Aristotle On The Art Of Poetry: A Review: Part 1

Posted by Andrew on Feb 11, 2018 in book reviews

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Aristotle is one of the most famous philosophers of all time. He’s in league with people who are so well-known that we call them by one name. They include Elvis, Hitler, and other philosophers like Seneca, Socrates, and Nietzsche. It’s good for history and our culture that Aristotle wrote down a lot of his thoughts since they’ve had an immeasurable impact. Other than philosophy, he wrote about many other subjects, like politics and art. His opinions had a massive influence on countless people throughout history.

On The Art Of Poetry is a fascinating book, and it’s less than a hundred pages long. It’s more like a pamphlet. I think the same way about it as I do with other old philosophical texts. This is that some ancient wisdom is timeless and almost universal. But other advice in the same books by the same authors seems wrong and not applicable today. It was more relevant to that time and culture. This is likely why many people think that ancient philosophy is useless. However, I doubt that even those of us who enjoy it see all of Aristotle’s writing as finely spun profound rules for life.

Aristotle has the old-fashioned view of art in ancient Greece that you probably expect. He thought that narratives should always follow the traditional five act structure. There was no room for jumping around and telling stories out of sequence. This was long before writers like Shakespeare introduced tools such as flashbacks. He presumably wanted to get you more invested in the characters while maintaining suspense, without interrupting the flow of action. Before then, it was unusual to introduce backstory after narratives started. There had to be exposition, introducing the characters and fictional world. Then, one or more person would experience conflict. Resolution followed my more challenges continues until the main character solves a problem and learns a lesson. Fiction is still mostly about the hero overcoming obstacles to save everyone, becoming a better person along the way. This is Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey. It applies to tons of modern heroes, like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and Neo in The Matrix.

The book should really be called something more like Aristotle on the Art of Fiction, or Aristotle on the Art of Stories. He barely writes about poetry, and mostly tells us about tragedies, epics, comedies, and plays. The latter is the main way that narratives were told back then. There wasn’t the printing press for distributing novels on a large scale, and there weren’t movies or T.V. shows. But basically, it seems like Aristotle classified literature and plays as poetry. So it makes sense that poetry was a much larger category back then.

One interesting point that Aristotle makes in the book is that comedy wasn’t really noticed until it was taken seriously, which is ironic. But it makes sense if you’ve heard or seen any comedians or comedic actors talk about it. A lot of comedy isn’t just pointless silliness. It tends to be very well-thought-out, and people seem to take themselves seriously when they’re creating it. Comedy can appear outrageous when you see it. But that’s part of the appeal, and it makes it easier for comedians to get their underlying message across. You’re more likely to agree with someone if they make you laugh. That’s why, as the comedian, podcaster, and UFC commentator Joe Rogan says, “Comedy is like mass hypnosis.” Comedy wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Greek state until it was taken seriously, and then the actors and writers started getting paid.

Aristotle has an engrossing comparison between poetry and history in On The Art Of Poetry. He said that history is what has happened, and poetry is what could possibly occur. Of course, poetry in the way that he means it could also describe the past, and history can teach you about future possibilities. Historical fiction is a massive genre, and we can avoid the same mistakes of the past if we understand history. Aristotle thought that poetry, or literature/stories are more philosophical and important than history. He argued that poetry is all about universal truths, while history expressed singular examples of human actions.

This is fascinating, but I think that these statements create oversimplified categories. Narratives and history can both be about universal truths or more singular ones. Much of literature, film, and T.V. tells us stories of unusual people behaving in bizarre and uncommon ways. History can teach us a great deal about nearly universal patterns of human behaviour too. (At least, they’re as close as we can get to universal examples, which I don’t think are really a thing.) Poetry probably tends to be more philosophical than history though. But there’s plenty of history that is more philosophical than some poetry.

The book has some great points about plots in tragedies. Aristotle says that they should be complex, which makes sense. He also asserts that the goal of tragedies is to inspire pity and fear. So the characters must experience or commit acts that make us feel this way. I don’t know about you, but I sure experience a lot of pity and fear when I read or watch tragedies.

Aristotle also mentions three types of plots that should not be used in this genre. One is a happy but very bad man becoming miserable. That’s because it apparently would make us experience feelings other than fear and pity. He argues that we don’t feel fear for morally corrupt characters because we don’t identify with them. We’ll only be afraid for righteous people because that’s how we see ourselves. No one would empathize with a character like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, right?

In my opinion, this is wrong because there are plenty of shows like Dexter and House of Cards in which the protagonist is the villain. We are often afraid about the outcome of their challenges because great writers and actors make us feel empathy for bad guys. The reason that Aristotle said that we don’t feel pity for villains is that we only identify with characters who experience undeserved hardship. The theory is that since we don’t empathize with bad people, we won’t pity them when they’re victimized. But again, there are countless exceptions. In the Hannibal Lecter and Dexter novels, we want them to succeed. And in the show, Hannibal, and some of the movies about him, we want him to literally get away with murder. We feel pity for Frank Underwood and Dexter Morgan when Dexter has to break his moral code and kill the wrong person, or when Frank’s political enemies beat him.

The second kind of plot that Aristotle thinks should be avoided in tragedies is a good and happy man becoming miserable. He argued that this is abhorrent to us because it doesn’t make us feel pity or fear. This makes no sense to me since happy and righteous characters experiencing misery is called conflict. It’s an essential component of narratives. We grow to like a character, and then we empathize with them when they become unhappy. If everything were going well all the time, there would be no point in telling the story. Overcoming conflict is the essential goal of most narratives. We feel fear about the future and pity protagonists when they face challenges because we identify with them. Even though we don’t enjoy it when bad things happen to them, that’s exactly why a story is told. It’s what makes them work.

The third type of plot that Aristotle doesn’t think we should use is a morally corrupt and unhappy man becoming happy. He said that this does not appeal to our emotions, or make us feel fear or pity. Apparently, this is the antithesis of tragedy. I disagree with this for similar reasons as those for a bad guy becoming miserable. When villains get happy, we sometimes vicariously enjoy it. That’s a great aspect of fiction. We can get twisted joy from Frank Underwood, Hannibal Lecter, or Dexter Morgan killing someone because it therapeutically releases our dark urges in constructive ways. This is the famous Carl Jung’s idea of embracing the shadow self, or our darker characteristics, and integrating them into our personalities. We normally don’t even acknowledge our shadow selves. We pretend that they don’t exist.

We can feel pity for the bad guys too, like I mentioned before. Vicarious enjoyment can apply more to this type of character when they’re the protagonist. But we sometimes root for the bad guy too, like The Joker in The Dark Knight. We can also feel fear for the bad characters when they’re the antagonists and the good guys are the protagonists. If the villains succeed and are happy, it sometimes frightens us because we don’t want them to beat the heroes. This is because we empathize with them more than the bad guys.

…To Be Continued…

Originally published at on February 11, 2018.