But it is enormously readable. Aristotle sets out his ideas of how to write a great poem, concentrating particularly on tragedy. It is supposed that his work on comedy has been lost.
Key concept within this work are those of:
- mimesis: which many translate as representation but Heath translates as imitation
- catharsis: Heath spends some time discussing the concept of catharsis (xxxviii - xl) “Aristotle does not think that emotions are bad things in themselves” but it is their appropriateness that may make them bad. “If I am paralyzed with fear at the sight of a mouse, my fear is inappropriate and excessive; that is a sign of cowardice. But if I sit nonchalantly in the path of an oncoming steam-roller, then my lack of fear is equally inappropriate and excessive; that is a sign of recklessness.” This implies that catharsis is not getting rid of emotion but ensuring the correct amount of emotion. “Why should this be pleasurable? ... When you are thirsty, satisfying your thirst is pleasurable; when someone has trodden on your toe, it is nice to feel the throbbing die away.” In the BBC Radio 4 'In Our Time' programme about the Poetics Angie Hobbs makes the point that catharsis can’t involve “the complete purgation of pity and fear” because “in the Ethics pity and fear are important human emotions, they perform crucial functions, we need them for survival and for social harmony with our neighbours.” so that “The crucial thing is to feel them in the right way, at the right time, to the right extent, in relation to the right objects.”
- hamartia. “The Greek word hamartia covers making a mistake or getting something wrong in the most general sense.” but it clearly does not mean for Aristotle a moral flaw.
Fundamentally, Aristotle believes that poetry is an attempt to imitate or represent something about the world using language and rhythm. He recognises that a perfect imitation may not be ideal: he points out that “Good portrait-painters ... paint people as they are, but make them better looking" and Heath suggests that this is one way to bridge the gap between the tragedy being about particular people and the writer trying to say something universal. But this definition of poetry as an attempt to imitate means that tragedy is better than epic because tragedy uses drama rather than narration (although Aristotle acknowledges that part of Homer's greatness was that he used drama within epic) and as Heath suggests (xvii) "the likeness is greater if the words of those involved in the action are presented directly rather than being mediated by a narrator.”
Aristotle gives a brief history of tragedy:
- “The number of actors was increased from one to two by Aeschylus, who also reduced the choral parts and made the spoken word play the leading role; the third actor and scenepainting were introduced by Sophocles.” (3.3)
- “They used tetrameter at first because the composition was satyric in manner and more akin to dance. But when speech was introduced nature itself found the appropriate form of verse, iambic being the verse-form closest to speech.” (3.3)
“There could not be a tragedy without action, but there could be one without character.”
Aristotle offers guidelines as to what a good plot looks like:
- It has a bounded time: "so far as possible to keep within a single day, or not to exceed it by much.” (3.5)
- It aims to effect "through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.” (4.1)
- “The most important devices by which tragedy sways emotion are parts of the plot, ie reversals and recognitions.”
- It is complete and has “a beginning, a middle and an end.” (5.1) thus there is closure
- The events in the plot should be causally connected. This is important in giving poetry its claim on universality:“Poetry is concerned with particular sequences of events; but the connection between those events means that they instantiate universal structures.” (xxvii). Aristotle “believes that there is an intimate connection between the cohesion of the plot and the emotional impact at which tragedy aims.” (xlix) Crucially, the connections should be 'necessary or probably': “Poets construct the plot on the basis of probabilities ... the reason for this is that what is possible is plausible.” (5.5)
- There should be a reversal in which there is a change of fortune that causes astonishment; nevertheless it too should have a probable causal connection. "Even chance events are found most astonishing when they appear to have happened as if for a purpose.” (6.1)
- The change of fortune must evoke fear and pity. This means that the ideal subject of the tragedy is "the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind.”(7.2) This is because “Decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune - this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune ... Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune.” (7.2)
- “Resolutions of plots should also come about from the plot itself, and not by means of a theatrical device.” (8.1)
- In the BBC Radio 4 'In Our Time' programme about the Poetics, Stephen Halliwell states that “Aristotle doesn’t like reversal and recognition just for their shock value” but because “they show the limits of human agency”
This book contains some great insights, either from Aristotle (Chapter numbers in Arabic numerals) or from Heath (page numbers in Roman numerals)
- “In general, an ability to do something well does not depend on, nor does understanding necessarily imply an ability to do it well.” (x)
- “Good portrait-painters ... paint people as they are, but make them better looking"
- “An imitation need not be a straightforward copy ... nor need an imitation be a likeness of an object which actually exists ... indeed, the events in a poem do not even have to conform to the basic structure of reality.”
- "Understanding is extremely pleasant, not just for philosophers but for others too in the same way, despite their limited capacity for it.” (3.1)
- "As Aristotle observes, in an athletic competition the prize is not awarded to the athlete in the best condition, but to the one who actually comes first.”
- “Spectacle is attractive, but it is very inartistic and is least germane to the art of poetry. For the effect of tragedy is not dependent on performance and actors; also, the art of the property-manager has more relevance to the production of visual effects than does that of the poets.” (4.4)
- “One of the most fundamental principles of ancient Greek ethics ... was ‘help your friends, harm your enemies’.” (xxxiii)
- “The essence of a riddle is that it states facts by means of a combination of impossibilities; this ... is possible using metaphor.” (9.4)
- “The end of imitation is attained in shorter length; what is more concentrated is more pleasant than what is watered down by being extended in time.” (12.2)
In the BBC Radio 4 'In Our Time' programme about the Poetics they also make the point that Aristotle only mentions the first of the three unities of plot, of time and of space and that the other two comes from an influential commentary on the Poetics by Ludovico Castelvetro published in Italian in the 1500s.