Poetics by Aristotle: Introduction

Aristotle's Poetics begins with the definition of imitation. He thinks that poet is a creator, not a mere recording device (imitator). He/she creates things and teaches us to see something in his creation that we never saw before. For Aristotle, imitation is productive action. Imitation does not mean the sort of mimicry. It is the imitation of action, and action does not mean mere happenings.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Action signifies only to what consciously chosen and capable of finding completion in the achievement of some purpose. Imitation is the reproduction through imagination. It is a powerful human communication and the thing imitated is something that defines human realm. If there is no imitation, life is mere oblivion without traces. Aristotle states, "Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature" (52). Therefore, imitation is not a low kind of business as Plato says. Dramatic poetry is a natural mode of imitation through language, rhythm and music.

Aristotle exposes the Greek idea that all poetry, or art, is representative of life. For the Greeks, the idea of poetry as imitative or representational was a natural one because a great deal of Grecian art was representational in content.

Aristotle's Poetics examines the essence of poetry and distinguishes its various species: epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, flute, regarded as representative of life. They are divided into different categories from one another by their means and their objects. This includes rhythm, language, and tune; but not all the arts involve all three, nor are these means used in the same way. For example, flute playing involves the use of rhythm and tune, but dancing involves rhythm alone. When living persons are represented, Aristotle writes, they are represented as being better than, worse than, or the same as the average. Tragedy presents people somewhat better than average, while comedy presents people who are somewhat worse. This point alone offers strong evidence against a narrow interpretation of Aristotle's conception of art, for if people can be altered by the poet, made better or worse than in actual life, then poetry is not merely an uncreative copying of nature.

The origin of poetry is explained by Aristotle as the natural consequence of humanity's love of imitation, tune, and rhythm. People enjoy looking at accurate copies of things, he says, even when the things are themselves repulsive, such as the lowest animals and corpses. This view is in opposition to Plato's idea that art corrupts the mind because it presents copies of copies of reality.

Comedy represents inferior persons in that they are a laughable species of the ugly; Aristotle says "Comedy is … an imitation of characters of a lower type" (52). The comic character makes mistakes or is in some way ugly, but not so seriously as to awaken pity or fear.

Epic poetry differs from tragedy in that it has a single meter and is narrative in form. A further difference results from the Greek convention that a tragedy encompasses events taking place within a single day, while the time span of the epic poem was unlimited. Aristotle defines tragedy as: "an imitation that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions." (53)

To explain, it is a representation of a heroic action by means of elevated language and spectacle so as to arouse pity and fear and thus bring about a catharsis of those emotions. The relief, or catharsis, of the emotions of pity and fear is the most characteristic feature of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy. According to Aristotle, tragedy arouses the emotions by bringing a person who is somewhat better than average into a reversal of fortune for which he or she is responsible; then, through the downfall or the hero and the resolution of the conflicts resulting from the hero's tragic flaw, the tragedy achieves a purging of the audience's emotions.

The audience feels pity in observing the tragic hero's misadventures, because the character is a vulnerable human being suffering from unrecognized faults. Fear then results from the realization of the audience that they, like the hero, can err and suffer.

Aristotle defines plot as the arrangement of the events that make up the play, character as that which determines the nature of the agents, and thought as what is expressed in the speeches of the agents. Diction is the manner of that expression.

The plot is the most important element in the tragedy because a tragedy is a representation of action. The characters exist for the sake of the action, not the action for sake of the characters.

The two most important elements of the tragedy and of its plot are peripeteia and discovery. Peripeteia signifies a change of a situation into its opposite state of fortune—in tragedy, a change from a good state of affairs to the bad. A discovery is a revelation of a fact previously unknown. The most effective tragedy, according to Aristotle, results from a plot that combines peripety and discovery in a single action.

Aristotle neatly divides tragedy into the beginning, the middle and the end, and defines the beginning as that which does not necessarily follow anything else but does necessarily give rise to further action. The end necessarily follows from what has gone before, but does not necessarily lead to further events. The middle follows the beginning and gives rise to the end.

A good tragedy should not show worthy person passing from good fortune to bad, for that is neither fearful nor pitiful but shocking. Even worse is to bad people acquiring good fortune, for such a situation causes irritation without arousing pity and fear. The tragic hero, consequently, should be one is better than the audience, but not perfect; the hero should suffer from a flaw that shows itself in some mistaken Judgment or act resulting in the hero's downfall.

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How does Aristotle differ from Plato in his theory of imitation and what is the relation between imitation and moraltiy?

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