Aristotelian Approach to Literature #
Interpretation of literature can be accepting, dissident, divergent, variant, resistant, subversive….
Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) #
In his Poetics Aristotle laid some of the ground rules of what good literature should look like. He has become an authority of literary theory. Though a student of Plato, Aristotle differed from him on the fundamental issue of objective and subjective approaches. Aristotle criticises orators who write exclusively from the intellect, rather than from the heart, praising the way Greek dramatists make their characters speak, especially in Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, and Antigone
Composers writing in the Aristotelian tradition appeal to our emotions and satisfy our psychological needs.
Aristotle appears to be the first to articulate that
“the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inwards significance”.
Gerad Manly Hopkins expressed it in his theory of “inscape” - piercing the exterior to depict the unique essence or inner nature of a person, place, thing, or event, especially depicted in poetry or a work of art.
The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is awarded annually to a journalist whose work has,
“penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth that exposes establishment propaganda, or ‘official drivel’.
Aristotle also claimed that,
“The superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness”.
Aristotle based his literary criticism on Greek Drama whereas Plato had based his on Epic Poetry.
Plato and the Epic #
Plato wanted to ban storytelling. He understood its power and its danger. Aristotle though, believed that one of the primaries uses of story was to make sense of our lives.
While classic drama is confined to one day, epic poems have unlimited time. – The Odyssey extends to ten years, The Iliad to about seven weeks of a ten year war.
Single day narratives are a feature of modernist novelists such as Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway - James Joyce, Ullyses.
Epic means different things; larger than life, transcendence. Oral tales of super heroes: Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur…..There is Epic literature, epic tales and epic theatre – the same and yet different.
Epic Poems are defined as long, narrative, on a serious subject written in a grand style, centred on a larger than life hero. Characteristics include a vast setting, superhuman and supernatural characters, elevated style written in an objective point of view to cultivate a cerebral response. Conventions include an invocation to the muse, opening statement of theme, beginning in “medias res”, formal speeches, and uses of Epic similes. While classic drama is confined to one day, epic poems have unlimited time. – The Odyssey extends to ten years, The Iliad to about seven weeks of a ten year war.
Erich Auerbach seems to have been the first to recognize the epic tradition, beginning with the visible outer world of action portrayed in The Odyssey and ends—in a triumph of the inner life—with the invisible world of thought portrayed in, To the Lighthouse.
The writer whom Auerbach most loved was Dante, and he saw in To the Lighthouse “a similarity to Dante’s Comedy. ” Woolf’s novel points toward universal meanings The Commedia tells two quest stories: Dante’s arduous physical journey from Hell through Purgatory to Heaven, and its invisible psychological and spiritual analogue, the journey of Dante’s soul from despair through hope to a beatific vision. In the modern world, where the events that seem to matter most in everyone’s life are inward and invisible, Edward Mendelson, New York Review – 2022.
In its unobtrusive way, Mrs. Dalloway has the world-defining ambition and scope of Dante’s epic of the soul, and of every great epic, from Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid to Goethe’s Faust.
Theatre of Realism, Intellectualism Based on Plato’s Republic
Epic Tales of Homer: The Odyssey, The Iliad, Vergil’s Aeneas, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Appeals to reason; the mind and satisfies our intellectual needs – Objective
Appeals to the masses, the collective psyche
It involves mass suffering. We are distanced or alienated (estranged) from the action and critically evaluate it. Instead of getting emotionally involved we are detached and objective.
Instead of playing with our emotions, E.T. affects the mind and moves us to action leading to social remedies.
Didactic, explicit, overt, direct
Interest in the course of the action not the result
Often disconnected scenes, a montage, lack of sequence or structure. Minimalism in props
Assumes a universe governed by chance, capricious fate. Nihilistic
Fate is Chance, randomness, chaos, absurdity
Suffering is degrading and dehumanising, leading to desensitisation or brutalisation, promoting the instinct of self-preservation.
to take from an event or character that which is predictable, self evident, obvious and to arouse surprise and curiosity.
Brecht regarded conventional theatres of illusion as soft thinking;
- a narcissistic romanticism,
- a desire to use the theatre for escapism.
The principle of Einfuhlung (empathy) was regarded as theatrical seduction which clouded the minds of the audience to the true issues. He tries to divorce the audience from sentimental involvement or engagement and detach, distance or alienate us from the characters on stage. We are not meant to identify or empathise with them, rather stand back and judge them critically.
Action Drama #
Action Drama is based on the theatre of illusion where the characters imitate real life and the audience experiences the predicaments of the characters vicariously. By identifying emotionally and psychologically, we are seduced by the actors to identify, empathise with the characters and aroused by their terror to pity and fear (Pathos) to a state of Catharsis, releasing our tension, soothing, cleansing or purging our souls. This can be ephemeral with no lasting consequences.
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery”. Drama or re-enactments have been central to the most primitive societies as a form of entertainment and a method of passing on traditions through story telling. It has always attempted to provide a mirror to real life. “The impulse to imitate is inherent (inborn) in mankind from his childhood…. we take our first steps in learning through imitation.”
Modern Drama has its origins in 5th Century Greek Drama and the influence of Plato and Aristotle continue to this day. Lysicrates, a wealthy patron of the arts, awarded monetary prizes in an annual dramatic festival. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote many plays, generally trilogies, in competition. Most of them have been lost to civilisation - Sophocles wrote 123; we have 7. Most deal with tragic or dysfunctional families - the main ones the fateful Houses of Cadmus and of Atrius - The Theban Plays and the Oresteia. We also have at least two Satyr skits, Euripides’ The Cyclops and Sophocles’ Ichneutae or The Trackers.
Satyr plays were a postscript burlesque to provide comic relief after three tragedies in a Dionysian drama festival.
Tragedy is an imitation of characters above the level of the world; high action, sad and catastrophic.
Comedy, the action of lower characters, light and flippant.
Tragedy makes you feel; Comedy makes you think.
Aristotle defines Tragedy as:
“an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude involving the affliction of a good character who makes a bad mistake. The good character suffers from harmatia - a tragic flaw.
The bare facts of alone should make us shudder so the dramatist must elevate the audience’s fear, terror and pity into a higher level of creating
Katharsis, transforming and cleansing us so that we feel emotionally purged. The hero’s suffering leads to Disclosure, (Anagnorisis) or self-recognition as they become aware of their true predicament, puncturing all their illusions of themselves. Self- knowledge leads to understanding - an apotheosis.
Pain is inherent in the human condition, leading man to a noble form of dignity. Suffering is depicted as ennobling. To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in your suffering. Nietzsche
At the end, order is restored, god is on his throne and all is right with the world. Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution – poetic justice.
Aristotelian plots are linear, progressing from a beginning, a middle and an end with various techniques of wholeness, unity and purpose. It reaffirms a rational, ordered universe. They are known as Conventional Theatre, Theatre of illusion or Theatre of Action where the audience is deluded into thinking they are watching real time events through an invisible fourth wall. Our Interest in the outcome of the action provides the suspense. Aristotle puts high emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion….
Purpose of a great play is to tell the story so that one tense moment leads to another. That your curiosity is sated but then a new suspense is created simultaneously. You are on the edge of your seat anticipating by longing or by dread. The intent is to produce fear and pathos. Main characters drive the action, the chorus and secondary characters merely prepare the audience for future events. This is aided and abetted by Peripety - Irony; dramatic, situational and tonal. Paradox and inconsistencies are tolerated.
The characters are appropriate, realistic and plausible; the hero from a good family, going through a crisis with a reversal of fortune. Novelists too tend to obey Aristotle’s guidelines of “revelation”; that most of the ideas and issues should be revealed not by the author telling us, rather by the actions, reactions, words and thoughts of the characters. Don’t tell us – show us. We the responders feel more dignified when we figure it out rather than when we are told directly.
We need to create characters that seem both realistic and able to captivate an audience. First, make them good enough that we can root for them. Second, make them ‘appropriate,’ meaning give them characteristics that make sense for the type of person they are. Third, make them human – give them flaws or quirks that make us believe that they exist. Finally, whatever characteristics you do give them, make sure you keep them there throughout the length of the screenplay. As Aristotle says, make sure they are ‘consistently inconsistent.’*
Harmatia or Harmarsha, Greek for tragic flaw comes from archery - not quite hitting the bullseye.
*“Your goal is to keep your reader believing in your story, even though both of you know it’s fiction”. *Margaret Atwood
“The audience knows what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in”. Tom Stoppard – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Plot and character come first and ideas –what we call issues, themes, concerns or values can only be gleaned through experiences of empathy. By planting seeds of suffering into our hearts and thoughts, we can be led to compassion.
The idea that reading can help people navigate the world is an old one.
Eminent philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Gilbert Ryle, have argued that reading fiction is an ethical activity, one that enlarges the scope of our empathy.
Zadie Smith made a similar point in her 2003 Orange Word Lecture:
“When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good).” Reading, in her estimation, can make us broader, more sympathetic. Better.
Aristotle maintained the role of art is to imitate nature, not indulge the imagination. Fanciful art gave way to depravity. Art should consist of reliable images of definite things and only then could it have a positive moral effect on people viewing it. What was good for the eyes was good for the soul; fantasy and the unbridled imagination were good for neither.
Plots and characters had to be plausible; “constrained by the realms of possibility”. Hilary Mantel.
“The ultimate goal of human life is, simply, happiness, which means finding a purpose in order to realise your potential and working on your behaviour to become the best version of yourself.” “Every moment in your life, even the embarrassing ones, can be used to gain a deeper understanding of yourself”. *
Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
Plato, “the unconsidered life is not worth living”.
Aristotle: “the unplanned life is slightly less likely to be happy. It’s planning. Just planning.” “We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
John Lennon, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans”.
Tolstoy *“The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is totally meaningless.” .
The Chorus #
Citizens - the chorus, are crucial in many ways. They aid in the Exposition, telling us what happened before, they narrate events occurring offstage and comment or interpret events for us, get involved in action, present us with themes and reflect on the moods and tone of the play.
Aristotle also said: “Rules are made for the guidance of the wise and the blind obedience of fools.”
Great Literature is seldom explicit rather it is suggestive, implicit, ambiguous creating intrigue. As Oscar Wilde said, “a work of art dies as soon as you understand it”.
Many great writers write in Aristotle’s tradition such as; Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williamson etc:
Hamlet conforms to the Aristotelian forms of tragedy. It is well constructed and bides to Aristotle’s definitions regarding a complete dramatic action which arouse pity and fear inducing Catharsis. :
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right. -
The play is based on the theatre of illusion where the audience experiences the predicaments of the characters vicariously By identifying emotionally and psychologically, we are drawn closer to the characters and are aroused by their terror to pity and fear (pathos) to a state of Catharsis, releasing our tension, soothing and purging our souls. This is ephemeral; there are no lasting consequences.
The plot is linear, progressing from a beginning, a middle and an end with various techniques of wholeness, unity and purpose. It reaffirms a rational, ordered universe,
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may”
The characters are appropriate, realistic and plausible; the hero from a good family, going through a crisis with a reversal of fortune.
Hamlet is an Aristotelian model of a classical drama - there is an overall logic to the action, and the plot has a discernible shape: a beginning, middle, and end. By the conclusion of the play, in other words, through the actions of the participants, something has been dealt with, resolved. There is an emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion….
Suffering is depicted as ennobling. At the end, order is restored, god is on his throne and all is right with the world.
Aristotelian Reasoning: #
In On Rhetoric Aristotle argued that there are three controlling factors in persuasion: Logos, Pathos and Ethos.
Logos is the intellectual dimension. He said that as rational beings we like to know (or think) that our beliefs are grounded in reality. But logos alone does not move people to adopt new beliefs or behaviours.
Pathos, the emotional or psychological dimension, also plays a role. Beliefs are formed not only by rationalisation but also by “attraction”.
Arguments we “like”, whether because they are presented beautifully or because they resonate with our hopes, will usually be more persuasive than ones we find unpleasant. I think this partly explains why, despite having some great minds in the cause, atheism continues to be an important minority viewpoint. Whatever its intellectual credentials, taken seriously it offers a very bleak outlook.
However, logos and pathos do not fully account for why we believe what we believe. Aristotle reserved a special place in his theory for what he called ethos, the social or ethical dimension. Not only do we tend to believe ideas we like, we also tend to accept the ideas of people we like.
We now call this the ‘‘sociology of knowledge’’ but Aristotle put his finger on it centuries ago: “We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge.”
A half-plausible argument will sound implausible from someone we dislike, and yet the same argument will seem fully plausible from someone we trust. How this works in practice is that our social context:
- where we grew up,
- the education we have received,
- the friends we hang out with and
- the community we choose to be part of - influence the beliefs we will adopt.
Ethos is at the core of how beliefs work.
What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors.
John Dickson is an author and historian. He is director of the Centre for Public Christianity and a senior research fellow at Macquarie University.
This explains why people cling to convictions in the face of all contrary credible evidence – flat earthers, birthers, climate change denialists…..