Guide to Week 2: Tuesday

        If you are unfamiliar with the works of Plato, Aristotle and Horace, you may want to read this brief historical background document for context.  Reading works in translation always is perilous, and in this case, most students' lack of access to Plato's Greek robs them of some wonderful ironies, ambiguities, and even possibly some attempts at humor.  Please read this excerpt of a key passage about interpretive functions and performance of the text--click here.  For a short list of some questions about Plato's Greek terms for key evaluative concepts, click here.  In class, we will work closely with those evaluative terms to help us figure out Plato's analysis of poets and poetry.  Unless you take extremely good notes, be sure to bring to class printed copies of the Ion and the Republic excerpts.

        The methods of early classical critics often are called "formalist" because they usually begin their description of literary works with a survey of their form (epic, lyric, elegiac; stanzaic or non-stanzaic or prose; rhyming or unrhymed; metered or stress; allegorical or realist or tragic or comic or satiric, etc.).  Plato's Ion is strikingly different from his analysis in The Republic because it begins with the performer, not with the work.  In fact, other than referring to some passages in Homer's epics, the dialogue hardly mentions the poem at all.  See the first question in those relating to Plato's evaluative concepts above for the start of a discussion of how we might relate our own activities in English 215 to Ion's in his Athenian poetic performances.  The text known as "On the Sublime" by an author known to history as "Longinus" focuses exclusively on the work's effect upon readers' experiences, but Longinus is exceptional among classical critics.  Aristotle's "Poetics" also reaches beyond mere form in his discussion of tragedy and comedy as genres, especially the tragic "katharsis."  Horace's "Ars Poetica" and the formalist parts of Aristotle were by far the most influential kinds of interpretive rules to survive the classical era in order to influence Medieval and Renaissance thinking about literature.

        Formalism returns again to our syllabus in the work of the New Critics (c. 1940-c. 1980), who banished considerations of authors' intentions or readers' emotional experiences in favor of examining the formal structure of the text, itself, as a sufficient source of data for literary analysis.  They pursued a quasi-scientific methodology which could claim the sciences' "gold standard" of authenticity, reproducibility of results--different investigators using the same methods on the same texts will arrive at the same interpretations--but that goal eluded the New Critics and eventually their inability to argue for scientific superiority of their results led to a decline in their power in American universities.  Between 1915 and 1930, long before the height of the New Critics' influence, "Russian Formalists" also sought a quasi-scientific authority for their interpretive practices drawn from linguistics and from structural anthropology, which we will explore as "Structuralism."

The Plato-Socrates "Defense of Truth and Sanity" Act

Do you want to test your ability to apply Plato's interpretive rules?