How to Read: Aristotle’s “Poetics”

There are numerous books in the world and not all of them come with instruction manuals although they are meant to be read in certain ways, have some specific methods to approach them that let one unravel the secrets that they hide deep within their pages. It is almost like opening a safe; the only ones that can open one are the ones that know the code or those who can figure it out.

I have started on a mission to learn the methods and to bring it to all those who seek the light as students of the universe and as teachers of fellow men. I am sure I am not alone in this journey and neither are you, seeker of light.

Contents of the article:

  • Before you read Aristotle’s “Poetics
  1. Plato’s Attack on Poetry
  2. Aristotle and Plato: Ideologies and Differences
  3. Aristotle’s Biographical Background
  4. “Poetics” as a work (+ Chapter distribution)
  5. Nature and Function of Poetry according to Aristotle
  • How to read Aristotle’s “Poetics”

Before you read Aristotle’s Poetics:

Plato’s Attack on Poetry

Plato as a philosopher has always preached about an ideal state along with its individual counterpart, the ideal individual, as is evident in the Republic. In his vision of an ideal state, there was no place for anything that was ‘false’, and one thing that he deemed so was art in its every form. Be it painting, poetry, music, dancing, he considered it to be a mimicry of the truth, which is nature. He deemed it as a twisted version of the truth and something which would, rather than contributing towards the state and the individual’s moral upliftment, drove them further from it.

In Ancient Greece, the poet was considered divine, almost prophetic, as it was believed that the gods were pleased with them. It is evident in Aristophanes’s The Frogs where the Greek god, Dionysus decides to venture into the underworld to bring one of the poets out of Aeschylus and Euripides, as Greece lacked a worthy national poet. But as Plato attacked poetry, he attacked the poet, calling him ‘a worthless man’.

Plato condemned poetry on moral, intellectual and emotional grounds. He took it upon himself to prove that philosophy is a subject much superior to poetry and argued that philosophy must replace poetry in schools and stated: “the artistic pursuit is unworthy of man’s intellectual ability and radically vicious in its effects.”

He likened poetry to painting, saying that poetry is merely a word painting which, according to him, is twice removed from reality which imitates only surface appearances. R. A. Scott-James in his book, The Making of Literature, says, “As a moralist, he has disapproved of poetry because it is immoral. As a philosopher, he disapproves of it because it is based in falsehood.” He further adds, “His ideal man as a citizen pursues the moral ideal, as an individual, he is intent upon the pursuit of the truth. But the arts deal in illusion.”

Plato’s philosophy of the treatment of things was that things should be treated exactly as they stand in nature, being the representatives of ideas and that things that do not represent any ideas do not add to the truth and therefore, should not exist. This philosophy of his is what drove him to attack poetry.

Aristotle and Plato: Ideologies and Differences

Plato was a metaphysical thinker as his philosophy was majorly influenced by his interest in mathematics, whereas that of Aristotle was influenced by the study of biology and the natural sciences, making him a more scientific thinker.

Plato liked to move from ‘objects to ideas’ but Aristotle took the opposite approach, going from ‘ideas to objects’, as a result of their individual influences. Plato had urged the idea of things being important as the representative of ideas which was opposed by Aristotle as ideas were the interpretation of objects of nature themselves, according to him. This philosophy of Aristotle is further clarified and justified in the Poetics.

Aristotle stated that poetry is purely human as humans themselves, by their very nature, imitate. This again clashed with the Platonic ideology that termed the artistic pursuit as ‘worthless’, immoral and false.

Aristotle’s Biographical Background

Aristotle was born in 384 BC in the city of Stagira of Ancient Greece. He was of aristocratic birth. At the age of 17 or 18, he joined Plato’s Academy in Athens and remained there till the age of 37 (approx.).

Shortly after the death of his master, Aristotle left the Academy and headed for the court of his friend, Hermias of Atarneus, in Asia Minor along with Xenocrates and remained there. After the death of King Hermias, he, along with one of his pupils, left for the island of Lesbos where they researched botany and zoology of the island. He married Pythias, the adoptive daughter of Hermias, in Lesbos who bore him a girl.

When he returned to Athens, Phillip II of Macedon invited him and appointed him as the head of the royal academy of Macedon. On his request, Aristotle tutored Alexander, the Great in the ways of the world, in warcraft and in other arts.

Shortly after, he set up the Peripatetic School of Philosophy in Lyceum (temple dedicated to the Greek god Apollo Lyceus) as Aristotle began teaching every day and later the school was officially called The Lyceum. He also established a library at Lyceum which, in turn, enabled him to produce numerous works on papyrus scrolls.

He wrote most of his treatises between 335-323 BC, including his Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, On the Soul, and Poetics. Around the same time, he is believed to have been involved with Herphyllis, who bore him a son, post the death of Pythias.

As his life neared its end, Alexander and Aristotle had differences over Alexander’s relationship with the Persians, who Aristotle had taught him to treat as “beasts and plants”. As the anti-Macedonian sentiment was rekindled after the death of Alexander (for which Aristotle is believed to be responsible, in part), Aristotle was made to flee as he was denounced for impiety.

Poetics as a Work (+ Chapter Distribution)

Aristotle’s work on ‘aesthetics’ consists of the Poetics, Politics (Book VIII) and Rhetoric. Poetics was lost to the world for a considerable period of history and was only restored in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. This work of Aristotle is believed to consist of two parts, each written on a separate  papyrus scroll, with the first part dealing with the poetic forms of Tragedy and Epic and the second part dealing with Comedy. But the second part is lost to us now; if indeed there ever was one.

Poetics is a short treatise that consists of 26 chapters around 50 pages (might differ in different publications) focuses on Tragedy (drama) and Epic (poetry) as a quasi-dramatic form of art.

Aristotle and his followers did not consider Poetics a proper ‘work’ as they did Politics and Rhetoric. It is rather a collection of Aristotle’s talks on lessons imparted in The Lyceum that he wrote down, which explains its disjointedness and terseness in its style and form.

The treatise is also quite digressive as Aristotle has covers some essential subjects and provided a good number of inessential points but refrains from addressing some other important topics in as much detail, as seen in his treatment of ‘poetic diction’. He has also cleverly avoids tying up the loose ends when he talks of Comedy as he considers it a lower form of creativity but is not sure if his views would hold true in future.

Another aspect of it that is to be seriously taken into consideration is the fact that Aristotle has only formed the rules with respect to the dominant forms of art that were found in Ancient Greece. If he had been exposed to other forms of art, the rules and regulations laid down might have been different. He might have ‘changed his mind’, as Dryden puts it. It even shows quite prominently in his treatment of Comedy, which was a comparatively newer form of art during his time.

So it is evident so as to why Poetics considered as being ‘acromatic’ in nature by his own followers, as it is a work which can only be judged in the light of his other works.

The chapter distribution too is a bit towards the disorganized side of the spectrum, and it is as follows:

  • Chapters 1-4 and 25 focus on the nature and function of poetry.
  • Chapters 5-20 deal with Tragedy as a form of art.
  • Chapter 5 also works as a general introduction to epic poetry.
  • Chapters 21-24 briefly discuss poetic diction.

Nature and Function of Poetry according to Aristotle

Plato, during his time, had provided the ‘Theory of Mimesis’ which stated that all art is an imitation, or rather mimicry of the original. According to him, art is twice removed from reality as all art, according to him is a copy of a real world object, which is in turn created in the likeness of its natural counterpart; a copy of a copy, in simpler terms.

Aristotle accepted Plato’s ideas but denied his claim of art being mimicry of nature. He stated in his ‘Theory of Imitation’ that art is not a copy of a real world object, which is again a copy of nature, instead, art is takes its inspiration from nature itself and is created in its likeness. Art does not strive to copy any aspects but creates something that is wholly independent still imitating certain aspects of it. Aristotle agreed with his master and refuted his theory on the same grounds. Poetry, according to him, represents the internal behavior of natural objects.

Aristotle, in chapter VIII of Politics states that art finishes the job when nature fails and imitates the missing parts, opposing the Platonic view of art as being something derogatory. He imparts a certain distinction to a work of art and hence contributes to the upliftment of society and its citizens.

Plato’s idea of nature being the only truth is refuted by Aristotle, as according to him, the idea that becomes an artistic piece and holds within itself creates a whole new truth by the virtue of its existence which is as much a part of nature as the object of nature that it imitates.

How to read Poetics:

Rather than instructing you on ‘how to read’ this treatise of Aristotle, I will tell you what has been successful in making my reading of it worthwhile so that you may follow these methods or try and form your own methods along the lines of these.

Considering the complexity of the work, being there are quite some points that a reader must keep in mind. They are as follow:

  1. You must know all the information that is provided in the first half of this article and must constantly refer to them and to other sources of information.
  2. You must keep making observations and jot them down along with insights and personal comments so that the next reading of it might enable you to go beyond surface details.
  3. You must be willing to give each chapter multiple readings (2-3 times, at least) in order to properly grasp the ideas that have been described. This will enable you to understand and use the ideas as a lens to analyze the literature of any other period that he/she might wish to.
  4. Use the internet to the fullest and seek guidance from other people, if possible, as it drastically accelerates the learning process. Some useful links are:

https://www.gradesaver.com/aristotles-poetics/study-guide/summary-chapters-1-5

https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/poetics/section1

https://www.slideshare.net/mobile/sabarai1/major-themes-and-analysis-of-aristotle-poetics#:~:text=The%20Unity%20of%20Poetry%20Aristotle,’unites’%20all%20the%20action.

http://www.english.hawaii.edu/criticalink/aristotle/terms/nomic.html

Now, the aforementioned is what I do and have found to be quite effective. I cannot assure you of its effectiveness on your end but it will surely be helpful.

Let me know if you find it helpful and tell me if I should do more such articles in future in the comments. Also, feel free to drop any ideas or requests of anything that you think I should write about!

Thank you for reading!

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14 thoughts on “How to Read: Aristotle’s “Poetics””

  1. Thankyou for the your helpful guide. It is very interesting to know both Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideologies. Personally, I tried to read Republic but couldn’t cross 60 pages cuz I couldn’t understand what he tried to convey. I’ll pick it up again and follow your guide. Thanks, again! :))

  2. Even Britannica couldn’t have made it easier than you did! Loved reading your insights on Poetics. I’ve always found it interesting and at the same time very hard to grasp. I’ll follow your points whenever I plan to indulge with it.

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