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Lecture Two:

Classical Literary Criticism: Aristotle


I.

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


sciences.

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


imitation.

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
imitations.

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


(rhythm,

language,

represented

melody),

(human

in

beings),

the
and

kinds
in

the

of

objects

manner

of

presentation (narration, dramatic representation, or a mixture of


both).

For Aristotle, the essential characteristic of the poet is


imitation, in which all human beings take pleasure (Poetics,
I).

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


character

Dramatic presentation means the story is performed and acted

out.

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.

V.

Aristotles View of Tragedy

Aristotles analysis of tragedy remained influential until the


eighteenth century.

Aristotle defines comedy as an imitation of ridiculous human


beings.

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


definition.

VI. The Elements of Tragedy:

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


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

These elements can be grouped under the three categories of


imitation:

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
recognition.

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
good.

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
inevitability.

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.

VIII.

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


vicious.

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
commoner).

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


traits.

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


flaw.

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

disgust.

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.

draws

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