BMCR 2021.08.20

The Poetics in its Aristotelian context

, , , The Poetics in its Aristotelian context. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. xiv, 260. ISBN 9780367366117 $124.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Poetics in its Aristotelian Context (PAC), is a collection of papers on Aristotle’s Poetics, presenting an expansive set of issues brought together to promote methods of contextualizing the Poetics within Aristotle’s corpus. It contains an introduction, bibliography, index locorum, general index and index of proper names. The papers reflect current work from authors who are conversant with Aristotle’s views on tragic poetry and understand the complexities involved in linking major themes of the Poetics to Aristotle’s philosophical positions as presented in his other treatises. One of the merits of PAC is that the authors are comfortable working, in a mutually reinforcing way, in the related fields of classics, literary theory, philosophy, and history. The volume will prove to be of lasting value to Aristotelian scholars as well as to specialists in Platonic studies who may be pleased to find that subtler approaches are taken with regard to Plato’s critique of the arts and his influence on Aristotle’s thought.

In their Introduction, the editors, Pierre Destrée and Dana L. Munteanu, pose the question: “How Aristotelian is Aristotle’s Poetics—a treatise often perceived as an oddity among its author’s own works?” (1). The question serves to guide the reader’s expectations that the twelve essays of PAC will “provide some answers to this question,” as well as provoke further responses from scholars in the future. They explain that the purpose of the volume is “to integrate aspects of the Poetics into the broader Aristotelian philosophy.” They point out that the procedures of contextualization presented throughout the volume are distinct from the way Aristotle’s treatise has been approached contextually, in the past, which was to deal with difficult concepts, clarify and try to resolve problems of interpretation, and address controversial issues.

The editors do not provide a specific meaning for “contextualization” nor does it seem, upon reflection, that they should be expected to do so. Instead, the main concern is to outline how the authors carry out the process of contextualizing the Poetics on a given topic in conjunction with Aristotle’s biological works, the Politics, his ethical treatises, the Rhetoric, his views of language and logic, and the wider influences on Aristotle’s thinking in relation to his predecessors and culture. Given the vast scope of the Aristotelian corpus, the plan for PAC is “programmatic” rather systematic (2-3). Not all areas of Aristotle’s philosophy are discussed. Instead, each author pursues a topic or set of themes and branches out in one or more directions suitable to their argument. Moreover, the editors suggest that the best way to understand the Poetics is to treat it as a distinct field of inquiry that presupposes and draws upon the philosophical and scientific views, methodological principles and strategies, which Aristotle set down in his other treatises. In this light, the editors explain why readers ought to consider Aristotle’s reasons for presenting the poetic arts as he does, rather than assess his view in terms of how well he responds to Plato’s critique of poetry or lament Aristotle’s failure to satisfy modern tastes with regard to ancient Greek theatre and stage performance (3-8).

The twelve papers in PAC are divided into three parts with chapters related to specific areas that illustrate methods of applying Aristotelian contexts to the Poetics. Part 1, entitled “Aristotle’s aesthetics: poetry and other arts—tradition and innovation,” has five papers. In the first chapter, Andrea Capra argues that Aristotle gave a technical meaning to the term muthos which he used to signify the tragic plot as a compositional structure that is unified and coherent. This new use is a radical break from Plato’s understanding of muthos and its traditional associations with poetic story-telling. Capra claims that Aristotle’s biological approach to tragedy shaped his analysis of it as a kind of living organism with the plot-structure as its “soul” (28). In support of his interpretation, he presents a set of passages from the Poetics and the biological works, in which he compares similar phrases and patterns of reasoning. Next, Hallvard Fossheim discusses the significance of the concept of to kalon (“noble,” “fine,” or “beautiful”) in Plato’s and Aristotle’s ethical and socio-political writings. He reviews the psychological dynamics between thumos, the spirited part of the soul, and its desire for the kalon. He discusses cases of standard usage in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s ethical works and carefully compares them with Aristotle’s restricted use of kalon and its cognates in the Poetics. Fossheim argues that Aristotle decidedly modified his use of kalon and applied it primarily to poetic craftsmanship and its products.

David Konstan considers five possible ways to understand the properly aesthetic dimension of fear and pity, preferring the one connected directly to the action of the complete story, the plot-structure constituted as a single whole from start to finish (59). He argues that this connection is vital not only with regard to fear and pity as aesthetically tragic emotions, but also “whatever other emotions might correspond to genres such as comedy” (61). In the next essay, Franco Trivigno provides a conceptual, moral and psychological analysis of phthonos (envy, or malice, or both). He suggests that Aristotle would have identified phthonos as part of the cathartic experience appropriate to comedy. Starting with a pattern taken from Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in Poetics 6, he builds a best-case scenario using Poetics 4-5, the relevant chapters on emotions in the Rhetoric, and references to the ethical works. He proposes to meet three criteria, historical, moral-psychological, and theoretical, to guide his investigation. Part of his project is to provide a reconstructed account of Plato’s view of comedy and the ridiculous in the Philebus (47e-50a). He contends that, despite differences between Plato’s emphasis on the pleasurable side of phthonos (as malice) and Aristotle’s account of the painful side of phthonos (as envy) in Rhetoric II.9, both philosophers are referring to the same thing (74). Trivigno ends on an optimistic note. In his view, there are enough resources available to provide a reasonable basis for reconstructing an Aristotelian theory of comedy.

Part I ends with Elsa Bouchard’s multi-leveled investigation of Aristotle’s explicit use of painting as a paradigm for poetic art. Aristotle uses it in three contexts: first, technical, with regard to skill in composition; second, regarding moral, cognitive, and educational domains; and third, regarding artistic autonomy and the intrinsic value of poetry and painting. Her strategy is to specify within each context the extent to which Aristotle relies on the visual arts as a source for his theory of poetry.

Part 2 is entitled “Poetics, politics, and ethics: links and independence,” and contains four papers. Pierre Destrée and Thornton Lockwood develop their views on the long-standing question of whether Aristotle’s so-called depoliticized account of tragedy ought to be reassessed. This reassessment is achieved, in Destrée’s view, by emphasizing Aristotle’s account of tragic suffering (in Poetics 14), his normative conception of politics, and his views on family, friends, and community (philia) and their relation to the polis. Lockwood takes a different tack to reexamine the core issues related to music and civic education in Politics 7-8. He formulates a set of working principles to understand Aristotle’s position on the value of music, its impact on moral education, Aristotle’s negative attitude toward performance as a factor in the arts, and the question of what constitutes “truly noble leisure,” according to Aristotle (135).

The next two papers, by Dana Munteanu and Valeria Cinaglia, address features of Aristotle’s account of characterization. Munteanu considers Aristotle’s lack of detail with regard to tragic characters designated as “better than us,” in contrast to  his description of comic characters who are “worse than us” (Poetics 2 and 6). Her meticulous approach to characterization and Aristotle’s appeals to painters and their styles helps to clarify, among other things, the third class of characters designated as “like us.”

Cinaglia develops the basis for a comparison between “comic error” (Poetics 5) and the sorts of errors made by morally weak persons as described by Aristotle in the relevant chapters of NE 7. Her argument involves several layers of discussion with regard to the moral implications of the errors typically made by comic characters, as people who are not vicious (except to the extent that they are ridiculous, ugly, or shameful), and are prone to excesses in desire or passion. She illustrates these points well with reference to Menander’s characters and style of comedy (169). Given Aristotle’s concern with character in tragedy and the plausibility that a person’s temperament and motivations will dictate their actions (Poetics 17), she argues that Aristotle would have applied the same criteria to comedy as he does to tragedy (172).

Part 3, entitled “Language and content: poetic puzzles in philosophical context,” has two papers. With regard to poetic style and Aristotle’s theory of metaphor (Poetics 21-22), Thomas Cirillo brings out the contrast between Aristotle’s intention “to amplify the creative and aesthetic appeal of a poem or speech,” and the “logical rigor” associated with the hierarchical ordering of genus and species in the Categories. According to Cirillo, Aristotle was willing to bend “the rules of his classificatory hierarchy,” in order to create “vivid expressions that bring the action of poetry before the eyes of the audience” (185). An interesting feature of the paper is Cirillo’s discussion of “flexible predication” as a way of describing Aristotle’s willingness to substitute a species term for the genus (195).

Silvia Carli reassesses Aristotle’s apparent privileging of poetry over historia, with the goal of showing what is wrong with a simplified approach to Poetics 9 and a narrow reading of Poetics 23 on the part of scholars who take Aristotle to be dismissive of historical works. She argues that developing an adequate account of Aristotle’s view of historia as a type of preliminary inquiry, along with a clearer understanding of historiography, are useful correctives for dealing with the problems generated by a “one-sided” interpretation of Aristotle’s contrast between poetry and historia (215).

Malcolm Heath’s essay addresses specific concerns about contextualization and brings them to bear on a key question about the intrinsic value of poetry. There are three reasons for situating Aristotle’s Poetics in what Heath calls a “global Aristotelian context” (224). The first is straightforward: Aristotle is a philosopher with an enormous range of interdisciplinary interests which he used as resources in conducting an inquiry. Second, the Poetics is a technical treatise about poetry as a productive art. The function of the poet as a skilled maker is to produce a product which can be judged in terms of its excellence. As part of this discussion, Heath calls attention to Aristotle’s rule about keeping different fields of inquiry separate and treating them as partially autonomous, while at the same time acknowledging their “interconnectedness” (229). Striking the “right balance” of these features is an obvious challenge for reading the Poeticscontextually.

The third reason ties together two central points about reading the Poetics “in a global Aristotelian context” (232). Granting Aristotle’s intention to stay within the limits of a technical treatise on tragic poetry, it is unlikely that clear answers about Aristotle’s view on the value of poetry will be found in the Poetics. Yet, we want to know how Aristotle would respond to the question: “what contribution does poetry make to living well?” (233). In Heath’s view, finding an adequate answer requires reading the Poetics in a “wider Aristotelian context.” As part of this project, Heath suggests taking an anthropological perspective regarding human behavior and motivation, a perspective that shows how poetry is rooted in natural human inclinations and the pleasure we take in viewing mimetic art (Poetics 4) . Heath proceeds by noting the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value. He recalls Aristotle’s argument that there must be a final end worth choosing for itself, since an infinite regress would result if all ends were chosen for the sake of something else (N.E. 1.2, 1094a18-22). Next, Heath draws a comparison between music and poetry. He notes that, in Politics 8.3, Aristotle recognizes the value of music both for educating the young and for the sake of “intellectual enjoyment in leisure” (1338a20-22).To conclude, Heath cites the Protrepticus to illustrate how  Aristotle responds to critics who challenge the usefulness of philosophy, as if it could not be of value in itself. The point here is that engaging in philosophical study is similar to enjoying Olympic Games, watching dramatic plays or listening to music, all of which are “appropriate objects of appreciative attention in cultivated leisure” (235).

Authors and Titles

Pierre Destrée and Dana L. Munteanu, “Introduction.”
PART 1. Aristotle’s aesthetics: poetry and other arts—tradition and innovation.
1. Andrea Capra, “Poetry and biology: the anatomy of tragedy.”
2. Hallvard J. Fossheim, “To kalon and the experience of art.”
3. David Konstan, “Aesthetic emotions.”
4. Franco V. Trivigno, “Was phthonos a comedic emotion for Aristotle? On the pleasure and moral psychology of laughter.”
5. Elsa Bouchard, “Painting as an aesthetic paradigm.”
PART 2. Poetics, politics, and ethics: links and independence.
6. Pierre Destrée, “Family bounds, political community, and tragic pathos.”
7. Thornton Lockwood, “Is there a Poetics in the Politics?”
8. Dana L. Munteanu, “Varieties of characters: the better, the worse, and the like.”
9. Valeria Cinaglia, “The ethical context of Poetics 5: comic error and lack of self-control.”
PART 3. Language and content: poetic puzzles in philosophical context.
10. Thomas Cirillo, “Taxonomic flexibility: metaphor, genos, and eidos.”
11. Silvia Carli, “Poetry and historia.”
12. Malcolm Heath, “Reading the Poetics in context.”