playwrights were still part of functioning Greek religion in the Classical era.  Aristotle says there is one restriction on the poet's  adaptation of legends: "he may not destroy the framework of the  received legends."  Obviously, this raises the same "essentialist" question we see in other Aristotelian principles of interpretation and creation.  Who can say what the "framework" is and what is non-essential?  Did Helen go to Troy, or did the Trojans and Greeks fight over a phantom sent by the gods to destroy them?  Can that kind of question be raised by a work of literature, or does that somehow violate the "rules"?

15)  Poetry, Inspiration and Madness
        Unlike Plato, whose "Ion" attempts to prove poets are out of their minds when they compose, Aristotle allowed more room for the poet's witting craft to produce literature.  However, Aristotle believes really great poets must be either  specially gifted (able to imitate any kind of human character) or  mad (unable to maintain their own characters).