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Aristotle s aesthetics 382 322 bc

Aristotle’s Aesthetics (382-322 BC):

Welcome to Aristotle!

Western thought’s

first structural

& textual critic of

the Fine Arts!

Aristotle’s Aesthetics (382-322 BC):“All men by nature to desire to know….the human race lives also by art and reasonings” Metaphysics 1:1.

Aristotle produced the first

extended study of an art form.

The Poetics is the primary

resource for Aristotle’s view

of art.

Poetics is a reply to Plato’s

condemnation of Poetry.



In terms of literary analysis, in the

Poetics, Aristotle moves back &

Forth between criticism and theory.

He wrote Poetics in our after 334.

We only have Book I; Book II on

comedy is lost.


  • The Poetics can be somewhat perplexing. Therefore, it is helpful to keeping in mind the following guiding questions:

    • What is poetry?

    • What kind of poetry is tragedy?

    • What are tragedy’s essential elements?

Discourse outline of aristotle s poetics unifying theme is mimesis imitation is representation
Discourse Outline of Aristotle’s Poetics:Unifying theme is Mimesis: Imitation is representation

I. Introduction (Poetics 1-5):

A. General Notion of Artistic “imitation” (1)

B. Different Species of Artistic Imitation (2-3)

C. The Development of Poetry (4-5)

II. Tragedy (Poetics 6-22):

A. Definition and description (6)

B. Discussion of Plot (7-18)

C. Discussion on thought (19)

D. Discussion on diction (20-22)

III. Epic (Poetics 23-24):

A. Discussion of Merits of Tragedy & Epic (26).


  • If you recall, Plato wanted to ban poetry for the following reasons:

    • No knowledge undergirds poetry for poets are ignorant (Apology 22b-c; on 543a);

    • Poetry relies on inspiration (Ion 534b-e; Phaedrus, 245a) rather than reason;

    • Poetry propagates falsehoods (Republic 337-391);


  • Poetry arouses irrational passions that displaces reason; it is intoxicating with its seductive charms of rhythm, meter, and harmony (Book 10);

  • Poetry imitates “appearance” and not “reality”; it is a lower-level metaphysic (mimesis) (Book 10);

  • Poetry imitates the soul’s worst impulses from its better ones (Republic 605);

  • Poetry should be banned if it cannot be justified by reason (Republic 2-4; 10)

Pertinent statement 1449b24 28
Pertinent Statement: 1449b24-28

  • The fundamental aspects of Aristotle’s argument appears in his 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 incidences arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Here, by ‘language with pleasurable accessories’ I mean that with rhythm and harmony; and by ‘the kinds separately’ I mean that some portions are worked out with verse only, and others in turn with song.” Poetics, 1449b24-28.

Important Words to Consider from 1449b24-28:I am indebted to Nickolas Pappas’ article, “Aristotle” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 15-26 for this discussion.

  • We will now proceed to consider some of the more weighty words of that statement which will be used to present the thesis of this book:

    • Catharsis;

    • Mimesis;

    • Action;

    • Seriousness.

      Let’s proceed to consider all four words!

First word is catharsis
First Word is Catharsis:

  • This word occurs twice in what we have of the Poetics.

  • No definition is given of the word.

  • Closing place for stating a purpose or goal is at the end of a sentence; that is where “catharsis” is located in 1449b24-28:

    “…wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”


  • Three possible definitions with the first two being psychological and the last being literary:

    • Catharsis refers to the “purging the emotions”;

    • Catharsis refers to the “clarification or calibration of the emotions”;

    • Catharsis refers to the “incidents in the drama” (coherent and significant plot structures in the goal of tragedy).

Catharsis three interpretations
Catharsis: Three interpretations:

  • Word also occurs in Politics VIII where mentions the “catharsis” that music and poetry deliver.

  • Interpreters of Catharsis have extensively debated this word.

  • Before Aristotle’s use “catharsis” was used in a number of ways including the following:

    • Medical catharsis was a purgation (e.g, laxative or enema cleaning out the digestive system);

    • Clean up or clarification.

Catharsis release of emotion
Catharsis: “Release of emotion”:

Since 19th Century Aristotelian catharsis tended to receive a medical reading. Nickolas Pappas elaborates on this interpretation:

“Tragedy flushes out unruly and undesirable passions by letting them flow freely until we return to an unemotional state. The terror aroused by a well-made tragedy lets us release the thousand little terrors we normally swallow back down” (pg. 17).

Catharsis release of emotion1
Catharsis: “Release of emotion”:

A.E. Taylor states it this way:

“Aristotle has a theory which is directly aimed against this overstrained Puritanism [referring to Plato’s suppression of fine arts]. He holds that the very exciting and sensational art which would be very bad as a daily food may be very useful as an occasional medicine for the soul. He would retain even the most sensational forms of music on the account for what he calls their ‘purgative’ value. In the same spirit he asserts that the function of tragedy, with its sensational representations of the calamities of its heroes, is ‘by the vehicle of fear and pity to purge our minds of those and similar emotions.’ The explanation of the theory is to be sought in the literal sense of the medical term ‘purgative’” (Taylor, Aristotle, 109).

Catharsis release of emotion2
Catharsis: “release of emotion”:

This idea of “release of emotion” has been the traditional interpretation. Consider the following translation:

“Some persons fall into a religious frenzy, and we see them restored as a result of the sacred melodies-when they used the melodies that excite the soul to mystic frenzy-as though they had found healing [medical treatment] and purgation [katharsis]. Those who are influenced by pity or fear, and every emotional nature, must have a like experience, and others in so far as each is susceptible to such emotions, and all are in a manner purged and their souls lightened and delighted. The melodies which purge the passion likewise give an innocent pleasure to mankind.” Politics, Book VIII, 1342.6-15.

Catharsis 3 reasons against release of emotion
Catharsis: 3 Reasons Against “Release of emotion”:

First, we know from Aristotle’s ethics that he does not call for the “celebration” or the “suppression” of emotions; he argues for the “regular” and “well ordered expressions” (pg. 18). In the Nicomachean Ethics (Book II 1103b18)

Aristotle states:

Catharsis reasons against release of emotion
Catharsis: Reasons Against “Release of emotion”:

“This, then, is the case with the excellences also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or just, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be a certain kind; it is because the states correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”

Catharsis 3 reasons against release of emotion1
Catharsis: 3 reasons against “Release of Emotion”

Second, music and poetry “educates our emotions because songs contain images of anger, courage and other traits (Politics, Book VIII, 1340a-1921. Consider the following excerpt:

“Since then music is a pleasure, and excellence consists in rejoicing and loving and hating rightly, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change.” Politics, Book VIII, 1340a14-22.

Catharsis another interpretation
Catharsis: Another Interpretation:

Aristotle later states:

“Enough has been said to show that music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young. The study is suited to the stage of youth, for young persons will not, if they can help, endure anything which is not sweetened by pleasure, and music has a natural sweetness. There seems to be in us a sort of affinity to musical modes and rhythms, which makes some philosophers say that a soul is a harmony, others, that is possesses harmony.”

Politics, Book VIII, 1340b 11-19.

Catharsis is clarification of emotions
Catharsis is “clarification of emotions”:

And third, delight over the whole experience trains the soul to enjoy the sight of real-world virtue. Politics, Book VIII; 1340a22-27.

Therefore, on this view Pappas notes that catharsis is a clarification of emotion. This is the view held by L. Golden, R. Janko, and M.C. Nussbaum.

Pappas states:

Catharsis is clarification of emotions1
Catharsis is “clarification of emotions”:

“Training emotions has nothing to do with releasing them. Training presupposes that the emotions are here to stay, and need to be calibrated to fit the real-world situations that call them forth…By rousing powerful emotions with a simpler train of events than life provides, tragedy teaches how fear and pity feel and where they are appropriate. That understanding forms part of the groundwork for ethical behavior, since Aristotle connect ethical behavior to well-trained emotions. Thus the clarification view helps harmonize Aristotle’s aesthetic with his ethics” (pg. 18).

Catharsis is clarification of emotions2
Catharsis is “clarification of emotions”:

Nevertheless, this view has a glaring difficulty. While this view offers contextual support to Aristotle’s argument against Plato’s view of art, music, and poetry, in Politics Book VIII, 1342a7-15, Aristotle refers to catharsis as a relief, something that makes the soul “settle down” (pg. 18).

Catharsis is incidents in the drama
Catharsis is “incidents in the drama.”

According to Pappas, others still (e.g., Gerald Else) contend that catharsis does not mean “purging of emotions” or “clarification of emotions.” Rather, than being a psychological word, this word is a literary, narratological term since coherent and significant plot structure is the goal of tragedy (pg. 19).

This is a minority view.

It has the advantage of looking in the Poetics for an argument about what literature knows and how it says it.

Catharsis is incidents in the drama1
Catharsis is “incidents in the drama.”

According to Beardsley, “Professor Else, on the other hand, translates the passage as follows: ‘carrying to completion, through a course of events in involving pity and fear, the purification of those painful or fatal acts which have that quality.’ The purgation, in his reading, is a purification, and it is not something that takes place in the spectator at all, but something that takes place in the play. It is carried out by the plot itself, in virtue of the fact that the plot consists of events of a certain sort (Professor Else takes pathematon as tragic events, because pathos in later chapters means this)” (pg. 65).

Second word mimesis image making
Second Word: Mimesis = Image-Making.

1. Mimesis is natural to people from childhood (Poetics 1448b6) as opposed to Plato who saw image-making as a lower-level metaphysical perversion. Plato thought of mimesis two fold: as (a) impersonating and the (b) “mock up” or production of a likeness of something.

2. Mimesis is a natural propensity and pleasant because it is a way of learning (Poetics 1448b13; cf. 1448b8) as opposed to Plato who wants knowledge to come in the form of universal statements, the highest sort of learning.

Second word mimesis image making1
Second Word: Mimesis = Image-Making.

3. Humans love to learn (Metaphysics I.1) and mimesis brings determination and simplification to learning as opposed to Plato who finds it to be denigrating to a virtuous education. Aristotle saw mimesis can involve representation, it is not mimicry nor counterfeiting.

4. Aristotle argues that mimesis takes action as its object thus, tragedy communicates authentically philosophical knowledge as opposed to Plato who argued that mimesis is passive since it either involves putting on the mask (drama) and impersonating or the production of a likeness of something (poetry).

Second word mimesis image making of reality
Second Word: Mimesis = Image-Making of Reality.

5. Aristotle takes mimesis as imitating nature because of its orderly and purposeful forms fine arts take on; these are productive purposes which are rational, consciously perceive by the mind of its maker (Metaphysics 7.7) as opposed to Plato who thought it displaced or even corrupted reason by arousing the non-rational part of the soul.

6. Only the mimetic arts have as their specific purpose to produce representations or fictional depictions of the world or reality. This is contrary to Plato because he saw mimesis as being an imitation of appearance, not reality.

Second word mimesis image making of reality1
Second Word: Mimesis = Image-Making of Reality.

Regarding the relationship between reality and the artwork, it is important to observe the following quote from Poetics 9:

“Poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history, for it deals with universals, while history speaks of particulars.”

In other words, poetry is offering larger conceptions which structure human experience and understanding, bringing unity, wholeness, or completeness.

Third word action
Third Word: Action.

1. Thus, mimesis is active; mimesis communicates knowledge, it is not passive, inherently weak, corrupt, or based in ignorance.

2. Just as some consider photography as not being art because it is passive (Plato; Republic 596d), Aristotle considers mimesis to be an active process of selective presentation because of being a composer of plots, a drawer of lines, etc.

Third word action1
Third Word: Action.

3. Tragedy in poetry represents events and not passions just as painting is more a matter of line than of color (Poetics, 1450b2-3);

4. A good plot clearly represents an action; it restricts itself to a unified action, even if that involves differing characters and their development. In fact a tragedy imitates a complete action: a beginning, middle and an end (Poetics, 1450b26). The unity of ploy s derived from the fact that it is a single action.

Third word action2
Third Word: Action.

5. The unity consists in the right connections among the parts of a plot. Each even follows the other “either by necessity or probably” (Poetics 1451a13, 38; 1452a20).

6. Tragedy that represents action contains a general truth.

7. Composing, plot making, play writing, are constructions; this is something musicians, story tellers, poets, and story tellers do. Hence a plot is an object that gets constructed.

Third word action3
Third Word: Action.

Potential misreading of Plato:

A. Some have argued that Plato’s analogy of a mirror meant to capture not passive automatism, but superficiality.

B. Plato may think that the perversity is misusing their talents to produce so little that is virtuous.

C. Plato may have been concerned that characterization, not plot, was the problem of mimesis; to duplicate an appearance is the issue when you are strive for the universal form.

Third word action4
Third Word: Action.

- Even if this is the case, the Poetics assert that plot supremacy over character establishes a defense of the arts. The causal principle makes the story plausible and contains the tragedy’s general statement. Therefore, tragedy communicated knowledge.

Fourth word seriousness
Fourth Word: Seriousness:

  • The tragic character be good, serious, superior people (Poetics 1448a2; 1454a17). “These character’s dignity and standing ensure the importance of what they undertake and undergo” (pg. 22).

  • Aristotle did not want tragedy to present meaningless suffering; tragic effect is “disgusting”, Poetics 1452b36) where as appearance of purpose or order is “fine” (Poetics 1452a6-10) (pg. 22-23).

Fourth word seriousness1
Fourth Word: Seriousness:

  • Associates bad consequences to a character’s “hamartia” (Poetics 1453a10) which simply means a mistake, error of judgment, foolishness, or self-deception in classical Greek. (pg. 23). It is not used as a defect of character but an action; the misfortune of heroes depends on what they do.

  • Tragic plots have strong causal connects whereby it instructs the audience on morality; mimesis imparts knowledge (pg. 23).

  • Luck is also involved; things may not turn out the way one necessarily hopes; this is the plight of the tragic hero does.

  • Therefore, for Aristotle, there is “value in the seriousness of tragedy” (pg. 23).

Aristotle s view of beauty
Aristotle’s View of Beauty:

  • Aristotle uses “beauty” (kalos) 19 times in Poetics as compliment for tragic plots, language, and character.

  • Only once does Aristotle make “beauty” a defining “criterion for tragedies, when he says they must be neither too long to surpass what the memory can hold, not too short to count as serious (Poetics 1451a4-15)” (pg. 24).

  • Beauty is defined in terms of size or proportion (Metaphysics 1078a31-b5)

  • Beauty is a real property of things (Metaphysics 1072b32-35). Aristotle writes:

Aristotle s view of beauty1
Aristotle’s View of Beauty:

  • Beauty is defined in terms of size or proportion (Metaphysics 1078a31-b5). Consider Aristotle’s comment in Poetics 1450b35:

    “either a living creature of any structure made of parts, must have not only an orderly arrangement of these parts but a size which is not accidental-for beauty lies in size and arrangement…”

Aristotle s view of beauty2
Aristotle’s View of Beauty:

  • Beauty is a real property of things (Metaphysics 1072b32-35). Aristotle writes:

    “Those who suppose, as the Pythagoreans and Speusippus do, that supreme beauty and goodness are not present in the beginning, because the beginnings both of plants and of animals are causes, but beauty and completeness are in the effects of these, are wrong in their opinion. For the seed comes from other individuals which are prior and complete, and the first thing is not seed but the complete being, e.g., we must say that before the seed there is a man,-not the man produced from the seed, but another from whom the seed is produced.”

Aristotle s view of beauty3
Aristotle’s View of Beauty:

Moreover, in Parts of Animals, 645a23-25, Aristotle relates beauty to design:

“Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in nature’s works in the highest degree, and the end for which those work are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful.”

So, while Aristotle’s view of beauty may be vague, it is clear that he believed beauty to be objective; beauty is derived from the nature of the beautiful object; it is related to size and proportion; it is related to design.

Final thoughts on aristotle s aesthetics
Final Thoughts on Aristotle’s Aesthetics:

  • While Aristotle doesn’t provide offer a robust account of philosophical aesthetics whereby he deals with the problems of defending aesthetic judgments, we are able to conclude the following:

    • Aesthetics involves objective reality; it is cognitively perceived and can be imitated.

    • Aesthetics is pedagogically valuable and serious.

    • Beauty is a real property; He is an empiricist who believed all knowledge begins in the senses.

Final thoughts on aristotle s aesthetics1
Final Thoughts on Aristotle’s Aesthetics:

  • Aesthetics involves aesthetic experiences; he doesn’t deny its impact on people. In fact, we take pleasure in imitation because it is a special case of learning. In fact, the unity of plot, etc. may be seen as an aesthetic predicate.

  • Mimesis or imitation involves a special kind of representation: it is a matter of representing an object. It can be the art of imitating visual appearances by means of color and drawing or the art of imitating human actions by means of dance and song.

Final thoughts on aristotle s aesthetics2
Final Thoughts on Aristotle’s Aesthetics:

  • Mimesis in poetry, in order to have its impact, must involve a real understanding of human nature; for without this knowledge you can’t have a very good play (Beardsley, 63). Therefore, psychological laws must be true one for dramatic development:

  • Aristotle is a structural and textual critic because he analyzes aspects of structure, chiefly concerned with plot. If catharsis is seen as a structural concept rather than a psychological one, then this description of Aristotle is appropriate. One can also say he is textual critic because he is concerned with analysis at the verbal level: Rhetoric.

Final thoughts on aristotle s aesthetics3
Final Thoughts on Aristotle’s Aesthetics:

  • Beardsley makes two comments that are most interesting to consider. First:

    “What Plato feared most as a bad example for Athenian youth was the suggestion that good men are unhappy and that bad men prosper. Aristotle’s reply might be understood in this way: there is no need to have a moral censorship of plays, but only an aesthetic one. For the play about the good man who becomes unhappy or the bad man who becomes happy will simply not be a very good tragedy; other things being equal, morality and justice will coincide with aesthetic excellence” (Aesthetics, pg. 67).

Final thoughts on aristotle s aesthetics4
Final Thoughts on Aristotle’s Aesthetics:

  • And secondly, Monroe Beardsley observes:

    “When Aristotle inquires into the ‘nature of something…He asks: what is the nature of the poetic art? And the answer is both normative and descriptive. For it involves a set of categories that play a fundament role in all of his thinking: the ‘four causes,’ or four types of explanation (see Physics II, vii). These are not mentioned in the Poetics itself, but it is interesting that in the Metaphysics (V [Δ ], ii) when he distinguishes the four causes, his example of the ‘material’ cause is ‘the bronze of the statue’; the ‘formal’ cause is the pattern,’ or ‘formula of the essence’; the ‘efficient cause is the productive agent (e.g., the sculptor and his activity); the ‘final’ cause is ‘the end, i.e., that for the sake of which a thing is’ (trans. Ross)” (pp. 55-56).

Final thoughts on aristotle s aesthetics four causes for the statue of athena
Final Thoughts on Aristotle’s Aesthetics:Four causes for the statue of Athena:

2 intrinsic causes:

Material Cause = Bronze; out of which it was made.

Formal Cause = Pattern, form, essence; of which it was made.

2 External causes:

Efficient Cause = Artist; by which it was made

Final Cause = The purpose; that for which it was made.


  • A.E. Taylor makes an interesting claim about the Poetics:

    “Poetics was meant to be a collection of rules by obeying which the craftsman might make sure of turning out a successful play. So far as Aristotle has a Philosophy of Fine Art at all, it forms part of his more general theory of education and must be looked for in the general discussion of the aims of education in his Politics.” Aristotle, 20-21.


  • Aristotle, The Complete Works of Aristotle, rev. Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes, 2 Vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

  • Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics: From Classical Greek to the Present: A Short History (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1966).

  • A Companion to Aesthetics (Malden, M.A.: Blackwell, 1992, 1995).

  • Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (London: Routledge, 2001).

  • A.E. Taylor, Aristotle, 3rd edition (Toronto, Ontario: General Publishing 1955).