Sunday, July 1, 2012

Plato and Aristotle: Aristotle’s Defence of Poetry

Aristotle was the great disciple of Plato, and it was he who took up the challenge of Plato at the end of Republic X to show that poetry was, ‘not only pleasant but also useful, for man and society. Though Aristotle never refers directly to Plato, much of the Poetics is a covert reply to his great master. Aristotle takes up Plato’s challenge and demonstrates the value and significance of poetry in moulding the character of the individual. The Poetics is a systematic exposition of the theory and practice of poetry, a well-reasoned rebuttal of Plato’s charges against poetry. Aristotle takes up hints and suggestions from his great teacher, reinterprets them, and imparts new meaning and significance to Plato’s concepts. No two individuals could differ more widely in their objectives and methods of work than do Plato and Aristotle; and out of this difference result their different attitudes toward poetry:

1. Plato set out to recognise human life; Aristotle to reorganize human life

2. Plato was a transcendentalist and had the temperament of an artist; Aristotle a scientist, a biologist, an experimentalist, who arrived at his principles through observation and analysis. This accounts for his passion for "categories", and classification. 

3. Plato was an idealist. He believed that the phenomenal world is but an objectification of the ideal world. The ideal world is real; the phenomenal world is but a shadow of this ideal reality. It is, therefore, fleeting and unreal. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed in the reality of the world of the senses. The world is real, and it must form the basis of any scientific or systematic study. It is on the basis of the study and observation of particular realities that general principles can be induced. Thus Aristotle moves from the real to the ideal, from the particular to the general. His methods are inductive. In this respect, he stands at the opposite pole from Plato.

4. Plato's language is poetic and charming; that of Aristotle is dogmatic, telegraphic. It is the language of private, personal notes of an intelligent teacher rather than that of a finished product.

5. Aristotle makes full use of the terminology and doctrine of Plato, develops or confuse them, and on the basis provided by them develops theories of his own. Plato was a more original genius; Aristotle more comprehensive and systematic. 

6. Plato was the first to use the word, ‘imitation’, in connection with poetry; Aristotle took the word from his master, but breathed a new life and soul into it. Plato considered imitation merely as mimicry or a servile copy of nature; but Aristotle interpreted it as a creative process. The poet while imitating reality transforms it into something new and much higher. He brought the emotions within the range of imitation.

7. Plato likened poetry to painting; Aristotle likened it to music. According to Plato, poetry imitates only surface appearances, as does a painter; according to Aristotle, poetry imitates not only the externals, but also internal emotions and experiences. 

8. In Plato’s view, poetry presents a copy of nature as it is; according to Aristotle, poetry may imitate men as they are, or better and worse, poetry is not concerned so much with what is, but with what ought to be. Poetry gives us an idealised version of reality. Thus the two differ widely in their views; on poetic truth. .

9. Plato condemned poetry on moral, intellectual and emotional grounds. Aristotle takes up the objections of Plato one by one, and justifies poetry morally, emotionally and intellectually. He is the first to use the term Katharais in connection with tragedy and this part of the Poetics is highly original and moving. We get no corresponding theory in Plato. The theory of Katharais enables Aristotle to demonstrate the healthy influence which poetry, in general, and tragedy, in particular, exercise over the emotions.

10. Plato had taken up the cudgels on behalf of philosophy, and his purpose was to show that philosophy is superior to poetry, and so philosophy must replace poetry in the school; Aristotle, on the other hand, takes up the cudgels on behalf of poetry and effectively brings out its superiority. In his view, poetry is to be preferred both to history and philosophy. 

11. Plato, regarded the emotions as undesirable and so advocate their repression; Aristotle on the other hand stresses the need for emotional outlets. “Doubtlessly, Aristotle was saner in this than Plato with his phobea of emotion”—(Lucas). Emotions may be controlled and guided, but they must not be suppressed.

From whatever angle we consider Plato and Aristotle, master and pupil, stand poles apart. There were radical differences between these two minds, and, ‘‘out of this difference came the most formidable assault on poetry, and the most effective defence of it, that has ever been known,”

Lascelles Abercrombie beautifully summarises the different points of view of the two as follows: The difference between the two may, very roughly, be indicated by referring to the studies in which they were specially interested. Aristotle’s philosophy was coloured by his interest in biology, Plato’s by his interest in mathematics. This means that Aristole’s mind liked to proceed from things to ideas, Plato’s from ideas to things. Aristotle had the scientific, Plato the metaphysical mind. The nature of Plato’s objection to poetry is quite in accordance with the nature of his philosophy, just as Aristotle’s answer to that objection accords with the nature of his philosophy, and with his antipathy to Plato’s. “Aristotle never says that his theory is an answer to Plato; he never mentions Plato in the Poetics, and never even alludes to the Platonic objection to poetry. But his whole argument is exactly planned to invalidate Plato’s argument at every point; and thus falls in with his openly expressed opposition to Plato elsewhere.’’ The difference between the two minds is shown in the way they approach the very existence of poetry. It seems a paradox to Plato, who in his youth had done exquisite things in poetry, and in his maturity had such perfect command of literary art that he could present philosophy as an enchanting music of ideas, should have been the man to condemn poetry; whereas Aristotle, whose extent works can scarcely be called literature at all, should have directed the full force of his philosophy into the sanest and strongest justification that poetry has ever had.

Aristotle could never have stood beside Plato as a literary artist. But it was Plato, the philosopher, who condemned poetry; and the mere fact that he did so is typical of the way his philosophy regarded things. “Things being important only as the representatives of ideas, he was quite prepared to say that a thing which was unnecessary or, unworthy as a representative of ideas ought not to exist. Poetry was a thing oft his nature; Plato, therefore, proposed that it should be abolished. But it was with a biologist’s respect for the existence of things that Aristotle looked on poetry; for him, ideas were only important as the interpretation of things.” It never occurred to Aristotle to ask whether poetry ought or ought not to exist. It does exist: the questions his philosophy asks are: In what manner and to what result does it exist ? One might perhaps say, Aristotle would no more think of asking whether poetry ought to exist or not, than whether a species of animals ought to exist or not. At any rate, the conclusion he comes to is the exact opposite of Plato’s opinion; it is, that the function of poetry can be supremely beneficient. It may very well be that he started with this opinion; and that to prove it against the great authority of Plato was his chief motive in composing the Poetics. He rejected, in all spheres of his philosophy, Plato's theory that the emotions are in themselves bad and in particular he rejected the view that, by rousing emotions, poetry produces a dangerous excess of these emotions in real life. “Aristotle's theory of 'Catharsis' in his answer to Plato on these points, and one of the main elements in his defence of poetry as having a proper and necessary place in human life, and, therefore, in the state.” 


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