It’s a testament to the book’s power that the Poetics still appears in many a graduate literary theory course today, even if in some people’s minds newer theories have since replaced the supposedly “outmoded” views of Aristotle. Aristotle opens with the same question as Terry Eagleton in his Literary Theory: an Introduction: What is literature? What falls under this elusive, hard to define category?
Aristotle attempts to answer this question by first separating the different categories of the arts and defining their individual qualities. He distinguishes them by their methods of production. Music for example is a combination of harmony and rhythm, while dance is merely rhythm. The means for producing dance is rhythm. Poetry is the art that “imitates by language” and is also set to meter, hence it combines language and rhythm. While this is a good starting point to begin categorizing art, style is not enough.
It is not merely a matter of a work possessing a meter or being written in verse that makes it literature, but we must also pay attention to its content. Aristotle claims that if you took the historical narrative of Herodotus written in prose and changed it to verse, it still would not be poetry in its essence. He tells us that the difference between history and poetry is that history describes what has already happened and is singular (meaning these events may never happen again or the events may only pertain to that specific society during that particular time period), while literature describes what might happen anywhere and everywhere, and deals with the universal.
There is plenty to disagree with in Aristotle’s distinction. After all, these days Herodotus’s History with its many folktales, speculations, and fanciful explorations is generally considered a great work of literature. In our age of the novel we don’t distinguish between prose and verse as a defining characteristic between what is literary and what is not. Nevertheless, we often hear that great literature is universal and here we see one of our first critics in history arguing for this idea. So how does it capture what is universal in human experience?
The main defining characteristic of art for Aristotle is its ability to imitate life, otherwise known as mimesis. Art is a representation of human experience, it mirrors society and the humans that live in it. The characters who frequent the stage should be judged by how closely they resemble the virtue and vices of real humans. The best plays for Aristotle are the ones that allow the decisions of the characters to control the plot rather than an artificial plot controlling the events and characters from the outside; the characters choices should move the plot, not the plot move the characters like inanimate chess-pieces. The plot should be organic from the characters’ decisions. Aristotle saves a special place in his treatise for Greek tragedy, an art form that combines all the other arts, since Greek tragedy included poetry, music, and dance.
For Aristotle the tragic hero needed to be someone we could sympathize with by being neither too good nor too bad, but a combination of good and bad traits. These heroes suffered from some fatal flaw of perception or judgment, which would allow the audience to identify more closely with the characters’ good traits and imperfections, and leads to catharsis, a purging of emotions.
Aristotle defines catharsis as the feelings of pity or fear that a play brings forth, which we then purge ourselves after watching a tragedy. In other words, the purpose of art for Aristotle is to release our emotions and be therapeutic. David Denby writing in his book The Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and the Other Indestructible Writer of the Western World questions Aristotle’s assertions about Catharsis:
“Such plays as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Euripides’Bacchae . . . were much wilder, more irrational, and more alarming than [Aristotle] seemed to realize. I did not feel purged after reading them but confirmed in my initial anxieties.”
Unlike philosophy or other disciplines, art works on us emotionally rather than rationally by imitating life (mimesis). It is through this imitation that we either empathize or sympathize with the characters of a story; this happens when we see ourselves or people we know in the characters, so that their experiences becomes our experiences, their pains and joys our pains and joys, and through their trials and tribulations which we experience alongside them we gain wisdom and knowledge about the real world around us. Like boiling the water out of a syrup to concentrate the sweetness of the sugars, fiction removes all the dullness of quotidian experience from its narrative and concentrates on the most dramatic parts of life, giving us access to a more intense concentrated version of real life.
Unlike Plato who viewed art’s ability of mimesis as deceptive, an image of an image of reality that distorted truth, Aristotle sees art not so much as distortion, but rather as an exaggeration of reality that helps bring us to the truth through its imitation of life. When Aristotle defines tragedy as an imitation of action that is serious and has magnitude what he means is the actions must be significant or important, not the modern “tea-cup” tragedies that pervade so much of today’s contemporary fiction. Although Aristotle believes that characters must drive the action of the story, there still needs to be an actual plot. I suspect Aristotle would have been critical of a lot of modern fiction, which focuses heavily on introspective characters, but with little plot. Likewise, he makes similar comments about language:
“In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the characters for the sake of the action. So that it is the action in it, i.e. its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy . . . [Similarly], one may string together a series of characteristic speeches of the utmost finish as regards Diction and Thought, and yet fail to produce the true tragic effect; but one will have much better success with a tragedy which, however inferior in these respects, has a plot . . . we maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is the Plot[.]”
Aristotle criticizes pretty language as a goal in and of itself. Great diction might make for some beautiful writing, but it needs to be at the service of an actual plot. Aristotle champions plot over character and style, even though he recognizes the importance of character and style in the overall production of a literary work. This might seem contradictory from how I described Aristotle earlier as saying characters should drive a plot, not plots should drive characters. However, I understand him to be saying characters should drive the plot, but they shouldn’t just be standing around speaking lines and revealing their innermost souls while doing nothing! We don’t just want profound characters standing around being introspective. The actions of the characters should be towards some goal or struggling against some problem, which then naturally creates the plot. In other words, the best plays are the ones that the characters actions create a compelling plot and beautiful writing enhances the story; the best plays are the ones’ whose elements are in harmony with each other.
The rest of the text reads like a manual of guidelines on how to write a good tragedy. Stories must not be too long that we lose track of them nor too short that it lacks significance. Plays should be one unified plot with one central conflict instead of loosely attached episodes. Character actions and sequence of events should be probable (contain an internal logic). Certain character types and situations are easier to sympathize with than others (the good man falling into misfortune moves us far more than the evil man obtaining success and prosperity). Aristotle additionally warns against relying on shock value (blood, guts, and gore), thinking such elements to be more monstrous and disgusting than it is tragic.
Aristotle’s text also gives us some unique historical insights into the Greek world of art. We discover from Aristotle that comedy grew out of ‘iambic invective’ poetry, while tragedy grew out of epic poetry. Aristotle claims that it was Aeschylus who first added two actors to the drama and decreased the part of the chorus who used to be the protagonist. Sophocles was the first to add a third actor and scenery. We also learn about some of the conditions for play production. To produce a play the playwright needed permission from the Archon; the play was then sponsored by a wealthy citizen as a kind of community service. Aristotle even reveals that plays existed, such as Agathon’s Antheus that had no mythical background and were completely invented from scratch. He also hints at a thriving community of literary critics during his time whose ideas he is responding to in the Poetics, reminding us that critics disagreeing with each other about art is not a new phenomenon, but has always existed.
No matter what its purpose, Aristotle tells us, art is a natural human impulse that cannot be avoided. He reminds us that since childhood we learn about the world around us from imitation of our parents and teachers. Secondly, we enjoy learning the meaning of things. The literary impulse combines these two human impulses to learn through imitation ingrained in us since childhood and our desire to learn about the world around us.