pages 41-49 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009
After two chapters on the political and cultic roots of Greek tragedy, A Companion to Tragedy turns to tragedy as literature in chapter three with Kathy Eden’s piece “Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction.” Here’s her author blurb from the beginning of the book:
Kathy Eden is Chavkin Family Professor of English and Professor of Classics at Columbia University. She is the author of Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (1986), Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and Its Humanist Reception (1997), and Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property and the “Adages” of Erasmus (2001).
Aristotle’s Poetics (written between 360-320 BC) has had an immense, twofold contribution to western thought. Not only does it dissect the inner workings of tragedy, it also created an entirely new genre called the philosophy of tragedy. As a guidebook on the history and social function of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of literature. As a groundbreaking work in the new genre of the philosophy of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of philosophy, particularly of aesthetics. It does so because it answers the question: “Why do we find the art of tragedy endearing when the action of tragedy is full of strife and sorrow?”
Because the contributions of the Poetics have been immense, philosophers, creative writers, playwrights, and students of drama continue to read it to this day. Most of the time, they read the Poetics as a standalone work. But it is not a standalone work. Aristotle wrote the Poetics as a rebuttal to his teacher Plato. And it is when readers understand that Plato is the secret unspoken antagonist lurking in the Poetics that the Poetics begin to make sense. Or so this is Eden’s argument in her chapter.
The Origins of Aristotle’s Poetics
Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, did not like mimetic arts or fiction. To Plato, the shortcoming of mimetic arts is that they copy reality, and, as copies, are imperfect and corrupt representations. The psychagogic power of fiction–as false copies of reality–lead the soul astray. Tragedy, as fiction and drama, is a mimetic art. Because it stirs the emotions, it is dangerous, something that Plato bans from his ideal state.
Take Homer’s Iliad as an example. It is a mimetic art of fiction. It represents war–a few days in the Trojan War, to be specific. But if you want to be a general, would you learn about war by reading (or listening) to the Iliad or by finding a general who is actually an expert in warfare? Although the Iliad has stories of generals and their tactics, it is not the real thing. It would be dangerous to read the Iliad and then go off into battle. True knowledge comes from doing. Or philosophizing, which is to understand the causes of why and what something is. Mimetic and fictional arts such as epic and drama are, to Plato, not serious, a form of ‘child’s play’ (paidia).
Plato also values truth because it is consistent. Fiction and the mimetic arts, however, portray change. They portray changes in the tragic agent in the face of misfortune. And dramatic change is based on probability. Change, being based on probability, is not truth. The truth to Plato is unchanging. Art which represents change based on plausibility and probability to Plato is dangerous, an attack on immutable truth.
All these things Plato taught Aristotle. But Aristotle wasn’t so sure. That’s why he wrote the Poetics, argues Eden. The Poetics is Aristotle’s rebuttal of Plato. It is Aristotle’s attempt to rehabilitate fiction and the mimetic arts as something worthwhile and wholesome.
How Aristotle Rehabilitates Tragedy in the Poetics
While agreeing with Plato that drama is an imitating or mimetic art, Aristotle disagrees that it is ‘child’s play’. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not paidia but a ‘serious’ (spoudaia) representation. And, as a serious representation, it is worthwhile. Thus, when we wonder why Aristotle insists that tragedy is a serious representation, to understand that, we have to recall that he is rebuking Plato for calling the mimetic arts ‘child’s play’.
Now, how is tragedy a ‘serious’ representation? Although based on probability (here student and teacher agree), the tragedian ‘must understand the causes of human action in the ethical and intellectual qualities of the agents’. Tragedy is serious in that the tragic poet must convincingly weave together character and intention into the structure of the events. No small feat.
And what about the danger Plato identifies of tragedy influencing the emotions to lead the soul astray? Aristotle agrees with Plato that art has a great power over the emotions. But, instead of rejecting these emotions, Aristotle would rather harness them for a greater good. The purpose of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to arouse pity and fear. Why pity and fear? ‘Pity and fear’ writes Eden, ‘are instrument in judging action . . . In the Poetics (ch. 13) we pity those agents who suffer unfairly, while we fear for those who are like us’. So, because tragedy elicits pity and fear, it performs a function in that it sharpens our ability to judge human action. And, because it sharpens our ability to judge human action, tragedy performs a useful social function. It is thereby rehabilitated. Or so Eden interprets Aristotle.
Risk Theatre and Aristotelian Theory
In my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I’ve developed a bold new 21st century model of tragedy. The feedback from the playwriting world has been fantastic. In the academic world, however, some critics wanted to see some more engagement with the existing body of tragic theory. This blog is a good place to respond. I could have done this in the book as well, but a decision was made at the time of writing to make the book accessible to as wide an audience as possible. The goal of the book is to start a 21st century art movement by reimagining the tragedy as a stage where risk is dramatized. Incorporating theoretical arguments would have detracted from the book’s main drive. So, what are the primary differences between risk theatre and Aristotle?
According to Aristotle, tragedy is ‘an imitation of human action that is serious’. According to risk theatre, tragedy is an imitation of a gambling act. The protagonist is tempted. The protagonist wagers a human asset (honour, the milk of human kindness, faith, the soul, etc.,) for the object of ambition (a crown, the opportunity to revenge, success, etc.,). And then the protagonist goes past the point of no return with a metaphorical roll of the dice.
According to Aristotle, there is a change (metabolē)–usually for the worse–in the hero’s fortune. This change is the result of hamartia, or an error. According to risk theatre, there is also a change, which is, again, usually for the worse. But this change is not due to error. The protagonist’s wager and course of action is reasonable. There is no mistake. The degree of success is high. What upsets the protagonist is an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event that comes out of left field.
According to Aristotle, the elements of the plot follow the rules of probability. There is, as Eden says, a ‘causal connection between events’. According to risk theatre, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability. In risk theatre, the unlikeliest outcome takes place: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill (e.g. Macbeth) or it turns out that the man searching for the patricide happens himself to be the patricide (e.g. Oedipus). Risk theatre can generate the unlikeliest outcome because of a truism with risk: the more risk we take on, the more we expose ourselves to unintended consequences. In other words, risk theatre is exciting because, in taking on too much risk, the protagonist breaks the causal connection between events.
According to Aristotle, the emotions tragedy generates are pity and fear. According to risk theatre, the emotions tragedy generates are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero’s best-laid plans will be upset by some black swan event.
According to Aristotle (and Eden’s interpretation of Aristotle), tragedy ‘sharpens its audience’s ability to judge human action’. According to risk theatre, tragedy sharpens its audience’s realization that low-probability, high-consequence events can defy the best-laid plans to shape life in unexpected ways. Tragedy, by dramatizing risk acts, warns us not to bite off more than we can chew. In this modern world where we go forwards in ever larger leaps and bounds, do we not need a risk theatre model of tragedy more than ever? By watching a cascading series of unintended consequences play out on stage, perhaps we will learn the wisdom of the old folk adage: ‘Keep some powder dry’.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.