As I said in my review for Art of Rhetoric, I will not be subjecting you to months on end of Aristotle reviews, at least not all at once. Poetics will be the last for now, but we will return to Aristotle in the future.
Despite the title, Poetics should not be thought of as applying exclusively to poetry. Rather, it is equal parts literary criticism, and one of the world’s earliest “how to write fiction,” books. Much like Art of Rhetoric, there were pieces that have become outdated, but much has remained surprisingly relevant to modern literature. All that is required is a bit of translation.
Yes, the hardest part of this read was remembering to translate Aristotle’s terms into today’s terms. Not that the copy I had was still in ancient Greek; just that the terminology that his Greek translates literally to does not align with that about which he was actually talking. For instance, when he says “poetry,” he’s really talking about literature in general, to include prose, poetry, and plays. When he says “tragedy,” he means “drama.” “Epic” = long-form fiction, and so forth.
With those translations in place, Poetics has a lot of valuable insight, especially when combined with Art of Rhetoric. Together, they provide instruction on how to craft compelling characters, how to pace action, how to manage complex plots, the components of plots, and even how to integrate elements of histrionics and “the spectacular.” There were many places where it seemed like Aristotle could have been critiquing movies, although of course he was referring to plays.
At least as interesting to me as the insights on storytelling were the many similarities between ancient Greece and the modern world. In my tour of ancient world literature, I encountered many civilizations that felt distinctly alien from our world today, with assumptions and presuppositions that seem foreign to a modern context. For all that there were recognizable elements, the societies encapsulated in works like Babur-Nama, The Story of Burnt Njal, or Bhagavad Gita were distinct in ways that ensured they could never be conflated with today. If someone from those societies were to be transplanted to ours, or vice versa, there would be much they did not understand and much that they would find incomprehensible (and I’m not talking about technology). Ancient Greece, on the other hand, feels…familiar. Especially reading Aristotle, I had the sense that I could walk around ancient Greece, or someone from ancient Greece could walk around today, without being too out of place. Yes, there are some beliefs that are jarring – like Aristotle asserting the innate inferiority of women and slaves in casual conversation – there is more that is similar than is alien.
One does wonder, about some such beliefs, how it would sound in the historical context. Or at least, I wonder that kind of thing. Today, we read something like that, and think it a preposterous and rather offensive claim. At the time, though, would it have been perceived as an academic argument? A matter of belief? Was it just one of their base assumptions about the universe that they wouldn’t even think of questioning? And if the latter, was it an assumption shared? It is easy today to look back and see claims like that as evidence of the oppression of women, but if it really was a fundamental belief of the society, then it would presumably be shared by both the supposed oppressors and the supposed oppressed. However, that is probably a topic for another post, and not one that I am inclined to write – I’ve probably courted more controversy with this brief musing already than I ought to do.
Something I learned from Poetics that had nothing to do with poetry struck me as being worth additional thought. Previously, I had not realized that many of the famous Greek stories and plays existed in more than one form by many different authors. Throughout Poetics, Aristotle references different versions of famous stories to make his literary points. He’ll compare, for instance, Sophocles’ version of the Oedipus story with another version written by Euripides. It gave me the impression that most of the “fiction” writing of the time derived more or less directly from a core set of stories that were as much or more a part of the Greek cultural mythology as Athena and Apollo. Maybe that’s a false impression, but if true it has fascinating implications with which I am still wrestling. I wonder then how these stories were viewed: were they seen as works of “fiction,” or were they seen more like biographies, or histories? Were they seen like historical fiction? There are so many questions that it is probably impossible to answer with any certitude. It is obvious that there was a perceived difference between, say, Herodotus’s Histories and The Illiad, but with what kind of nuance?
One last observation, or more of a musing. Reading all of the Greek works, I have the impression that most of the authors knew each other, or at least knew of each other. Especially Aristotle makes references to other Greek works by his contemporaries (and those of a generation prior). I know that Xenophon and Plato knew Socrates, and Aristotle was a student of Plato. Socrates lived 469 – 399 BCE, Plato: 428 – 348 BCE, Xenophon: 430 – 354 BCE, Aristotle: 384 – 322 BCE, Herodotus: 484 – 425 BCE, Sophocles: 496 – 406 BCE, Euripides: 480 – 406 BCE. I do wonder what it would have been like to live at that time, and how aware they were of the exceptional time period in which they lived. How many other generations in history can lay claim to that many names that remain notable and relevant twenty five hundred years later? Perhaps in a few thousand years, someone will think similarly about Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and the other Founders.
I’m going to keep wrestling with these questions, but in the meantime, I encourage you to read Poetics. Aristotle has a lot to say about a lot of things, and much of it is surprisingly relevant to our modern world. Whether you read it for its historical interest, its literary criticism (there were a lot of references to Greek works and authors that I did not know, like in Art of Rhetoric), or its advice on storytelling, I think you’ll find something valuable.