The Poetics, in length, is one of Aristotle's slightest works, forming barely a hundredth part of the extant Aristotelian corpus. But short as it is, it "is the most fundamental study we have of the art of drama" (Fergusson, 2). Moreover, "it is largely through the Poetics … that the main poetic 'kinds' are still distinguished, even in their names, through all the literature of Europe, as Tragedy, Comedy, Epic and Lyric" (House, 14). Finally, there is widespread agreement that "after twenty-two centuries it remains the most stimulating and helpful of all analytical works dealing with poetry" (Cooper, 3). (see aristotelianism.)
Content of the Work. A summary of the main parts of the work reveals an underlying logic of construction. The first five chapters constitute a general introduction to poetic art. The common genus is imitation; the various arts differ in terms of (1) the means of imitation (the medium in which the artist works), (2) the object of imitation (human action and passion), and (3) the manner of imitation (lyrical, narrative, and dramatic). The fourth chapter deals with the common origin of poetic art, with a brief history of tragedy, while the fifth chapter treats the origin of comedy and compares epic and tragedy.
Tragedy. Chapters 6 through 22 form the substance of the work and treat tragedy in considerable detail. After defining tragedy—"an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, having a certain magnitude, expressed in enriched language employing various kinds in different parts of the play, by means of action, not narration, through events arousing pity and fear which bring about the appropriate purgation of these emotions" (1449b 24–28)—Aristotle lists the six elements of tragedy: plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle. Diction and song relate to the means of imitation; spectacle or scenery pertains to the manner of imitation; and plot, character, and thought belong to the object of imitation. These are qualitative parts of a tragedy; the quantitative parts are acts or episodes of the play, and are discussed in chapter 12.
Plot. Plot occupies the chief attention, for it is "the soul of tragedy," the metaphor by which Aristotle expresses plot as the life-giving principle that shapes human action into actual tragedy. He observes that eight conditions are realized in good plots: (1) an action is represented as complete in itself, that is, a whole with its appropriate beginning, middle, and end; (2) the plot has a fitting magnitude ("beauty is a matter of size and order" 1450b 36); (3) it has unity, the parts being so ordered that if one of them is destroyed or removed or transposed the unity of the whole is lost; (4) it has dramatic possibility or plausibility, i.e., the plot deals with what could conceivably take place rather than what actually has happened; (5) it is not episodic, a series of events in which there is no inevitable or likely sequence of events, yet allows for the unexpected; (6) the plot contains something astonishing or marvelous, for in this way the tragic emotions of pity and fear are aroused; (7) it is complex, a course of events involving change, for example, from happiness to misery; a reversal, therefore, accompanied by discovery, a change from ignorance to knowledge; and (8) it contains some calamity, or painful action, in order to arouse sufficiently the emotions of pity and fear.
Character. Aristotle then proceeds to discuss (beginning with chapter 13) the sort of tragic character the poet chooses: a man who is good, but not eminently so, whose misfortune is brought about by a "tragic flaw." The tragic emotions of pity and fear spring from the plot itself, not from the spectacle. The tragic character expresses moral qualities that are appropriate to him, and he should be consistent and coherent. After noting some practical rules that have guided the poet in his construction of a tragedy, Aristotle discusses the elements of thought and diction. The remainder of the Poetics (chapters 23–26) treats epic poetry, terminating in a comparative evaluation of epic and tragedy. Three key topics are here discussed briefly.
Imitation (Mimesis). Imitation is proposed by Aristotle as something common to all fine art, but its crucial role will be appreciated only if imitation is understood in a distinctive sense. It must first of all be distinguished from mere natural likeness or copying. A natural likeness is not an imitation at all; one egg may be like another egg, but it is not an imitation of it. The image of a man in the mirror is both a likeness and an imitation, for there is dependence of the image upon the original from which it proceeds. But this is mere duplication or reflection. In an artistic imitation, the image as expressed in some sense medium has a dependence upon some original referent in reality (such as a shape, color, sound, passion, or character), but there is also dependence upon man's creative conception and imagination. Aristotle's notion of imitation, therefore, does imply a creative vision on the part of the artist as well as something that relates in one way or another to the real. In the Poetics, Aristotle develops imitation chiefly in relation to the construction of plot that imitates "an action that is serious, complete, having a certain magnitude," (1450b 24) and so on. (see art [philosophy]; creative imagination.)
Hamartia. The translation of this as "tragic flaw" can be misleading if it is understood simply as moral fault. Rather, it is at once intellectual and moral, a flaw in the deliberation and judgment of prudence as inseparably bound up with some flaw in the ordering of man's appetite to good ends. It is a "mistake," therefore, but not one purely of the intellect, and is bound up with the elements of reversal and discovery in the development of the plot. The Greek word ἁμαρτία, as Aristotle uses it, means a failure or a mistake and is midway between ἀδίκημα (intentional wrong) and ༀτύχημα (a fault of ignorance). Hence when Aristotle speaks of the tragic character as one who is not wholly virtuous or one who suffers misfortune because of wickedness, we are led to understand that the tragic character, basically well-intentioned, is nonetheless brought to a downfall by mistaken judgment swayed by some moral defect in the impulse of desire.
Catharsis. The understanding of the cathartic effect in drama presupposes understanding the role pity and fear play in tragic representation. The two emotions are inseparably joined in good tragedy; one without the other becomes either mere sentimentality or sheer horror.
The first meaning of catharsis is medical, referring to some physical purgation in respect of the body. In an artistic context, Aristotle obviously extends this meaning. Just as a physical purgation eliminates a bodily disorder so as to achieve a better physiological state, so artistic catharsis is purgative and purifying in relation to the movement of human passion as the play is witnessed. We naturally have some emotional tension that is unresolved or is resolved somewhat unsatisfactorily. Good works of art, in arousing and resolving the emotions, bring us to the state of repose we need but often do not achieve in daily life; herein lies the great appeal of art, and not only tragedy. Elsewhere Aristotle speaks more explicitly of such catharsis in listening to music whereby persons can be restored as though they had found purgation and healing. "Those who are influenced by pity and fear, and every emotional nature, must have a like experience, and others insofar as each is susceptible to such emotions, and all are in a manner purged and their souls lightened and delighted" (Politics, 1342a 11–15).
Hence catharsis, as purgative and purifying, is basic to artistic enjoyment and appreciation. By artistic tension and release, the emotions receive an orderly subjection to reason as shaped by artistic form. Nevertheless, catharsis remains basically instrumental in art; it is ordered to the proper end of art—contemplation and the ensuing delight we find in such contemplation.
Place in the Aristotelian Corpus. The usual order of Aristotle's works has the Poetics, preceded by the Rhetoric, at the very end, and some think that this may represent the ordering instituted at the Lyceum. The practical slant of the two works is one reason adduced for putting them at the end of the corpus.
Another tradition places the Rhetoric and the Poetics at the end of the Organon (the logical works). The Organon appears first because logic treats the common method for all knowledge. Within the Organon, the Rhetoric follows the Topics since, as Aristotle explains at the beginning of the Rhetoric, rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic, the subject of the Topics. The Poetics follows the Rhetoric, first because of an affinity it has with rhetoric, and second because poetics, too, deals with a special type of argumentation.
The association of poetic art with argumentation is not acknowledged by all. The purpose of any argumentation, however, is to lead one to a new truth from previous knowledge, and poetic art has its own means of inducing assent to a truth. The poet does this by constructing a pleasing representation of what is true or plausible; for example, he composes metaphors and similes for the sake of presenting poetically imaginative meaning that conveys in its way a truth, or he constructs a plot so as to present a convincing similitude of the working out of human action. Thus Shakespeare induces us to accept the general judgment that jealousy can lead to a man's downfall; he does this by a particular representation of this in the person and action of Othello. Herein, lies the significance of the phrase "argument of the play" as often stated in a program. Such argumentation is properly found in the poetic arts, and in proportion as we speak of a poet's work of art as convincing, we acknowledge the existence of a poetic form of argumentation.
See Also: aesthetics; argumentation; beauty; rhetoric.
Bibliography: s. butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Arts (4th ed. London 1932). i. bywater, tr. Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (2d ed. London 1938). l. cooper, The Poetics of Aristotle (rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y. 1956). g. else, Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument (Cambridge, Mass. 1957). f. fergusson, ed. Aristotle's Poetics, tr. s. butcher (New York 1961). h. house, Aristotle's Poetics: A Course of Eight Lectures (rev. ed. London 1956).
[j. a. oesterle]