1.3. Aristotle (384-322 BC)





1.3.1. Introduction

1.3.2. The origins of literature

1.3.3. The nature of poetry

1.3.4. Theory of genres

1.3.5. Tragedy

1.3.6. Other genres

1.3.7. The Aristotelian heritage





1.3.1. Introduction


Aristotle was a disciple of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great. Plato's view of literature is heavily conditioned by the ambiance of political concern which pervaded Athens at the time. Aristotle belongs to a later age, in which the role of Athens as a secondary minor power seems definitely settled. His view of literature does not answer to any immediate political theory, and consequently his critical approach is more intrinsic.

Aristotle's work on the theory of literature is the treatise Peri poietikés, usually called the Poetics (ca. 330 BC). Only part of it has survived, and that in the form of notes for a course, and not as a developed theoretical treatise. Aristotle's theory of literature may be considered to be the answer to Plato's. Of course, he does much more than merely answer. He develops a whole theory of his own which is opposed to Plato's much as their whole philosophical systems are opposed to each other. For Aristotle as for Plato, the theory of literature is only a part of a general theory of reality. This means that an adequate reading of the Poetics must take into account the context of Aristotelian theory which is defined above all by the Metaphysics, the Ethics, the Politics and the Rhetoric. Plato's theory of literature may be said to rest on the metaphysical basis of his theory of ideas. Aristotle reacts against Platonism in all areas of knowledge. He does not believe that the world of appearances is an ephemeral copy of changeless ideas; rather, he believes that the essence of things is not in the transcendent world of ideas, but rather in the things themselves. Change does not imply falsity: things have a nature, a vital principle of unity through change, the passage from potentiality to act. Change is a fundamental process of Nature, which is regarded by Aristotle as a creative force with a direction in itself.

Similarly, every element in Nature has its own place and its own internal purpose, including poetry. It is therefore wrong to deny poetry its proper purpose, as Plato had done in Ion, where he tried to reduce the object and end of poetry to the objects and ends of the crafts it imitates. With Aristotle, we are not so much concerned with what poetry says as we are with what poetry is . Aristotle's main contribution to criticism may well be the idea that poetry is after all an art with an object of its own, that it can be rationally understood and reduced to an intelligible set of rules (that is, it is an "art," according to the definition in the Ethics). The main concern of the rules of the Poetics, however, is not with the composition of literary works; it is rather with their critical evaluation. Consequently, criticism can be a science, and not a mass of random principles and intuitions.

Poetry finds a place in Aristotle's general scheme of human activity. He divides human activity into three areas: thought (theoría ), action (práxis) and production (poíesis ). Poetry and the arts he includes under the head of imitation (mimesis ) which is one of the divisions of production. In Book VIII of the Politics, Aristotle speaks of the educative value of visual, musical and verbal arts. Both the Rhetoric and the Poetics can be considered --to be expansions of this view. Poetry may have its own internal laws, but "for Aristotle as much as for Plato, it is an art to be praised or blamed, only in its relation to the whole human being of whom it is both the instrument and the reflection." We might say that Aristotle sets literature free from Plato's radical moralism and didacticism, while he still expects it to be conformable to a moral understanding of the world. That is what Aristotle does with "teaching". As to "pleasure," he doesn't accept it at face value either. He rather makes an organic combination of the two theories: pleasure in literature is not to be understood as an hedonistic satisfaction, but rather as the result of an underlying intellectual activity or experience. He avoids facile and rigid assertions on the matter, but one thing is clear: for him, literature is a rational and beneficial activity, and not an irrational and dangerous one, as it was for Plato.



1.3.2. The Origins of Literature


Aristotle´s approach to literature is mainly philosophical: he is more concerned with the nature and the structure of poetry than with its origin. However, Aristotelian philosophy has also an interest in the development of objects or sciences; after all one of the main conceptual tools of Aristotelianism is the pair potentiality / act , and this is necessarily concerned with the study of objects as processes. Not as historical processes, though. Aristotle's approach, like the Greek approach in general, seems to us too categorical, essentialist and ahistorical.

Let us remember Aristotle´s table of all possible causes of a phenomenon, as expounded in his Metaphysics. We must take into account the agent , the matter, the form, the and also the final cause, the end to which a process is directed. This is to be taken not only in the sense of "intention", but also in the sense of an intrinsic development of natural phenomena towards their greatest possible perfection. Here Aristotle is in strong opposition to the sophistic conception of cultural phenomena. For the sophists, they were conventional (grounded on nomos, mere custom), while for him they are natural, grounded on physis, a driving force within natural phenomena, which encompasses and goes beyond human will. This view of natural and cultural processes as having an end inherent in their nature we call teleology. The main body of the Poetics is concerned with the material and above all the formal causes of literature. There is very little to be found in it about the agentive or efficient causes of literature, very little about the poets themselves or the history of literature. Whatever views we find on that matter are teleologically rather than historically oriented; Aristotle explains how the different poetical genres have developed toward the highest point in the discipline of poetry, which is tragedy.

The origins of poetry had been grounded on the instinct of imitation which is natural to man. The first poetical works were spontaneous improvisations. The origins of the different genres is justified by Aristotle thus:

poetry soon branched into two channels, according to the temperaments of individual poets. The more serious-minded among them represented noble actions and the doings of noble persons, while the more trivial wrote about the meaner sort of people; thus, while the one type wrote hymns and panegyrics, these others began by writing invectives. (Poetics II)

The development goes through serious or comic epic poems such as those written by Homer to comedy and tragedy; "these new forms were both grander and more highly regarded than the earlier" (Poetics II). Aristotle does not, however, decide on whether tragedy (and by implication, literature) has already developed as far as it can; but he does assert that it has come to an standstill. The undertone in the Poetics seems to point to the work of Sophocles as representing the highest point in literary achievement: later tragedians, such as Euripides and Agathon, are sometimes criticised. The standstill has sometimes the aspect of a decadence in Aristotle's account, and a kind of past classicism is therefore established as a critical norm. Aristotle makes a brief outline of the history of tragedy, from its origins in the dithyramb, through the work of Aeschylus, to that of Sophocles and Euripides:

Aeschylus was the first to increase the number of actors from one to two, cut down the role of the chorus, and give the first place to the dialogue. Sophocles introduced three actors and painted scenery . . . . At first the poets had used the tetrameter because they were writing satyr-poetry, which was more closely related to the dance; but once dialogue had been introduced, by its very nature it hit upon the right measure, for the iambic is of all measures the one best suited to speech . . . . Another change was the increased number of episodes, or acts. (Poetics II)

Aristotle also deals briefly with the rise of comedy:

the early history of comedy. . . is obscure, because it was not taken seriously. It was a long time before the archon granted a chorus to comedies; until then the performers were volunteers. Comedy had already acquired certain clear-cut forms before there is any mention of those who are named as its poets. Nor is it known who introduced masks, or prologues, or a plurality of actors, and other things of that kind. Properly worked out plots originated in Sicily with Epicharmus and Phormis; of Athenian poets Crates was the first to discard the lampoon pattern and to adopt stories and plots of a more general nature. (Poetics II)

As with tragedy, we can observe that Aristotle's interest lies in the development of form till it reaches its proper nature. Here that "proper nature of poetry" is defined as the adoption of plots which have a general value, as opposed to mere lampooning against individuals; as in tragedy, the direction goes from mere particularity to a (cognitive) generality. Comedy is then a more developed and more perfect genre than lampoon.

The history of the literary genres had already been dealt with before Aristotle by Glaucus of Rhegium, of whose work only fragments have survived. Aristotle's approach, however, is original and of a piece with the rest of his philosophical system in its concern with essence and teleology. We will now proceed to deal with the essence of poetry, which is Aristotle's main interest and, in his view, the only possible explanation of the history of poetry.



1.3.3. The Nature of Poetry Learning through poetry Poetry and pleasure The poet Learning through Poetry


Aristotle sees poetry as something which has sprung from two causes, both lying deep in the nature of man. The first is the instinct of imitation, and the second is the instinct of harmony and rhythm.

The instinct of imitation is basic to all processes of learning. Imitation and recognition of imitations provide an intellectual pleasure:

We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general, whose capacity of learning, however, is more limited. (Poetics IV)

There is an important principle involved here. Plato believed that art as such had no object of its own: its effects and its sole substance were those of the object of which it was an imitation. Here we see that an imitation can provoke reactions entirely different from those caused by its object on its own: this implies that there is a substance peculiar to imitations which does not belong to their object, a substance of an intellectual nature.

But what is exactly the intellectual value of poetry? Since much of it is fiction, it could be argued whether it does exist after all in those cases where the poet is not portraying actual events. So, we must determine what is the relationship of poetry to factual truth; we must define its essence as opposed to that of history. On the other hand, if the discipline of poetry is of an intellectual nature, we must also determine its role and nature as distinguished from that of the intellectual discipline par excellence, philosophy. Plato´s position is well known to us: poets are liars whenever they go beyond factual truth; poetry is not a science (art, craft) in the sense that it does not provide us with a rational knowledge of its object. Aristotle´s view is completely opposed to this low estimation of poetry. He distinguishes the proper function of the poet from that of the historian. While the latter must tell things as they have happened,

it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen-what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. (Poetics IX)

Here we have a conception of mimesis different from Plato's; its objects need not be actual, they may be ideal without the pejorative connotations of phantastiké. "Things as they ought to be" reminds us Sophocles' comment on the difference between his own works and those of Euripides: according to Sophocles, the plays of Euripides showed men as they are, while his own plays showed men as they ougth to be. Aristotle's point is related but not quite the same:

The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. . . . The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. . . .

It clearly follows that the poet or "maker" should be a maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take a historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is their poet or maker. (Poetics IX)

For Aristotle the fact that some kinds of literature deal with real persons is not relevant to their status as poetical works. They may portray the universal and use real names to increase the illusion of reality, or they may fail to rise to the level of the universal because they aim at particular individuals. Such are the respective cases of tragedy and lampoon.

Poetry is not subjected to the rules of normal speech, or to the rules of logic and science. It is a discipline in itself, and it establishes its own rules to some extent. If possible, a poem ought to be faultless in all respects, even according to the laws of logic and science. But there are faults intrinsic to poetry, and faults external to this art. This rule may be applied to the arts in general: "For example, not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically" (Poetics XXV). This principle is widely accepted in general terms even today: for instance, a historical novel is said to be successful if it is a good novel, though not necessarily if it is accurate history. Aristotle says that in case of conflict between art and science, the rules of art must take precedence over those of logic: "the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities" (Poetics XXIV). And one of the rules of probability, or opinion, is that art is not concerned with a mere imitation of nature, but rather with an universalization or idealization which is based on nature but may go far beyond it. To some degree Aristotle's theory preserves the Platonic impulse to idealization.

All this is a justification of fiction: were we still dealing with a Platonic theory, we would have opened a new access to the realm of ideas or universals, which could be added to those of the philosopher and the lover: that of the artist. But there is no place for this kind of mysticism in Aristotle. He has brought the ideas down to earth: to him they represent the inherent nature of physical things; they are not heavenly beings, but the essence of physical beings. The access to ideas is not a mystical one, but a cognitive one. Through submission to the laws of necessity or probability, poetry elevates human action to a higher degree of intelligibility.

We are meeting again and again the terms "possibility" and "probability" as alternatives to one another. Logical necessity is an ideal: literature would be here nearest to philosophy. It is not, however a necessary requirement. Probability is. Literature may deal with both: the stress is on the fact that it need not deal with logical possibilities; its understanding is of a cognitive nature, but it need not be based on the syllogisms of factual truth. The reasonings we make while understanding a literary work may be based instead on enthymemes, or syllogisms whose premises are just probable, and not logically true. This distinction is made by Aristotle in the Rhetoric . Poetry may be a mode of knowledge, but it is a minor one, below the rank of philosophy. Poetry and Pleasure


There is not a sharp division in Aristotle of a double function of poetry, teaching and providing pleasure. The two are rather integrated. The references to pleasure coming from art in the Poetics come under one or another of these heads:

· The inessential pleasure of spectacle (setting, special effects, dress, machinery, etc), which must be used to reinforce the intrinsically dramatic effect of plot.

· The pleasure found in mimetic works which does not arise from their mimetic status (pleasure of rhythm, melody, colour). This pleasure does not involve the full use of our cognitive capacity.

· The pleasure of learning through mimesis and the pleasure of pity and fear. They are essentially mimetic , and they are two aspects of the highest aesthetic pleasure, which is cognitive in nature (Halliwell 63).

It is this last form of aesthetic pleasure which is most characteristic of Aristotle and that which will be less influential, when later theoricians come back to the old dichotomy in which utile and dulce are juxtaposed, or opposed to one another, rather than organically related. For Aristotle, aesthetic pleasure is not distinct from human activity in general; it is related to natural human instincts and to philosophy. We should remember here that, according to the Ethics, the intellectual pleasure of contemplation is the highest and most proper to human beings.

 The Poet


Aristotle qualifies the traditional view of the poet as a divine madman. In his discussion on composition, Aristotle speaks of the imagination needed to create characters and situations convincingly. The imagination which this requires belongs to two kinds of persons :

poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case, a man can take the mold of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self. (Poetics XVII)

In any case, it is through an understanding of human nature, be it intuitive or rational, that poetic creation is possible. And let us note that it is Aristotle who adds this rational view of creation to earlier theories of inspiration as represented by Plato, for instance. Literature is, then, a cognitive activity. It is a capacity rather than an instinct, and it can be rationally judged. Poetry is intelligible and teachable. Aristotle ignores inspiration in his discussion of poetry, to insist on the technical, rational side of poetry. "Yet . . . then it seems that from this larger perspective, the artist may once again come to be seen as a medium through which the operations of natural and greater forces are channelled. Inspiration, it could be argued, has been naturalized within the Aristotelian view of art" (Halliwell 92).

The poet should not speak in his own voice, Aristotle tells us at one point, because in doing so he is not a mimetic artist. But this is contradictory with his own theory of genre if taken at face value. However, it is clear that Aristotle likes the imitative mode best and does not like to hear the direct voice of the author. In this, as in nearly everything else, his opinions are opposed to those of Plato. Plato liked Homer in spite of his style, which was too mimetic for him. Aristotle praises Homer precisely because of this mimetic quality.




1.3.4. Theory of Genres Media Objects Mode



We noticed while dealing with Plato that there was no specific word for "art" in the Greek language. There were of course words which included that meaning, but they were more general, and comprised the notion of "craft" or ability in general. One of the first things Aristotle tries to do in the Poetics is to define the characteristics which are common to painting, drama, poetry, music, etc.; that is, to define art. He is the first to attempt such a definition. There is therefore a danger of misunderstanding this first chapter. Aristotle is not saying that "art" is imitation, but that there are certain crafts which are imitative. Those we call now arts, and we take them for granted, but this has not always been so. Let us now watch Aristotle attempting a further analysis of imitation:

Epic and tragic poetry, comedy too, dithyrambic poetry, and most music composed for the flute and the lyre, can all be described in general terms as forms of imitation or representation. However,they differ from one another in three respects: either in using different media for the representation, or in representing different things, or in representing them in entirely different ways. (Poetics I)

So, we have three criteria for the study of imitation in the different arts. Aristotle is going to deal systematically with each of them. He starts with the study of the media of imitation in general, and of poetic imitation in particular The Media of Poetic Imitation

The first criterion for a study of imitation in the different arts is the medium or instrument through which imitation is carried out. Today we would call it (referring to Jakobson´ s diagram of communication), the code, or the semiotic material of the primary systems, in a more general semiotic theory. Of course, Aristotle does not say it in so many words. He merely points out that in painting, representation is achieved through imitation of the colours and shapes of things, whereas in poetry "the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or "harmony," either singly or combined" (Poetics I). We must remember that music played an important role in lyric poetry, and also in tragedies. Nevertheless, Aristotle goes on to distinguish "the form of art that uses language alone, whether in prose or verse" (Poetics I) and complains that there is no common name to comprise all genres æthat is, no name for "literature." However, there are names for the specific poetic genres, according to the form of metre they use, which is a further distinction as to the medium of imitation. So, we might draw a table of the media of imitation and the arts and genres which use them:

Figure 7



Through Through Through Through Through Through

shape colour rhythm music spectacle language


Prose Verse


Iambic, epic, etc.


Sketching Painting Music Dancing Drama Prose Poetic

genres genres

The classification of poetic genres according to metre is then a further specification of the medium used for imitation, a subdivision of Aristotle´s first criterion. But Aristotle warns that medium is not sufficient in itself to determine the poetic nature of a work, as is shown by the existence of didactic verse:

People do, indeed, add the word maker or poet to the name of the meter, and speak of elegiac poets, or epic (that is, hexameter) poets, as if it were not the imitation that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all indiscriminately to the name. . . . Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out in verse, the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather than poet. (Poetics I)

We should compare this text to the one in chapter VI where he defines the poet as a maker of plots, not of verses. So, metre alone is not a sufficient condition to declare a work literary, and medium is not a sufficient criterion to classify literary genres. But is it a necessary condition? Aristotle has just distinguished poetry from non-literary verse. But what about prose? Is there a possibility of literary prose? Aristotle only deals with it implicitly, when he later mentions Socratic dialogues as one form of imitation which uses prose. But at this point, he does not set a contrast between prose and poetry. It is a pity, since the discussion on whether verse is a necessary element in poetry or in literature will go on unresolved for centuries. Here Aristotle opposes instead to metre a bad use of metre, such as is to be found in his opinion in Chaeremon´s Centaur. Here he also seems to make a basic point: the criterion of medium is not one of quality, but of structure. Even if poetry is bad, it is still (from a structural viewpoint) poetry.

One further specification is made by Aristotle with reference to medium:

there are some arts which make use of all the media I have mentioned, that is, rhythm, music, and formal metre; such are dithyrambic and nomic poetry, tragedy and comedy. They differ, however, in that the first two use all these media together, while the last two use them separately, one after another. (Poetics I) The Objects of Poetic Imitation


This is the second criterion used by Aristotle in his discussion of imitation. Let us point out that it is a more decisive one with a view to characterising what is to be considered literature. Aristotle may seem to be biassed from the very start:

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysus drew them true to life. (Poetics II)

Here the classical doctrine of the three "styles" of poetry (high, medium, and low) is introduced, though at this point it refers only to subject matter, not to language. We may disagree as to what is the proper object of imitation. To define it as "men in action" implies a value judgement: genres with a story to tell will belong to the core of poetry, while lyrical poetry, for instance, will be peripheral in such an approach. Aristotle does indeed value tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry more than all the other genres; he also diminishes the importance of non-realistic elements in tragedy, such as the chorus.

We may notice in the text just quoted some hesitation between a twofold and a threefold scale of excellence. Three degrees are considered while dealing with painting, dancing, nomic and dithyrambic poetry, as well as with epic poetry:

Homer, for example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are, Hegemon the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse than they are. (Poetics II)

We may assume that the audience imagined by Aristotle sits comfortably in an aurea mediocritas, belonging neither to the better nor to the worse types of men. Considerations of social rank are mixed with moral considerations of excellence. So, there would seem to be three degrees of excellence in all genres. But when it comes to drama, we find a dichotomy instead: "comedy aims at representing men as worse, tragedy as better than in actual life" (Poetics II). Here the objective standard for comparison is thrown away from the stage into the pit: there is no dramatic genre which represents men "as they are."


 The Modes of Poetic Imitation


We have already met one theory of poetic mode, that of Plato (see Figure 5). Aristotle´s account is significantly indebted to it, but there are important differences :

the medium being the same, and the objects being the same, the poet may imitate by narration-in which case he can either take another personality, as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged-or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us. (Poetics III)

Schematically (see overleaf):


Imitation (mimesis)


Narrative Dramatic

(through language) (through language

and performance)


In the poet´s Assuming other

own person personalities


[mixed] Figure 8

There is only an implication of the relationships expressed by the dotted lines in Aristotle´s theory; some of them rest on different interpretations of the Greek text. We may ask ourselves why mímesis is the common term in Aristotle´s theory of mode, while Plato used diégesis as the common term. The answer might be that Aristotle is taking into account all aspects of literature, and he includes the non-verbal elements of drama, while Plato is only attempting a classification of discourses, of ways of imitating through speech. So, both classifications take narration as a the common term at one point or other. Besides, if we have a look at Figure 6, which represents the different uses of the concept of mimesis in Platonic thought, we will see that mimesis, or imitation, was also the ground of the Platonic theory of art. The fact that Aristotle has defined the proper object of imitation as "men in action" is already a major breakthrough against the Platonic notion of art as a third-degree mimesis.

Aristotle shows that his three criteria help us to understand better the relationship between the different literary genres:

So that from one point of view, Sophocles is an imitator of the same kind as Homer-for both imitate higher types of characters; from another point of view, of the same kind as Aristophanes-for both imitate persons acting and doing. (Poetics III)

This table shows how Aristotle´s criteria work together to define four major genres, all with a story to tell (action genres):


Better men Worse men


Through Epic poetry Iambic poetry




dramatic Tragedy Comedy