The Poetics and Aristotle’s Prescriptions for Tragedy

In his Poetics, Aristotle presents an alternative to Plato’s concept of poetry as the work of an irrational mind divinely inspired by outlining a set of rationally defined rules whereby the poet can construct a perfect tragedy, thereby transforming poetic drama from a work of poesis into a work of techne.

In Ion, Plato writes that poets are divinely inspired, able to create mere representations of the true form of poetry delivered them by the Muse. Aristotle implicitly rejects this idea by the very writing of Poetics. In it, he scrupulously delineates how to create a strong plot and avoid a weak one; what kind of characters are best suited for tragedy; the importance of reversal and recognition; even an excruciatingly detailed explanation of the various types of diction to be used. In short, Aristotle has created a handbook whereby divine inspiration is no longer necessary for a poet to create perfect tragedy.

He writes “we must perhaps discuss next what [poets] should aim at and what they should be aware of in constructing plots.” Poets “aiming at” and “constructing” something implicitly makes the argument that they are the creators, not the Muse. Elsewhere he writes that “people who try their hand at composing can be proficient in diction and characters before they are able to structure the incidents” indicating that poets can learn to write better through trial and error, a state of affairs much more akin to a technical craft than to something dependent on inspiration. Poetics is a how-to manual for writing tragic poetry that transforms the creation of poetry from Plato’s view that no knowledge is required into the view that it is a craft requiring expert knowledge that can be acquired by a technician.

Tragedy as prescribed by Aristotle in his Poetics would be expelled from Plato’s Republic because one of the intrinsic motivations for tragedy according to Aristotle is to arouse fear and pity in the audience, effects which are defined precisely by Plato as being deleterious to the well-being of the citizens of the state because fear and pity are emotions that can serve to veil the truth. Aristotle writes that a perfect tragedy should “imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation.”

The ultimate purpose of this arousal of fear and pity, of course, is not merely to manipulate emotions, but rather to purify emotions on a grand scale through achieving a catharsis among the audience. The idea of mass catharsis would be anathema to Plato, an example of “the pity which has been nourished and strengthened in the misfortunes of others” and which would be “with difficulty repressed in our own.” Aristotelian catharsis cannot be identified otherwise than as the kind of contagion against which Plato was declaiming since the infection would be spread throughout the audience with an imitative-and therefore inferior-host as the carrier.

Since Aristotle’s conception of a perfect tragedy would be appealing most extensively to emotion and not to reason in its efforts to achieve catharsis, Plato would have no choice but to banish it from his idea of a perfect Republic which authorizes only poetry that extols reason while subordinating emotion that can seduce one away from the truth.

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