Assigned: Aristotle. Poetics (99-127); from Rhetoric, Books I, II, and III(127-31). Also read the editors’ introduction (95-99).

Poetics (circa 330 B.C.E.)

1. On 99 (“The art of poetry, both…”), Aristotle offers his initial thoughts about poetry. In what way does it become immediately clear that his approach is going to differ from Plato’s treatment of the arts in The Republic? What features of Aristotle’s very first paragraph in Poetics mark that text as one that will proceed in a manner consonant with scientific attitude and methodology?

2. On 99-100 (“Epic poetry and Tragedy, also…”), Aristotle says that the imitative arts differ in three ways: “either (1) by using different means [or media] of imitation; or (2) by imitating different objects; or (3) by imitating in a different manner and not in the same mode of presentation” (99). How does he amplify and illustrate the first of these three ways, the “means [or media] of imitation”? What point about defining poetry does Aristotle make in discussing how “people in general” (100 top) bestow on very different kinds of author the name of “poet”—why would it make more sense to call Homer a poet and Empedocles a “physical philosopher” instead?

3. On 100-01 (“Since the objects that the imitators…”), how does Aristotle illustrate the second and third ways in which the imitative arts differ; namely, the objects of imitation and the manner of imitating them? How, for example, does an epic poet’s usual way of representing human beings differ from that of a comic poet or a parodist? As for “manner” of imitation, how does narration differ fundamentally from dramatic representation?

4. On 101-02 (“For the beginnings of poetry in…”), to what two causes “rooted in human nature” does Aristotle attribute “the beginnings of poetry in general” (101)? What instincts does imitation or representation satisfy? In particular, why, according to Aristotle, is it that “the forms of those things that are stressful to see in reality […] we contemplate with pleasure when we find them represented with perfect realism in images”? (101) What if the viewer has not seen the thing that is represented—what is the pleasure due to in that case? (101)

5. On 102-03 (“And in accordance with their individual…”), how does Aristotle explain the development of particular forms or genres of poetry, such as hymns, encomia (praise-songs), lampoons, heroic verse, tragedy, and comedy? What does he suggest about the origin and particular features (such as verse form) of tragic plays? How, too, does he address the origin and development of comic plays? Finally, what basic distinctions does Aristotle make between tragedy and epic poetry?

6. On 103-104 (“The mimetic art in hexameters…”), how does Aristotle initially define tragedy? Write out the definition in its entirety—it is so important to critical history and drama theory that, if possible, you should commit it to memory: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that…” (103 bottom-104 top, ending with “… such emotions”). Aristotle says that tragedy’s goal is to induce cátharsis (in Greek, κάθαρσις) in the audience. By the incitement of what two emotions is cátharsis achieved? What is cátharsis itself? To respond, do some online research on this term—what range of meanings can you find for the word, and how might the various meanings, accordingly as we agree with one or another, change our understanding of Aristotle’s claims about tragedy’s goal?

7. On 104-05 (“Since the imitation is carried out…”), Aristotle identifies “spectacle, character, plot, language, melody, and thought” (104 middle) as the six elements any tragedy must have. (In Greek, ὄψις ópsis, ἦθος ēthos, μῦθος mýthos, λέξις léxis, μέλος mélos, and διάνοια diánoia.) Briefly, how does Aristotle explain the nature and relative importance of spectacle, language, melody, and thought? In particular, how does he define character and plot, and what does he say is the proper relationship between those two elements? Why is plot “the first principle and, as it were, the soul of tragedy…” (105 top)? In your own experience, how does a badly constructed or aimless plot affect your enjoyment of a play, a film, or a book?

8. On 105-06 (“Now that the parts are established…”), Aristotle discusses the qualities he believes should belong to any good plot. On 103 bottom, he had written that tragedy should be “serious, complete, and possessing magnitude.” The term “serious” (σπουδαῖος, spoudaíos) seems sufficiently obvious, so what does Aristotle apparently mean when he says the plot should be “complete” and that it should possess “magnitude”? What makes a play’s action “complete” or “a whole,” and what advice does Aristotle offer regarding a “satisfactory limit of magnitude” (106) for a given plot? (105-06) How might his advice here be described as favoring organically constructed plots—that is, plots that flow from the natural coherence of a series of actions? In what ways do Aristotle’s remarks on plot in general, and magnitude in particular, show concern for the expectations and sensibilities of the audience?

9. On 106-07 (“Contrary to what some people think…”), what admonition does Aristotle offer regarding the constitution of a truly unified plot? How can we know when the plot is unified? Furthermore, what key distinction does Aristotle make between the representation of history and poetic imitation or representation? Why is poetry, in his view, “a more philosophical and a higher thing” (106 bottom) than the work of historians? In what sense does poetry aim at and embrace “universals,” and how does that differentiate it from the kind of material with which history generally has to do?

10. On 107-09 (“Among plots and actions of the simple…”), Aristotle first dismisses “episodic” plots because in them things happen “in no probable or inevitable sequence” (107). He then discusses what he calls simple plots and complex plots. How does he define and distinguish these two structures? What advice does he offer regarding what is best for each? With regard to complex plots, what are “recognition” (ἀναγνώρισις, anagnórisis) and “reversal” (περιπέτεια, peripéteia)? What is the best way to handle recognition and reversal, and how might excellent handling of them enhance a drama’s structure and contribute to the audience’s achievement of catharsis? Finally, what does Aristotle say about a “third element” that he identifies as “Suffering” (108), and what are the “separate sections” into which a play is divided “quantitatively” (109) as opposed to the substantial “formative elements” (108 bottom) he has already addressed?

11. On 109-10 (“Next in order after the points…”), how, according to Aristotle, should the imperative of generating fear and pity in the audience (the adjectives are φοβερός, phoberós and ἐλεεινός, eleēnós; the nouns are respectively φόβος, phóbos and ἔλεος, éleos) influence the poet’s selection of the tragic protagonist? What sort of character, in his view, best fills us with fear and pity? Why should a dramatist avoid choosing too virtuous a character, or one who is simply wicked? Aristotle says that in tragedy, protagonists will make “some great mistake” (109) that brings them down; the Greek term for this is ἁμαρτία, hamartía. Research this term online—how does what you learn affect your view of Aristotle’s theory about the factors that cause tragedy to occur? Finally, why, in Aristotle’s view, is the plot that is “single in outcome” (109) better than plots with a double outcome?

12. On 110-11 (“The effect of fear and pity may…”), Aristotle continues his examination of the role of pity and fear in tragic plays. In his view, what is the best way to structure a tragedy so as to generate these appropriately “tragic” emotions? What accounts for Aristotle’s faith that when it comes to an excellent tragedy such as Oedipus the King, “anyone who merely hears the events unfold will shudder and feel pity…” (110)? In his view, as well, what kinds of events seem to be the most suitably “terrible or pitiful” (110)? Which events tend not to evoke those emotions, and why?

13. On 111-12 (“With regard to the Characters there are…”), Aristotle shifts to an examination of the role of character in tragedy. What “four things to aim at” (111) should govern the playwright’s choices in representing character? In addition, why is it imperative that characters (and plots) should be “either necessary or probable” (112)? In this vein, when, in Aristotle’s view, is it acceptable for the dramatist to use the deus ex machina, the “machine” (112) in a tragic play, and when is it not acceptable to use it? Why so?

14. On 112-13 (“What Recognition is in general has already…”), what further advice does Aristotle give dramatists regarding “recognition” in order to improve the impact of a given play? List and briefly discuss the six “species” (112) of recognition that he says are possible. Which one, in his view, is the best form of recognition, and why so? What underlying assumptions about the audience’s expectations and needs seem to govern Aristotle’s comments on recognition as a key device in tragic plays?

15. On 113-16 (“The poet, as he constructs his plots…”), previous technical matters aside, what does Aristotle suggest to dramatists about the best way to produce excellent plots and clear, strong, memorable diction? (113-14) What do such remarks—in particular, the statement that “poetry is the art of a man of genius or of one having a touch of madness” (114)—imply about Aristotle’s views on the nature of playwrights themselves, and about the creative process generally? To what extent here and elsewhere in Poetics does Aristotle seem interested in the poet as an individual creator or as someone with something interior (feelings, ideas, etc.) to express? Finally, what other advice about basic matters of composition and plot construction, keeping the focus on one’s tragic aims, etc., does Aristotle offer dramatists? (115-16 top)

16. On 116-21 (“Now that the other elements…”), Aristotle shifts to matters of “Language and Thought” (116). Firstly, on page 116, what brief remarks does he offer concerning “Thought” (διάνοια, diánoia)? Next, how does he address what we would call “linguistics”: the parts of speech, letters, syllables, particles, nouns, verbs, sentences, etc.? What eight kinds of words does he list? (118 top) Focus on metaphor: what definition of this most important of figures does Aristotle set forth? (118) What four “applications” of names does he list and illustrate in his explanation of how metaphor works? Finally, according to Aristotle, what is the readiest way to arrive at good “Diction” (119) in one’s dramas—a method that avoids strangeness and monotony alike? (119-20)

17. On 121-22 (“But as for the imitative art…”), Aristotle comments on epic poetry, which of course involves narration rather than direct presentation of characters and actions. What similarities does he find between epic and drama in terms of plot structure and “essential elements,” etc. (121)? As for “length of composition” (122), in what sense, according to Aristotle, does Homeric epic have the advantage of tragic plays? What latitude in representation allows epic more easily and appropriately to generate “grandeur and the diversion of the hearer” (122)? What distinctions between heroic or epic meter (dactylic hexameter) and tragic meters (iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter) does Aristotle make? Finally, what wisdom does Aristotle attribute to Homer with respect to how that poet establishes a relationship to his own poems? (122)

18. On 122-23 (“The marvelous is an element…”), Aristotle discusses Homer’s appreciation of the “marvelous” (122) and his skillful way with “lies” (123). What makes representation of “marvelous” events by narration more palatable than directly showing them to a stage audience? In the matter of poetical “lies,” Aristotle obviously differs from Plato with respect to poetry’s propensity to spin fictions—in The Republic (Leitch 58-77), Plato’s Socrates believes the material world around us is itself a sort of illusion, so when poets “imitate” this world, they are copying a falsehood. Aristotle, we know, is a scientist who does not dismiss the material world, but rather studies it intently. How, then, does he delve into the mechanics of poetic lying—what does “paralogism” have to do with the fine art of untruth as brought to us by Homer? How does his statement that “What is impossible yet probable should be preferred to that which is possible but incredible” (123) underscore Aristotle’s strong disagreement with Plato regarding the boundaries of truth in representation? How, in Aristotle’s view, should “irrational” (123) or otherwise absurd material be handled in a play or an epic poem so as to render it tolerable?

19. On 123-25 (“Critical problems and their solutions…”), in keeping with the mimetic demands often placed on poets, who are tasked with representing actions and the world around them responsibly, Aristotle offers critical advice about accuracy and error in representation. First of all, what “three objects” (123) does he say every poet or painter imitates? Next, how does he discuss the two species of error that we must consider when we deal with poetry? In responding, consider the examples he gives (on 124 top, a horse drawn “with both right legs thrown forward,” and a little lower down on 124, a female deer drawn with horns) and how he categorizes such examples. In sum, if an artist makes a mistake in representing something, what factors might excuse the error? Aristotle lists twelve possible lines of defense; discuss the ones you consider the most important and explain why. On the whole, what does the multiplicity and wide latitude Aristotle gives poets as representers (be they narrative-based storytellers or dramatists) suggest about his understanding of art’s truth-status and its value for human beings?

20. On 126-27 (“Someone might raise the question…”), on what grounds does Aristotle argue that tragedy is superior to epic, in spite of Homeric epic’s undoubted virtues? How does he deal with the claim often made against tragedy; namely, that it appeals to a vulgar audience, while epic supposedly appeals to the nobler sort? What four reasons does Aristotle supply in the service of his opinion that tragedy is, in fact, the better art form in comparison to epic? How does he relate these reasons to his general claims about what literary art should do for readers and audiences? Do you agree with Aristotle’s privileging of drama over epic, or disagree with it? Either way, why? (Optional: what is your own favorite ancient Greek work of art, and what do you believe accounts for the pleasure you take in it?)

21. General question: Aristotle’s theory of drama in Poetics has been called a direct response to Plato’s theory of imitation. In general, we know that while Plato restricts the scope of art in keeping with his intense need to maintain order and truth in his fictive republic, Aristotle takes a more or less neutral scientist’s view of art and of representation more broadly. How does Aristotle’s conception of mimesis (imitation, representation), along with his sense of the overall aims of art and of artists’ responsibilities towards their publics, make it possible for him to reply compellingly to the strictures of Plato’s Socrates as spelled out in The Republic (Leitch 58-77)?

22. General question: Aristotle’s remarks in Poetics need not be read as a grandiose defense of art, but they go beyond refuting Plato in the name of scientific observation: Aristotelian drama plays a role in Greek life that cannot be dismissed as corruptive, and representation is seen as natural and human, not a tool of deception. To what extent might a person validate art or popular culture today on similar grounds—including film, television, or other entertainment forms, when those forms are attacked by puritanical moralists or other opponents? Explain.

23. General question*: How might we compare a modern action film like, say, Jaws to an ancient Greek tragedy? For example, is there a proper “protagonist” in this film, in the sense that Aristotle’s Poetics uses that term? (Water-averse Chief Brody? The Town’s denial-prone Mayor? Grizzled WWII Pacific-theater veteran Captain Quint, who is perhaps patterned after Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick? The unnaturally clever, grudge-holding great white shark?) Does Jaws arouse pity and fear/terror in the manner described by Aristotle? In sum, if Jaws could not be properly described as a tragic work of art, what is missing in it that might make it a tragedy? (*Thanks to the late Prof. Albert O. Wlecke of UC Irvine for the delightfully silly, but productive, idea of asking such a question.)

24. General question: What about movies like The Silence of the Lambs, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? As Aristotle suggests in Poetics, people are capable of viewing with pleasure violent behavior that (one hopes) would horrify them if they saw it “for real.” Does such pleasure in following the psychiatric aberrations of Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates perhaps stem from a different source than the one Aristotle identifies? Do you consider it a healthy pleasure, or an unhealthy one? Explain.

25. General question: Pick out at least three places in Poetics (find an e-text and search for “paint”) where Aristotle compares poetry to painting. What points do these references to painting allow him to make about drama or epic? How do his “painting” comparisons differ from Plato’s references to the visual arts in relation to poetry or drama? (With regard to Plato’s references to painting, see in Leitch The Republic Book II, 59; Book III, 72-73; and mainly Book X, 79-87.) In responding, consider how Aristotle’s references to painting sharpen our sense of his disagreement with Plato regarding the moral dimensions and truth-status of mimesis (representation).

26. General question: How do journalists, the public, and politicians use the word “tragedy” in everyday speech? Does that kind of usage (“It was a tragic plane crash,” etc.) have anything in common with the more precise Aristotelian meaning of the term in Poetics, or is it so different that we would be comparing apples with oranges? Explain.

27. General question: Why do “bus plunges” seldom get top placement in the news? These are dreadful crashes in which dozens of people may lose their lives. So why are they so often not treated as tragic (in the broad sense) or even as worthy of attention? Alternatively, what about the frequent “mass shooting” incidents in American life today? Why are these harrowing events covered for a day or two and then forgotten? In sum, what is it about the way an Aristotelian (or Shakespearean, or other) tragedy is grounded, constructed, and “peopled” that commands our attention more than these real-life events? How do our divergent responses to literary tragedy and real life incidents reflect on us as human beings?

From Rhetoric (circa 340 B.C.E.)

From Rhetoric Book I, from Chapter 2

1. On 127-28 (“Let rhetoric be [defined as] an ability…”), how does Aristotle define rhetoric, and what makes it unique among the arts with regard to its subject matter and how it approaches that subject matter? How does he show his scientific cast of mind in the way he approaches professional rhetoric and its unique “function” (127)? How does Aristotle divide up the means of persuasion (these are called the písteis, plural of πίστις, pístis, good faith, trust, guarantee) and discuss the three types of persuasive appeal? (128) Which does he suggest may be the most powerful type of appeal, and why so?

From Rhetoric Book I, from Chapter 3

2. On 128-29 (“The species of rhetoric are three…”), how does Aristotle identify and discuss the three species of rhetoric? What three things does any speech consist of? In what two positions must we place people who listen to speeches? And now we come to the most important distinction: what are the “three genera of rhetorics” (128) and how does Aristotle discuss the setting and aims of each of these three genera, or types?

From Rhetoric Book II, from Chapter 1

3. On 129-30 (“These [topics, set forth in book I]…”), Aristotle addresses the means by which speakers in the courts or the assembly, etc. may establish and enhance the audience’s sense of who they, the speakers, are; in other words, they want to paint a positive portrait of their own character. What means to accomplish this vital task does Aristotle identify, and how does he analyze their relative significance? In what sense might we say that in thus dividing up the qualities of human nature for use in addresses to the assembly or in courts of law, Aristotle is providing his readers with a kind of “taxonomy” (i.e., a set of classifications) of human character and conduct? Explain.

4. General question: On 129-30 (“These [topics, set forth in book I]…”) of On Rhetoric, Aristotle not only discusses what speakers ought to do by way of depicting their own character, he also brings the audience’s disposition into play. What does he say about how valuable it is when an audience is “disposed” (130) in a way that favors the speaker? To what extent do Aristotle’s remarks call into question the rhetorician’s commitment to logic and truth? Doesn’t clever rhetoric sometimes make the guilty go free, or get the people to assent to bad public policy, or lead them to elect a rascal to high office? Isn’t it a great tool for liars, crooks, and demagogues, to the consternation of Platonists and other moralists who fear the consequences of choosing what only seems to be true and good? How, then, in your view, should a well-intentioned rhetorician defend the persuasive arts, and deploy them to counter the damage that dishonest persuasion can do?

5. General question: On 129-30 (“These [topics, set forth in book I]…”) of On Rhetoric, Aristotle uses the rhetorical and logical term “enthymeme.” Explain the difference between a syllogism and an enthymeme, and explore the usefulness of the latter form of reasoning to, say, lawyers, politicians, advertisers and others with an interest in persuading the public? What does an enthymeme do that a syllogism generally does not, and why does the difference matter?

From Rhetoric Book III, from Chapter 2

6. On 130-31 (“Let the matters just discussed…”), Aristotle discusses some matters pertaining to when it is appropriate to use one style, and when another would be more suitable. Focus on a few of the pieces of advice he gives about elevated speech, plain speech, and so forth, and draw what insights you can from them. In particular, consider what Aristotle says about how speakers can best suit their words to audience expectations based on character, social status, and circumstances. How do you interpret his dictum that “authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally” (131)?

7. General question: in On Rhetoric, Book III, Ch. 2 (130-31), Aristotle concentrates on matters of “style” (lexis) in rhetoric. To what extent do you think modern Americans—whether we are talking about professionals such as lawyers, politicians, public relations experts, educators, literary artists, and journalists, or the general public—interest themselves in the styles of the discourses in which they participate or that they follow? Do you believe our interest in accurate and elegant speaking and writing has diminished in recent times, or is it still at the same level? If it has diminished, what factors have caused the downgrade? If it hasn’t, what evidence can you point to that we are, in fact, still interested in style and not only content, or some other thing?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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