Aristotle’s Aesthetics (4)


While Plato’s aesthetics fundamentally focuses on moral questions of art, Aristotle’s examines the rhetorical form and structure of tragedy and highlights the cathartic function of art. Again in contrast to Plato, Aristotle is not negatively disposed toward the poets. The literary arts in fact are revered in part as getting at philosophic truths in a way that history, for example, does not, even if it does get at them in a more convoluted, less clear way than philosophy itself. While Aristotle’s work, On Comedy, was lost, his writing, the Poetics, can be read in part as a critique of Plato that outlines the what poetry is and the elements constituting poetic tragedy.

In contrast to Plato, who is largely skeptical of poets for the poets lack of understanding of what they themselves are doing, their playing on the emotions of the crowd in a way that prevents logical thinking and their morally corrupting influence, Aristotle sees poetry as conveying the poets’ knowledge, as making universal (philosophic) claims, and as providing the possibility for education in virtue. Tragedy in particular is thought to mimic actions of some magnitude. But it expresses itself in dramatic rather than narrative form. In this, it provides the possibility for a catharsis, a cleansing of emotions. As Aristotle notes: “tragedy is the mimesis of a serious and complete action of some magnitude; in language embellished in various ways in its different parts; in dramatic, not narrative form; achieving, through pity and fear, the catharsis of such passions” (Poetics 1449b24-8)

Though Aristotle only mentions catharsis twice in the Poetics, an emphasis on the cathartic effect of art has been one of his major legacies. In a rather typical depiction building on his few comments, the idea is essentially that rather than corrupting individuals, immoral and questionable scenes in tragedy can allow individuals a cleansing of sorts so that they do not need to engage in negative actions themselves such as are depicted by the characters of the tragedy. Living such things out in the imagination, vicariously, is thus not a bad thing that twists one’s desires making it more likely than one in fact will cultivate an appetite for vice. Rather, at least if not done in excess, it may well have the opposite effect, providing a release from negative emotions that might otherwise lead to viciousness. Aristotle’s own view, however, seems to be that such a positive cathartic affect will only occur if this is not overdone. Otherwise, the opposite effect might result after all, and rather than easing the emotions the imaginative enactment of bad behavior might strengthen the resolve to do it after all.

Aristotle, with a different metaphysics than Plato, having rejected the world of the forms, also has a less negative view about memesis in art. Though Aristotle like Plato does take the Greek representationalism as indicative of art generally — something spurious when we consider the multiple non-representational forms of art in many cultures — he does not think that this memesis is negative. Rather, it provides the possibility of learning. By copying, but with variation, tragedy also shows a kind of superiority to history. History, which just chronicles facts, lacks the philosophic element of the creative copying in art. Here life is depicted, but to make points about universals and truth, moral and otherwise.

One of the main points of the Poetics is to describe what a tragedy ought look like. Though the work had impressive influence, it was not in fact followed by Shakespeare and other Renaissance tragedians. It did however provide a form or structure that would have been accepted by many Greeks. In part, we might see something like this as a format for writing successful works of the genre. But the focus is also on how to do so in order to have the positive philosophic and moral affect that Aristotle also thinks is desirable of the art form: “Pity and fear are aroused by the right presentation of characters and their adventures, a presentation that whips those emotions up to the highest pitch they can reach” (Poetics, 1453a10). The is why heroes must be decent enough to win a spectator’s pity, but not so splendid that misfortune falls on them undeserved (Poetics, 1452b34-6). That would disgust the audience and moral disgust distracts from pure fear and pity (Pappas, 17).

Fear and pity are natural emotions. Instead of being overpowered by such emotions, as Plato fears we will be, Aristotle thinks that we can learn to control them. Contemporary authors influenced by Aristotle, like Martha Nussbaum, suggests this can be important for moral education: through the experience of literary enactments of situations that give rise to fear and pity, we can learn to express these emotions correctly in real life contexts. Literature proves to be a kind of simulator for life, which allows us to hone our skills.

Those who write tragedy can benefit from operating with an awareness of the positive role it can play. They should focus not so much on the depiction of character as on the development of plot, which allows general lessons to be drawn with universal philosophical and moral importance. The tragedian is not a passive copier of reality, but an active creator of plot with philosophical and moral purpose.

In Aristotle’s further depiction of the form of tragedy, Aristotle notes that tragic action should be serious. Its characters ought to be superior human beings, who do not suffer meaninglessly. The tragic character’s action ought be morally relevant, and their suffering ought not to be viewed as punishment for bad behavior, even though it will follow from a fundamental moral weaknesses of the tragic character. The tragedy plays on a mistake of a serious protagonist that normally does not lead to such moral travesty, but that unravels in ways that are philosophically and morally instructive, even though chance plays a role in the plot development. As N. Pappas notes: “A good tragedy hones the emotions, details the nature of life-straying error, shows how people insist on acting” (Pappas, 24).

Aristotle’s depiction of the form of tragic poetry can be viewed as separate from his views on beauty more generally. Again, in contrast to Plato, on the question of beauty as well, Aristotle does not think of it as a pure form that many beautiful things participate in. Rather, beauty is context dependent and differs for different objects as well as people at different times in their lives and so on. Here the focus has not been on that view of beauty, but on Aristotle’s general view of art. On this score, we see in him a much greater appreciation for the creative role and rational role of the artist in the creation of art and the value of art for moral education than we tend to see in Plato’s explicit statements on the subject.

Go to chapter 10 on Philosophy during Hellenism and the Rise of Rome

Useful Links

Aristotle — The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Aristotle — The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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