Born 384 B.C.E.
Chalcidice (Chalkidiki),
Chalcidian League,
Northern Greece
Relevant Work Poetics


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) Edit

Background Edit

  • Aristotle was born 384 BC in the city of Stagira in northern Greece.
  • He was one of Plato's students, and is considered another founding father of Western philosophy and literary theory.
  • The discovery of the scientific method of analysis can be attributed to Aristotle, and his work continues to influence different fields of study, including physics, chemistry, zoology, biology and many others.
  • His writings tend to be straightforward, as he focuses his attention on "the distinctive qualities of any given object of study, whether of plants or of plays, systematically describing their specific features and construction" (NATC 83).

Poetics Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

"Plato and other ancient writers often commented on literary works, but Aristotle inaugurated the systematic discipline of literary criticism and theory with the Poetics. It is perhaps the most influential work in the history of criticism and theory, shaping future considerations of genre, prosody, style, structure, and form. Its modern impact began in the Renaissance, when it was rediscovered from fragmentary manuscript sources and taken as a rule book for literary composition. Its description of formal unity influenced seventeenth-century European writers and eighteenth-century writers reviving its precepts as 'neoclassicism.' In twentieth-century literary theory the Poetics was foundational for formalist methods, which apply objective modes of analysis to linguist artifacts and discern the structural attributes of literary works; it influenced a wide array of critics, ranging from the Russian formalists and the French structuralists." (NATC 83)

Key Words and Terms Edit

Katharsis - The belief that good poetry should have a positive emotional effect on its audience.

Mimesis - Imitation of the physical world.

Mythos - Term used for the plot. The first of the six elements of a tragedy.

Lusis - Meaning "untying," is all the action in a tragedy after the climax.

Desis - Meaning "tying," is all the action in a tragedy before the climax.

Peripeteia - A reversal of the main character's position.

Anagnorisis - The main character's recognition of his or her fate.

Hamartia - A tragic character's fate linked to his or her own error.

Epic - "A long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race." [(Harmon and Holman) Wikipedia]. "Epic and tragic composition, and indeed comedy,..." (NATC 88), "...'epic poets' terming them poets not according to [whether they compose a] representation but indiscriminately , according to [their use of] verse" (88).

Pisteis - Proofs or means of persuasion (Greek)

Atechnic - Non-artistic

Entechnic - Embodied in art, artistic. Also translated as "artistic," made by men.

Ethos - Character of the speaker

Logos - The speech itself

Pathos - Empathy, feeling emotion by the speech.

Telos - The objective of rhetorical persuasion achieved through emotion and style as well as argument.

Key Quotations Edit

"[15] Regarding characters, there are four things at which the poet should aim. (i) First and foremost, the characters should be good... (ii) Second, they should be appropriate... (iii) Third, the character should be life-like... (iv) Fourth, the character should be consistent..."

"[C]omedy prefers to represent people who are worse than those who exist, tragedy people who are better" (90).

"(i) Representation is natural to human beings from childhood. They differ from the other animals in this: man tends most towards representation and learns his first lessons through representation" (90)

"In the characters too, exactly as in the structure of the incidents, [the poet] out always to seek what is either necessary or probable, so that is either necessary or probable that a person of such-and-such a sort say or do things of the same sort, and it is either necessary or probable that this [ incident] happen after that one" (100).

Discussion Edit

Defining Poetry Edit

In Poetics, Aristotle is attempting to categorize the various types of poetry not to necessarily judge them; he does this by categorizing poetry and structuring it similar to a scientific debate. His definition of art is also intriguing because he views anything that people make, as compared to things found in nature, as art. As Aristotle states,"Two causes seem to have generated the art of poetry as a whole, and these are natural ones" (90). The largest cause is representation, which humans use to learn how to relate to the world. Poetry as a whole must represent life truly while every type of poem is governed by its own laws that keep it consistent.

Aristotle differs from his teacher Plato by grounding his research on a more pragmatic basis by looking at nature and the objects of the real world and inducting his conclusions from what he observes rather than deducting as Plato does from his metaphysical concepts of being. Unlike Plato, Aristotle recognizes poetry as a legitimate branch of study as opposed to a degraded imitation, and sees poetry as a source of universal knowledge of human behavior. In addition, Aristotle recognizes that good poetry has a positive emotional effect on the audience, which he calls Katharsis. Perhaps his most important and interpreted term, Katharsis, can relate to moral purification and or ethical and intellectual clarification.

Representation Edit

As it is discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics, “Epic and tragic composition, and indeed comedy, dithyrambic composition and most sorts of music for wind and stringed instruments are all, [considered] as a whole, representations” (88). In the footnote from the same page, representations are “From the Greek mīmēsis, translated as ‘representation’ or ‘imitation.’” From the introduction of the book, it is stated that Aristotle believes “poetic imitation can reveal truth precisely because it does not passively copy appearances: it is a more creative act” (8). This contrasts Plato's view of poetry acting as a copy of a copy. With Aristotle’s view, poetry serves an important feature for those who read it, but only because of its connection to representation.

Aristotle identifies two natural causes responsible for how poetry as a whole is generated: representation is innate to people and everyone delights in representation (90). The idea of representation as innate is furthered with Aristotle’s assertion that people learn their first lessons through representation. 

Representation as a delight is something Aristotle takes more time to explain. Aristotle claims that learning is pleasant “not only for philosophers but for others likewise” (90). Since people are learning when they are looking at a representation—whether it is observing, developing new strategies for looking at something, inferring what each thing is, etc.—they are constantly learning and thus being delighted. If learning does not cause obvious delight because it’s something someone hasn’t seen before, then it should still cause delight by its composition and accomplishment. 

Influence Edit

Poetics is considered to be most influential in the history of criticism and theory that framed eventual genres, prosodies, styles, structures, and forms. Aristotle is also responsible for developing the scientific method of analysis, codified the divisions of knowledge into disciplines and subdisciplines that carry on to the present day, such as physics, chemistry, zoology, biology, botany, psychology, politics, logic, and epistemology.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Because Aristotle relies to an extent on audience response in his approach to the interpretation of poetry, he has drawn criticism from modern literary thinkers. In particular, the New Critics take issue with Aristotle's focus on audience response, identifying this move as an affective fallacy.

Related Works Edit

References Edit

Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.