Aristotelian Approach to Drama Research Proposal

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Aristotelian Drama

The Aristotelian Approach to Drama: From a Rejection of Plato to the Establishment of Plot in Poetics

Aristotle's Poetics, while not regarded as the most philosophically important or even logically sound of Aristotle's works by many modern scholars, has nonetheless been hugely instrumental in the development of Western literature, and particularly Western drama. It is in this text that the basic concepts of plot, character, and even the relationship of performers to the audience were all established and codified, and truly little has changed in regards to these concepts in the two millennia or so that have passed since Poetics was first produced. Most drama, and indeed most literature, has continued to define itself and its standards through the lens provided by Aristotle's discussion of Attic poetry and drama.

It is curious to note, then, that Aristotle's Poetics is not itself the pinnacle of philosophical progress towards an understanding of the nature of drama and poetics, but rather cam as a refutation of previous thought in these areas. Specifically, Poetics is in many ways a rejection of Plato's moralistic condemnation of dramatic performance and even of literature. Poetics, then, is not a work dedicated to understanding and proclaiming the higher purposes of drama and literature, though this is in part what is accomplished in the text, but rather is concerned with establishing the broad field of poetics as understood by Aristotle -- the pursuit of creative endeavors that do not serve a directly or obviously practical value -- as a field of human activity worth pursuing. An understanding of the context in which Aristotle wrote the Poetics is essential to a proper understanding of the text itself, and of the impact it has had on the development of Western drama.

Plato's Condemnation

The distinction between poetics and philosophy as separate and irreconcilable areas of human thought and effort was not new to Plato, but his work is often seen as the most definitive and influential force of divisiveness between the practical -- and therefore moral -- pursuits of philosophical inquiry, and the impractical -- and therefore immoral, according to most interpretations of his work -- pursuits of poetic thought, mimesis, and imitation. In the Symposium particularly, many scholars have noted the juxtaposition of poetic and philosophical alternatives, which Plato presents in a way that prevents the two from coming together before systematically showing philosophy to provide the superior worldview (Nichols 186-7). Love, the object of discussion at the titular gathering, is ultimately seen in its highest form in philosophy, a love of knowledge; other love and desire -- such as the desires presented and sometimes sated in literature and drama -- is a distraction from this higher goal, making it at the very least less moral if not directly immoral.

Elsewhere in his canon, Plato more directly addresses the issue of poetry's immorality. Plato's Republic contains his most clear denunciation of poetry as an immoral act, at the very least for its diversionary nature from the pursuit of a more perfect moral correctness and at worst as a blasphemous and corruptive area of human endeavor. Varying interpretations, as well as a certain equivocation on the part of Plato himself, both contribute to the varying degrees of hostility towards literature, poetry, and drama attributed to the philosopher, but it is entirely certain that he did not approve of them.

One of the most detestable things about poetry -- of which drama was a part -- to Plato is that it necessarily consists of imitation. In the Platonic worldview, the physical world inhabited by humans is already an imitation of the world of the gods; his famous allegory of the cave, in which the chained cave dwellers only see shadows of the world on the back wall of their cave and take this to be reality, sums this concept up rather neatly. In poetry and other forms of artistic expression, then, Plato saw an imitation of an imitation -- an imperfect copy of this world, which is already an imperfect copy of the world of the gods, and this found its extreme in dramatic texts and performances (Republic 387-8). Knowing this makes the act of pursuing imitation -- through dramatic texts or other artistic expressions -- all the more immoral in the Platonic view, as it is a purposeful attempt to create something less perfect, rather than an attempt to make something more perfect. The focus of philosophy has this latter, practical goal in mind, and is thus held by Plato to be far superior to the ideas and endeavors of purely creative pursuits.

An understanding of poetics' relationship to philosophy in the Platonic version of things is essential to understanding Aristotle's own conclusions in the same area. His Poetics does not come simply as a refutation of Plato's ideas, but also as a reorganizing of some of Plato's most basic concepts. Plato places things on a sort of continuum of morality, and in the Republic poetics takes its laces as a far-less perfect form of philosophy (just as in the Symposium other forms of love are seen as less perfect versions of...philosophy). Aristotle shook things up a bit.

Aristotle's Protest

Just as there is a great deal of debate and uncertainty concerning the extent and/or degree of Plato's rejection of poetics, art, and imitation, there is not exactly a scholarly consensus when it comes to Aristotle's defense of these areas in his Poetics, or indeed in his larger body of philosophical treatises. Yet just as it is clear that Plato does not view these things in a favorable light, it is clear that Aristotle attempts to find greater purpose in morality in them than his teacher and mentor. Many have interpreted Aristotle's Poetic as a polemic defense of dramatic works, and their purpose and even necessity in a well-formed society, while others have found his support of such endeavors to be somewhat less emphatic, and thus his renunciation of his teacher's conclusions less complete. Either way, Aristotle certainly departed from Plato's teachings and conclusions enough to warrant a full examination of the nature of poetics, dramatic text, and dramatic performance, to the degree that Aristotle's conclusions in these areas have become fundamental in the creation of Western drama over the two millennia since he walked the Earth.

Though for the purposes of this study we must eventually see Aristotle's views in Poetics as oppositional to Plato's ideas on the same subjects in the Republic and the Symposium, there are also some similarities in the two philosophers' approach that warrants some examination. Both Plato and Aristotle were concerned with the subject of poetics, literary text, dramatic performance, and imitation in general as it relates to civic education and the creation and/or perpetuation of a successful and morally solid society (Haskins). This has already been largely demonstrated in Plato's work; his view of the immorality of imitation, drama, and poetry stems from its ability to mislead members of society (particularly the youth) by providing less-than-perfect examples of reality. Though Plato acknowledged that the epic poems of Homer and Hesiod were meant to illustrate generally good principles, the fact these works did so through the presentation of false or at least imitative scenarios made the lessons far less morally acceptable and useful, in Plato's view (Bartky). Aristotle did not necessarily disagree with Plato on this point; he saw the same sort of emotional falsehood stemming form tragedy as Plato -- and both even appear to agree that such emotional falsehoods are more easily and more strongly evinced by the dramatic performance of a tragedy than in the recitation of an epic (Bartky 592-3).

Where Aristotle departs from Plato, then, is not in his diagnosis of the effects of dramatic literature and mimesis on the individuals witnessing the tragic performance (or the epic recitation, or the viewing of a painting, etc.), but rather in the moral quality and long-term impact of these effects. For Plato, the greater the distance between any object or action and the "true" object or action of the world of the gods, the greater the immorality of that object or action, and the less practical usefulness it entailed. The false lessons of the epics, then, were already a poor method of instruction for the youth of Athens, and the increased mimesis and immediacy of the tragic performance made it -- and the texts that lay behind it -- that much worse. Plato, that is, aligned everything under the umbrella of philosophy, and judged all thought and endeavor by the same standards of logic and truth.

This is where the true disagreement between Aristotle and Plato arises; the two did not differ on the effects of mimesis and dramatic performance, but while Plato sees poetics in the same light and with the same criteria incumbent upon it as philosophy, "Aristotle establishes poetry's independence from philosophy as a corrective to Plato's resort to poetry, thereby establishing that philosophy is completely autonomous from poetry" (Bartky 589). As an entirely separate entity form… [END OF PREVIEW]

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