Tag Archives: aristotle

“Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction” – Eden

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.

Playing Card Card Combinations

trI.m in the midst of writing the chapter on ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’. It deals with how the unexpected steals up the the tragic protagonist. Uncertainty, risk, unexpectation (is that a word?–now it is!), and things like that are on my mind. One way of imagining risk would be to graph outcomes onto a bell curve. The fat tails on the extreme left and right sides of the curve could represent unexpected disaster or a happy windfall. Another way of imagining risk would be look at dice or card games.

We.re surrounded by so much probability theory and statistics today that it.s hard to imagine a world without such things. But the science of probability or a theory or permutations and combinations didn.t actually exist before the likes of Cardano and Tartaglia started systematically going through how many outcomes were possible when rolling one die, two die, and so on. That was as recent as the Italian Renaissance in the sixteenth century. Before then, how the dice turned out was all due to Lady Luck, otherwise known as Fortune. If you could go back in time with today.s probability theory and play the ancients, you.d be able to clean house. The odds on a lot of the ancient games rewarded higher outcome scenarios more than lower outcome scenarios. Cicero and Aristotle both thought about ‘likelihood’ and all they could come up with was that it would be hard to roll more than one or two ‘Venus throws’ (the highest throw with knuckle bones) in succession. It didn.t occur to them that such things could be quantified. They were, however, express scepticism that the ‘Venus throw’ would be due to the action of the goddess. But they were not able to offer a better explanation.

Surprising. The ancients gave us geometry, the Hippocratic Oath, democracy, philosophy, ethics, and so many other things but they just could.t get probability. Some say it.s because the dice they used were inconsistent (being polished animal bones). Others say the idea of the hand of god in random events was too powerful for the mind to overcome: the whole industry of divination was based on finding meaning in random events that, well, were not really random but god trying to tell us something. There are those who think they just didn.t have the mathematical capacity with their cumbersome roman numerals. Or they just didn.t like ‘experimenting’ (ie rolling hundreds of dice and recording the results).

That could all be true. But even today, it.s hard to figure out how the theory of combinations and permutations fit together. Last night, I was over at TW.s. As he took out some playing cards, he said, ‘Did you know the chances are that a deck of cards has never been shuffled with the cards in the order the are in now?’. I said, ‘Really?’. He replied, ‘There.s almost an infinite number of combinations so that you.d never in an eternity shuffle the cards into the same configuration’. TW.s into science so I knew he was right. But I was curious. How many combinations were possible?

We couldn.t figure out all the combinations of the 52 card deck. But we could try figuring out the combinations of one, two, three cards and so on. And from there generate a rule to see what the combinations would be for a full deck. With one card there.s one combination. With two cards there.s two. With three cards, we couldn.t do this in our head anymore. So we laid out the cards. Six combinations are possible with three cards. Now with four cards, it gets tricky. Not only did we need the cards in front of us, we had to start writing down the combinations since it was easy to miss one or count one twice. The combinations get bigger very quickly is what we noticed. I was thinking the pattern would be 1 card 1 combo, 2 cards 2 combos, 3 cards 6 combos, and maybe 4 cards would be 16 combos. Wrong. 4 cards is 24 combos. We speculated on the pattern. Maybe you multiply by a number 3×2=6, 4×6=24. But what sort of rule would determine the multiplier? The clear thinking beer we were imbibing was also helping our efforts! So we decided to work out the combinations for five cards to see if more data would lead to an insight (Bacon.s method of induction). But with five cards there were so many combinations… Too much work, we went back to drinking beer and watching a TV show on science instead. But this goes to show, it.s still difficult today to figure out probabilities. TW.s a project manager so he.s good at numbers. Years ago (certainly not today!) I got up to second year calculus.

So I cheated. The next day I googled it. Google is also something that Cicero and Aristotle didn.t have! The combinations are a function of factorials. So four factorial or 4! will give you the combination of four cards. Four factorial would be the equivalent of 4x3x2x1 or 24. Five factorial or 5! or 5x4x3x2x1 or 160 is the number of combinations with five cards. I would hate to even try imagining how big the number 52! generates. It would likely break a gear in the brain. So perhaps this is one of the reasons cards are fascinating: the unexpected is always possible because of the immense number of outcomes that are possible. Or–lurking underneath all the ‘common’ poker hands (full house, pair, two pair, etc.,) there.s always the chance of the dead man.s hand!