Aristotle’s Aesthetics (382-322 BC):. Welcome to Aristotle! Western thought’s first structural & textual critic of the Fine Arts!.
Welcome to Aristotle!
& 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
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.
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).
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.
Let’s proceed to consider all four words!
“…wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”
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).
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).
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.
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)
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
“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…”
“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.”
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.
“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).
“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).
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.
“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.