Aristotelian Approach to Literature
Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) In his Poetics Aristotle laid some of the ground rules of what good literature should look like. He has become an authority of literary theory. Though a student of Plato, Aristotle differed from him on the fundamental issue of objective and subjective approaches. Aristotle criticizes orators who write exclusively from the intellect, rather than from the heart, praising the way Greek dramatists make their characters speak, especially in Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, and Antigone. Composers writing in the Aristotelian tradition appeal to our emotions and satisfy our psychological needs.
Action Drama is based on the theatre of illusion where the characters imitate real life and the audience experiences the predicaments of the characters vicariously. By identifying emotionally and psychologically, we are seduced by the actors to identify, empathise with the characters and aroused by their terror to pity and fear (Pathos) to a state of Catharsis, releasing our tension, soothing, cleansing or purging our souls. This can be ephemeral with no lasting consequences.
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery”. Drama or re-enactments have been central to the most primitive societies as a form of entertainment and a method of passing on traditions through story telling. It has always attempted to provide a mirror to real life.
Aristotelian plots are linear, progressing from a beginning, a middle and an end with various techniques of wholeness, unity and purpose. It reaffirms a rational, ordered universe. They are known as Conventional Theatre, Theatre of illusion or Theatre of Action where the audience is deluded into thinking they are watching real time events through an invisible fourth wall. Our Interest in the outcome of the action provides the suspense. Aristotle puts high emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion….
The characters are appropriate, realistic and plausible; the hero from a good family, going through a crisis with a reversal of fortune. Novelists too tend to obey Aristotle’s guidelines of “revelation” ; that most of the ideas and issues should be revealed not by the author telling us, rather by the actions, reactions, words and thoughts of the characters. Don’t tell us – show us. We the responders feel more dignified when we figure it out rather than when we are told directly.
Plot and character come first and ideas –what we call issues, themes, concerns or values can only be gleaned through experiences of empathy. The idea that reading can help people navigate the world is an old one. Eminent philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Gilbert Ryle, among others, have argued that reading fiction is an ethical activity, one that enlarges the scope of our empathy.
Zadie Smith made a similar point in her 2003 Orange Word Lecture:
"When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good)." Reading, in her estimation, can make us broader, more sympathetic. Better.
Pain is inherent in the human condition, leading man to a noble form of dignity. Suffering is depicted as ennobling. At the end, order is restored, god is on his throne and all is right with the world. Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution – poetic justice.
Great Literature is seldom explicit rather it is suggestive, implicit, ambiguous creating intrigue. As Oscar Wilde said, “a work of art dies as soon as you understand it”.
Many great writers write in Aristotle’s tradition such as; Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williamson etc:
Hamlet conforms to the Aristotelian forms of tragedy. It is well constructed and bides to Aristotle’s definitions regarding a complete dramatic action which arouse pity and fear inducing Catharsis. :
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right. -
The play is based on the theatre of illusion where the audience experiences the predicaments of the characters vicariously By identifying emotionally and psychologically, we are drawn closer to the characters and are aroused by their terror to pity and fear (pathos) to a state of Catharsis, releasing our tension, soothing and purging our souls. This is ephemeral; there are no lasting consequences.
The plot is linear, progressing from a beginning, a middle and an end with various techniques of wholeness, unity and purpose. It reaffirms a rational, ordered universe,
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may”
The characters are appropriate, realistic and plausible; the hero from a good family, going through a crisis with a reversal of fortune.
Hamlet is an Aristotelian model of a classical drama - there is an overall logic to the action, and the plot has a discernible shape: a beginning, middle, and end. By the conclusion of the play, in other words, through the actions of the participants, something has been dealt with, resolved. There is an emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion….
Suffering is depicted as ennobling. At the end, order is restored, god is on his throne and all is right with the world.
In On Rhetoric Aristotle argued that there are three controlling factors in persuasion: Logos, Pathos and Ethos.
Logos is the intellectual dimension. He said that as rational beings we like to know (or think) that our beliefs are grounded in reality. But logos alone does not move people to adopt new beliefs or behaviours.
Pathos, the emotional or psychological dimension, also plays a role. Beliefs are formed not only by rationalisation but also by "attraction". Arguments we "like", whether because they are presented beautifully or because they resonate with our hopes, will usually be more persuasive than ones we find unpleasant. I think this partly explains why, despite having some great minds in the cause, atheism continues to be an important minority viewpoint. Whatever its intellectual credentials, taken seriously it offers a very bleak outlook.
However, logos and pathos do not fully account for why we believe what we believe. Aristotle reserved a special place in his theory for what he called ethos, the social or ethical dimension. Not only do we tend to believe ideas we like, we also tend to accept the ideas of people we like.
We now call this the ''sociology of knowledge'' but Aristotle put his finger on it centuries ago: "We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge."
A half-plausible argument will sound implausible from someone we dislike, and yet the same argument will seem fully plausible from someone we trust. How this works in practice is that our social context - where we grew up, the education we have received, the friends we hang out with and the community we choose to be part of - influence the beliefs we will adopt. Ethos is at the core of how beliefs work.
What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors. John Dickson is an author and historian. He is director of the Centre for Public Christianity and a senior research fellow at Macquarie University.
This explains why people cling to convictions in the face of all contrary credible evidence – flat earthers, birthers, climate change denialists…..
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