Sunday, August 15, 2010

Introduction to Aristotle and his Poetics

Introduction to Aristotle
Aristotle was born at Stagira in Macedonia in 384 B.C. Son of Nicomachus, the court physician to King Amyntas II of Macedonia, Aristotle was later to become tutor to Alexander, the grandson of Amyntas.
The First Phase of His Life : Plato’s Academy
The first phase of Aristotle’s career began in 368-67 B.C., when he began a twenty year residence in Athens as member of the Academy founded by Plato. The phase came to an end with Plato’s death.

The Second Phase : Away From Athens
After the death of Plato, Aristotle left the Academy and went to Assos, near Troy. With him was another pupil of Plato, Xenocrates, who was also dissatisfied with the successor of Plato at the Academy. In Assos, Aristotle joined the Platonic circle begun by Erastus and Coriscus. He came into contact with Hermias, who had established himself as tyrant of Assos and Ataneus. He’married Hermias’s adopted daughter. In 342 B.C., he accepted the invitation of Philip of Macedon, to go and teach his son, Alexander, in Pella. Aristotle taught the young prince literature and political science. With Alexander comifag to the throne, the second phase of Aristotle’s career came to an end.
The Third Phase : Return to Athens and The School at Lyceum
After Alexander’s ascension to the throne of Macedonia, Aristotle returned to Athens, the intellectual centre of Greece. Here, he set up his own school in the Lyceum—a school which came to be known as the Peripatetic. This was so because it was Aristotle’s habit to walk about with his students while giving them lectures. Theophrastus was among the lecturers at this school, which included a museum and a library. Aristotle organised research on a large scale, in politics, history, literature, natural and • biology.

The Last Years and Death
In 323 B.C., Aristotle got the news of Alexander’s death. Athens took up arms against Macedonia, and Aristotle was accused of impiety. Aristotle withdrew to his mother’s home in Chalcis. He died there at the age of 62, in the year of 322 B.C.
Aristotle’s Work
Aristotle’s works are mainly of three kinds. There are literary essays; there are the studies of Constitutions; and then, there are the treatises intended for the lectures delivered to his students. In all, he wrote about four hundred volumes, covering practically all spheres of human knowledge and activity. Unfortunately, a number of his works have been lost, and many are incomplete because of these losses.
Philosophical, Scientific, Political and Critical Treatises
1.     Organon, or the Instrument of Correct Thinking.
2.     Physics
3.     De caelo.
4.     De Generatione et Corruptione
5.     Eudemian Ethics
6.     Metaphysics
7.     Politics
8.     Historia Animalium
9.     Meterologica
10. Constitutions (Including the Constitutions of Athens) llj Nicomachean Ethics.
12.    Poetics
13.    Rhetoric
Existing Social Scene
In order to understand Aristotle’s views and especially the Poetics, it is necessary to know something about the background, both social and literary. In the process, it becomes impossible to ignore the work, views and influence of Plato. Plato’s views on poetry were also an outcome of the existing social factors. It is his criticism of poetry that Aristotle refutes.

In the Athens of the time, the scene was one of political decline
and dissolution. Education was in a bad state. Homer’s epics were a
part of the school curriculum, but the portions which represented the
gods in an unfavourable light was criticised by philosophers and
educationalists. • .
The position of women was not high; they were not educated, and they had no say in politics or religious matters. There was widespread slavery. Slaves were treated cruelly and considered less than human. Foreigners coming to Athens could not acquire any rights of citizenship. The sovereign body in Athens was the Assembly, a mass meeting consisting of the adult male citizens.
The virtues admired, even worshipped, by the Greeks—were courage, heroism, magnificence, and skilful use of arms. It is to be kept in mind when Artistotle, in the Poetics, talks of the tragic hero being ‘good’. Virtue to the Greek did not have the same meaning as it would have for the Christian.
Literary .Scene
The literature of the period, too was in a state of decline; the golden age of Greek literature was a period of the past. The creative impulse had dried up. Literature had become corrupt, immoral and of a low level. The decadent poetry of the day aroused hostile criticism instead of attracting readers.
It was the decadence of the imaginative literature that led to the elvation of philosophers and orators over poets and artists. Among the confusion in the literary scene, there was constant debate as to the superiority of poets as against the philosophers.
Plato : The Attack on Poetry
Plato’s attack on poetry came as a substantiation of his view that philosophers were superior and of greater significance than poets. At the outset, however, one must take note of the fact that Plato was not ignorant of the ‘greatness’ or enchantment of poetry; nor was he insensitive to it. Indeed, it was because he was acutely conscious of the effect of poetry tht he banished poets from his Republic of ideal citizens and statesmen. Although he respected the skilful poet named Homer, he was not ready to give poets any place in an ideal state.
His attack on poetry was made on several grounds. On intellectual grounds, Plato considered poetry to be a copy of the world of senses, and appearances. Poets thus have no knowledge of truth, but* merely imitated a copy. Their poetry was thus a copy of a copy—a twice removed from reality. The poets were unaware of the ideal world of concepts like truth, and beauty. The poets merely copied the phenomenal world, which was a reflection of the ideal. Poetry thus can serve no useful function.
On moral grounds, Plato declared that poets had a bad influence on social morality, for they cater to popular taste and tell tales of man’s ‘pleasant vices’. Secondly, poetry tells lies about gods. Gods are often represented as corrupt, and the tales told of them are immoral. This tends to corrupt public taste and morals. Even Homer does not escape this charge, and cannot be suitable for young students to read. Poets and dramatists, in other words,”appeal to the baser instincts of man, according to Plato. Drama caters to, and encourages the instinct in men for the morbid and the sensational.
Poetry is also attacked on emotional groundsthat poetry feeds and waters the desire and passions of men, instead of drying them up as they ought to. Plato was highly distrustful of the emotions, which according to him, created for men a sort of illusion. Emotions weaken man and are contradictory to the views of philosophy. The soul has three parts—the rational, the spirited, and the. desirous or appetitive. Poetry keeps reasons at abeyance and encourages emotions. People give way to emotional distrubances under the effect of poetry, which they would be ashamed of in real life. Poetry causes imbalance and leads to unrestrained emotional states in which reason is subdued.
Thus, -poetry is attacked on the basis of being the result of “inspiration*; the poet writes_quite unconsciously out of irrational impulses, and an irrational frenzy. Their work is not a craft but the result of some irrational outside force. Hence, what they say is unreliable and uncertain. What they write is useless, and a bad influence. Plato allows place for no poetry except “hymns to gods and panegyrics on famous men”.
Philosophy—Superior to Poetry
Plato felt that philosophy was more suitable for nurturing and educating the young than poetry. It was philosophy which would cure society of depravity and corruption. Philosophy would offer a guide tx> good conduct. Plato conveniently ignores the fact that the ‘imitation’ in poetry could stimulate and elevate human nature. He emphasises the bad effects only. Citizens and rulers alike are advocated to read philosophy, for philosophy sees Truth in its ideal or pure form. Poetry, on the other hand, imitates shadows, and leads men to experience unreal feelings of pain and pleasure and makes men lose their hold over themselves.

The Value of Plato’s Criticism
Plato’s criticism of poetry primarily stemmed from a desire to correct the prevailing tendency in Greece, to regard poets as seers. At the time, Homer was not considered merely a great poet; he was regarded in a more religious light. Plato felt that this was a dangerous thing not only for the welfare of the state and society, but also from the point of view of the right appreciation of fine art. Further, Plato’s criticism gave direction to future criticism : he proved to be a great stimulant to thought, an irritant to thought; he dropped suggestive and illuminating ideas which have proved to be more useful than any reasoned out,, coherent theory.
Plato’s ideas are given in brief, in the following lines :
1. In his works, appears for the first time the conception of ‘mimesis’, or imitation, as the^essential characteristic of all art. The very concept of ‘mimesis’ is used by him to depreciate poetry. Aristotle modified the concept to elevate poetry. Plato further divides art into two types—the useful, and the fine arts.
. 2. Plato, in spite of his depreciation of poetry as a copy of a copy, was alive to the unseen reality behind the world of the senses. He observed that poetry in its highesj form imitated this ideal world; in its highest form, it became a process of representing things as they ought to be. This is a hint of poetry being a creative process. It was to be taken up and elaborated by Aristotle.
. 3. Plato considers poetry to be a’ matter of inspiration. However, it is also an art, and Plato lays down basic principles for the practice of poetry : first, there must be selection of material; secondly, there must be knowledge of the rules and techniques of the art : thirdly, study, practice and learning are necessary.
4.’fiao emphasises the organic unity in a work of art. He compares the work of art .to a living organism. This implies a coherent whole in which the parts have a significant relationship with one another and to the whole. Once again, we see that Aristotle has taken the idea’ of’his discussion.
5.   Plato classifies poetry into dithyrambic, epic, and dramatic,
on the basis of the method of narration in each. This begins the
classification of poetry according to form and style.
6.   Plato favoured decorum, austerity, order anM restraint in
poetry. “He is thus the first to enunciate the
classical ideals of artistic
7.   Though Plato took delight in the comedies of Aristophanes,
he was
against excessive laughter. So is Aristotle.
8.   Plato gives a moral basis to good art. Good art imitates truly,
and thus it cannot run counter to principles of morality.
Plato’s works formed the main literary criticism before Aristotle took up these views, elaborated some, modified others, and gave a new dimension to literary criticism.
The following is a brief account of Aristotle’s views on state, God, Universe, ethics, government and morality : On the Universe. Aristotle’s universe is a dynamic one; his world is in the process of becoming. The nature of each thing is potentiality, moving through a process of development to a reality—the perfect and final nature. This conception governs not only the sphere of organic nature, but also the constructions in the area of art. On God. God is conceived of as a Cause of the motion of the Universe, not as its creator. He is the Mover of the Universe, not its Maker. He himself is moved by nothing, and He is the slave of no master. Every other thing in the world, person, object, or thought, is a moved -mover. The Aristotelian God is ‘perfect’; He is not interested in the world, though the world is interested in Him. It is a cold, impersonal God. He is like the Primal Energy of scientists. On Goverment. In Politics, Aristotle presents an analysis of 158 constitutions’and considers the relative merits of different forms of government. He considers a Dictatorship to be the worst form, for in it the wishes of many are subject to those of one. He favours that type of government which enables each man to exercise his best abilites and to live his days pleasantly. Such a government would be run on the basis of a constitution, for a government without a constitution would be a tyranny. Dictatorship by a class was no better than dictatorship by one man;
Aristotle also demands that the rulers satsfy the ruled. Justice can achieve such satisfaction. Revolution can then be avoided, for it is an unjust government which leads to it. In this sense, a democracy is a safer form of government. The railing class must oversee the good education of those who are ruled. The education should be ideal as well as practical.
On Communism. Aristotle is not in favour of communism because of a practical reason. He feels that it is not conducive to individual responsibility, but will lead people to shirk their responsibility. He favours the development of individual character and private ownership of property.

Public Welfare. Aristotle does not want a clearcut demarcation between the ruler and ruled. All citizens, he feels, should take a turn at governing, within the general principle that “the old are more fitted to rule, the young to obey”. It is the legislator’s business to provide public interests to the public. The main aim of the government is to ensure public welfare. The state exists for man, and not vice versa.
Happiness. Politics is translated into ethics for Aristotle. Man is born to be happy. Happiness, that pleasant state of being, is brought about by continual good deeds. Happiness also involves having good birth, good looks, fortune, and good friends. A long life Is also needed to achieve happiness.
Virtue. The noble,man can be happy even in the course of a short life. The noble soul can cultivate an insensibility to pain; this itself is happiness. A man of virtue will act virtuously, aitd happiness lies, in the performance of good deeds.
The Greek meaning of Virtue’ had a wider range than the modern sense. Virtue implied excellence of any sort, or technial skills pf any variety. A person who possessed physical power, or technical skill, or mental strength, was virtuous in the Greek sense. To Aristotle, Virtue’ also meant ‘moral nobility. We must rememer this wide sense of the term when we come to Ariitostle’ statement in the Poetic, that the tragic character must be good.
The ‘gold mean*. Aristotle held that moderation should be the watchword in every sphere of activity. The middle course between two extremes should be adopted. Neither should-one do too little, nor too much. The rational way lay in being moderate. The virtuous man would always preserve the golden mean, which was the right way. “For the golden mean is the royal road to happiness.” The ideal man. The ideal man is one who does not unnecessarily expose himself to danger, but one who would not hesitate to give his life in a crisis. He is pleased to do a favour to others^ but feels ashamed of receiving them. He is good because it is profitable. The ideal man.... is altruistic because he is wise.
Aristotle was a disciple of Plato, but he disagreed with some of Plato’s contentions. The Poetics is quite correctly considered to be a “covert” answer to Plato’s charges against poetry. Plato had declared poetry to be the mother of lies: Aristotle set out to prove that it was

not so. At the same time, while the originality of Aristotle cannot be denied, his debt to Plato has also to to be acknowledged. Indeed, Aristotle takes several hints from his master, elaborates them and modified them to create his own theories.
Similarities between Plato and Aristotle
Firstly, both Greek thinkers considered poetry to be an imitative art. Secondly, they agreed that poetry arouses emotions; thirdly, that poetry produces pleasure; and fourthly, that poetry has an effect on the human personality. They also looked at poetry from a utilitarian perspective.
Differences between Plato and Aristotle
One may wonder how there can be any differences between Plato and Aristotle when in so many basic things they agree. But in fact, they differed widely in their conclusions because they differed greatly in their approach and objectives. In all the views listed above, Plato made conclusions derogatory to poetry while Aristotle defended it.
1.   Plato was an idealist who set out re-shape human life, while
Aristole was a realist trying to recorganise human knowledge. Plato
believed the idea to be real and the phenomenal world to be a shadow
of idea and therfore, unreal. But Aristotle believed in the world of
senses as being real. He believed that the physical world should form
the basis of any scientific study. He moves from the real to the ideal,
from the particular to the general.
2.   Plato and Aristotle were different by temperament on account
of one being an idealist and the other a realist. Aristotle preferred
observation and analysis, the tools of the scientist by which he could
arrive at conclusions.
3.   Coming after Plato, and possessing a scientific mind, Aristotle
is more comprehensive and systematic than his master. He has a
passion for “classification”.
Aristotle’s Answer to Plato on Poetry
Though Plato used the word “imitation” for poetry, he did so in a derogatory sense. Aristotle, too considered poetry as imitation, but interpreted it as a “creative” process, Plato considered imitation as mere mimicry. Aristotle widens its scope and insists that it can never be* mere imicry but has to” possess the basic essence of Truth. Thus a poet is greater than a philosopher or historian, for he creates something new by imitating reality. And, within reality, there are also emotions.

While Plato compared poetry with painting, Aristotle compares it to music. It is thus that Aristotle successfully refutes Plato’s charge of poetry imitating mere externalities; for like music, poetry captures the soul, or essence of experience, internal as well as external.
Plato considered poetry to be a copy of natures as it is; Aristotle gives it the scope of being concerned with “what ought to be” or “what can be”. Thus poetry idealises the reality.
Plato condemns the very fact that poetry arouses emotions. He considered these emotions to be bad for humanity and hence, to be curbed if not avoided. Aristotle, however, insists that these emotions should find expression—a saner view than Plato’s.
Plato regarded poetry to have a bad influence morally, intellectually and emotionally. But Aristotle proves that in all these respects, poetry is to be praised for its good and healthy influence. His theory of Catharisis tries to show that the efffect of poetry can be healthy.
Plato and Aristotle thus differed widely in their views. Though their basic premises were similar, they arrived at opposite conclusions because their methods and objectives were different. Aristotle proceeded from things to ideas, while Plato went from ideas to things. Aristotle was scientific; Plato was metaphysical. It is this basic difference that forms the background to their views on poetry.

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