Aristotle's Poetics

Aristotle's Poetics Study Guide

Though the precise origins of Aristotle's Poetics are not known, researchers believe that the work was composed around 330 BCE and was preserved primarily through Aristotle's students' notes. Despite its vague beginning, the Poetics has been a central document in the study of aesthetics and literature for centuries, proving especially influential during the Renaissance; it continues to have relevance in scholarly circles today.

Over the years the Poetics has been both praised and disparaged. Some critics object to Aristotle's theory of poetics and regret that the work has held such sway in the history of Western literature. One contemporary critic argues that Aristotle "reduces drama to its language," and the "language itself to its least poetic element, the story, and then encourages insensitive subject stories to crudely moralistic readings that reduce tragedies to the childish proportions of Aesop-fables" (Sachs 1). Other critics have argued against such views and reclaimed the Poetics for their own times; often these critics emphasize the importance of reading the Poetics in its historical context - it was, after all, written an awfully long time ago - and stress that despite this historical barrier the insights contained in the work still hold true. Whichever side of the debate you end up on, it is important when studying the Poetics to take time to decode its dense text. The Poetics is widely considered one of Aristotle's most demanding but rewarding texts, requiring commitment in its study, but offering profound returns to the diligent reader.

The Poetics is Aristotle's attempt to explain the basic problems of art. He both defines art and offers criteria for determining the quality of a given artwork. The Poetics stands in opposition to the theory of art propounded by Aristotle's teacher, Plato. In his Republic, Plato argues that "poetry is a representation of mere appearances and is thus misleading and morally suspect" (Critical, 1). In the poetics, Aristotle, Plato's student, attempts to refute his teacher by exploring what unites all poetry: its imitative nature and its ability to bring an audience into its specific plot while preserving a unity of purpose and theme. The tone of the Poetics reflects its argumentative spirit as Aristotle attempts both to explain the "anatomy" of poetry and to justify its value to human society.

Despite its broad goals, however, Aristotle's arguments are quite concrete. He is less interested in the abstract "existence" of art than he is in looking at specific artworks by specific playwrights. Aristotle wants to explain why effective poetry has stayed with audiences for so long. He tends to look for "empirical evidence" - i.e. sensory proof through past observation - that art is both good and useful, no matter how philosophers like Plato try to dismiss it.