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Literary Criticism of Aristotle 

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

  • Disciple of Plato
  • Teacher of Alexander the Great.
  • Major Works: Poetics, Rhetoric
  • Poetics, incomplete, 26 chapters
  • Mainly concerned with tragedy, which was in his day, the most development form of poetry.
  • Disagreeing with much else that Plato said, Aristotle agreed that art was essentially Mimesis
  • But, he maintained, (good) art was neither useless nor dangerous, but rather natural and beneficial.

Crucial to Aristotle’s defense of art is his 

  • Rejection of Plato’s Dualism

Man is not an “embodied” intellect, longing for the spiritual release of death, but rather an animal with, among all the other faculties, the ability to use reason and to create

  • Rejection of Plato’s Rationalism
    We must study humans as we would study other animals to discover what their “nature” is. Look among the species; see who are the thriving and successful and in what activities do they engage? For Aristotle, this is how to determine what is and is not appropriate for a human and human societies
  • Rejection that Mimesis= Mirroring Nature

Aristotle: Art is not useless

  • It is Natural:
  1. It is natural for human beings to imitate
  2. Any human society which is healthy will be a society where there is imitative art
  3. Nothing is more natural that for children to pretend
  • Art production and training is a necessary part of any education since it uses and encourages the imaginative manipulation of ideas
  1. Nothing is more natural than for human beings to create using their imagination
  2. Since art is imitation, it is an imaginative use of concepts; at its heart art is “conceptual,” “intellectual”

maxresdefault (1)Aristotle: good art is not dangerous

A) Art is not deceptive:

  • Artists must accurately portray psychological reality in order for characters to be believable and their actions understandable
  • It teaches effectively and it teaches the truth
  • Convincing and powerful drama is convincing and powerful because it reveals some truth of human nature
  • Introduces the concept of “Organic Unity” – the idea that in any good work of art each of the parts must contribute to the overall success of the whole
  • Just as in biological organisms each part contributes to the overall health and wellbeing of the creature, so too in good works of art reflects or imitates reality
  • Unified action, “with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole”

B) Sensuous art is not a bad thing:

  • Aristotle did not believe that the mind was one thing and body was something else and therefore Aristotle did not have the bias against physical pleasure that Plato had
  • The only way of acquiring knowledge at all, according to Aristotle, was through the senses and so developing, exercising and sharpening those senses through art was a healthy thing to do
  • Art was not solely concerned with the sensual pleasures, but rather was/should be an intellectual, conceptual affair.

C) (Good) Art is tied to Morality and Truth

  • (Successful Tragic) Drama always teaches morality. When trying to understand how tragedies achieve their peculiar effect (Pathos), he notes the psychology and morality on which they must be based
  • NB: Aristotle believe that drama imitated not only “evens” but actions. As such they imitated intended behaviours, psychological forces and the unseen “inner life” of persons
  • He unwittingly set up two functions for a work of art to fulfil; to imitate nature’s perceptual detail and to imitate nature’s “organic unity.”

Aristotle agreed that art did stir up negative emotions but, he claims it then purged these in harmless, healthy way. This led to the principle of Catharsis

Doctrine of Catharsis

  • Art is neither psychologically destabilizing nor politically destructive
  • Art is a therapeutic part of the healthy life of not only the individual, but of the nation

Aristotle: Mimesis is not equal to imitation

Mimesis is more like

  • Rendering
  • Depicting
  • Construing
  • Idealizing
  • Representing

Aristotle’s Critical Responses

  • Poetry is more Philosophical than History
  • “Poetry is sometimes more philosophic and of graver importance than history (He means a mere chronicle of events here), since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars”
  • Poetry describes “not the thing that has happened” as Aristotle imagines history does “but a kind of thing that might happen, (i.e, what is possible) as being probable or necessary”
  • Thus history mere “mirrors,” but not art. Art is necessarily conceptual /cognitive.

Aristotle-Park-1000x500-c-centerAristotle on Tragedy

In the Poetics, Aristotle compares tragedy to such other metrical forms as comedy and epic. He determines that tragedy, like all poetry, is a kind of imitation (mimesis), but adds that it has a serious purpose and uses direct action rather than narrative to achieve its ends. He says that poetic mimesis is imitation of things as they could be, not as they are — for example, of universals and ideals — thus poetry is a more philosophical and exalted medium than history, which merely records what has actually happened.

The aim of tragedy, Aristotle writes, is to bring about a “catharsis” of the spectators — to arouse in them sensations of pity and fear, and to purge them of these emotions so that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted, with a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men. This catharsis is brought about by witnessing some disastrous and moving change in the fortunes of the drama’s protagonist (Aristotle recognized that the change might not be disastrous, but felt this was the kind shown in the best tragedies — Oedipus at Colonus, for example, was considered a tragedy by the Greeks but does not have an unhappy ending).

According to Aristotle, tragedy has six main elements: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle (scenic effect), and song (music), of which the first two are primary. Most of the Poetics is devoted to analysis of the scope and proper use of these elements, with illustrative examples selected from many tragic dramas, especially those of Sophocles, although Aeschylus, Euripides, and some playwrights whose works no longer survive are also cited.

Several of Aristotle’s main points are of great value for an understanding of Greek tragic drama. Particularly significant is his statement that the plot is the most important element of tragedy:

Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery. And life consists of action, and its end is a mode of activity, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is their action that makes them happy or wretched. The purpose of action in the tragedy, therefore, is not the representation of character: character comes in as contributing to the action. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of the tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be one without character. . . . The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: character holds the second place.

Aristotle goes on to discuss the structure of the ideal tragic plot and spends several chapters on its requirements. He says that the plot must be a complete whole — with a definite beginning, middle, and end — and its length should be such that the spectators can comprehend without difficulty both its separate parts and its overall unity. Moreover, the plot requires a single central theme in which all the elements are logically related to demonstrate the change in the protagonist’s fortunes, with emphasis on the dramatic causation and probability of the events.

Aristotle has relatively less to say about the tragic hero because the incidents of tragedy are often beyond the hero’s control or not closely related to his personality. The plot is intended to illustrate matters of cosmic rather than individual significance, and the protagonist is viewed primarily as the character who experiences the changes that take place. This stress placed by the Greek tragedians on the development of plot and action at the expense of character, and their general lack of interest in exploring psychological motivation, is one of the major differences between ancient and modern drama.

Since the aim of a tragedy is to arouse pity and fear through an alteration in the status of the central character, he must be a figure with whom the audience can identify and whose fate can trigger these emotions. Aristotle says that “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.”

In addition, the hero should not offend the moral sensibilities of the spectators, and as a character he must be true to type, true to life, and consistent.

The hero’s error or frailty (harmartia) is often misleadingly explained as his “tragic flaw,” in the sense of that personal quality which inevitably causes his downfall or subjects him to retribution. However, overemphasis on a search for the decisive flaw in the protagonist as the key factor for understanding the tragedy can lead to superficial or false interpretations. It gives more attention to personality than the dramatists intended and ignores the broader philosophical implications of the typical plot’s denouement. It is true that the hero frequently takes a step that initiates the events of the tragedy and, owing to his own ignorance or poor judgment, acts in such a way as to bring about his own downfall. In a more sophisticated philosophical sense though, the hero’s fate, despite its immediate cause in his finite act, comes about because of the nature of the cosmic moral order and the role played by chance or destiny in human affairs. Unless the conclusions of most tragedies are interpreted on this level, the reader is forced to credit the Greeks with the most primitive of moral systems.

It is worth noting that some scholars believe the “flaw” was intended by Aristotle as a necessary corollary of his requirement that the hero should not be a completely admirable man. Harmartia would thus be the factor that delimits the protagonist’s imperfection and keeps him on a human plane, making it possible for the audience to sympathize with him. This view tends to give the “flaw” an ethical definition but relates it only to the spectators’ reactions to the hero and does not increase its importance for interpreting the tragedies.

The remainder of the Poetics is given over to examination of the other elements of tragedy and to discussion of various techniques, devices, and stylistic principles. Aristotle mentions two features of the plot, both of which are related to the concept of harmartia, as crucial components of any well-made tragedy. These are “reversal” (peripeteia), where the opposite of what was planned or hoped for by the protagonist takes place, as when Oedipus’ investigation of the murder of Laius leads to a catastrophic and unexpected conclusion; and “recognition” (anagnorisis), the point when the protagonist recognizes the truth of a situation, discovers another character’s identity, or comes to a realization about himself. This sudden acquisition of knowledge or insight by the hero arouses the desired intense emotional reaction in the spectators, as when Oedipus finds out his true parentage and realizes what crimes he has been responsible for.

Aristotle wrote the Poetics nearly a century after the greatest Greek tragedians had already died, in a period when there had been radical transformations in nearly all aspects of Athenian society and culture. The tragic drama of his day was not the same as that of the fifth century, and to a certain extent his work must be construed as a historical study of a genre that no longer existed rather than as a description of a living art form.

In the Poetics, Aristotle used the same analytical methods that he had successfully applied in studies of politics, ethics, and the natural sciences in order to determine tragedy’s fundamental principles of composition and content. This approach is not completely suited to a literary study and is sometimes too artificial or formula-prone in its conclusions.

Nonetheless, the Poetics is the only critical study of Greek drama to have been made by a near-contemporary. It contains much valuable information about the origins, methods, and purposes of tragedy, and to a degree shows us how the Greeks themselves reacted to their theater. In addition, Aristotle’s work had an overwhelming influence on the development of drama long after it was compiled. The ideas and principles of the Poetics are reflected in the drama of the Roman Empire and dominated the composition of tragedy in western Europe during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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4 replies

  1. Useful brief notes, thanks,, go ahead

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