Skip over navigation

Poetics

Aristotle

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Chapters 25–26

Quiz

Study Questions

How does Aristotle's definition of "poetry" differ from our own? What problems do you perceive in the limitations set by Aristotle's definition?

We normally think of poetry as anything that is written in verse. Aristotle's definition is more specific, saying that poetry is a kind of imitation that employs language, rhythm, and harmony. These elements are certainly present in most poetry, though there are notable differences. First, Aristotle makes no requirement that poetry be written in verse. Provided it has rhythm and harmony, prose could count as poetry. Second, in claiming that poetry is imitative, Aristotle limits poetry to narrative: it has to describe something in the world. This would exclude most abstract or experimental poetry in this century, and would also raise serious questions about the dominant tradition of lyric poetry in the modern world, which usually deals more with emotions and ideas than with events and actions.

Explain Aristotle's concept of mimesis. In what way is poetry imitative? Why, according to Aristotle are we naturally disposed toward imitation? Do you agree with his arguments?

Mimesis can be roughly translated as "imitation." We might say that something is mimetic if it is not, and does not pretend to be, "the real thing." A painting of a chair is not a chair. Poetry is imitative in that it describes events in the real world without pretending to be these events. No one watching Oedipus Rex will think that they are watching real life unfold, but the performance will approximate something that could happen in real life. This is somewhat problematic, since the events in Oedipus Rex did not actually take place in real life. What is important is that, in some sense, they could have taken place. Aristotle claims that we are naturally imitative creatures and learn from imitation, and so we are naturally drawn to tragedy and other mimetic arts.

What is katharsis? How does it work in the context of tragedy? What purpose does it serve?

Katharsis, in the context of tragedy, is the purgation or purification of the emotions of pity and fear. According to Aristotle, this is the effect of tragedy, though he is less clear as to whether it is the purpose of tragedy for which all poets should aim. He does discuss quite a bit the importance of pity and fear, but he only mentions katharsis once, in Chapter 6. The psychological purpose of tragedy, it seems, is to arouse deep emotion but then to provide it with a release. That way, the audience will be made to feel more aware and alive without having the trauma of what they have experienced stay with them and inhibit a healthy social life.

Suggested Essay Topics

What does it mean to say that a plot must have a beginning, middle, and end? Is such tight structuring is always necessary to a good plot?

How do peripeteia and anagnorisis contribute to a good tragedy? How necessary are they to a successful plot?

Compare and contrast the Greek notion of hamartia with our modern conceptions of guilt and moral failure. Can we still understand Greek tragedy with such a different moral worldview?

To what extent are Aristotle's remarks on character universally applicable, and to what extent do they reflect the tastes and social structure of his day?

What, according to Aristotle, is the primary purpose of tragedy? What problems might there be with this point of view?

Compare and contrast epic poetry and tragedy. What do they share in common? What are the differences? To what extent do you think they can be judged according to the same criteria?

Are Aristotle's arguments in favor of tragedy over epic poetry convincing? Why or why not?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us