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PHL 230

ARISTOTLE
POETICS

Instructor:

Dr. Bob Zunjic


The Poetics seems to be Aristotle's answer to Plato's challenge at the end of the Republic: defend poetry from the charges raised in book 10 or concede to the negative verdict. A decade or so after Plato's attack Aristotle undertook a comprehensive defense of poetry in these lecture notes (probably made around 350 BC) . Unfortunately, the extant text of the Poetics is severely damaged. Not only that it contains many corrupted passages but it has not been preserved complete. The second book of the Poetics that supposedly dealt with comedy and the ridiculous is lost. Still the remaining part is one of the most informative and insightful treatises on the subject that we have.

Different Approach Aristotle analyzes the existing art forms, not the art as it should be in order to serve some extraneous purposes.
  The approach is immanent, empirical and analytic.
Particular Aristotle is still interested in the general questions about the nature and function of art. But he also wants to take into account the differences among the different species of art. This is the reason why he discusses different kinds of art and their different components.
Assumption He accepts the fundamental assumption of Plato that art is imitation (mimesis). He explicitly states that all the forms of poetry are "modes of imitation". But he understands imitation rather as a creation of a new reality than a sheer copying of the actual reality. Hence art should not be evaluated as to its accuracy in rendering real models but as to the quality of artistic execution. Real models could be repugnant, but their artistic rendering may still be enjoyable (for instance, imitation of ugly bodies, corpses, disgusting animals, etc.)
   
  I SYSTEMATIC CLASSIFICATION
   
3 Regards In order to be able to properly assess the quality of artistic products we need to bear in mind three main differences among their genres:
Differences of their means (of representation),
Differences of their objects of representation (events, agents),
Differences in the manner of their imitation.
Means Typical means of representation in poetry are rhythm, words (language) and melody (harmony). They are not used in all kinds of poetry and they are not used in the same manner. First of all they could be used either singly or in certain combinations.
Note: It is no accident that rhythm is mentioned first, even before words that Plato proclaimed to be the most important part.
 
  Epic Tragedy Comedy Lyric
Prose
Means of Representation
words
rhythm
words
melody
rhythm
words
melody
rhythm
words
melody
rhythm
words
Objects Poetry is about actions and actions necessarily involve human actors (agents). Human agents are either good or bad (depending on their virtues and vices). The major division of men goes along moral lines. If we take average people as a reference point the agents could be better than us, worse than us or just like us.
 
  Epic Tragedy Comedy Lyric
Prose
Objects of Representation
better than us better than us worse than us like us
all
   
 
  Better Equal Worse
Painting Polygnotus Dionysius Polygnot
Literature Homer Cleophon Hegemon
   
Manner Given the narrative character of poetical representations, the manner of imitation could be simply narrative, dramatic or an alternation of both.
(Aristotle does not equate impersonation with imitation the way Plato did although he basically adopts his threefold division of narration.)
 
Plato Simple Imitation Union
Aristotle Narrative Dramatization Alternation
   
 
  Epic Tragedy Comedy Lyric
Prose
Manner of Representation
combination dramatization dramatization narration
combination
   
  If we apply all 3 regards on poetical forms we obtain the following comparative table:
 
FORMS OF POETICAL IMITATION
  Epic Tragedy Comedy Lyric
Prose
Means of Representation
words
rhythm
words
melody
rhythm
words
melody
rhythm
words
melody
rhythm
words
Objects of Representation
better than us better than us worse than us like us
all
Manner of Representation
combination dramatization dramatization narration
combination
  Tragedy (Sophocles) and comedy (Aristophanes) share the same manner of representation, but differ in their objects. In the latter regard tragedy (Sophocles) comes close to epic (Homer).
Prose Lyric poetry includes Dithyrambic and Nomic (ordinary) poems. Verses are less defining for poetry than its kind of imitation.
"Prose" is our term for the "unnamed" kind of literature that includes mimes (playlets), dialogues and scientific treatises (we can add novels, short stories, biographies). The name is inadequate, however, because these forms could be in verses and yet that would not change their character. Empedocles' poem On Nature is written in hexameters and yet it is not a poem but a work in physics. To our day this genre lacks a "common name" that would capture its defining characteristic in a single word.
  Based on a few remarks about the musical forms (singing, instrumental playing and dance) we can expand the above classification in the following manner:
 
FORMS OF MUSICAL IMITATION
 
  Playing Instruments Singing Dance
Means of Representation
melody
rhythm
words
melody

rhythm
Objects of Representation
all all all
Manner of Representation
producing sound using voice movement
   
  If we, based on Aristotle's scanty remarks, venture a step furher into the realm of visual imitation then the three regards will probably lead to the following result (Aristotle himself mentions colors and shapes as means of pictorial and sculptural representation):
 
FORMS OF VISUAL IMITATION
 
  Painting Sculpture Architecture
Means of Representation
colors shape proportion
Objects of Representation
all better N/A
Manner of Representation
lines
shading
volume
mass
structure


  II THE NOTION OF IMITATION
   
Origin The general origin of poetry is natural human inclination toward imitation. Imitation is natural and naturally enjoyable. Far from being demeaning and stultifying, as Plato contended, imitation is a very powerful source of knowledge and entertainment.
1. We learn (at first) by imitation.
2. We find delight in imitation.
3. To be learning is itself a pleasure = gathering information + enjoying the execution.
The pleasure of imitation is not identical with the realistic representation of objects; we can enjoy imitation even of disgusting objects or those that we have not seen before precisely because the pleasure stems from the quality of execution.
   
  III HISTORICAL RECONSTRUCTION
   
Improvisation The original imitations were very simple, reduced to the bare sense of harmony and rhythm. Through a series of additions, improvements and further improvisations more complex forms of poetry have gradually emerged.
Drama Tragedy and Comedy present their personages as "acting and doing". They act the story. According to Aristotle, this is the original meaning of the word "drama", supposedly derived from the Doric verb dran = "to act". This etymology points to the Spartan origin of both genres. Another etymology suggests Dorian origin for comedy as well. Comae in Doric denotes outlying hamlets willing to host the original, very low-brow performances (slap-stick, vulgar, obscene).
Development
POETICAL IMPROVISATIONS
  evolved along the following (parallel) lines:
 
Noble (high brow) Ignoble (low brow)
I
I
Hymns, Panegyric Invectives ("iambs")
I
I
Dithyrambs Phalic Songs
I
I
Epics Bourlesques
I
I
Satyric Play Parody/Mime
I
I
Tragedy Comedy
I
I
Imitation of the serious Imitation of the ridiculous
  Iambs initially denoted a genre (invectives) as well as a metre.
Homer's Contribution Homer paved the way to tragedy by his serious tone and the quality of his "dramatic imitations".
Aeschylus' Contribution Aeschylus is credited with the decisive change that occurred when he reduced the role of the chorus, giving the leading part to dialogue to which purpose he added the second actor.
Note: Aeschylus wrote The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, the trilogy Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides).
Further Advancements Third actor was added by Sophocles.
The introduction of the iambic metre (replacing the trochaic metre).
The tone of dignity.
A plurality of episodes (or acts).
Note: Sophocles wrote Antigone, Electra, Oedipus at Colon.
Development of Comedy Homer is deserved not only for the formation of tragedy but also for the development of comedy by creating his comic epic Margites
Ridiculous Comedy is the imitation of the ridiculous. The ridiculous is a harmless species of the ugly.
"The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others."
This explains the shape of comic masks which show distorted and exaggerated facial traits designed to cause laughter. They also typified certain characters. 
Changes The successive stages in the development of comedy are less known than those of tragedy. We do not know who has introduced masks, prologues and the plurality of actors. Aristotle speculates that the reason for this was that comedy started as a very low kind of entertainment, vulgar and unsophisticated. Only later it was admitted to official festivities and sponsored by the state.
The decisive moment was the abandonment of personal attacks and turn to the stories of general import. This required an elaborate plot or fable. Epicharmus in Sicily and Crates in Athens are credited with this development.
  While epic and tragedy imitate the same type of objects (heroes, people better than us), they differ in terms of the means used, the length of the action and the number of constituents
Comparison
  Epic Tragedy Comedy
Objects Heroes Heroes Simpletons
Means Narration Dramatization Dramatization
Metre Hexameter Iamb Iamb
Scope Unlimited 24 hours 24 hours
Components 4 6 6
   
  IV COMPONENTS
   
Definition of Tragedy After comparing epic with tragedy Aristotle gives his famous definition of tragedy:
"A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions."
  This complex definition comprises the following 7 elements:
Imitation Genus
Serious action Object
Complete with magnitude Quality
Language with accessories Medium (rhythm, melody)
Separated parts Sequence of dialogue and singing
Dramatic form Acting
Purification Emotional impact
Catharsis
Art has impact on our soul, but it does not induce negative feelings and weakens the characters. Rather it purifies (or purges?) negative affections.
The question of the true meaning of catharsis has generated thousands of studies.
Does it denote the purification of tragic acts in the play (moral meaning) or the purgation of negative emotions (harmless discharge of audience) by means of homeopathic effect (medical meaning)? A parallel passage in the Politics (1342a 5-23) suggests the latter.
  Usefulness is not an appropriate standard of evaluation for art. Freedom from practical purposes is an important component of liberal education. Art finds its place within this framework.
   

Constituents of Drama Tragedy is an imitation of actions. Actions require actors (agents) who go through different situations. In representing events tragedy displays the following aspects:
 
PLOT / FABLE Story = Combination of incidents
CHARACTERS Purpose = Moral qualities of agents
THOUGHTS Speeches = Statements making points
DICTION Words = Expression of thoughts
MELODY Accessories = Rhythm, song, harmony
SPECTACLE Stage Appearance = Scenery, costumes
  These are qualitative parts of tragedy (to be distinguished from its merely quantitative parts, sections of text or performance).
Distribution by Parameters
Object of Representation Means of Representation Manner of Representation
PLOT DICTION SPECTACLE
CHARACTERS MELODY  
THOUGHTS
   
  Spectacle is the stage appearance. It is attractive but the least artistic. Good point: it is possible to have a good drama that is not staged. Melody is the greatest of pleasurable accessories. It includes rythmic language. Diction includes the composition in verses. Thought is what is being asserted or proved. It is shown in every statement. Not every statement reveals character - indifferent subjects are neutral and characters must have "non-functional" utterances.
   
  V CONSTRUCTION OF THE PLOT
   
Plot Plot reflects life, that is to say, happiness or misery. Happiness and misery manifest themselves in actions.
The most powerful elements of attraction in a plot are peripeties and discoveries.

Plot is the most important component of tragedy. It is the "life and soul" of tragedy and therefore its end.
Characters It is possible to have a good tragedy without one of the six aspects except without a plot. For instance, it is possible to create a characterless tragedy that would be still a good tragedy. Action is not included in tragedy to portray characters but the other way round: characters are present for the sake of action.
 
  Tragedy Painting
Strong Characters Old Plays Zeuxis
Weak Characters Contemporary plays Polignotus
  Stringing great speeches and filling them with profound thoughts will not produce any great dramatic effect in itself without a plot.
 
  Play   Painting
Good Organized Plot Characters in Action Portrait in Black-and-white sketch
Bad Disorganized Incidents Series of Speeches Disorder of colors
Completeness = Order The plot must be properly constructed. The imitated action must be complete, i.e. it must be a whole that possesses a beginning, a middle and an end. A whole is that which has beginning, middle and end. "A beginning is that which which is not necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and without nothing else after it."
Aristotle seemingly speaks very tautologically: the plot must start from the beginning and finish with an end as its conclusion but in fact he asserts the natural connection of episodes that should logically unfold. A surprise turn of events is a great asset but in hindsight it should appear as normal and justified. Episodic sequence is the one that lacks probability and necessity.
Magnitude = Size Dramatic imitation must encompass an action that has a magnitude = a size and duration. Magnitude requires certain length. Despite his previous suggestion that action should happen during one cycle of the sun Aristotle refuses to give a specific number for the duration of a play. It should be determined by the action itself. As a general formula, Aristotle recommends "a length which allows of the hero passing by a series of probable or necessary stages from misfortune to happiness or the other way round". The size must be taken in by human eye, mind or memory.
Beauty is a matter of both size and order. Therefore a good play must possess both a complete story and it has to be of a certain size.
Beauty = Good Plot
Complete Action Action with Magnitude
Order Size
Unity The unity of a plot is absolutely crucial. It consists in a complete single action. It does not consist in the singleness of the main character that goes through different episodes and actions. Many different things can befall one hero from childhood to adulthood but they do not make a unified plot just because he is one single subject. Such a play will rather produce an episodic plot = a series of events not logically connected. In a good plot incidents must be closely connected so that we cannot drop or add anything. Even those things that happen by chance but possess certain signification as if naturally connected are better suited for the plot than those that happen by themselves and naturally but are not internally linked to the main action. If we can omit something without affecting the whole then better drop it from the play.
Unity and wholeness are the necessary conditions of beauty.
Episodic Plot The worst plot of all is the episodic one - representing a sheer sequence of events without any necessity or even probability.
More Philosophic  
 
Poetry is about the things that might happen although they may have never really happen. It is rather about the universal, probable and necessary than actual, real but not likely. In contrast history reports about particular events that may be unique and although really happened may never relate convincingly to any other life situation. Therefore poetry is more philosophic than history. But it stands behind philosophy.
 
  HISTORY POETRY
Objects Singular Things Universal Things
Events Have happened Might happen
Modality Actuality Possibility
Names Real Characters Invented Characters
  Invented names point to the universal character of poetry. Once comedy dropped personal attacks it acquired its general significance. In tragedy historic names contribute to the persuasiveness - they not only attest that the story might happen but show clearly indicate that it actually had happened. That what has happened is possible beyond any doubt.




Friend Homer, you are deserved for the development of comedy no less than for tragedy. For you gave "a dramatic picture of the ridiculous" in your bourlesque Margites. But remember, the ridiculous is "the species of the ugly"!

 

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