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That is, Aristotle did not reject the notion of falsehood that Plato sees in mimesis and therefore in all poetry -- epic and tragic -- but instead accepts this falsehood and asserts that is not necessarily detrimental in and of itself.
This is accomplished precisely by Aristotle's removal of poetics from the realm of philosophy. This move is not necessarily noticed in an explicit manner by modern scholars, many of whom still perceive his Poetics as an outright rejection of Plato's condemnation of mimesis (Nichols; Bartky). The emphasis on the revolutionary nature of Aristotle's interpretation of mimesis is more commonly put forth in the literature, and does in some ways appear to be more apparent in a reading of Aristotle's Poetics than a deeper schism with his teacher and mentor. A more careful reading and interpretation of Aristotle's poetics, however, suggests that his work is at once more in agreement with and at the same time a more profound departure from Plato's basic construction of philosophy
For Plato -- and largely for Aristotle -- philosophy embodied all search for knowledge and improvement in human life. In Plato's view, engaging in philosophical inquiry for the purposes of better understanding and better action was the most perfect moral path one could take in the mortal world, and showed the greatest obeisance to the gods in its focus on the purity of understanding and knowledge that it strives to attain. Aristotle does not necessarily disagree with this view, but he does effectively remove poetics form the realm of philosophy, seeing it as an avenue of pursuing truth completely separate. Though this denies the commonly observed (or interpreted) revolutionary aspect of Aristotle's Poetics in which the student directly refutes his teacher on the subject of mimesis and morality, upon examination it reveals a deeper revolution in the text.
Aristotle does, of course, end up challenging Plato in regards to mimesis' morality, but his is secondary to his reorganization of human thought. By removing poetics utterly from the realm of philosophy, it is no longer bound or judged by the moral standards of philosophy. That is, the morality of poetic pursuits, including the mimesis of dramatic performances and texts, cannot be judged in terms of its approach to the pure and absolute truth of the gods, because this is not their purpose. The purpose of drama, and of all poetic pursuits in Aristotle's construct, is emotional release or catharsis rather than intellectual and logical truth. Plato recognized this goal as well, and found it distracting and not worthwhile. Aristotle, however, not only approves of it but also established a list of best practices for achieving catharsis, and this is the true focus of his Poetics.
Aristotle identifies six specific elements of drama in his Poetics, ranking them in terms of importance and defining how these elements can be successful -- and often how they are unsuccessful -- in bringing about a cathartic release in those witnessing the dramatic performance. In this, it can be seen that Aristotle did not fully escape the overall worldview and schema of his teacher and mentor. Though he has removed poetics from philosophy, he has created a highly similar system of judgment within his own theory of poetics, and he attaches this system of judgment to moral qualifications as well. In order for a tragic text to fulfill its potential and thus become a truly moral pursuit, according to Aristotle, it must bring the audience to an emotional catharsis through the successful engagement of that audience in the various aspects of the dramatic presentation.
Aristotle is no less codifying in his approach to poetics as Plato was in his analysis of civic society in the Republic or of love in the Symposium. As he moves through the six identified elements of drama -- understandings of which have remained largely unchanged throughout the development of Western drama, though they have of course adapted to contemporary tastes and times -- he is unequivocal in his assessment of the way things should be. Though he has removed poetics from the moral auspices of philosophy, such representation and performance is far from the expression and/or exploration of "personal truth," as it is often seen today, but rather is a highly structured and purposeful undertaking.
Song and Spectacle
Aristotle does not merely divide and delineate the six different aspects of tragic literature as he sees them in his poetics, but he actually ranks them in terms of their importance to achieving catharsis and the evidence of poetic skill that is required and evidenced by each. Song and spectacle are the fifth and sixth dramatic elements, respectively, in terms of their importance to the emotional import and drama of the performance (Poetics, Part I, sec. 6). In defining song, Aristotle reflects simply that "it is a term whose sense every one understands" (Poetics I, 6). His dismissal of the element of song is evidenced not only by its ranking in his poetic schema, but also in the lack of time and thought spent on it -- song is a natural part of dramatic performance, for Aristotle, and an automatic emotional enhancement that does not require or really even bear any further comment.
He has more to say about his last-ranked element, spectacle, but little of it is good. While he acknowledges that fear and pity -- the two emotions that must be awakened and fully and deeply felt in order for catharsis to occur -- can be touched on by visual spectacle, "but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet" (Poetics III, 14). Because one cannot avoid the element of visual spectacle in a dramatic performance, Aristotle insists that the spectacle be kept to the same standard of quality and focus of purpose as the other dramatic elements at work in the tragic text, but sees an emphasis on spectacle as a cheap and weak trick of an ineffective poet.
Coming in above song and spectacle in terms of its effect on the audience and evidence of a poet's skill, in Aristotle's view, is diction -- the word choice of the tragic poet, both for their metrical value and for their meaning. Aristotle spends a great deal of time at the end of his Poetics to break down the various parts of speech and metrical patterns that combine to give language its sound and import in a poetic text. Interestingly, Aristotle does not make an explicit distinction between the symbolic and the auditory aspects of words and their constituent parts, or the longer lines and sentences that they make up. His list of the aspects of language makes this unified theory readily apparent: "Letter, Syllable, Connecting Word, Noun, Verb, Inflection or Case, Sentence or Phrase" (Poetics III, 20).
By making letter, syllable, and inflection -- the three auditory aspects of language that Aristotle lists -- of equal and interspersed weight with the more rational aspects of language -- essentially grammar and syntax -- Aristotle is again showing a difference in his appropriation and the standard or platonic view. For Plato, truth was all; the beauty of language would come in the correctness of the thought it communicated, and not in the sounds of the communication. Aristotle's removal of poetics from philosophy means that beauty is measured differently, as well; it more closely aligns with our modern aesthetic sense than with Plato's intellectual fixation. More importantly, Aristotle recognizes the importance of perception in the creation of emotion, and thus the sound of the words is weighed with equal importance to their meaning.
The thoughts represented in the play, however, hold supremacy to the meaning and the sound of the language, as the third most important aspect of drama according to the Aristotelian model. This can be somewhat confusing at first glance; separating the thought from the meaning appears to be an impossible task. But though the two elements are certainly related, there are subtle and important differences. There are many ways that different individual words can be combined in order to express the same basic idea or concept. There are many ways, that is, to express the same thought. It is the words chosen for this expression that represent diction. By holding thought in supremacy over diction, Aristotle makes it explicitly clear that the what rather than the how of a tragic text is of greater importance. Thus, there is still a highly practical nature to his assessment of drama -- in order to be good it must accomplish something, not merely be ornamental.
This actually creates a larger burden on the poet's creative ability rather than reducing it; though the beauty of the language…[continue]
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