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Poetics

Aristotle

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Plot Overview

Plato (427–347 B.C.E.) is notorious for attacking art in Book 10 of his Republic . According to Plato's Theory of Forms, objects in this world are imitations or approximations of ideal Forms that are the true reality. A chair in this world is just an imitation or instantiation of the Form of Chair. That being the case, art is twice removed from reality, as it is just an imitation of an imitation: a painting of a chair is an imitation of a chair which is in turn an imitation of the Form of Chair. Further, Plato argues that art serves to excite the emotions, which can detract from the balanced reasoning that is essential to virtue.

Aristotle's Poetics can be read as a response to Plato's attack on art. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) was a student at Plato's Academy from the time he was seventeen until Plato's death some twenty years later. He spent the next twelve years engaging in scientific research and serving as tutor to the then teenaged Alexander the Great. He returned to Athens in 335 B.C.E., and founded his own school on the steps of the Lyceum. He remained there until 323 B.C.E., when he was forced to leave as a result of his associations with Alexander. He died a year later of natural causes. The Lyceum remained open until 525 C.E., when it was closed by the emperor Justinian.

None of the works of Aristotle that we have today were actually published by Aristotle. He wrote a number of treatises and dialogues, but these have all been lost. What survives are collections of notes, possibly from lecture courses Aristotle gave at the Lyceum, which are often unclear or incomplete. The Poetics, in true form, was likely a much longer work than the one we have today. Aristotle supposedly wrote a second book on comedy, which is now lost.

The main focus of the Poetics is on Greek tragedy. Though there were thousands of tragedies and scores of playwrights, we only have thirty-three extant tragedies, written by the three great tragedians: Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.E.), Sophocles (496–405 B.C.E.), and Euripides (485–406 B.C.E.). Tragedies were performed in Athens twice annually at festivals in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and excess. Though the tragedies likely evolved out of religious ceremonies celebrating the cycle of the seasons, they became increasingly secular. The dramatic festivals were immensely important events, and the winning playwrights achieved great fame.

The Poetics also discusses epic poetry, using the example of Homer (eighth century B.C.E.) almost exclusively. Homer wrote two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey , which deal with the fall of Troy and Odysseus's subsequent wanderings respectively. These epics are the source of a great number of Greek tragedies and are considered among the earliest great works of world literature.

Though the Poetics is not one of Aristotle's major works, it has exercised a great deal of influence on subsequent literary theory, particularly in the Renaissance. Later interpreters unfortunately turned many of Aristotle's suggestions into strict laws, restricting the flexibility of drama in ways that Aristotle would not have anticipated. The tragedies of Racine and Corneille in particular are formed according to these demands. Even though such great playwrights as Shakespeare often went against these laws, they were held as the model for writing tragedy well into the nineteenth century.

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