Several critics are of the view that Aristotle’s Poetics was primarily written as an answer to Plato’s charge against poetry. Whether this is acceptable or not, Aristotle’s concept of poetry certainly involves a ‘defence’ of poetry against the charge that poetry is a pack of lies, a copy of a copy, a shadow of shadows and twice removed from reality. We see how Aristotle takes the very concept of ‘imitation’ from Plato but modifies it to hold greater dimensions.
The Concept of ‘Imitation’
Plato considered poetry as imitation. But to him, the imitation was of a lower order. Poets, according to him, imitated the world of appearances, which was a shadow or image of the ideal conception. Thus poetry imitated a shadow; it copied’a copy of reality, and hence, was twice removed from reality.
Aristotle took the term ‘imitation’ from Plato. He gave to it a much wider significance and greater dimensions. He turns the table on Plato by saying that poetry is an imitation, but imitation of a special type. The imitation in poetry is not a slavish ‘copying* of the external appearances of things. It is a recreative imitation. It is a creative reproduction of objects; it involves the effort of the imagination and the intellect. It thus presents a higher truth, the truth of imagination. It universalises the particular. The poet sifts1 his material, selects the most relevant portions, imposes order and design on the chaotic material of life and universalises the particular. Thus Aristotle contends2, the truth involve in poetry is higher than that embodied in history.
Poetry and History : Universal versus Particular.
The poet does not deal with things as they had happened in the past. To do so would be the work of the historian. The function of the poet is to relate what may happen—what is possible according to the laws of probability and necessity :
The poet and historian differ not by writing in prose or in verse. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.
The poet could take for his material, things as they are, as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be. He uses creative vision to make something ‘new’ out of the material of life. But what are these materials of life ? Are they the external happenings and events which took place historically ? No. Poetry deals with the universal, the basic elements in human nature, the permanent possibilities of human nature. History, on the other hand, deals with the concrete particulars of existence. The historian is restricted to the particular happenings, or the existent facts. The poet’s view is larger, deeper, more generalised. He presents the universal through the particular.
Poetry has this in common with philosophy : there is a search for Truth—universal truth. The historical facts appear in a chronological order. I, them, there is not a logical sequence or causal chain. But in poetry, there is the governing appearance of design imposed on the confused material taken from We.
The Government of Probability and Necessity
The poet, as has been already remarked, imposes order on the confused tangle of life. The poet eliminates the irrelevant matter, the nonessential, or the merely incidental. The law of probability and necessity refers to the internal structure of the poem. It brings about the close cohesion of the parts. There has got to be a ‘necessity’ about the events following one another. There has to be a ‘necessary’ relationship between the events, and between the characters and events. There is a probably causal relationship between the incidents.
One might argue that this kind of order and design is far removed from real life, in which things often happen without apparent cause. Things often happen in a haphazard manner, with no proper causal relationship in life. Why, then, should we say that poetry’s truth depends upon the law of probability and necessity, or order and the establishment of proper relationship between cause and effect ? The very fact that the poet selects his material and imposes order on it, and produces an effect of ‘inevitability’ about the sequence of events, embodies the essence of poetic truth. It is through this process of ordering the material into a cohesive1 whole that a poet achieves the idealisation of appearances. The poet takes the haphazard material of the life as we see it. He imagines a cohesive while composed out of this material. He creates this cohesive whole out of the chaotic material. Thus the truth embodied in poetry is of a higher order than that of history.
The men and women we meet in poetry are not ‘real’ in the usual sense of term. They are always slightly different, either better or lower than average. Their thoughts and words are not thoughts and words of ordinary men and women. The probable laws of their behaviour cannot be measured against the standards of average humanity. The rules of ordinary experience do not govern the higher creations of- poetry. Poetry imitates the ‘essence’ and not the appearances. It reveals the ideal possibilities inherent in human life. All that the truth of poetry demands is that the actions of the character in the poem be logical. The events presented by the poet should have a relationship not only with one another, but also with the character placed in the midst of these events. Aristotle agrees that poetry presents not facts, but fiction. But this does not make poetry ‘unreal’ or ‘untrue’. The truth of poetry is a “higher reality*, because poetry rises above facts. In this it becomes ‘ideal’; it presents something as it might have been, or ought to be, according to the idea of the poet. It is the imaginative power which makes poetic truth different from historical truth. And it is this that makes poetry ‘universal’ and permanent in its truth.
Likely Impossibility is Preferable to Unlikely Possibility
Aristotle makes a valid statement in connection with poetic truth. He remarks that in pftetry the ‘likely impossibility is preferable to the ‘unlikely possibility’. The poet, Aristotle is quite willing to admit, tells lies; the poet is not concerned with actualities. But what matters, tells lies; the poet is not concerned with actualities. But what matters, is the way of telling these lies. It is of the utmost importance that these ‘lies’ be convincing, credible, probable. The most impossible occurrence, incident, or character becomes credible through the poet’s vivid handling. Indeed, we find that we are quite willing to believe the ‘fantastic’ in actual life even if it seems quite unlikely. But the same thing would appear incredible in art, if it is not presented in a ‘realistic’ manner. Poetic illusion has to be created with a master-touch, otherwise the required ‘suspension of disbelief will not be produced. It is’the poet’s artistic capabilities which can create this poetic illusion, by ordering the events in a causal sequence. It would then appear as if the events could have happened under a particular set of circumstances. Through the poet’s art, “the impossible not only becomes possible, but natural and even inevitable.”
Kinds of Improbabilities and Irrationalities
The probable is that which appears rational, and hence gains our credibility. Anything improbable is irrational. The impossible is that which is not possible physically. But the impossible can be made to look ‘probable’ if it is given a logical inevitability through art. The improbable does not really have a place in art. But there are some types of improbabilities which can be overcome in their presentation.
Material improbability, with regards to material facts, can be overcome. It can be made to look logically inevitable by artistic skill. Improbabilities are admitted in poetry as they are conducive to the heightening of the poetic effects of wonder and admiration. Homer, says Aristotle, could handle ‘lies’ very well.
The ‘irrational’ is much more difficult to handle if it is the introduction of the marvellous. But the supernatural elements are easily believed, if it is in accordance with the general beliefs and received opinion. The supernatural elements are easily admittable in epic poetry, but less so in tragedy which is presented on stage. On stage, irrationalities appear less credible.
In dramatic poetry, the events presented must be the logical and natural outcome of the preceding events. Each event has to lead naturally to the next. There is a complex interelationship between character and event in drama. Cause and effect have to be logically presented. Hence, the place for the irrational, the supernatural, and the marvellous is highly restricted in drama. Nor is there much place for ‘chance’ or ‘accident’. Chance events do not have rationality while drama requires its events to be governed by the law of probability and necessity. Chance is allowed only if the poet’s great skill can overcome its apparent irrationality.
The one kind of improbability which cannot be overcome through the skill of any poet is ‘moral improbability’. This is the improbability arising out of the violation of the basic laws of human behaviour. These violate the very principles of human nature, and do not have a place in poetry at all. They cannot be glossed1 over by any skilful technique, for they are absolutely untrue, conceptually2 or really. Artistic truth depends on the basic truths of human nature—the eternal emotions, thoughts, feeling, and actions of human beings. If it violates these very objects of imitation, it cannot have any credibility. Logical and moral necessity are at all times to be adhered to.
Poetry then, is ‘imitation’, but not a photographic presentation of the world of appearances and all its mundane trivialities. Poetry’s truth is based on the basic elements of human nature, the everlasting, universal aspects of human life. Poetry ignores the nonessentials, removes irrelevances, and concentrates on the essentials. It presents the ‘universal’, while history deals with particular events. Poetry takes the particular and makes it into the universal. But the process of imitation is in keeping with the law of logicality, probability and necessity. Poetic truth is higher than that of history. The particular object taken by the poet is transfigured, “so that the higher truth, the idea of the universal, shines thought it”. Aristotle defends poetry against the charge that it is full of lies.
Aristotle enunciates a doctrine which holds good for all ages—the presence of a universal element in all great .poetry, accounting for its permanent appeal, while at the same time he showed how a reconciliation might be effected between poetry and philosophy. “Plato had indeed shown that an element of intuition was common to the processes of philosopher and poet alike; but it remained for Aristotle to complete the vindication of poetry, and to recommend the claims of philosophy and poetry by showing that both were avenues to the higher truth.”