(384 - 322 BCE)

In The School of Athens, the fresco by Raphael on the home page of this web site, Plato and Aristotle stand side by side. Plato points to the heavens, to the ideal world of the Forms. Aristotle is shown with his hand open toward the earth. The painting shows how passionate Renaissance intellectuals were about the views and achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It also accurately portrays the difference between Plato and Aristotle. It's a difference that shows up in their approaches to the arts.

The difference should not be exagerated. Both Plato and Artistotle believed in unchanging rational essences, or Forms, which shape everything we know. Both of them believed that nothing can be understood without grasping its form. (The word "information" is derived from their philosophies; literally, it means taking the form of something into one's mind, and letting that form shape the mind.) Aristotle differed with Plato over what he called "the separation of the forms." Plato insisted that the Forms were the true reality, and that the world of appearances copies them. Aristotle held that Forms are never separated from things in this way.The one exception to this is the "unmoved Mover", which is pure Form. It is the goal toward which all things strive. For present purposes we can safely ignore it. Everything we are acquainted with is made of matter which is formed in some way or other. There is no form without content (or matter), and no matter without form. The essential form of anything defines what it is, and provides the driving force for that thing's existence and development. Everything strives to "grow into" its form, and the form defines what the thing can potentially become. So, for example, an acorn has the Form of an oak tree. That it has that form is not obvious from looking at it; but under the right circumstances, an oak tree is what it will become.

Aristotle took time and change more seriously than did Plato. Not surprisingly, he was also somewhat more friendly to the passions than was Plato; though he, too, thought that the moral virtues were various habits of rational control over the passions.

Like Plato, Aristotle thought that art involved imitation (mimesis), though on this point as on many others he was flexible and allowed for exceptions. He also thought harder than Plato about what art imitated. For example, he says that Tragedy is an imitation "not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery" (Poetics 1451b). Thus he leans toward the "art as imitation of the ideal" theory that Plato might have developed, but never did.

These themes are developed in connection with the arts in Aristotle's Poetics. Rather than shying away from Greek drama, as Plato did, because of the way that it arouses the passions, Aristotle embraced this characteristic. One famous element of his aesthetics is his theory of the katharsis, or purging of the emotions "through pity and fear", that is accomplished by a tragedy.While he does not develop this theory at any length (it occurs in only a few lines of the Poetics), it has had a lot of influence. Aristotle does seem to have believed that this emotional katharsis was a good thing, and thus he seems to have embraced an aspect of the arts that Plato rejected.

The Unities

The Poetics is largely devoted to drama, in particular to tragedy. Aristotle provides both a history of the development of poetry and drama, and a critical framework for evaluating tragic drama. The Poetics is the first systematic essay in literary theory, full of insight, and showing a high degree of flexibility in the application of its general rules. Like many of Aristotle's other attempts to systematize knowledge about an area, this framework has had a strong influence up to the present day, and was particularly influential during the Renaisance and the early modern European periods. Aristotle stresses the need for a work to be unified. The plot should be unified, portraying, in effect, one extended action which is set up, develops, and comes to a climactic conclusion. (Of course it should not develop in a tediously predictable fashion, but should have twists, turns and surprises which will keep the viewers' interest and arouse the desired emotions of pity and fear.) The character of the protagonists should be consistent, and the action should be the sort of action those characters would produce under those circumstances. The time of the action should also be unified, so that the plot can be held in memory as one action. Aristotle thought this would usually imply that the action would occur within one day. These "Unities" of action, character, and time were developed and added to by Renaissance writers to produce a code of "decorum" for dramatic productions, and failure to observe the "Unities" was often taken to mean failure of a work. Of course this brought a rebellion against Aristotle, who was not in fact responsible for the excesses of this code, and no doubt had no intention of producing a set of rules for dramatists in the first place. His critical standards no longer rule the evaluation of plays and novels, let alone other works. But the Poetics remains an impressive accomplishment, and many of its insights continue to ring true. It still seems a good general rule that a plot should be unified; that in a drama character should be revealed by action; that surprising turns are a great help to a plot, as long as they are not implausible; that one should not try to cover too great a length of actual time within the time of the play. The idea of catharsis is a potent one; and so is the idea that art portrays the universal, "not a thing that has been, but a kind of thing that might be."

Here is Aristotle's definition of tragedy:

A traagedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. (Poetics 1449b.24)

Aristotle distinguished six elements of a tragic drama: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Melody. Diction and Melody are the style of the text or lyrics, and the music to which some of them are set (Greek tragedy was like opera in that parts of it, though not usually the principal lines of the actors, were sung). "Spectacle" refers to staging, lighting, sets, costumes, and the like. Thought refers to the indications, given primarily through words but also through other means, of what the characters are thinking. That leaves the two elements to which Artistotle paid most attention, Plot and Character. Of these two, Aristotle thought that the Plot comes first. "In a play, they do not act in order to portray the characters; they include the characters for the sake of the action" (Poetics 1450a.20). That does not mean he would have approved of those modern "action films" in which it hardly matters who does the shooting or the fast driving. For Aristotle, action must be consistent with character, and reveal character.

Link to on-line text of the Poetics

Link to Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aristotle

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