Back to: Literary Criticism Course
Even after having been under the tutelage of Plato, Aristotle grows to be anti-Plato. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believes the state doesn’t only have the function of providing good material lives, but, also, have a function of making an individual virtuous and give him/her a dignified life.
Aristotle understood the importance of literature and art to perform a moral function. He was against the idea of a unified state for the city houses different people with different thoughts and desires—he accepts the plurality of the country.
He denied Plato’s concept of reality existing outside the physical world and was rational enough to believe that reality can be found in the physical world itself. He also didn’t agree with Plato’s idea of reason solely being able to find the truth; on the contrary, argued that sensory organs are the source of knowledge.
Even after seeing his disagreement with Plato’s conservative ideas, one can’t say that Aristotle was completely democratic because his philosophy of state consists of the same amount of censorship that it did in Plato’s. While Plato suggested banning poetry, Aristotle could only agree with a kind of poetry that has a moral function; one that would help educate the masses.
Like Plato Aristotle also agreed that poetry is a form imitation but unlike Plato—who believed that that imitative nature of poetry makes it denigrative as it has been twice removed from reality—Aristotle believed this imitative nature to be a characteristic of every human being, and suggested that from childhood humans have an ‘instinct’ to imitate; in this way, he claims an imitation is an act of learning.
He further adds that every human finds pleasure in learning; hence, imitation helps us learn and, also, provides pleasure.
The most famous definition of the tragedy until now, by Aristotle, reads:
Tragedy is, then, an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude – by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it affects relief to these and similar emotions. (Poetics, VI.2–3)Aristotle’s Poetics
The action here doesn’t mean a particular isolated action, but the entire course of action, not only what the protagonist does but also what happens to him through the story. Also, there is a significant emphasis on the word serious for, like comedy, tragedy, for Aristotle, can’t have comic elements.
The main purpose of tragedy is to evoke pity and fear to have an effect of catharsis which can’t be done having non-serious instances in the story. Literary criticism by Aristotle is based on one point: to have a purpose and a function. Even his definition of good tragedy has catharsis as the most important aim of the tragedy.
The concept of action via which the can be evoked to perform a moral function also has a significant place in Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy. The action includes plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Other than that Aristotle also requires completeness of action, the unity of time and emotional impact.
Aristotle believed plot to be the most important part of the tragedy, and he calls plot the ‘soul of tragedy’. Unlike Roman theatre, having playwrights such as Seneca, which was character-based, Aristotelian theatre is supposed to be plot based.
The plot is the central element that leads to reaching the purpose of the tragedy. He reasons: tragedy is not a representation of men or of character; rather, it represents a sphere “of action, of life, of happiness and unhappiness, which come under the head of the action” (Poetics, VI.12).
The character has a secondary place in tragedy. The character has to be a nobleman; not entirely good or bad, but a mixture of both, whose fall causes tragedy. Aristotle believes that if the character is above-ordinary people, the tragic effect will be stronger.
And that the fall of such character would evoke strong emotions of pity and fear leading to catharsis which would make us cautious of our own life and actions.
The thought is related to what the characters speak. Aristotle wants thoughts and actions to have an appropriate relationship. Diction is how words are spoken and the situation is represented. It refers to expressing meaning in words.
Spectacle means the scene and props used on the stage. The point of having scenes and props on stage is to create a strong emotional effect and relationship with the audience. It accentuates the emotional importance of the events taking place in the story.
Songs have an important place in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. They are mostly sung by the group of singers called a chorus. The songs are not meant to entertain the audience, but to provide a commentary on and an analysis of the events taking place. The chorus acts as a middle man between the audience and the actions on the stage.