“Poetics” by Aristotle

Poetry Is Imitation

First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, …he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. …Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ … Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.

Constituent Parts of Tragedy

Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality — namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two of the parts [Diction and Song] constitute the medium of imitation, one [Spectacle] the manner, and three [Plot, Character and Thought] the objects of imitation.

Organic Unity of Plot

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. … the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

Magnitude and Order

A beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. … As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory.

Poetry vs History

It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. … Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.

Cause, Effect and Surprise

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.

Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. … Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus. … Two parts, then, of the Plot — Reversal of the Situation and Recognition — turn upon surprises. A third part is the Scene of Suffering.

The Aim of Tragedy is to Arouse Fear and Pity

Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. … a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. … Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.

These are the only possible ways. For the deed must either be done or not done — and that wittingly or unwittingly. But of all these ways, to be about to act knowing the persons, and then not to act, is the worst. It is shocking without being tragic, for no disaster follows It is, therefore, never, or very rarely, found in poetry. One instance, however, is in the Antigone, where Haemon threatens to kill Creon. The next and better way is that the deed should be perpetrated. Still better, that it should be perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made afterwards. There is then nothing to shock us, while the discovery produces a startling effect.

Infectious Emotion

Those who feel emotion are most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they represent; and one who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages, with the most lifelike reality. Hence poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case a man can take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self.

Metaphors

“Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion, which is when the second term is to the first as the fourth to the third. … Sometimes too we qualify the metaphor by adding the term to which the proper word is relative. …as old age is to life, so is evening to day. Evening may therefore be called, ‘the old age of the day,’ and old age, ‘the evening of life,’ or, in the phrase of Empedocles, ‘life’s setting sun.’ …the action of the sun in scattering his rays is nameless. Still this process bears to the sun the same relation as sowing to the seed. Hence the expression of the poet ‘sowing the god-created light.’

The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.

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6 thoughts on ““Poetics” by Aristotle

  1. It is funny that you made a remark on the Lucretious thread about Plato’s rage against the poets because I have been thinking about that as I have read Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle doesn’t think Homer is too shabby. Is this because he is dealing with poetics only, and not worried about virtue, as Plato was?

    1. I would not say “rage”, because rage is very un-Platonic. In the dialogues, Socrates never once loses his composure, but always argues with reason and tact. He is never vicious or contemptuous towards his opponents, which is one of the things I admire about him.

      Plato disagrees with Homer’s depiction of the gods as lustful and vengeful, but otherwise respects his poetry. The gods of the poets are full of vices, just like human beings, but only more powerful, whereas Plato believes the gods are perfectly virtuous. If the gods are virtuous, then the poets are telling a lie, and thereby deceive and corrupt their audience.

      As far as I can recall, Aristotle deals mainly with the form of poetry, not so much the content. In other words, Aristotle is concerned with how to convey something effectively, not what is conveyed, but both are important to Plato.

      1. I was indulging in a little hyperbole. Sorry about that. You are absolutely correct about Plato. 🙂

        Thanks for confirming and expanding my thoughts on this.

  2. Another question that is a little related to the above question: Aristotle says several times that Homer makes men “better than the are” (chapter two). He says even with their faults they are ennobled. It has been a while since I have read Homer, but I kind of thought that Homer portrayed men as they are, rather than better than they are?? I mean, Achilles has faults enough, but just because he finally joins the warriors, does that mean he is portrayed as better? Or is it just that the good are portrayed simply along with the faults?

    1. If you compare how Homer and Euripides depict the Greeks, you would see the difference. For example, Odysseus is wise and brave in Homer, but a cowardly scoundrel in Euripides.

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