Aristotle’s Poetics: A Philosophical Perspective

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Broadly speaking, Aristotle divides plot into two categories in his Poetics: simple [haplos] and complex [peplegmenos]. A change in fortune is always coupled with essential and likely acts, and this is how the simple plot is defined. According to Aristotle, the intricate/complex narrative/plot also includes the elements of peripeteia, or reversal, and anagnorisis, or recognition. This is the tragic plot, in Aristotle’s opinion, that has the best chance of making the audience feel tragically happy.

Common aspects of “haplos” and “peplegmenos”

Perhaps it would be illuminating to look at the similarities between the complex plot and the simple plot before diving into the unique aspects of the former.

Aristotle recommends the unities of time and action in addition to the tripartite division of the plot into the beginning, middle, and end. He emphasises the importance of unified action, in which each plot event is intrinsically connected to and likely results from every other plot event.

Both “necessary” and “probable” appear numerous times throughout the Poetics. They represent the universality of poetry by suggesting how or what ought to be done in a given circumstance. Therefore, the concept of unity of action does not refer to everything that occurs to the protagonist, but rather to the specific events that make up a single whole action in accordance with the laws of necessity and probability.

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Contrary to its neo-classical usage, “unity of time” in this context refers to nothing more than the time frame in which the entirety of the tragic action is most easily grasped by the audience, given the limitations of human memory.

Here comes the turn of “change of fortune” to examine. One way or the other, it’s either from good to bad or the other way around. The former is more typical of tragedy, though Aristotle complicates the idea in a later section by arguing that the best plots are those in which the catastrophe is avoided through recognition. In addition to the good fortune, desis and lusis (complication and resolution) accompany the turn of events.

Peculiar attributes of “peplegmenos”

Let us reexamine Aristotle’s illustrious description of complex action: “A complex action is one in which the transformation is followed by such a reversal or acknowledgement or both”. A reversal of the action is referred to as peripeteia. But if that’s all it is, how is it any different from the reversal of fortune? This definition of peripeteia is obviously too restrictive, and it would be relevant to take into account another definition.

 Humphrey House describes it as “reversal of intention”. This interpretation takes into account the character’s “thinking,” or dianoia. ” Holding the wrong end of the stick,” as House puts it. Turning the stick around in an attempt to find the correct end is an example of peripeteia. The lack of knowledge that underpins every peripeteia is more than just a lack of knowledge. It’s the naiveté that comes with making a mistake.

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After defining peripeteia and identifying its signature pleasure, we should examine what that pleasure entails. The element of wonder (Greek: thamaston) is present here. Anagnorisis, or the terrible realisation, is frequently the origin of wonder. There are numerous ways to describe recognition. Aristotle defines it as the ability to identify a certain individual based on some combination of a token, an artistic creation, memory, reasoning (including incorrect inferences), or the events themselves (as in Oedipus Rex).

According to Aristotle, this “anagnorisis” is the transition from ignorance to understanding. According to Humphrey House’s analogy, this would mean realising that you’ve been holding the incorrect end of the stick. House defines recognition as “the awful waking up from the state of the ignorance which is the very essence of hamartia,” which is how he describes the experience of coming to terms with the truth.

The kind of recognition that results from the events themselves, like in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, is the kind that Aristotle values most. Step by step, Oedipus’s true identity is revealed, and throughout the play, Oedipus is shown to be holding the wrong end of the stick when he sets out to find his true self, despite knowing full well that doing so will have disastrous consequences. He at best puts tragedies in contexts where rational thought influences recognition.

By using these terms, we can examine recognition from the slightly different perspective taken by Terence Cave. For him, it’s an obstacle to faith that ruins the atmosphere. The complexity of recognition is highlighted by this comparison. The identification point in a complex plot is substantially different from what may be feasible in a basic plot. The tragic characters aren’t the only ones affected by the tragic combination of peripeteia and recognition. Readers or viewers may also be included. Emotions like pity and dread are amplified by the shocking nature of the sad tragedy brought about by the intricate storyline [the element of wonder or thaumaston].

Is evoking catharsis a poet’s only duty?

Here, it’s instructive to consider another of Aristotle’s widely cited claims. According to him, a poet’s duty is to provide an experience that elicits “pity and fear through imitation,” as stated in Chapter XIV of the Poetics. To further understand the joys that tragedy offers as a byproduct, we may look at the emotions of pity and fear, as well as the pleasures that come from imitating them.

Let’s begin by evaluating our feelings of pity and fear. Man’s feelings of sympathy for the positive aspects of humanity in their negative situations include dread and pity. When the agent and Fate are at odds, pity is evoked; when the agent and we are similar, terror is evoked. In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus discusses the meanings of Pity and Fear. He refers to pity as the emotion that stops the mind in its tracks and links it with the person experiencing the suffering when it encounters anything serious and ongoing. Fear or terror is what ties it to the covert cause.

Similar explanations of these concepts are provided by Aristotle himself in books V and II of his Rhetoric. He describes them as a species of pain there. Here is where we might start to think about the notion that tragic pleasure comes from the letting go of these feelings. Instances from Aristotle’s Problems [problem XXX] where the coldness of black bile accompanies “despair and terror” and heat is the suggested therapy that returns the temperature to a temperate mean can substantiate the idea of purgation as a medical metaphor. In contrast to his teacher Plato, Aristotle asserts that emotions are positive in and of themselves. Therefore, there shouldn’t be a need to cleanse the pity and fear. A more accurate description of tragic pleasure would be that which is accompanied by the right sentiment of these feelings.

According to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, the right response to these emotions is one that is temperate. He states in Book II of his Ethics that having excessive or insufficient feelings of fear, confidence, appetite, anger, pity, or general pleasure and pain is unhealthy; however, having the proper feelings at the proper times, with regard to the proper objects, toward the proper people, with the proper motive, and in the proper ways is both better and intermediate, and this is a quality of virtue.

The Pythagoreans used the concept of the mean in music, which is where Aristotle got his idea. Here, it is important to note that Aristotle also uses the term catharsis in his Politics, where it refers to using music to “relieve overcharged sensation.” It’s interesting to note that he also addresses fear and pity in this instance, and the restoration is once more to a moderate mean.

Is the only potential source of joy in tragedy catharsis? In Humphry House’s opinion, no. Those who are emotionally mature and do not need to have their emotional responses to catastrophic events adjusted nonetheless find joy in tragedy. Even the greatest among us love it and allow ourselves to be taken away by our emotions, as evidenced by Plato in The Republic, and we are full of admiration for the qualities of the poet who has the greatest ability to influence us in this way.

This means that poetry’s enjoyment is not just based on catharsis. Instead, it employs two strategies. Aristotle contrasts “pure” pleasure and “incidental” pleasure in Book VII [sections 11–14]. The former is comparable to the pleasure that results from thought and is universal and unaccompanied by pain. Those that go through this do so only by thinking about and analysing how tragedy imitates human feelings.

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This viewpoint allows us to refocus on the final clause of the earlier-quoted Aristotelian sentence. It is through imitation—or mimesis—that pleasure is produced. Imitation is a joyful act in and of itself, as Aristotle stated. All of this holds true for both epic and tragedy, and it probably applies to other kinds of poetry as well. The enjoyment that is especially “tragic” has to do with the format and dramatic style of tragedy. These make up the particular imitative elements of tragedy.

As a result, the concept of tragic pleasure must invariably consist, as Aristotle so eloquently puts it, in that which, when imitated, brings up feelings of both pity and terror. When the expected and required events take an unexpected turn, it causes a person to feel a heightened sense of sympathy as well as worry for them. Within the intricate framework of the tale, with its peripeteia and anagnorisis, this is a distinct possibility. As a result of this, our analysis of the components that make up the intricate/complex plot has brought up feelings of both pity and fear in us. Together with imitation (sometimes spelled mimesis), these help us comprehend the joy that is uniquely associated with tragedy.

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