Hugo Santander   




Ethics of Aristotle’s Poetics

            A clear distinction between tragedy and comedy dominated the stage of the ancient world. The biblical adaptations of the medieval times, represented during the holidays in front of the churches, combined tragedy and comedy, giving birth to modern dramaturgy:

                                The mixture of tragedy with comedy…
                                Will make an earnest part, another funny;
                                A variety that everybody likes quite [1].

                The technical descriptions 'Poetics'―originally conceived as an analysis of tragedy, suited the new dramatic sensitivity. D. W. Lucas writes on this issue: «poietikhs... as the subject of a book it would recall the tecne retorike, the Handbook of Rhetoric; the purpose of this books, which had been in existence for a century or more..., was to teach the art of speaking, but [Poetics' object] is mainly to define the nature and function of poetry, though instructions for the poet are included[2].» Aristotle realized that the main manifestation of poetry was the art of plot making, rather than versification: «It clearly follows that the poet or 'maker' should be the maker of plots rather than of verses (Poet., 9)[3]». Based on his experience as spectator of Greek poetry―epic and drama, Aristotle deduced a series of narrative principles, widely spread in the academic circles of Athens, Rome, Constantinople, Cordoba, Istanbul, Paris and Beverly Hills. The reputation of Poetics can be attributed to its sharp description of the elements of drama, but also to its apparent lack of interest on ethics of narration. Although Aristotle distinguishes the dialectics of the older poets from the rhetoric of the contemporary (Poet., 6,) he abstains from any further analysis on the subject and refers the reader to his treatise on Rhetoric[4], in which he defines rhetoric as a half-dialectic, half-deceiving reasoning referred to ethics and politics (Rhet., 1, 2)[5].          

            Contrary to Plato, Aristotle did not write about the effects of poetry on children's education. Poetics mainly describes the internal mechanisms of dramaturgy, giving special attention to the emotions aroused by the spectacle. As a result Aristotelian aesthetics, divested from ethics, deteriorated the social role of creativity during the centuries to come. When at the beginning of the 19th-century Benjamin Constant advocated an art for art's sake―L'art pour l'art, he was merely formalizing the ideology of Poetics[6]. Cinema, a sub-product of the industrial revolution, evolved as an art for the mass, but only exceptionally as an art about the mass. Without interest to debate the effects of mechanized art upon society, the early producers and directors of commercial cinema quickly embraced the formal precepts of Poetics.

Television is not only distinguished from other media by its global coverage, but also by its visual continuity: a legacy of the Hollywood studio production system. News-reports, soap operas, TV commercials, travel documentaries touting cheap airline tickets and music video-clips are all visual stories with a beginning, middle and end. In spite of his manifest animadversion towards spectacle[7], Aristotle refers to frenetic music and special effects as means able to arouse―through pity and fear, the catharsis (Poet., 14), that is, the main purpose of tragedy.

Aristotle's analysis on tragedy is deductive; his observations are still valid for the playwrights and spectators of today. Any spectacle encourages creativity―as long as it works as entertainment. Contrary to Plato, Aristotle pays little attention to poetic inspiration. His pretended vindication of poetry is rather a satire against Plato―as the scholastics rightly understood. Plato didn't intend to exclude the poets from the Republic, but rather to establish a rigorous censorship on poetry in conformity with a warlike educational policy. Aristotle becomes more rigid than his tutor does when he reduces the function of the poet and the historian to the making of plots. Susan Sontag grasps the ideology of Poetics when she writes: «When Aristotle said that poetry was more philosophical than history, he was justified insofar as he wanted to rescue poetry, that is, the arts, from being conceived as a type of factual, particular, descriptive statement. But what he said was misleading insofar as it suggests that art supplies something like what philosophy gives us: an argument[8]». I may add that by calling poetry philosophical[9], and by stating that it bends towards the universal, Aristotle achieves what Plato was unable to achieve through his arguments: to establish the superiority of philosophy over poetry.  The poet is thus condemned to the arena of divertimento. The arduous debates in the universities of Italy, Spain, England and France about the unity of tragedy, its duration and its purpose, were a direct aftermath of the Aristotelian subordination of drama to dialectics. Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century Novalis was able to reestablish the harmony between philosophy and poetry.

            Aristotle underrates the poets who value versification over plot-making, praise those who attempt to emulate the philosophers and ends up calling all of them gifted or insane.  His praise or satire alludes to the ability of the poet of writing discourses incompatible with each other within a single play, that is, of severing truth in a random number of certainties. Reluctant to analyze a discourse that rejects universal laws, Aristotle centers his analysis in the emotions: «Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action… through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation (kaqarsois), of these emotions» (Poet.,6.) Based on passage of Politics, in which Aristotle mentions kaqarsois once again, the interpreters of the renaissance understood drama either as a therapeutic process or as an ethical action, which―as music, would strengthened the citizen's disposition towards terror and compassion[10]. Prior to these interpretations, kaqarsois refers to the climax, that is, to the resolution of the tragedy's main conflict. Aristotle describes drama as a pleasant experience, far more intense than reading and declamation: «And superior it [tragedy] is, because it has an the epic elements- it may even use the epic meter- with the music and spectacular effects as important accessories; and these produce the most vivid of pleasures (poet., 26)». The hedonic aspect of drama, misunderstood and suppressed by the medieval monks[11], has been recently vindicated by Bertold Brecht: «Thus, what the ancients, following Aristotle, demanded of tragedy is nothing higher or lower than that it should entertain people... [catharsis] is performed not only in a pleasurable way, but precisely for the purpose of pleasure[12].»

           The assumption that kaqarsois―or the cleansing of the passions, happens during the climax of the drama, contrasts with the ubiquitous definition of kaqarsois included in the 'Tractatus Coisliniamus'―a text arguable attributed to Aristotle, in which kaqarsois occurs with each laughter: «Comedy…  [accomplishes] by means of pleasure and laughter the catharsis of such emotions[13].»

       'Poetics' constitutes a reformulation of poetry. Aristotle insists in the etymology of the word (poihsis ―from poiew: to make to fabricate,) in order to define poets as makers of plots.  Once he has established the ideal length of a play, Aristotle places Homer―the official poet of Athens, in a rank inferior to Aeschylus and Sophocles. The art (tecne) of composing verses―still present in the definition of tragedy, is excluded from the list of constitutive elements of drama: «Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious… in language embellished… [which] must have six parts… Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song» (Poet., 6.) Poetic inspiration should be surveyed according to the plot-making inventiveness of the poet. Weavers of incidents and conflicts, the poets will gradually sacrifice versification in order to become playwrights. Centuries before the establishment of naturalistic cinema, Aristotle hinted that the elaborated verses of Greek drama would be replaced by colloquial speech: «Aeschylus first introduced a second actor… Once dialogue had come in, Nature herself discovered the appropriate measure. For the iambic is, of all measures, the most colloquial we see it in the fact that conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently than into any other kind of verse» (Poet., 4.) The unflavored dialogues of commercial cinema are the most recent manifestation of poetic drama. The survival of versified poetry had been already at the stake during Aristotle's lifetime: «Ariphrades ridiculed the tragedians for using phrases which no one would employ in ordinary speech» (Poet., 22.)

            Due to its formalist analysis, 'Poetics' has been traditionally interpreted as an apolitical treatise. But the dramatic preferences of Aristotle reveal his own ideology. 'Poetics' omits the most controversial Greek tragedies, e.g., Prometheus Bound, Antigone and Women of Troy, in order to elaborate its discourse on an illustrative play of the Status Quo: Oedipus King. Sophocles' masterpiece represents the life of a ruler willing to sacrifice his life for his vassals.

            Aristotle admires Oedipus King on account of its structure―in which sentences and sub-conflicts are directly related to the main conflict of the play: «The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action, in the manner not of Euripides but of Sophocles» (Poet., 18.) He also questions the use of the chorus as a singer of interludes―that is, of prayers or laments dissociated from the main action of the play: «their choral songs pertain as little to the subject of the piece as to that of any other tragedy» (Poet., 18.)

            Aristotle does not question the originality of these songs, but rather their flimsy articulation to the main conflict of the play. Thematic repetition is encouraged, as well as the representation of the fate of a small number of ruling families: «the best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus» (Poet., 13.)

            Aristotle recommends the representation of active rather than passive conflicts, for the former are more prompt to evoke fear and compassion. He―as most of the commercial producers of our time, rejects episodic or disjunctive tragedies. Several dramas lost or destroyed during the decline of the Greco-Roman civilization had been already condemned by 'Poetics': «Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot 'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets compose such pieces by their own fault, good poets, to please the players» (Poet., 9.) His statement applies to summer blockbusters such as Jurassic Park, in which all the scenes are chronologically edited one after each other. The scene in which two reptiles of supernatural appetite are about to swallow the heroes of the film, must be placed―according to the Deus ex Machina convention, towards the end of the film. This narrative structure is repeated in Saving Private Ryan, in which a troupe of ferocious German soldiers is about to slaughter the heroes of the film. In both cases the antagonists are timely annihilated by a celestial mechanism.
            The reduction of art to entertainment drove Bertold Brecht to formulate an Epic Dramaturgy―in opposition to an Aristotelian Dramaturgy. As a playwright, Brecht distinguished art from science[14]  in order to recover for art the space it had lost before philosophy and science: «It is customary to see a rather unnatural knowledge in exceptional poets. They perceive with clear divine assertiveness what most men can only achieve through great industry and effort. It is clearly unpleasant ―let's confess it, to realize that we hardly listen to the inspiration of the poets[15]».

            In the same vein, the aesthetics of disjunctive or reiterative films such as Un Chien Andalou, L’Année Dernière à Marienbad o Citizen Kane prompted professor Jean Mitry to formulate a cinematography without grammar or syntax.

            'Poetics' defines plot as the soul of drama, a statement that suits the commercial demands of mainstream filmmaking today. Drama could exist with plot alone―characters, songs and music can be excluded. Aristotle understands plot as a complete action (praxis): «for Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality » (Poet., 6.)  The poet is a contriver of actions, in conformity with Aristotle's theories on physics (197b4), politics (1325a32), and ethics (1098a16, b21.) Happiness and unhappiness happened in actions regulated by opposed forces: true and secrecy, life and death, revenge or forgiveness. Gilles Deleuze echoes Aristotle while describing American Cinema: «Action is by itself a strife of forces, a series of strives: strife against the system (milieu), against the others, against itself… [The movement action  (l'image-action) stretches out before the system and shrinks in before the action[16].» Mainstream cinema represents characters that can only live and feel through violent actions, e.g. in The Godfather, the main character achieves power by slaying his opponents, in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, a cow-boy expresses his friendship by shooting a trouble-maker on his back. Actions become physical actions. Violence, rarely represented during the decline of the Greek tragedy, becomes the norm of commercial cinema. Models and actors perform acrobatic chases and escapes in order to satisfy their psychological needs. The morbidity of film producers, rather than the aesthetic demands of the spectators, regulates filmmaking today.

             'Poetics' describes the dramatic elements of ancient drama and contemporary cinema. In his last chapters, Aristotle analyses the role of sub-plots, changes of fortune, music, make-up and special effects.  But by emphasizing entertainment, Aristotle sanctioned poetry in conformity with the economic and political imperatives of his age.


[1] Lo trágico y lo cómico mezclado (…)

harán grave una parte, otra ridícula,

que aquesta variedad deleita mucho. Vega, Lope de, El Nuevo Arte de Hacer Comedias, 174 - 178.

[2] D.W Lucas, appendix to Aristotle's Poetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 53.

[3] Aristotle, Poetics, tran. S. H. Butcher, at (Jan. 2003). All citations from this edition.

[4] «Concerning Thought, we may assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly belongs (Poet., 19).»

[5] Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, at  (Jan. 2003). Aristotle defines rhetoric as «partly like dialectic, partly like sophistical reasoning (Rhet., 1,4).» All cites from this edition.

[6] Oscar Wilde popularized this expression in 'The Critic as Artist', in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Cambridge: Blits Editions, 1990) pp. 948-998.

[7] « The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry (…)Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet (Poet., 6)».

[8] Sontag, Susan, 'On Style', in Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 1965), p. 15.

[9] “Dio kai filosofwteron kai spoudaioteron poiesis istorias estin” (Poet., 9).

[10] Torquato Tasso, nonetheless, judges the originality of a poem by its main conflict and resolution: «La novità del poema (…) consiste ne la novità del nodo e de lo scioglimento de la favola,» Tasso, Torquato, Discorsi dell'arte poetica ed in particolare sopra il poema eroico, I.

[11]«Pleasure and guilt are synonymous terms in the language of the monks…»,  Edward Gibbon,  The Decline and Fall  of The Roman Empire, 4, 37.

[12] Bertold Brecht, Journal Notes, in Brecht on Theatre: the development of an aesthetic, ed. & trans. John Willet (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 157.

[13] Tractatus Coislinianus, trans. by Richard Janko (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), p. 45.

[14] «Kunst und Wissenschaft wirken in sehr verschiedener Weise, abgemacht» 'Das epische Theater', in Schriften zum Theater 3: über eine nicht-aristotelische Dramatik  (Frankfurt: Suhrkampf, 1963), p. 58. And later on, towards the end of his life: «Die materialistisch-dialektische Betrachtungsweise mub, da wir uns im Bereich der Kunst aufhalten, zu Bewubtsein gebracht und zu einem Vergnügen gemacht werden» Brecht, Bertold, 'Eigenarten des Berliner Ensembles', in Brechts Theaterarbeit: seine Inszenierung des 'Kaukasischen Kreidekreises' (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1954), p. 15.

[15] «Sie sind es gewohnt, in Dichtern einzigartige, ziemlich unnatürlich Wesen zu sehen, die mit wahrhaft göttlicher Sicherheit Dinge erkennen, welche andere nur mit großer Mühe und viel Fleiß erkennen können. Es ist natürlich unangenehm, zugeben zu müssen, daß man nicht zu diesen Begnadeten gehört» Brecht, Op. cit., 1963, p. 58.

[16] Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema I. L’Image-Mouvement  (Paris: Les éditions de Minuit, 1983), p. 197.

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