Aristotle (384 – 322 bce) started off a member of Plato’s Academy in Athens but left when Plato died in 347 b.c.e. and took Western philosophy in his own direction, which ended up being the paradigm we operate under to this day: if not more materialist than the Platonic idealist, he was at least more empirical. Aristotle became a tutor to Alexander of Macedon. He then founded his own philosophical school in Athens, the Lyceum (335 b.c.e.), and established the world’s first research library. The Lyceum focused on zoology (Aristotle’s particular interest), biology, botany, physics, mathematics, music, logic, political science, and ethics.
Aristotle’s influence is so pervasive it would be impossible to trace. But among the most important texts still read are his Nicomachean Ethics (his notes for teaching which promote moderation in all things), and his Poetics, which establishes analytical literary criticism as we know it.
With the characteristically Aristotelian method of defining and then dissecting or breaking down the field of inquiry, the Poetics brings forth key notions in literature, including: a definition of tragedy, the concept of “catharsis” as the purpose of tragedy, the idea of “mimesis” or literature’s imitation of life, the notion of the complex character, an aesthetic for determining the quality of plots, etc. Aristotle favored Sophocles among the playwrights, particularly because he demonstrated what have come to be called the Aristotelian “unities”:
- Unity of Time: the best plays confine themselves to a brief period of time. The plot of Oedipus all takes place within a few hours. When the idea of sending emissaries to the oracle arises, Oedipus chimes in that he’s already done it — in fact here they are now!
- Unity of Place: the best plays do not cut about. “Meanwhile in Tangiers …” is a no-no.
- Unity of Action: episodic plots are sloppy plots. One wants focus and compression.
Whether or not Aristotle intended to be codifying and systematizing literature, he accomplished it. His aesthetic pronouncements became formulae as dramatists later modelled their plays on Aristotelian principles. This is the danger of establishing tastes: later generations sanctify them and use them as a rulebook. The Bible, the Constitution, Aristotle — the impulse to make these timeless and universal brings trouble.
- Why is Aristotle writing the Poetics? What is the purpose of literary criticism?
- How well do the plays we have read fare according to the Aristotelian unities?
- Consider some movies you have seen recently. How do these stack up?
Part of the purpose may be to sort out why tragedies work on us psychologically, and what is it that attracts us to art. How can we have an important experience out of something that is made up? It may be another gauge of what makes us human. (My cat doesn’t have the investment in or awe about art, although he is art himself.)
“Aristotle.” Literature of the Western World, Volume 1. 5th edition by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 1220-1241.
“Aristotle.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 6th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992. 746-750.