What are the salient features of Aristotle's The Poetics?

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sean475 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Aristotle’s Poetics has many important features, from its influence on literary theory, to the notion of catharsis, to its description of the elements and rules of tragedy.

Before the Poetics, no one had seriously written about what makes a work of literature or drama good or bad. Plato had touched on the topic in The Republic, but limited himself to an attack on fiction as a whole and concluded with the decision that poets and writers should be banned because all they do is lie, and lying is bad for society. Aristotle took literature and fiction as an established fact and ventured out to see what sets a good work apart from a bad one.

In so doing, Aristotle categorized the types of literature, from poetry to epic to drama, and laid out what elements they have in common with one another. For example, Aristotle noted that all dramas have plots, characters, thought (a character’s reasoning for doing something), speech, music, and spectacle. There were also certain rules that should be complied in order to make a work a good one. For example, Aristotle was convinced that characters should be at least as good or ethical as their audience, or else the audience would not look up to them, and that the plot should center around one important discovery.

All of these elements and rules, according to Aristotle, led in the direction of the goal of literature: His concept of catharsis. This was a feeling of fear or pity in the members of the audience towards what they were seeing. Unlike his predecessor Plato, who was convinced that all fiction was inherently useless, Aristotle thought that, by producing catharsis in the audience, works of fiction were valuable because they let the audience experience feelings that they wouldn’t experience otherwise and allowed the work to be an outlet for pent up feelings that would be destructive if held inside.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First, this assignment asks for your opinion of the most important features of Aristotle's Poetics. Obviously, the features that are important to you might differ from those important to an eNotes educator or a scholar working on some aspect of Aristotelian philosophy or its reception.

Perhaps one of the most widely discussed features of the Poetics in the scholarly tradition has been the claim that tragedy, "through pity and fear effects a catharsis of such emotion." There has been much ink spilled over what "catharsis" might mean in this context. A modern consensus has focused on the medical sense of "purgation," but there is much in the passage that remains ambiguous.

Another interesting concept found in the Poetics is that of "mimesis" or imitation. While the distinction between mimesis and diegesis is well developed in Plato, Aristotle argues strongly against the Platonic condemnation of mimesis, arguing instead that it is essential to human learning and thought. 

Finally, another important feature of the Poetics is the way Aristotle follows Plato in looking at the value of art not as purely aesthetic but also in terms of its moral effect upon the polis, and the way he seems to argue that art serves to educate the emotions. 

justice- | Student

History has changed and rewritten the answer to this question greatly and it will likely continue to do so. Debate over which points are more or less “salient” will possibly rage on for eternity and the stances of which will fluctuate over time. This is because in his Poetics, Aristotle makes many influential observations on art and in it he introduces several terms and ideas that many people still find useful.

For example, 16th century Neoclassicists seemed to think that the most actionable part of Poetics was a storyteller’s commitment to the Unities. Everything got criticized if a Unity was broken, even if it was good. Thus, it was an easy form of criticism. Shakespeare defied the Unities regularly, arguably in a way that worked and he was openly criticized for this. Our present historical moment now regards the Unities as “oppressive,” “stifling to creativity,” “inside the box,” “passe,” “patriarchical,” even. One only needs to watch our media to see this.

Given that this is the case with history and considering that the Poetics is the Poetics, potentially anything in this document could be considered “salient” at any point in time. So, my answer is - most of it, and here are some of the parts that I find salient.

First, Aristotle takes a scientific approach in categorizing and defining the wide range of poetic art forms that existed at his time, in his culture. To the 21st century mind some of this discussion is second nature as we are now accustomed to the idea of myriad artistic practices and the genres that may exist within those specific practices. This idea of dividing each art form up in order to appreciate and evaluate works based on their own respective merits is in itself a contribution.

From the current historical viewpoint, the most revisited portions of Poetics concern his discussion of Ancient Greek Tragedy over other art forms of his time that have become less relevant to our culture today such as lyre-playing for instance. Many of Aristotle’s thoughts on Tragedy remain a foundation of Western Theatre practice and other story based art forms.

Before narrowing his scope to Tragedy, Aristotle briefly discusses a few other art forms including epic poetry. He proposes that some art forms are more naturally mimetic than others. This is in the sense of Mimesis as opposed to Diegesis. Mimesis is an artistic mode that is more representational in nature. It attempts to “imitate” in order to a create a faithful rendering of reality. Diegesis is understood to be more oriented around the narrative of the story itself. It is the story as told rather than as enacted or illustrated. As a story it is delivered by a person and as such has a point of view but there is a presumed level of detachment from the story of both the speaker and the audience.

Mimesis and Diegesis are very important to anyone who’s looking to study or produce art. They are concepts discussed in other Ancient books and they have been written about since on topics ranging from literary theory to game development. Plato argued against Mimesis; Aristotle in his Poetics defends Mimesis. Aristotle points out that through Mimesis audiences are able to experience works as realistic enough to be believed as real. Thus, it is presumed, viewers are more able to respond on an emotional level. The suggestion is that, without Mimesis, characters would not seem realistic enough and thus we would not be able to empathize with them.

In a defense of Mimesis, Aristotle discusses Tragedy in great detail which he contends to be higher than epic poetry. As a rational, scientific mind, Aristotle attempts to define Tragedy. He goes on to discuss how he understands it to work and the ways it seems to work better than others. Aristotle lists and discusses choices made in many Tragedies of his day. He noted that, generally, plays that were more successful in competition (City Dionysia) tended to have certain characteristics. He uses examples from the works of famous Greek playwrights to this effect.

The idea of Aristotle’s Unities has played a significant role in the history of thought and culture. While the Unities may be completely outmoded for some art forms of today, they inform all story based arts, and they’re still useful for storytellers who may have the practical limitation of writing for performance.

In the 16th century, Neoclassicists ran away with some of Aristotle’s language in the definition of Tragedy and the establishment of it as differing from epic poetry. The result was very interesting. The Unities theory, derived from Poetics, says that it’s probably a good idea to write a play where a single action occurs at a single place over the course of one revolution of the sun (one day). Here there is Unity of Time, Unity of Place, and Unity of Action. Too much time span, too many places, and actions tends to make a play confusing. This is the common sense idea of basically confining the scope of a complete story to only what’s needed - a story with a beginning, middle, and end for the Theatre.

It’s easy to imagine examples where this can go wrong based on experience. Unity of place is important for the Theatre for practical reasons because every time a location change is written this then requires a set change.

Aristotle found the episodic nature of epic poetry to be problematic and less satisfying in comparison to the self-contained, singular nature of Tragedy. A relative lack of unity of time is a case where a plot lasts for months, years, or centuries. These stories tend to come off as watered down or lacking in focus in the art form of Tragedy where the strength of performance is geared toward the power of a singular, meaningful act - the climax. This singular act is one that should produce a climax rich with a moment of recognition (Anagnorisis) that should involve a reversal of fortune (Peripeteia) for a character who has a tragic flaw (Hamartia), resulting in a purging of emotions (Catharsis) of the audience.

A lack of unity of action is a situation where there are too many major events in a play. This has the potential to widen the scope on many levels and diminish the effect of the climactic moment. It could also nesessitate too many main characters, too many plot lines, etc.

The Unities are useful today for writers of all kinds. Many people like to interpret these kind of recommendations as overly prescriptive or limiting. This is because the Unities were expanded upon heavily in the Renaissance by Neoclassicists. But, you don’t have to view them this way. Aristotle’s assignment was basically to list his observations and note qualities that tended to produce more coherent, better received plays. Later writers have respected the Unities as useful guidelines that can be broken for good reason. You don’t have to follow them but they are very important to know about. Also, remember that these are suggestions for dramatic writing more so than any other.

The Six Parts of Tragedy are also very useful for language based artists and multimedia artists alike. Aristotle observes that the Theatre is inherently a multimedia art form. It exists as a combination of art practices in themselves, and it’s a rich medium because it’s filled with different elements. His parts are Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Song, and Spectacle. They are listed in order of importance.

Plot and character are more or less easily understood by most today. Thought is described as the idea of the work. Concept, theme, and symbolism contribute to this thought. Diction refers to the language, the style of this language, and the manner of speech spoken by characters. Diction as an element contributes to a play in various ways as it conveys information in itself. Song includes any musical element of a play. Spectacle includes all immediate or otherwise distinctive characteristics ranging from costuming, scenery, and other aspects that contribute to the play in a visual sense. Spectacle ranked lowest for Aristotle, but today with the beauty of special effects, perhaps we live in a different sort of culture.

One of the most important passages in Poetics is in Book IV where Aristotle attempts to define the art practice of Ancient Greek Tragedy.

“A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language; in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.”


“…an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions."

Notice that these are two different translations and how they sound a bit different. The truth about Aristotle’s writing is that it’s all translated so many of his terms will always carry with them some level of ambiguity. This is a point that can actually be said about Ancient Greek Tragedy as a whole as Aristotle is describing something that readers of today have never seen in practice, produced by a culture that we, today, only know so much about.

While one quote says “…catharsis of these emotions.” another reads “…proper purgation of these emotions.” Either way, emotions are something that occurs within the audience not within a play as such and it's not something that necessarily takes place on stage. Thus, it’s important to acknowledge that Tragedy is in part defined by the effect that it has on an audience. Success of a Tragedy is dependent upon its ability to arouse an intended emotion. These feelings of pity and fear are the essence of Tragedy but to Aristotle they should be felt in a very particular way that results in a “catharsis” of emotions.

The term “Catharsis” is important and yet somewhat not entirely clear because it isn’t used or unpacked very much in Aristotle’s usage of it. Most readers reduce “Catharsis” to a “purging of emotions” or a “cleansing of those passions.” At minimum, Catharsis is something that sounds like a significant moment for a viewer. It may describe the point where a piece of great art makes one shed a tear.

Catharsis sounds more than superficial but there’s also something healing and resolving about it. It’s not ordinary, but it’s also possibly life changing, or something that one could say is akin to a great spiritual event for a viewer. There are spiritual undertones to the term because priests have likened it to “purification.” To Aristotle, Catharsis is the ultimate goal of great Tragedy, it’s in fact the root that defines Tragedy itself by his own definition, and it’s good for people.

To increase the likelihood of Catharsis, Aristotle offers many other recommendations. Events of a significant magnitude raise the stakes of the story. A good Tragedy must have a certain level of magnitude for events to carry weight and create interest. All of the action preceding it should be relevant to the climax. In Tragedy, a character should undergo a reversal that begins from a high place of status descending to a lower estate.

For this downfall to be truly tragic in nature, the audience must sympathize with the protagonist to some degree. The protagonist must have a good quality that is also the very reason for his downfall. This is known as the Hamartia, or tragic flaw. Most often this flaw is one of hubris or excessive pride. The protagonist should be a mostly good person. The tragic action must be done out of ignorance or involution. If a character were to simply make a mistake or knowingly do something bad, they would lose the audience’s sympathy. Then, when misfortune befalls the protagonist, people would be more likely to feel that this is a person who is getting what he deserves.

All of these things in and concerning the enormous influence of Poetics are bare minimum salient to everyone, and possibly more salient depending on who you are. There isn’t much in Poetics that isn’t. The content itself is still very useful to thinkers and practitioners today, but Poetics is indispensable because so much later theory stems from it. One part that many people find less salient is the content that is more value judgement oriented. However, knowing that Aristotle was a learned man of good taste, I happen to find that interesting though I may not always agree with his claims.

In the end, Poetics stands on its own merit and though the world is very different now, the consensus seems to be that this is the place to start if you want to be serious about producing art at a high level, particularly story based, mimesis based, and performance based arts. Here, it is so salient that you’d better read it sooner rather than later because you’re going to have to eventually anyway. You want to write stories, plays, and produce films? Northrop Frye and Victor Turner are going to make you read Poetics again. Just want to make video games? Ian Bogost and all the ludologists refer back to Poetics and Mimesis.