What is the Teaching of Aristotle’s Poetics?

In Aristotle’s Poetics, the poetic art (or poieses meaning “to create” in Greek) is a natural organic activity. It is an imitative act (mimesis) and is also a kind of reflection of nature. The Poetics begins with a larger exploration of poetry, itself, and the book concludes with a dramatic duel between the two chief forms of poetry: epic (i.e. Homer) and tragedy (i.e. Aeschylus). Aristotle spends minimal time discussing comedy, which he is rumored to have addressed elsewhere in a now lost work.

Apparently, the philosophic art is a kind of mimesis – as Aristotle begins his inquiry in the most natural way: in the beginning. He begins by distinguishing the kinds of poetry: epic poetry (a la Homer), tragedy, comedy, and dithyrambic poems (a kind of Dionysian choral hymn).

As with painters, the performance art imitates people who are either of a serious moral stature, or a lower moral stature. This is because “all people differentiate states of character by vice and virtue” (1448a). While other poets imitate similar or inferior people, Homer imitates people who are better than we are. Tragedy can be distinguished from comedy in that the latter imitates inferior people, and the former imitates better people.

In this way, Sophoclean tragedy shares something in common with Homer in their mutual efforts to imitate people who are better than people are currently. However, in another way Sophoclean tragedy is also like Aristophanes’s comedies – both are dramas and showcase a demonstration of action (i.e. a performance).

It is likely that the poetic art was brought into being by two natural causes, since it is natural for human beings to imitate from the age of childhood and also “all human beings delight in imitations” (1448b). Imitation emerged along with harmony and rhythm naturally, with some imitating noble (or “beautiful”) actions and others imitating more base actions. The iambic meter originated because that is what the ancients used to ridicule one another, however Homer took the comedic art of ridiculing and, instead, dramatized the ridiculous. Regarding the tragic art, it originated in improvisation in the ancient “phallic songs” and satyr-plays and not until Aeschylus were multiple actors introduced, Sophocles introduced three actors and painted scenery, and upon the introduction of speaking, nature found a way with the iamb, as that is the most natural rhythm, for we speak in iambs.

As has been said, comedy is an imitation of a lower sort of people, though not in respect to every vice. For “what is ridiculous is a part of what is ugly” (1449a). The ridiculous is a sort of “missing the mark that is painless and not destructive”. Aristotle uses the example of the mask – an innocent but nevertheless ridiculous element of the comic plays. The making of these stories first came from Sicily, according to Aristotle.

Epic poetry is similar to tragedy in the fact that they deal with subjects of a serious nature (with magnitude), however the parts of epic poetry are mostly contained within tragedy. Tragedy is a complete imitation of a serious action using performance and not narration, accomplishing this by means of fear and pity – and cleansing these states of feeling through katharsis. There are six parts of every tragedy: story (imitation of the action), states of character, wording, thinking, spectacle, and song-making. The tragedy draws the soul by means of reversals and discoveries in the story, and discovery is a kind of leading from ignorance to recognition. A tragedy is best when a discovery and a reversal happen at the same time, as in Oedipus. Additionally suffering is the third and key element.

Since a tragedy is a complete whole, it must have a beginning, middle, and end. It is an imitation of one whole action, as in the Odyssey, with many small side-stories. In this way, poetry speaks of universals, of things that might happen, history speaks of things that have already happened.

Throughout the text, Aristotle makes liberal use of phrases: “what is likely” versus “what is necessary”. The likely sequence in the story is that which is some certain imitation of human action working itself out. In a tragedy, the plot does not unfold necessarily, for that would leave little room for twists of fate.

Aristotle begins addressing superior versus inferior poets in Chapter 9, in which an inferior poet will create an episodic story. It is inferior because it is random. The highest form of poetics is orderly and harmonized.

Next, he discusses the general vices and virtues of the appropriate tragedy. Tragedy produces fear and pity. Therefore tragedy ought not to showcase a decent man going from good to bad fortune, since this is repellent. Nor should it showcase people of bad character changing from bad to good fortune, since this is the least tragic and does not arouse feelings of philanthroupon, or love of humanity.

Therefore, tragedy displays a man not surpassing in virtue and justice. His status does not change into misfortune through bad character, but rather through some “missing of the mark” (1453b). This has sometimes been called the “tragic mistake.” For example Euripides, even if he does not manage other things well, is the most tragic of the poets, as he follows this formula. The other option is to end like the Odyssey, better for the good people – but this is more akin to comedy. Characters in the play should be solidly reliable. And the plot should contain a build-up and a resolution.

The Poetics concludes by ‘arriving at the mark’ – tragedy and epic poetry have been distinguished and defined, and both have hit their mark when they find common purpose in “wonder” – also a philosophic objective. Aristotle credits Homer with finding the peak allowable in the epic poetic art, but he also notes that latter tragedians perfected the art of poetics. Aristotle observed a kind of peak of poetics during his lifetime, followed by a decline. Poetics, particularly tragic poetry, was a phenomenon unique to Attic Greece, and it really only lasted primarily through a single lifetime of one man, such as Sophocles. The tragic demand in the ancient world is not unlike the modern invention of the novel.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

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