1 Jim Beggs ENGL 955 Dr.

David Downing Search for the Mean: Poetry According to Plato and Aristotle A comparison of the treatment of poetry in Plato and Aristotle's writings initially would seem only to produce points of difference. While they both concede that poetry functions according to the imitation of the real, the two writers differ in how they address the issue of imitation. According to Eric Havelock, Plato's Republic was primarily a social and educational treatise, rather than a model for a political utopia. Socrates was an iconoclast attacking the means by which Greek society educated its youth and preserved its cultural memory. Students memorized and repeated poetry in order to learn, and Socrates saw this method of learning as dangerous and limiting. In order to memorize lines, students had to become characters, sympathize with them, and experience their excesses of emotions. Memorization took a good deal of time, brain power, and repetition. Plato believed in the existence of ideal forms beyond the reach of the human senses. Without the time or ability to think through the use of dialectic, people would remain ignorant of the true nature of reality. Without people who labored for what was good, just, and beautiful, the world would be full of evil, injustice, and ugliness. While Plato could admit that poetry brought him pleasure at times, as he continued to develop his thinking on poetry, he eventually banned poetry outright from the Republic. Literacy, already pretty well established in Plato's time, would provide the technology for the transformation of human consciousness. Despite the utility of literacy, it presented a number of significant problems for Plato. First, texts were static and unchanging, and therefore, Socrates could not use dialectic in order to dialogue with a monologic text. The dialectic was the method that Socrates used in order to expose errors in others' thinking. However, with the danger of misinterpretation, texts had the ability to propagate error and lead readers away from the truth. In referring to texts and writing, Plato used the word pharmakon,

2 which as Derrida pointed out, can signify either “remedy” or “poison.” In translating pharmakon as remedy, translators had perhaps led readers astray from the meaning Plato had intended. Couldn't Plato have intended to draw attention to the contradictory nature of writing, rather than downplaying it? While the written word is dead, Plato relates texts to human bodies, almost as if he were trying to animate them or imagine that he could dialogue with them: “every discourse, like a living creature, should be so put together that it has its own body and lacks neither head nor feet, middle nor extremities, all composed in such a way that they suit both each and the whole” (53). The animation of the text is also a prescription of the form of texts. In developing a systematic method for understanding reality, then, Plato identifies problems that have plagued the production and transmission of knowledge ever since. Can writers even devise a method for perfect written communication that is free from ideology and the particulars of its production that will lead to greater truth? Many modern readers would laugh at any one attempting to undertake such a task, and yet, there was a man who took up Plato's doctrine of ideal forms and ran with it. Plato wrote the only way for someone to write reliably on a topic “a man must first know the truth about every single subject on which he speaks or writes . . . Not until a man acquires this capacity will it be possible to produce speech in a scientific way . . . either for purposes of instruction or for persuasion” (72). Getting to the truth through discourse seems impossible, so how could anyone ever be qualified to write on any topic? Apparently a person drawn to a challenge, Aristotle began to analyze and classify rhetoric and poetics. Through his writings on diction, Aristotle suggests that there are word choices and arrangements that both coincide with the art being undertaken and the meaning being communicated that are superior to other methods of composition. For example, the ideal word choices for a forensic rhetorician defending a client in a court of law might not be the same as the ideal word choices for a tragic poet. For Plato, there was good writing and bad writing--not really mediocre writing. Aristotle developed a system that would appear to develop a spectrum of good and bad literature. A reader could plot a work

3 on that spectrum based on the extent to which it conformed to the ideal form of the genre that Aristotle laid out. Hopefully, if the work under consideration is poetry, it is a tragedy, otherwise it will probably lose a few points. How do authors perfect their diction according to Aristotle? “The perfection of Diction is for it to be at once clear and not mean” (253). Apparently, in this case Aristotle intends “mean” to have a negative connotation. Yet, throughout his writings, the idea of the “mean,” more in the mathematical sense, was of central importance to the Rhetoric and Poetics. He restricts the usage of strange words because “they depart from what is suitable, in the direction of excess” (168). In Aristotle's apology for poetry, the one which Plato said could redeem poetry in the Republic, he necessarily sets up a system of hierarchical classification that limits the possibilities for literary creation. The natural purpose of poetry was to relate the probable and certain “universals,” which history could not even relate because it dealt with “particulars.” Aristotle's use of “barbarism” really seems to play with the notion of “the other” and the unintelligible, as a barbarian was anyone who did not speak Greek. Good literature for Aristotle was intelligible to a Greek audience, and part of the requirement of intelligibility was to not engage in verbal excess so that poetry became riddles or barbarisms. While the development of a series of critical criteria allowed for a more nuanced evaluation of works, the new method brought a new series of limitations. The inclusion or praise of certain works and the exclusion or derision of others reveals the hidden workings of ideology, which western metaphysics was supposed to help escape from. Both Plato and Aristotle criticized poetry for the various degrees to which they fail to adhere to a law of greater verisimilitude. For Plato, the poet would be unable to faithfully reproduce the ideal form because they failed to fully understand ideal forms, and the process of literary production involved human perception. The aim of the dialectic was to elevate the mind from the false world of appearances to the ideal world of form, and poetry could not do that for Plato. Literary creation was

4 thrice removed from the ideal form and therefore more inherently flawed. Tragedy was the ideal literary form for Aristotle because it most closely resembled real life in its form and contents. The dialogue of plays used iambic verse, which most closely resembles the rhythm of human speech. Other meters were more appropriate for other purposes, such as the trochaic of satyr plays conveying dance. The time frame for a play was limited to twenty four hours and one main character. People could relate to the time frame of plays because they lived their own lives day by day. While human beings encounter other people every day, they can only really truly experience their own lives—until they encounter poetry. Reading about a good character who experiences a fall due to some tragic flaw would produce pity and fear in the reader. The play would purge those negative emotions from the reader. Aristotle does not deny that poetry might manipulate a person's emotions, but he saw some benefit to the cathartic potential of poetry. Aristotle also attempted to show how imitation was natural and useful to human beings: Imitation is natural to man from childhood , one of his advantages over the lower animals being this that is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation . . . to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it(226-7). Dialectic had a specific application for learning, while the imitation of poetry could teach other lessons. In addition to teaching the reader, the artistic work had the capability to produce pleasure in its audiences. He dedicated much of the Poetics to showing how poets produced that pleasure in audiences while they carefully avoided the odious, which would displease. He laid the basic groundwork for the aesthetic appraisal of literature as art, making it a kin to but separate from painting and music. Aristotle also used the metaphor of the human body, although he specifically used the metaphor

5 for his consideration of the aesthetic merits of plots. “To be beautiful, a living creature, and and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is matter of size and order” (233). In the use of metaphor of the human body, Aristotle also prescribes a set of norms that support his categorization of literary forms. Suggesting that magnitude was an aspect of the beauty of texts and bodies, he creates the possibility that some texts will be deformed and ugly because they have no sense of proportion. He also said that if the magnitude was too large, people would not even be able to fully perceive it. In order for something to be intelligible, first people have to be able to perceive it before they begin the complex business of making sense of it. Here Aristotle suggested that without intelligibility, people would not even be able to perceive something if it is too abnormal. Despite Aristotle's attempts to develop a systematic method for the composition, evaluation, and criticism of literature that would enable nearly effortless communication from the writer to audience, the problems that Plato outlined with writing continue to persist. The reader of the Poetics, after dismissing an unwarranted assumption will puzzle over Aristotle's statement: “Such goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in a woman or a slave, though the one is perhaps an inferior, and the other a wholly worthless human being” (242). Given the order of the words in the sentence, one would assume that Aristotle meant that a woman was an inferior, and a slave a wholly worthless human being. But why not say that “the former is perhaps an inferior” and make the issue crystal clear? Instead, Aristotle left the sentence as it is, and readers cannot discern whether women are inferior or wholly worthless human beings. Perhaps the ambiguity was an intentional self-conscious mark of Aristotle's art. After all, the inaccuracies and implausible aspects of the work of good poets were examples of them excelling at their art. Plato could not tolerate poets for their lies, but at least Aristotle could appreciate a lie when it was told in the best possible manner.

6 Plato clearly established a divide between sciences such as arithmetic that led people further to the truth and arts such as poetry which led people away from the truth. While literacy was a useful tool for the elevation of the human mind through dialectic, the dangers of misinterpretation concerned Plato. Part of Aristotle's project in Rhetoric and Poetics was to limit the scope of rhetoric and poetics. Dialectic, rhetoric, science, and poetry all had specific functions that were separate from one another. In the literary criticism of the Poetics, Aristotle attempted to show how literary forms developed to fulfill specific artistic needs and pointed out those artistic techniques that best served the unity and the harmony of the whole work. He showed how the content of poetry could approach and most ideally match the true form of poetry. In the process of criticism, Aristotle created a new ideology of literature and literary criticism that valued certain characteristics over others. As much as Aristotle tried to avoid the particulars of history to which the literary was not suited, the historical particularities in which he wrote crept into the text through his ambiguous writing on women, slaves, and barbarisms. The creation of a third person omniscient narrator was not a sufficient measure to escape the limits of western metaphysics. The same problems of ambiguity, misreading, and unintelligibly that Plato identified persist after Aristotle.

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