Aristotle on the Arts

Poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.—Aristotle, Poetics

In this work Aristotle defends poetry against the stringent views of Plato (e.g., the Spartan ideal of The Republic). While the technical details of the ancient Greek stage is of interest mainly to specialists, the general discussion of what makes good literature and drama still speaks to us across the millennia.

Readers may already be familiar with Aristotle’s theory of catharsis and how drama can purge the human soul of “excessive passions.” Other aspects of the Poetics are just as important. For Aristotle, plot takes precedence over everything else. This is a successful formula even for the modern movie or novel. Yet the importance of character is not neglected. Reiterating his realist views on ethics, Aristotle says that drama “consists in action…. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.” In other words, a man’s actions reveal his personality and beliefs.

Another interesting point is the power of verisimilitude.

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, both natural ones. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and it is also natural to delight in imitations…. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity…. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, “Ah,that is he.” For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.

That may explain why we enjoy a good still-life of something as mundane as a bowl of fruit, or a convincing literary depiction of otherwise unappealing characters and settings. Also important to the classical approach to art is the question of proportion— something intuitively understood by the great masters, but which modern artists have often strayed from. Along those lines, Aristotle has some advice that filmmakers would do well to heed:

The spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.

There have undoubtedly been some great epic movies, but most spectacles and special-effects extravaganzas end up in the Hollywood graveyard of forgettable productions, because they neglect the basic rules of plot, character and diction outlined in the Poetics.

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