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Lecture Two:

Classical Literary Criticism: Aristotle


Intellectual Background:

The most brilliant student at Platos Academy was Aristotle.

His enormous contribution to the history of thought spans several

areas: metaphysics, logic, ethics, politics, literary criticism, and
various branches of natural science.

He served as tutor to Alexander the Great.

Aristotle opened his own school of rhetoric and philosophy, the

Lyceum, in Athens.

The history of Western thought has often emerged as a conflict

between two main visions:

1. The idealistic Platonic vision which views reality as above

and beyond our own world;

2. The empirical Aristotelian view which seeks to find reality

within our world.
II. Aristotles Poetics

In contrast with Plato, Aristotle sees poetry as having a positive

function in the political state.

For Aristotle, poetry and rhetoric had the status of productive


These disciplines had their place in a hierarchy of knowledge.

Aristotle viewed them as rational pursuits, as seeking a knowledge

of universal truths, and as serving a social and moral function.

The entire structure of the Aristotelian system was governed by the

notion of substance, from the lowest level to God as the First
Cause, or Unmoved Mover.

Each element within this hierarchical order had its proper place,
function, and purpose.

Aristotles universe is effectively a closed system where each entity

is guided by an internalized purpose toward the fulfillment of its
own nature, and ultimately toward realization of its harmony with
the divine.

Poetry, in this system, is analyzed and classified in the same way as

the other branches of human knowledge and activity.

The purpose of art is to attain to a knowledge of universals.

At the core of Aristotles Poetics are two complex notions:

imitation and action.

III. Aristotles Theory of Imitation

Like Plato, Aristotle holds that poetry is essentially a mode of


In contrast with Plato, Aristotle invests imitation with positive

significance, seeing it as a basic human instinct and as a
pleasurable avenue to knowledge.

Aristotle asserts that all the various modes of poetry and music are

These imitations can differ in three ways: in the means used















presentation (narration, dramatic representation, or a mixture of


For Aristotle, the essential characteristic of the poet is

imitation, in which all human beings take pleasure (Poetics,

Aristotle defines the poet as an integral part of human society,

rationally developing and refining basic traits which he
shares with other human beings.

IV. Aristotles Theory of Action

For Aristotle, all arts imitate men involved in action (Poetics, II).

For Aristotle, action has a moral end or purpose.

Art imitates human action; but human action must have as its
ultimate purpose the Supreme Good.

The actions imitated, says Aristotle, must be either noble or base

since human character conforms to these distinctions.

Tragedy represents men as better than the norm; comedy

as worse than the norm.

Aristotle states that action can be represented in only two basic

types: narration and dramatic representation.

Narration means the poet speaks in his own person or through a


Dramatic presentation means the story is performed and acted


Aristotle makes an important contrast between poetry and history.

According to Aristotle, artistic representations of people fall

into three categories:
1. Better than us
2. Worse than us
3. The same as us.


Aristotles View of Tragedy

Aristotles analysis of tragedy remained influential until the

eighteenth century.

Aristotle defines comedy as an imitation of ridiculous human


Aristotle defines tragedy as an imitation of an action that is

serious, complete and of a certain magnitude.

Tragedy is essentially dramatic rather than narrative.

It represents men in action and does not use narrative.

The tragic action is morally serious

The Greek word used for action or story is praxis.

The tragic action is a complete of related incidents and events that

are connected together logically through cause and effect.

Tragedy provides relief or Catharsis for various emotions, primarily

pity and fear.

Hence, the effect of tragedy on the audience is part of its very


VI. The Elements of Tragedy:

Aristotle identifies six components of tragic action: (1) plot, (2)

character, (3) diction, (4) thought, (5) spectacle, and (6)

These elements can be grouped under the three categories of


1. The means of imitation (diction and song).

2. The manner of imitation (spectacle).
3. The objects of imitation (plot, character and thought).

The element of tragedy which imitates human actions is not

primarily the depiction of character but the plot,

For Aristotle, plot is the first principle and the soul of tragedy

In tragedy, praxis that is long, episodic, and haphazard is

transformed into plot (or mythos) that is focused and unified.

The story (praxis) of a man begins with his birth and ends with his
death and includes all the various incidents that occur in between.

But a plot (mythos) constructed around that biographical story

would confine itself to a single day in that life span when all that is
most essential to that life comes to a head.

Whereas the events in a story follow each other in simple

chronological order, the events in a plot should move forward in
accordance with necessity, probability, and inevitability.

the scenes in a story (praxis) follows each other post hoc (Latin for
after this) while in the plot (mythos), follow propter hoc (Latin
for because of this)

Aristotle points out that one cannot have a tragedy without action,
but a tragedy without character is quite possible

The plot, is the end at which tragedy aims.

VII. The Elements of the Perfect Plot

Aristotle enumerates the many elements that work together to

create the perfect plot.

Aristotle sees the entire complex as one unified action.

A. A unified plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
B. It is shaped like an inverted V: a series of complications (the
rising action) draws the plot upward to its climax (the point of
the V); after the climax comes the unraveling or denouement
(the falling action).
C. In the best plots, the climax is marked by a reversal and/or a

1. The use of a reversal/recognition is what renders a simple

plot complex.

2. A reversal (in Greek, peripeteia) occurs when the fortune

of the hero moves suddenly from good to bad or bad to

3. In Oedipus, the messenger thinks he brings news that will

free Oedipus from fear, but that very news leads to his
destruction. This is the peripeteia.

4. A recognition (in Greek, anagnorisis) occurs when the

hero moves suddenly from a state of ignorance to
enlightenment. This is the anagnorisis.

5. In Oedipus, the messenger reveals to Oedipus his true

Theban origins.

6. The best kinds of recognitions are accompanied by

reversals; this is the case with the scene from Oedipus
mentioned in items III.C.3 and III.C.5.
D. The best plots do not end with a deus ex machina (god from
the machine).

1. The deus ex machina was a crane-like device that

allowed an actor to descend onto the stage in the guise of
a god or goddess.

2. It was used by dramatists as a way of resolving from

above all manner of difficulties and misunderstandings in
the play.

3. Aristotle considered the use of this device an artificial way

to end a plot.

4. The plot, he felt, should be strong enough to resolve itself

in a manner consistent with necessity, probability, and

5. Oedipus is so well-constructed that the final tragic

revelation of Oedipus parentage does not seem contrived;
it arises naturally out of the plot.

6. Aristotles prejudice against the deus ex machina

reveals his strong commitment to a balanced, rational

universe in which all makes sense.


The Character of the Tragic Hero

The Aristotelian tragic hero must possesses five qualities.

1. He must be a good man: he should be neither immoral nor


2. His character must be appropriate to his station in life.

3. He must possess a likeness to human nature: though heroic,
he is a man.

4. His character must be consistent: even if he is inconsistent,

says Aristotle, he should be consistent in his inconsistency.

5. Aristotle also advises that the hero be taken from one of the
great tragic houses of ancient Greece (i.e., he should not be a

The character of Oedipus possesses all five of these characteristics.

1. Though stubborn and a bit prideful, he is a good king who

loves his people and is devoted to truth and justice.

2. His love and devotion, as well as his stubbornness and pride,

are befitting the nature and role of a king.

3. Though larger than life, Oedipus still possesses very human


4. Both within the framework of the play and throughout his offstage life, Oedipus is supremely, and consistently, the solver

of riddles.

5. Oedipus is a member of the royal house of Thebes.

This good hero should yet possess a flaw (in Greek, hamartia).

1. Hamartia is usually translated as tragic (or fatal) flaw, but it

would be better to translate it merely as error.

2. Aristotle clearly does not see this hamartia as a vice or moral


3. Though readers of Oedipus, generally blame the heros

misfortunes on his pride (in Greek, hubris), it is really his good
qualities (his love of his people and his unswerving devotion
to truth) that leads to the tragic revelation of his birth.

4. The full-blown concept of the tragic flaw as a single vice that

leads the hero to his tragic downfall is really more indicative
of Shakespearean tragedy (e.g., Hamlets sloth, Lears vanity,
Othellos jealousy, Macbeths avarice).

5. The desire on the part of so many readers (and English

teachers) to identify tragic flaws in each of the heroes of
Greek tragedy seems to mask an innate desire to blame the
victim, to gain control.

The best tragedies show a good man who, on account of this error,
moves from good to bad fortune; such a movement elicits the
proper pity and fear.

1. A bad man moving from good to bad fortune evokes neither

pity nor fear: it merely makes us feel smugly satisfied.

2. A bad man moving from bad to good fortune merely arouses


3. A good man moving from bad to good fortune makes us feel

happy, but it does not inspire either pity or fear.

4. Pity is evoked when we watch a good man suffer

undeservedly; fear is evoked when we realize the same may
happen to us.

5. Pity
us toward the hero; fear drives us away.