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The Poetics of Aristotle

Updated on January 21, 2010

The Poetics of Aristotle is a treatise by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) on the nature of poetic art and the relation of poetry to reality. The 26 chapters which survive from what originally was a more extensive work address themselves to an analysis of tragedy and narrative poetry. There are indications in the surviving part that the lost portion of the Poetics dealt in a similar manner with comedy.

In exploring the structure, ingredients, and impact of tragedy and narrative poetry, Aristotle is particularly concerned with the ability of poetry to reproduce or to imitate human situations and events. Throughout the Poetics his basic assumption is that poetry is more philosophical and serious than history. Tragedy evokes in the human being a psychological as well as an intellectual response; human experience in times of crisis is regarded as the proper content for drama, while narrative poetry provides the reader with a series of interpretations of life itself.

In the sixth chapter of the Poetics Aristotle presents the core of his poetic doctrine and aesthetic theory. Before qualifying the six component parts of a tragedy (plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle, and choral music) and before emphasizing the unity which these component parts must preserve to ensure the unity of the organic whole, he defines the purpose and essence of tragedy: "tragedy is the imitation of an action which is serious, complete in itself and of a certain magnitude; in language which is embellished with artistic ornaments; in a dramatic not a narrative form; with incidents which arouse pity and fear and accomplishing the catharsis of these emotions." That every work of art is a likeness or reproduction of an original is consistently maintained throughout the Aristotelian system of philosophy, and in the Poetics poetry is shown to be the highest form of reproductive art. The emotional catharsis which Aristotle attributes to the impact of tragedy is contrived by the spectacle, the structure, and the incidents of the play; of similar significance, however, is the intellectual and emotional response of the audience as it witnesses the play. While narrative poetry may reproduce human actions, it is not within its faculty to effect and to purge these emotions.

The Poetics contributes the concept of the "tragic hero" to dramatic criticism. Aristotle defines the hero as "a man not outstandingly good and just whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment..." In this definition the Aristotelian ethical principle of character and choice becomes evident - the character of a man may be adjudged by the choices he makes.

To illustrate his poetic doctrine Aristotle cites a number of Greek tragedies as well as the Iliad and the Odyssey. In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, he finds the greatest number of illustrative virtues and the highest degree of dramatic competence. In summary, near the end of the Poetics, he pronounces tragedy a superior and higher form of imitative art than the epic.


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