Aristotle’s Poetics in the Classroom

In this blog, I have written a lot about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I have not written about his literary criticism, which he develops in the work called the Poetics. The Poetics has had a great deal of influence on literary thought and practice for many centuries, especially on drama. Though Aristotle was mainly concerned with the dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, his principles can be usefully applied to other art forms, including novels, short stories, and movies, and perhaps even poetry. The principles are simple, easily understood, and useful for students.

Perhaps the genre in our own time that is closest to Greek tragedy is the dramatic movie, perhaps even a horror movie.  Analyzing a movie is probably the best vehicle for introducing students to Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle, like most ancient Greeks, thinks that art is about imitation of life. The Greek word is “mimesis,” which we find in “mime and” “mimic.” He thinks that humans are natural imitators and that we enjoy representations, even of things we would not like to see in real life, such as dead bodies or fearsome beasts. This literary theory is pretty easy for students to apply. Is the work realistic? Is it lifelike? Does that mean it is good? They can also easily disagree with it because they often enjoy fantasy and other things that are abstract or unrealistic. Disagreeing with Aristotle is fun, and it gets them thinking. They can have a dialogue with Aristotle.

Aristotle argues that tragedy has six components. I have created a simplified chart, with questions for students:

AristotlePoeticsChart-Simple-1a

A more detailed version of this chart with more extensive questions is available here.

Plot

Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and that while there could be a tragedy without character, there could not be without plot. Simply relating the events of a tragic plot should create pity and fear in the hearer. Students appear to agree with Aristotle on this in that when they write about a novel or a short story, they tend to summarize the plot. However, such summaries rarely analyze the plot in terms of Aristotelian plot elements such as reversal, recognition, and what he calls the “scene of suffering,” the climatic scene in which the different strands of the plot come together for the greatest emotional effect.  The plot itself creates emotions, for Aristotle pity and fear, in the audience.   The questions in the chart linked above help students analyze the plot from such a perspective.

Character

Aristotle’s views on good character are probably more at odds with the students’ views than on any other aspect of literature.  He believes that the protagonist should

  • Have good moral values
  • Be above average in nobility and birth
  • Behave appropriately according to his station in life
  • Be realistic and life-like
  • Be consistent in behavior
  • Have a flaw or other characteristic that causes him to experience a dramatic change in fortune

Today we are used to viewpoint characters and heroes who are quite unlike Aristotle’s ideal.  The disjunction between Aristotle’s views and the students’ should provide lots of interesting discussion.

Thought

When Aristotle discusses “thought” in tragedy, he refers to his work on Rhetoric.  He says, “Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite” (XIX)  Clearly arguments are part of thought, but also emotional and ethical appeals, the full range of ethos, logos, and pathos.  Themes, philosophical questions, and exploration of moral and ethical choices are also included here.

Diction

Under “diction” Aristotle discusses formal and informal language, the use of strange and unusual words, and other aspects of style.  His concern appears to be mostly about the effects of word choice on the audience.  Some of the factors that we might assign to style, such as the creation of emotional effects, Aristotle sees as belonging to Thought.

Song and Spectacle

Song and Spectacle are considered to be the least important factors in Aristotle’s scheme.  For students, they may be the most important factors.  Some movies rely on exciting music and spectacular visuals, often created by computers, to become big hits, while neglecting plot, character, and thought.  Can the musical score and cinematic effects successfully make up for a lack in other categories?  This is an interesting question for students to discuss.

Conclusions

Aristotle has two big disadvantages in relating to current students: 1) he is analyzing an ancient dramatic form that is no longer produced, and 2) his analysis reflects the cultural values and customs of Athenian Greeks in the fourth century B.C.  However, looking at current cultural productions, such as movies and novels, from an Aristotelian point of view, produces what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” that allows the student to have insights into Aristotle, current artistic work, and their own perceptions and values.  It is a worthwhile discussion.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

 

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