Aristotle as a Critic
ARISTOTLE AS A CRITIC. Aristotle (384-322 B. C. E. ), the son of a physician, was the student of Plato from approximately 367 B. C. until his mentor’s death in 348/347. After carrying on philosophical and scientific investigations elsewhere in the Greek world and serving as the tutor to Alexander the Great, he returned to Athens in 335 B. C. E. to found the Lyceum, a major philosophical center, which he used as his base for prolific investigations into many areas of philosophy.
Aristotle is a towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance and theatre. As a prolific writer and polymath, Aristotle radically transformed most, if not all, areas of knowledge he touched. It is no wonder that Aquinas referred to him simply as “The Philosopher. ” In his lifetime, Aristotle wrote as many as 200 treatises, of which only 31 survive.
Unfortunately for us, these works are in the form of lecture notes and draft manuscripts never intended for general readership, so they do not demonstrate his reputed polished prose style which attracted many great followers, including the Roman Cicero. Aristotle was the first to classify areas of human knowledge into distinct disciplines such as mathematics, biology, and ethics. Some of these classifications are still used today. [There has been long speculation that the original Poetics comprised two books, our extant Poetics and a lost second book that supposedly dealt with comedy and catharsis.
No firm evidence for the existence of this second book has been adduced. Our (knowledge of the text of the Poetics depends principally on a manuscript of the tenth or eleventh century and a second manuscript dating from the fourteenth century. ] (not to write in notes)*. Aristotle could be considered the first popular literary critic. Unlike Plato, who all but condemned written verse, Aristotle breaks it down and analyses it so as to separate the good from the bad. On a number of subjects Aristotle developed positions that significantly differed from those of his teacher.
We very clearly note this profound difference of opinion with Plato and, indeed, observe the overt correction of his erstwhile master in Aristotle’s literary and aesthetic theories. Aristotelian aesthetics directly contradicts Plato’s negative view of art by establishing a potent intellectual role. The principal source of our knowledge of Aristotle’s aesthetic and literary theory is the Poetics, but important supplementary information is found in other treatises, chiefly the Rhetoric, the Politics, and the Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotle’s main contribution to criticism may well be the idea that poetry is after all an art with an object of its own, that it can be rationally understood and reduced to an intelligible set of rules (that is, it is an “art,” according to the definition in the Ethics). The main concern of the rules of the Poetics, however, is not with the composition of literary works; it is rather with their critical evaluation. Consequently, criticism can be a science, and not a mass of random principles and intuitions. Aristotle speaks of the educative value of visual, musical and verbal arts.
Both the Rhetoric and the Poetics can be considered –to be expansions of this view. We might say that Aristotle sets literature free from Plato’s radical moralism and didacticism, while he still expects it to be conformable to a moral understanding of the world. For him, literature is a rational and beneficial activity, and not an irrational and dangerous one, as it was for Plato. Aristotle? s approach to literature is mainly philosophical: he is more concerned with the nature and the structure of poetry than with its origin.
The origins of poetry had been grounded on the instinct of imitation which is natural to man. The first poetical works were spontaneous improvisations. The origins of the different genres is justified by Aristotle thus: “Poetry soon branched into two channels, according to the temperaments of individual poets. The more serious-minded among them represented noble actions and the doings of noble persons, while the more trivial wrote about the meaner sort of people; thus, while the one type wrote hymns and anegyrics, these others began by writing invectives. (Poetics II). ” The development goes through serious or comic epic poems such as those written by Homer to comedy and tragedy; “these new forms were both grander and more highly regarded than the earlier” (Poetics II). Aristotle does not, however, decide on whether tragedy (and by implication, literature) has already developed as far as it can; but he does assert that it has come to a standstill.
Aristotle makes a brief outline of the history of tragedy: “At first the poets had used the tetrameter because they were writing satyr-poetry, which was more closely related to the dance; but once dialogue had been introduced, by its very nature it hit upon the right measure, for the iambic is of all measures the one best suited to speech . . . . Another change was the increased number of episodes, or acts. (Poetics II). ” Aristotle also deals briefly with the rise of comedy: “the early history of comedy. . . s obscure, because it was not taken seriously. Comedy had already acquired certain clear-cut forms before there is any mention of those who are named as its poets. Nor is it known who introduced masks, or prologues, or a plurality of actors, and other things of that kind. Of Athenian poets Crates was the first to discard the lampoon pattern and to adopt stories and plots of a more general nature. (Poetics II). ” The work of Aristotle as a whole may be considered to be an attempt to develop a structural and metalinguistic approach to literature.
Although it preserves a concern with valuation, its main thrust is towards the definition of theoretical possibilities and general laws. Some critics have spoken of Aristotle’s sin of omission in relationship with lyric poetry and the inspirational element in literature. This is a fact. But it does not seem so important when we look at what Aristotle does say and the principles he establishes. We can barely recognize the aspect of criticism after Aristotle’s work, if we compare it to its previous state. His is the most important single contribution to criticism in the whole history of the discipline.