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Poetry is more philosophical than history: Aristotle on mimesis and form.

IN CHAPTER 9 OF THE POETICS, Aristotle famously writes that poetry "is more philosophical and more serious than history: in fact poetry speaks (legei) more of universals, whereas history of particulars." (1) As many recent commentators have noticed, the philosopher's choice of words is precise. (2) He does not claim that poetry is philosophy, which occupies the highest place in the hierarchy of the forms of knowledge, or that it "speaks" of universals tout court. (3) Rather, he maintains that it is closer to philosophy than history, because it speaks more of universals. The problem for the student of Aristotle is thus to provide a precise determination of the epistemological standing of poetry and to offer an interpretation of the meaning of the universals of which poietike speaks more than historia.

While scholars largely agree that the structure of the plot, which links all the events according to causal relations of probability or necessity, is central to the explanation of the philosopher's notion of universal in the context of the Poetics, they offer different accounts of katholou. Malcolm Heath, for instance, simply observes that "the historian reports series of events, while the poet constructs a sequence of events. And the poet's construction is subject to a constraint which does not apply to the historian's report: the events must be causally connected.... That is what gives poetic plots their universality." (4) Stephen Halliwell, who understands poetry as a form of fiction, claims that, far from being explicitly stated, "poetic universals" are "embodied and discernible only in and through ... the causally and intelligibly unified" structure of the plot. (5) For this reason they are "on a level between abstraction and common sense experience" and are present in poems "as implicit 'embodied' properties ... not explicit, let alone propositional, elements." (6) James Redfield writes that "the plot is the story conceived ... in terms of relations between ... causes and consequences"; for this reason it shows us the internal logic of the events represented and conveys "some universal pattern of human probability or necessity." (7) John Armstrong maintains that "poetic universals are plots, that is, special sorts of event types consisting of incidents linked by likelihood or necessity," whereas the particulars of history are "action-tokens." (8)

This paper joins the camp of interpreters who try to illuminate the cognitive status of poetry concentrating exclusively upon conceptual resources offered by Aristotle, (9) and attempts to locate this issue in the larger context of his thought. It starts by identifying in the philosopher's writings a general criterion that enables us to compare all forms of knowledge and to determine their closeness to philosophy and its universals, namely, the notion of epistemic limit or determination. On this basis it proposes that both history and poetry are in between experience and philosophy. Specifically, historia begins to move beyond the epistemic indeterminacy of empeiria--taken as cognition of facts and particulars--because it brings to light (at least) some causal connections among the events that it reports. At the same time, however, it shares in the factual character of experience, because its function is to provide faithful representations of actual events (ta genomena), which are typically punctuated by chance and fortuitous happenings. Poetry, on the other hand, depicts a fully determined object, that is to say, an action (praxis) which is a whole with a beginning, a middle and an end, because mimesis is a representation not of human events, but rather of their nature (physis), understood as form (eidos) and that for the sake of which (to hou heneka). (10) A well made plot represents human events perfectly molded by eidos, and thus eliminates the accidental and organizes all pragmata according to causal relations. It is the essential connection between mimesis and form that explains why Aristotle discerns a meaningful kinship between poetry on the one hand, and philosophy and universality on the other. Their difference, however, is not blurred: the former exhibits or shows the form of a chain of particular events enacted by individuals and is thus never severed from the experiential. The latter moves from what is most intelligible for us to what is most intelligible in itself and provides rational and general accounts of the nature of the human world.


Knowledge and limits. In the book of definitions, Aristotle explains the meaning of limit (peras) as follows:
 We call a limit (peras) the (1) last point (to eschaton) of each
 thing, i.e., the first point beyond which it is not possible to
 find any part, and the first point within which every part is; it
 is applied to (2) the form (eidos), whatever it may be, of a
 spatial magnitude or of a thing that has magnitude, and to (3) the
 end (telos) of each thing (and of this nature is that towards which
 the movement and the action are--not that from which they are,
 though sometimes it is both, that from which and that to which the
 movement is--and that for the sake of which), and to (4) the
 substance (ousia) of each thing, and (5) the essence (to ti en
 einai) of each; for this is (6) the limit of knowledge (gnoseos),
 and if of knowledge, of the thing also. Evidently, then, "limit"
 has as many senses as "beginning" (arche)
 and yet more; for the beginning is a limit but not every limit is a
 beginning. (11)

Peras is polysemic, and the quotation indicates that its multiple significations are not homonymous. Rather, they seem to converge towards the central meaning of eidos or "form," and to be connected to one another in virtue of their relations to this focal signification. Let us spell out these connections.

Form is the "factor" of Being (to on) that is responsible for the organization and unity of entities having magnitude, and thus that which determines (1) their boundaries, (12) and (2) shape. (13) It is the determinative element of Being that actualizes the specific potentiality of matter and transforms it into a determinate object; (14) in this sense it is (4) the substance of each thing. (15) For instance, the soul (psyche) "turns" a body that is potentially alive into a living being. (16) As such eidos is both the driving force that guides the orderly development of natural things towards their full realization, and the actualization of their nature, that is to say, their (3) final cause or telos. (17) To illustrate, the form of an animal is the dynamic element that guides the ordered and teleological stages of its development; in addition, it is the potentiality for, and the actual performance of, its life functions, whose exercise is the organism's telos. Moreover, form is that which is articulated in a horismos and thus coincides with (5) the essence of each thing; (18) for this reason it is also (6) the limit of knowledge. (19)

Taken together, the various significations of peras convey the picture of an orderly and finite cosmos, whose processes are purposive, and whose nature is inherently intelligible. In fact, at the end of the quotation, Aristotle establishes an essential connection between the ontological and epistemic notions of "limit" and specifically between the limit of things understood as their essence and the limit of our comprehension of them. That there is a general correlation between petas in the order of being and in the order of cognition is to be expected, given that for the philosopher knowledge is apprehension of that which is, and Being is always informed by eidos and thus in some sense limited or determinate; as he puts it, "it is not possible for anything indeterminate (apeiroi) to be." (20) The content of all forms of knowledge is thus bound to be definite as well; indeed Aristotle groups together all cognitive powers as discriminative (ta kritika), that is to say, as faculties whose (primary) function is to differentiate and distinguish, a task that presupposes the previous identification of determinate features of their objects. (21)

The notion of determinate content of cognition, however, does not enable one to distinguish different forms of knowledge or to explain why, in the above quotation, the philosopher singles out the apprehension of the essence of things as the limit of knowledge. To address these issues, it is necessary to appeal to the more specific concept of epistemic limit or determination, in terms of which the Stagirite ranks various forms of gnosis. In Posterior Analytics 2.19, for instance, he offers an account of the genesis of the first principles of science through induction, and illustrates the process with the image of an army that recovers its organization and order after a flight, and thus moves from confusion and lack of precise boundaries to order and determination:
 Neither are these [knowing] states present in the soul in a
 determinate form, nor do they come into being from other states
 that are more cognitive, but from sensation, as in a battle when a
 reversal occurs if one makes a stand, then another, then another,
 until the original formation has been restored. (22)

The passage from sensation to higher forms of knowledge can be understood as a progression from cognitive states whose content is epistemically indeterminate to states whose epistemic content is more definite. Aisthesis is indeterminate because, although it makes us aware of definite perceptual features of our surrounding, it does not enable us to know what each object is or what kind of activities define it. (23) Otherwise put, sensation is first for us but not in itself and it is thus insufficient to illuminate the nature of things. Art and science, on the other hand, are the most epistemically determinate because their content coincides with the intelligible order of things. (24) This is why in the above quotation Aristotle writes that the articulation of the essential nature of things is the limit of knowledge: it is the end point of the cognitive process--which cannot apprehend anything more determinate--as well as its telos. (25)

For the purposes of this paper, the philosopher's comparison between empeiria, on the one hand, and art and science on the other, in terms of the (epistemic) determinacy of their content, is of particular interest. Let us start with a passage from the Rhetoric:
 No art considers the particular, medicine for instance what is
 healthy for Socrates or Callias, but what is healthy for men of
 this or that kind (this is the matter that comes within the
 province of an art, whereas the particular is indefinite and cannot
 be known). (26)

Aristotle typically characterizes empeiria as gnosis of particulars and of facts (to hoti) and art and science as knowledge of universals that illuminates the why of things (to dioti). (27) The empeiros or man of experience, for instance, judges that "when Callias was ill of this disease, this did him good, and similarly in the case of Socrates and in many individual cases." (28) The doctor, on the other hand, judges that a given remedy or cure "has done good to all persons of a certain constitution, marked off in one class, when they are ill of this disease, for instance, to phlegmatic or bilious people when burning with fever," (29) because he knows "the why and the cause." (30)

In what sense are empeiria and its objects epistemically indeterminate (apeira), and thus outside the scope of techne and episteme? Let us develop the example of the empeiros that has the ability to recommend remedies to sick individuals. Undoubtedly, his apprehension of things is more determinate than that of the inexperienced, (31) for he has had the opportunity to observe a number of particular cases in the past and thus has the capacity to recognize new individuals that (seem to) display similar symptoms. (32) Moreover, he is able to establish a correlation between these individuals and remedies that have worked effectively to cure them in the past. (33) However, the content of his gnosis is epistemically indeterminate because, although he perceives features that are common to a number of individuals, and in this sense he moves toward the universal, his apprehension of these common features is never separate from particulars. Let me clarify. The empeiros is aware of the symptoms that various persons share, not as something that can be abstracted from those individuals and thus can be apprehended in its distinctive character; rather, he is aware of their common features only as something that is similar and undifferentiated in a plurality of human beings. In other words, the incipient universal of the man of experience consists in a collection of individuals that resemble one another, and is thus a "universal" whose boundaries, and therefore whose content, are vague and imprecise, or confused (apeira). (34) Likewise, his association between those patients and the remedies that he administers to them is epistemically indeterminate, because it is a simple juxtaposition rather than a connection based on the understanding of the causal power of the treatment.

By contrast, the doctor's knowledge is determinate because it singles out the defining characteristics of the disease and separates them from the sensible particulars that suffer from it. (35) That is to say, he grasps the highest form of universal (or universal haplos), which is the abstracted universal that comprehends only features common to a class of particulars and abstract from the particulars themselves and all their idiosyncratic features. For instance, he understands bilious people, not as a collection of particulars that resemble one another, but as a well determined class which is defined by an arche that explains their symptoms as the manifestation of a common underlying disease. As a result, he identifies new patients as specimens of a general typology or class. Similarly, he knows that the cure or remedy is, always or for the most part, effective for that typology of patients because of its defining properties. Put otherwise, the doctor abstracts from all features of patients (as well as of the cure) that, from the point of view of medicine, are irrelevant and accidental, and singles out exclusively the essential properties of both the disease and the remedy. In this sense his art simplifies experience because it isolates only those features that are relevant to its ergon. The following passage is particularly clear on this point:
 Again, the more particular a demonstration is, the more it falls
 into what is indefinite, while the universal tends to the simple
 and the limit. And as indefinite things are not understandable; but
 as finite they are understandable. (36)

The expert identifies and articulates the stable and permanent features of experience--noeta or objects of thought. His knowledge corresponds to the character and relations of things in the order of being, and for this reason, the relation that he establishes between a given disease and its cure is not a juxtaposition, but a logical relation of causality. He is thus in the position to explain or provide a rational account (logos) both of the nature of the ailment and of the efficacy of the cure; he is the teacher par excellence because he can explain the why of things. (37)

If this analysis is correct, we can say that Aristotle's writings provide us with a general criterion that can be used to assess the value of all forms of cognition: the more determinate their epistemic content is, the closer they are to philosophy or--to use Aristotle's expression--the more philosophical they are. It is in these terms that we can make sense of the philosopher's pronouncements not only about poetry, but also about history. Both of them are in-between empeiria and philosophia because their content is (epistemically) more determined than experience and less determined than philosophy.


Historia. The identification of the object of history in the Poetics is unproblematic: it studies actual events (ta genomena) that took place in the near or remote past, whereas poetry represents things as they might happen (hoia an genoito) (38) or that are possible (ta dunata). (39) For this reason, the former "speaks of particulars" (ta kath'hekaston legei) and the latter more of universals than history (mallon ta katholou [legei]). (40) The philosopher deems historical logoi "particular" not because they are about happenings that take place in particular circumstances, given that all actions and pragmata, be they actual or possible, deal with ultimate particulars. (41) Rather, they are particular because the events that they portray bear an accidental relation to one another (synebe ... hos etuche), (42) that is to say, they take place one after the other or at the same time as others, and are thus simply juxtaposed. (43) The events imitated in (good) poems, on the other hand, are held together by causal connections of probability or necessity, (44) or they happen because of one another. (45) This difference between historia and poietike has two related implications. First, historical logoi lack unity: far from portraying unitary chains of events that result in a single and definite outcome, (46) they, as a rule, reproduce a multiplicity with no intrinsic coherence. By contrast, well made plots exhibit the unity typical of objects that are constituted of a number of parts, that is to say, they are wholes with a beginning, a middle and an end. (47) Second, historical accounts tend towards the "unlimited" (apeiron), as the following passage suggests:
 The plot is not one, as some people think, when it is about one
 individual; for many and indeed innumerable (apeira) things happen
 to a man, some of which do not go to make up any unity. In the same
 way there are many actions of a single individual out of which no
 single action emerges. (48)

The actions imitated in poems, on the other hand, are unitary wholes that are perfectly delimited or bounded. (49)

This characterization of historia in the Poetics has generated objections, because it seems that Aristotle equates this discipline to empeiria. Ste. Croix, for instance, claims that the philosopher's "disparagement of history in the Poetics is not fully justified." (50) He argues that it is likely that Aristotle was familiar with Thucydides' work, and that, if he had been consistent with his own tenets, "he ought not to have written off history as dealing only with particulars." (51) Rather, he should have acknowledged that there is no essential difference between poetic plots and Thucydides' History. (52)

Admittedly Aristotle's remarks are not conducive to the appreciation of the capacity of a work like The History of the Peloponnesian War to illuminate the aitiology of the events reported, and, if taken out of context, they may indeed give the impression that he does not distinguish between a mere chronicle of facts whose relations are purely temporal, and a form of historiography that aims to bring to light causal patterns of human events. If, however, we consider Aristotle's observations in the context of the overall project of the Poetics, and read them together with remarks that he offers elsewhere in his writings, we can reach a different conclusion on his appreciation of historia. Let us start with the passage of the Poetics that contrasts history and poetry in terms of their relation to philosophy and universality, which is open to different interpretations:

 But the difference [between the historian and the poet] is this:
 that one tells what happened, the other the things as they might
 happen. (53) This is why poetry is more philosophical and more
 serious than history: poetry tells more about universals, whereas
 history [more] about particulars. (54)

The statement that poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history does not per se imply that historia is completely severed from philosophia. Rather, it may entail that history does have some connection with philosophy, although much weaker than that between poetry and philosophy. (55) The issue depends in part on the interpretation of the last sentence of the quotation that turns on the function of mallon, which may either refer to poetry only, or to both poetry and history. (56) If we adopt the latter interpretation, according to which "history speaks more of particulars [than poetry]," Aristotle would be claiming that history itself has something to say about universals." This reading is supported by a series of remarks that the philosopher offers in the Poetics and elsewhere, the first of which is the following:
 It is clear then from what has been said that the poet should be a
 maker of plots rather than of verses, for he is a poet in virtue of
 imitation, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he happens
 to put into poetry events that have actually taken place, he is
 none the less a poet, since there is no reason why some historical
 events shouldn't be such as they would happen in conformity with
 the probable and the possible, and it is in virtue of this that he
 is their maker. (58)

Given that by "universal" Aristotle means precisely things that happen "as they would in conformity with the probable or the possible" in the context of the Poetics, (59) the passage states that it is possible for some historical events to become the object of a maker's mimesis, because they display the orderly causal arrangement required of well formed plots. Although this is unlikely, its very possibility suggests that it is far more common to identify historical events in which at least some of the pragmata display causal connections, while others bear an accidental relation to one another. Rhetoric 2.20 lends further support to this suggestion. The Stagirite remarks that "as a rule the future resembles the past," (60) presumably--given Aristotle's tenets on the grounds of regularities (61)--because they exhibit a similar causal configuration. More importantly, he makes it clear that this causal structure can be, and is, identified by the skillful rhetorician. If he is familiar with the main events of Hellas' past, and has developed the ability to see things correctly, (62) he can rely precisely on the recurrence of similar causal patterns to argue for the desirability of adopting certain courses of action in the future. (63)

These observations suggest that the philosopher's claim in the Poetics, according to which all the events of a given historical period bear accidental relations to one another, is an overstatement. (64) Here is the relevant passage:
 It is clear that [epic] plots should not resemble histories, in
 which what is necessary is the exposition not of a single action
 but of a single period of time, that is, of the events that
 happened during that time, either concerning one or more people,
 each of which events has an accidental relation to the others. For
 just as the battle of Salamis occurred at the same time as the
 battle with the Carthaginians in Sicily, although they were not at
 all directed
 toward the same end, so over successive periods of time it
 sometimes (eniote) happens that one event takes place after another
 without any single result emerging from them. (65)

If we considera determinate historical period and try to record all of the major events that characterized it, it is clear that we will find numerous pragmata, such as the battle of Salamis and the battle against the Carthaginians in Sicily, that are not directly related to one another. This does not mean, however, that the historian cannot trace the antecedents of the battle of Salamis, for example, as well as the effects of its outcome on the development of the Athenian democracy and empire. Note in fact, that at the end of the passage Aristotle observes that sometimes (eniote), not always, events taking place after one another do not result in a single outcome. (66) Thus the advice that he is offering to aspiring epic writers may simply be to avoid (mis-)organizing the narrative around a series of events that run parallel to each other and bear no apparent relation to one another. (67)

The same remarks can be made for biographies. While the philosopher correctly points out that the fact that a story is about one man does not make it the imitation of a unitary action, (68) this is compatible with its being a narrative that brings to light relevant causal connections among (at least some of) the main events of his life, and thus illuminates--at least in part--the reasons of his flourishing or misfortune. In sum, the accidental character, and thus the lack of unity that, according to the philosopher, are the marks of historical logoi need not be absolute. Aristotle's considered view may very well be that works of history display an accidental unity in comparison to well made poetic plots, as it becomes apparent if we recall the very strict criteria that the he sets for the unity of good muthoi:
 As then in the other mimetic arts a unitary mimesis is of one
 object, so the plot too, being the mimesis of an action, must be
 the imitation of an action which is one and complete; and the
 parts, consisting of events, must be so put together that if one of
 them is transposed or removed the whole is dislocated and
 destroyed. For that whose presence or absence makes no visible
 difference is not an integral part of the whole. (69)

If the presence of one or a few incidents that bear a temporal relation to the others is sufficient to undermine the unity of a logos (70) then it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of biographies or historiae of a given unity of rime fail to be unitary. By the same token, however, Aristotle's remarks on the accidental and "non-unitary" character of historical logoi do not exclude that historical reports organize at least some, indeed in principle even the majority of the events on the basis of causal relations. In fact, given his criterion of unity of action, Aristotle could very well acknowledge the aitiological character of Thucydides's work, and still qualify it as a particular logos that lacks unity and is particular. Thus, one need not conclude that the Stagirite misjudged Greek historiography; rather, the case can be made that he was in the position to do justice to the nature of historical investigations aimed at the discovery of the causes of past events. The infelicitous formulations of the Poetics on historia may be explained in terms of the goals of the treatise: given that Aristotle's purpose was to define the nature of poietike and that his references to history were meant to underline the differences between the two disciplines, (71) he stressed only those characteristics of historical works that make them unlike mimesis.

Let us now turn quickly to the issue of the different epistemic status of history and poetry. Contrary to Ste. Croix's claim, Aristotle correctly holds that there is a difference in kind between these two disciplines. (72) Although historians may try to identify causal patterns in the events they study, as a rule their very ergon prevents them from producing reports that exhibit the same tight causal organization of events as the poet's plots. For even if they understand historia as aitiological zethesis, their function is to provide accurate records of ta genomena, (73) and experience seldom offers perfectly formed chains of events unencumbered by accidental and chance occurrences. Thus, to the extent that the structure of historical logoi is determined by actual events, they are bound to be--to a greater or lesser degree--accidental, and to tend toward lack of precise boundaries or toward the apeiron. It is for this reason that history is more particular and less philosophical than poetry, and essentially different from it. (74)


Mimesis and form. Unlike the historian, the poet aims to compose muthoi in which all the events are perfectly organized according to probability or necessity. How does he achieve this perfect structure? More in general, how does his work differ from the historian's?

It may be tempting to conceptualize the difference between historia and poetry in terms of the categories of the factual and the fictional. (75) For the Poetics indicates clearly that the philosopher conceived imitative works as representations that are not meant to be factually true. Indeed, the poet's ergon is not to say what in fact happened, but rather the things as they might happen or are possible according to probability or necessity, (76) or--as we may put it--to produce fictional stories. (77) This approach, however, is useful only because it underscores the fact that the accurate representation of ta genomena (or the representation of imaginary events that reproduce the order of ta genomena) is--as a rule--incompatible with the objective of creating stories that can be regarded as well organized wholes. (78) In order to fit Aristotle's view of art, however, the category of fiction needs to be significantly qualified. If, on the one hand, the philosopher thinks that the measure of a good poem is not its faithfulness to historical events (or to events as they would actually happen), on the other, he believes that there should be an essential homology between the arrangement of the incidents of a poem (that is, the plot) (79) and the order of the world of human affairs. His insistence on the requirement that the episodes of a poem be ordered according to relations of necessity or probability finds its explanation precisely in the fact that these are the relations that govern the events of the human world, as commentators that maintain that Aristotle operates with the category of fiction acknowledge. Redfield, for instance, writes that for Aristotle "the principle of all fiction, however fanciful, is realism." (80) Halliwell clarifies that mimesis in Aristotle can be understood as fiction only if
 by "fiction" we ... understand the modeling of a world whose status
 is that of an imaginary, constructed parallel to the real,
 spatiotemporal realm of the artist's and audience's experience:
 imaginary, in that it rest on a shared agreement between the maker
 and the recipients of the mimetic work to suspend the norms of
 literal truth; bur "parallel," in that its interpretation depends on
 standards of explanatory and causal coherence that are essentially
 derived from and grounded in real experiences. (81)

In light of this strongly realistic character of Aristotle's conception of the mimetic relation between works of art and the world, it may be preferable to set aside the notion of fiction, and to clarify the nature of mimesis using the conceptual apparatus that he develops to explain the relation between art (techne) and nature (physis).

Techne, according to Aristotle, imitates physis. (82) This claim asserts that human making is like nature in respect to the way in which it brings into existence its products: both are purposive and teleological. The "nature" to which the philosopher refers in his statement is thus form (eidos) as telos and that for the sake of which (to hou heneka). (83) Specifically, it is form as the inner principle of activity of a natural entity and the source of its teleological striving towards the actualization of its most proper potentialities, as well as the active exercise of its functions. (84) In this active causal capacity, eidos is the guiding and controlling force of natural processes that is responsible for their orderly progression towards their proper end or good. (85) Matter (hule) is the determinable element that is guided and molded by form's determinative force and orientation. (86)

The physis that techne imitates is the cause of the regularity of nature, and thus of its intelligibility. Indeed, one of Aristotle's main arguments against the natural philosophers who defend a mechanistic worldview is precisely that the appeal to chance and necessity as the only archai does not enable us to account for the order of recurrent patterns that the natural world offers to our observation. (87) In order to explain it, we must assume that physis operates teleologically in view of the best, (88) and thus produces its "creatures" following an orderly progression dictated by the goal to be achieved. Consequently, natural processes display the logic of hypothetical necessity, according to which if a specific end is to be attained--for instance, a mature living being capable of performing all the activities (energeiai) typical of its kind--then first these tissue and organs must be formed, then these and so on until the entire well formed and well functioning animal comes into being. (89)

It is nature understood as the principle which guides the actualization of a thing's end that human beings whose deeds are informed by art imitate in their activities. Indeed, the homology between the modus operandi of craftsmen and nature is (and should be) (90) so perfect that, Aristotle claims, "if a house were a thing made by nature, it would make it in the same way as it is made now by art; and if natural things came into being not only by nature but also by art, they would come into being in the same way as by nature." (91) Also for the artisan the telos functions as the ruling principle that determines both what he does and the order of the various stages of his making, (92) and his craft consists precisely in imposing such form on matter in an orderly fashion. In the case of techne, however, the guiding eidos is not immanent in the material that is fashioned or transformed, but originates in the psyche of the maker. (93) To sum up, the imitative relation that binds art and nature holds not between techne and natural processes considered in all their aspects, which include also deviations from the norm and monstrosities, but rather between techne and the most proper nature of things, that is to say, their eidos as the active telos that actualizes their potentiality and attains their distinctive good.

While Aristotle elaborates this view of mimesis to illuminate the procedures of all forms of techne rather than the nature of their objects, it also provides a model in terms of which we can understand the more specific mimetic relation that holds between the representational content of the nonuseful arts and the objects they represent. (94) In what follows I will focus primarily on tragedy, although the main points of my reading can be applied to other genres as well. (95)

Tragodia represents unitary praxeis stemming from the interactions of a multiplicity of agents who prosper or fail, (96) and is thus a mimesis of a specific domain of nature, namely, human physis captured in its own environment, that is, the political realm. (97) The assumption that the nature imitated is form in the sense of telos explains Aristotle's overarching principle of poetry: it produces tight sequences of causally connected pragmata, because it depicts not actions bur their eidos. That is to say, given that the maker represents praxeis as if their form had the power to completely determine and rule its matter, he excludes from his plots all accidental happenings and relations, and includes only events that contribute to their orderly actualization. Hence mimesis is of an action that is complete or teleia: (98) it includes everything that is necessary to its integrity and nothing that is superfluous or extraneous to its telos. In Aristotle's vocabulary, it is a whole, (99) that is to say, a self-contained and perfectly delimited object that does not depend on anything else for its intelligibility: it has clearly defined and nonarbitrary external boundaries (a beginning and an end), and a perfectly formed internal articulation that binds them together (a middle). (100)

Next, if the plot, that is to say, the synthesis or systasis of the events, (101) is the dramatic articulation of the eidos of human actions, it is no wonder that the philosopher regards it as the controlling and organizing principle of the entire artistic composition, (102) given that it plays in the work of art the role that form plays in the order of Being. (103) In chapter 6, besides pointing out that "without action there could not be tragedy, but there might be without character(s)," (104) the philosopher writes:
 Bur the most important of these [the parts of tragedy] is the
 combination of the events ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])
 [that is, the plot]. For tragedy is a mimesis
 not of men but of action, life, happiness and unhappiness; and
 happiness and unhappiness lie in action, and the end is a sort of
 action, not a quality. Men are of a certain quality by virtue of
 character, bur happy or the opposite by virtue of their actions.
 Thus they do not act to imitate characters; characters are rather
 included through the actions. Thus the events and the plot are the
 end of tragedy, and the end is the greatest thing of all. (105)

Even more tellingly perhaps, Aristotle compares the praxis articulated by the plot to the psyche of living beings: "The plot ... is the first principle and, as it were, the soul of tragedy." (106) The human drama that--it is fair to say--comes to life for the spectators or readers of a tragedy, owes its life like quality to the dynamic and tight progression of the events, which bestows vitality to all the elements of the work of art in the same way in which the soul confers liveliness to the body. (107) In this sense, muthos is to tragedy what the soul is to the body of an animal.

Finally, the predominance of the plot in the artistic composition explains why "the poet should be the maker rather of plots than of verses; since he is a poet by reason of imitation, and what he imitates are actions." (108) The poet is a maker above all because he envisions a human praxis unfolding according to its laws of development, unencumbered by anything that might prevent its full realization. Actions so depicted are the object of poetry understood as "things that are possible" (ta dunata): (109) they are events that happen in such a way as to realize their most proper possibility, that is to say, their distinctive potentiality (dynamis), and thus unfold so as to realize the "aspiration" of their physis. Actual events, however, seldom take place according to the perfection of their nature, and this is why what is possible (ta dunata) does not, as a rule, coincide with what is actually the case (ta genomena).

The difference between poietike and historia can thus be expressed precisely as follows: the latter is faithful to experience in its factuality or, as we might put it, as it presents itself to us in its material aspects. Even if it is understood as a research aimed at the discovery of the aitiai of past events, this investigation cannot abstract from the givenness of events that, as a rule, display an accidental and fortuitous character. Poetry, by contrast, is faithful to the (living) form of human events, that is to say, to their most proper nature in the primary sense of guiding telos.

It may be objected, however, that this interpretation of mimesis fails in relation to the genre that it is meant to explain to begin with. For how can tragedies, which often represent a failure to attain happiness, and indeed the mortification of the characters' hope to shape their lives according to their goals, be an imitation of the form of human actions understood as that for the sake of which?

The first thing to point out in addressing this objection is that it targets only a subset of dramas. For, according to Aristotle, tragedies in which the protagonists move from bad to good fortune, and thus represent actualized human purposivenness, are good specimens of their kind. (110) As to dramas that portray the passage from good to bad fortune, the question of their conformity to the teleology of the human world depends in part on the thorny issue of the extent to which tragic heroes can be held responsible for their own downfall. In accordance with the requirement that plots imitate unbroken chains of causally connected events, Aristotle stresses that also the fundamental turning point of tragedies, the change of fortune (metabasis), should be the outcome of identifiable and intelligible causal antecedents. (111) Thus, reversals (peripeteia) (112) should not be the outcome of bad luck or chance, (113) bur should rather be brought about by the protagonists either through errors (hamartia) (114) or through actions performed without knowledge of the identity of the philoi involved. (115) The correct understanding of the nature of such actions is the object of a lively debate in recent literature. Without attempting to settle the question, I will briefly consider the two major lines of thought on this issue and their consequences for the thesis of this paper. If hamartia is culpable error, (116) tragedies that end up with calamities do not call into question the teleology of human events. For in this case the heroes' failure is due to the lack of some of the conditions that are necessary to the attainment of eudaimonia. Happiness can be achieved only if human beings develop a virtuous character and engage in virtuous deeds, and in this case, it escapes the dramatis personae because of the imperfections of their character and/or of their practical reasoning, which led to their errors. (117)

If, on the other hand, the heroes fall because of a mishap, or a mistake for which they cannot be held responsible, (118) then, as the objection points out, tragedies do fail to imitate the form of an action understood as the driving force that guides the process to its desired result. What they represent is instead failed teleology, as in these works the final end of human life is still present and visible not only as the animating force, or soul, that guides the deeds of the dramatic characters. It is also made conspicuous as that which can elude even serious human beings who are not flawed. Failed teleology, however, is still a faithful imitation of the purposiveness typical of the domain of the anthropina. Not only do history and experience provide numerous examples of "men in action" whose downfall is undeserved, but also--and more importantly for the purposes of this paper--Aristotle himself never rules out the possibility of undeserved misfortune, despite his general insistence on the connection between virtue and eudaimonia. (119) He is alert to the vulnerability of human life, which he attributes to two main factors. On the one hand, a prosperous life can be derailed by great misfortunes, as in the case of Priam. (120) On the other, and this is the path explored in the kind of tragedy that we are considering, the human aspiration to happiness can be mortified by erroneous choices or deeds for which the doers cannot be blamed. (121) Thus, failed teleology is a distinct and characteristic possibility in the world of human affairs, and making it the object of mimetic works is not so much a failure to represent the telos of human events, as a faithful representation of how teleology can (and does) unfold in human life.


Poetic composition. The task is now to clarify how the poet is to produce the tight sequence of causally connected events that make up a unified praxis. In Aristotle's analysis:
 As for the stories (logous), both those that are "ready-made" and
 those that the poet himself composes, he should first set them
 forth in universal (katholou) (122) and then fill them with
 episodes and expand them. (123)

The maker's starting point should be a very schematic outline of the action as a whole, which mentions only the main events and does not assign the names to the dramatis personae or develop their characterization. (124) Thus, far from proceeding from the "multicentered" and indefinite experience, the poet should set his gaze from the start on a definite and delimited frame, which functions as the fixed objective that directs the rest of the creative process: it guides, and provides determinate constraints to, the compositions of the episodes. (125) Although it may establish some causal connections among the pragmata, this initial outline is too general, that is, it contains too few events to display the continuum of causally unified parts that is required of a poetic whole. It is only the inclusion of the episodes that turns it into a living and intelligible totality. (126)

From the point of view of the philosopher Aristotle, the question of how to select incidents that function as the connective tissue of unitary actions is easily answered: they must be pragmata that conform to the archai of human conduct, and thus exhibit the regularity and purposiveness typical of the world of the anthropina. The fundamental driving force that leads men to action is happiness as the final goal of all their endeavors, (127) which, as such, provides the first source of causal connections among the events of the story. All the particular deeds of each dramatic character will aim at the attainment of eudaimonia, which connects and unifies them as their overarching final cause. Different types of human beings, however, have different views of happiness, (128) and thus the first step in the construction of causal patterns of human conduct is the determination of the nature of the dramatic characters. (129) Once the maker has established for himself (130) what kind of human beings his protagonists are, he can ask what, in light of the fundamental goal of their lives, they would do in the specific circumstances that he has set for the story. For instance, the poet must be able to determine what a man like Oedipus, that is to say, a serious person who is neither supremely virtuous nor wicked, and who occupies a position of great power and responsibility in the city, (131) would, in light of his view of the good life, choose to do when faced with the Theban crisis, for example, or Tyresias's revelations and prophecies.

Besides determining their view of the final end of life, the nature of the dramatic characters, that is, their ethos and thought (dianoia), is also responsible for the choice (proairesis) of the means that they will select to bring about their goals, as well as for the manner in which they will act, and their emotional responses. (132) Thus it further determines and unifies their actions and reactions as their moving cause, and the poet can construct consistent patterns of deeds and "passions" for his heroes as the expressions of the permanent dispositions of their physis. For instance, it would be out of character for the proud, stubborn and resourceful Oedipus to give up the search for the causes of Thebes's plague even when he begins to sense that the solution of the "mystery" of the city may coincide with his own downfall, and were the poet to depict him as making this choice, he would break the chain of causally connected events that he is supposed to weave. Instead the gifted poet is able to devise actions and reactions for his heroes such that, no matter how varied and unusual the circumstances of their lives may be, (133) they can always be said to be true to themselves.

To sum up, the poet composes unitary chains of causally connected events by exploiting the sources of regularity of human conduct provided by the nature of the dramatis personae as the origin of their deeds and sufferings. Indeed Aristotle writes that "'universal' means the kinds of things it fits (sumbanei) (134) a certain sort of person to say or do according to probability or necessity." (135)

This is not to suggest, however, that, according to the Stagirite, the poet has a general knowledge of the principles of his art or of human conduct, and that his stories are the result of the application of such principles to the particular and unique events of his dramas. The analysis that he offers in the Poetics is the work of a philosopher who theorizes about the poetic art, and who aims to offer a systematic and prescriptive account of the nature of poietike, as well as remarks on the composition of works of art and the experience of them. (136) While Aristotle holds that excellent poems conform objectively to the principles that he outlines in the Poetics, he does not suggest that the poet himself operates on the basis of an understanding of such archai. As Heath puts it in a recent article:
 Poetic techne ... has a dual aspect. On the one hand, it can
 designate a product-specification: it defines what makes a poem a
 good poem. On the other hand, it can designate the cognitive state
 of someone who has a rational grasp of that
 product-specification--someone who understands and can explain its
 rationale. Successful poets do not necessarily possess techne in
 the latter sense.... The form of the product may exist in the
 producer, not as an explicit understanding, but implicitly as a set
 of habits and an ability to make reliable but unreasoned
 judgments--for example, as a result of experience or natural
 talent. (137)

Indeed the scanty remarks that Aristotle devotes to the makers, rather than to the objective features of their works, leave the question of whether they produce(d) their masterpieces by nature or art, or a combination of the two, open. Not only does he observe that poets developed the serious or comic genre on the basis of their character (ethos), the more dignified imitating serious and noble actions, those of a lighter nature (eutelesteroi) the deeds of men of little worth (phauloi). (138) More importantly, he notes that tragic poets discovered that stories which focus on a few distinguished and troubled families (Oedipus's, Orestes's, Thyestes's, and so forth) provide the best subject matter for serious dramas "not through art but by chance." (139) When it comes specifically to the issue of the poet's ability to compose muthoi whose events follow one another according to probability or necessity, Aristotle suggests that their nature plays a significant role. Thus the celebrated Homer "saw" (idein) that poems should be organized not around the life of one man, but of one action "either through art or through nature." (140) Poetics 17 is particularly illuminating on this issue. Aristotle opens the chapter with the remark that the poet ought to put the events of the story "before his eyes" (141) so as to be able to see them as if he were present at the scene, thus suggesting that in the work of composition the maker relies on his capacity to imagine the events correctly. Then he notes that the makers who achieve the best depiction of dramatic characters that are in the grip of emotions are those who experience the emotions themselves. (142) For this reason, Aristotle continues, "the art of poetry belongs either to somebody who is born with a favorable nature (eufuous), or to the 'manic' (manikou); since of these two types the ones are malleable (euplastoi), the others 'ecstatic' (ekstatikoi)." (143) That is to say, the former have a versatile nature that enables them to mold their emotions as required by the incidents of the story; the latter have the capacity to "get out of themselves" and to "inhabit" the soul of the imagined heroes. Either way, poetry requires individuals gifted with a special nature.

All of this suggests that, in Aristotle's view, the makers' ability to produce excellent plots that conform objectively to the principles of their art and of human nature does not depend, as a rule, on their systematic understanding of such archai. Rather, their activity is to a great extent the outcome of a lively and gifted imagination, fueled and shaped by sympathetic emotions and perfected by practice and experience.


Poetry, philosophy, and universals. Poetry "speaks more of universals than history," and has a profound kinship with philosophy, because of the intrinsic connection between mimesis and form. Both the philosopher and the poet are, to use a Platonic expression, in love with forms. (144) Like the lover of wisdom, the maker of plots has the capacity to see the determinate formal structures that make our world and its transformations intelligible. His quasiphilosophical nature is thus his instinct for unity, form and finality. He is so attuned to wholeness in his imagination that he is able to transfigure even the contingent domain of the anthropina into a remarkably intelligible world. Just as the object of the philosopher's theoria is that which is most knowable in itself, the product of the poet's activity is a story in which the reasons of the dramatic characters' happiness or unhappiness appear with incomparable clarity. The poet brings to the fore the structured regularity of unitary chains of events, and thus enables us to comprehend not only that something happened, but also why, given the nature of the dramatic characters involved and of the circumstances in which their lives unfolded, they were bound to suffer or flourish. (145) Indeed we can say that while his mimetic activity is a making because it does not, as a rule, reproduce the order of ta genomena, it is not a making up or invention but rather the discovery of the eidos of actions. (146)

Despite this significant affinity, however, there remain important differences between philosophia and poietike that account for their different epistemological status. One way to explain their dissimilarity is in terms of their relation to experience, for although both go beyond its immediacy, they do so in different ways. The philosopher starts with what is first for us and arrives at what is first in itself, that is to say, he moves from the domain of the sensible to that of the intelligible, (147) and uncovers archai that are universal in the strict sense of the term. (148) Given that he attains conceptual articulations of the essential nature of things, and of their relations, he is in the position to offer rational accounts of their nature, and is thus supremely qualified to teach. Put in slightly different terms, the philosopher is an expert on aitiai understood not only as the objective causes of things but also, and perhaps primarily, as explanations that provide answers to the various senses of the question "Why?" (149) That is to say, philosophy offers a mediated comprehension of the phenomena through the discursive articulation of the nature of things.

Poetry, on the other hand, remains much closer to experience, because, rather than moving from the sensible to the intelligible, it surpasses the immediacy of empeiria by organizing (or reorganizing) particular chains of events according to their teleological order. In this way the poet brings to light a form that, far from being separate(d) from particulars, is constituted by the artful arrangement, guided by physis, of actions and events taking place in particular circumstances and enacted by individuals. (150) Thus, by presenting pragmata that happen because of one another, a muthos exhibits or shows the causes that make the story intelligible but does not state or explain them. (151) For this reason poetry is epistemologically inferior to philosophy, (152) and the poet does not teach. Rather, he shows us something that can be an occasion for learning. (153) Artistic works are then closer to the phenomena than philosophy is because, although the poet manipulates the events, his goal is to let the phenomena speak for themselves. (154) He does (and should) not speak in his own voice to illuminate the logic of the muthos, bur organizes the plot in such a way as to enable the audience to make sense of the story. It is then the task of the spectator or reader to comprehend the logic of the events, and thus to complete the process initiated by the poet. In this sense, poetry, rather than offering a mediated account of the phenomena through discursive explanation, offers a mediated immediacy: the events imitated have the particularity, vividness and emotional impact of immediate events, but are depurated of the opaque elements that may hinder our comprehension in the real world. (155)

Xavier University

Correspondence to: Silvia Carli, Philosophy Department, Xavier University, 3800 Victory Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45207.

(1) Aristotle, De Arte Poetica, ed. Ingrato Bywater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), 9.1451b5-7; hereafter Poetica. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from the Greek are my own.

(2) See, for example, Stephen Halliwell, "Aristotelian Mimesis and Human Understanding," in Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics, ed. Oivind Andersen and Jan Haarberg (London: Duckworth, 2001), 95-100; Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 193-9; Malcolm Heath, "The Universality of Poetry in Aristotle's Poetics," The Classical Quarterly (New Series) 41, no. 2 (1991): 389-90; Malcolm Heath, "Cognition in Aristotle's Poetics," Mnemosyne 62, no. 1 (2009): 71; J. M. Armstrong, "Aristotle on the Philosophical Nature of Poetry," The Classical Quarterly 48, no. 2 (1998): 450 note 14; Pierluigi Donini, La tragedia e la vita (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2004), 44; James Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector, expanded ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 55; hereafter Nature and Culture in the Iliad.

(3) These are the universals of science, which grasp the essential properties common to a given class of onta and abstract from the accidental and particular features of its specimens. See, for example, Aristotle, De Interpretatione, in Categoriae et Liber de Interpretatione, ed. Lorenzo Minio Paluello (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 7.17a38-bl; Metaphysica, ed. Werner Jaeger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 1.2.982a24-5; hereafter Metaphysica.

(4) Heath, "Cognition in Aristotle's Poetics," 70; original emphasis. See also Heath, "The Universality of Poetry in Aristotle's Poetics," 390.

(5) Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 195.

(6) Ibid., 194, 197.

(7) Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 58, 59-60. Like Halliwell, he regards poetry as fiction. See Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 56, 66.

(8) Armstrong "Aristotle on the Philosophical Nature of Poetry," 451, 453; emphasis added.

(9) See Elizabeth S. Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), especially Ch. 2; Martha Husain, Ontology and the Art of Tragedy: An Approach to Aristotle's Poetics (Albany: SUNY, 2002); Donini, La tragedia e la vita; James Collins, "Aristotle's Philosophy of Art and the Beautiful," The New Scholasticism 16 (1942): 257-84.

(10) Aristotle, Physica, ed. William David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 2.2.194a28-30; hereafter Physica.

(11) Aristotle, Metaphysica, 5.17.1022a4-13. This translation is from William David Ross, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, vol. 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1613-4; emphasis and numbers added.

(12) "The last point of each thing, that is, the first point beyond which it is not possible to find any part, and the first point within which every part is." Ibid., 5.17.1022a4-5.

(13) "The form of a spatial magnitude or of a thing which has magnitude." Ibid., 5.17.1022a5.

(14) Ibid., 7.17.

(15) Ibid., 5.17.1022a9; 7.17.

(16) Aristotle, De Anima, ed. William David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 2.1.412a17-21; hereafter De Anima.

(17) Aristotle, Metaphysica 5.17.1022a6.

(18) Ibid., 5.17.1022a9.

(19) Ibid., 5.17.1022a10.

(20) "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]." Ibid., 2.2.994b26-27.

(21) See, for instance, De Anima 3.8.432a15-16; De Motu Animalium 6.700b20-21. Liddell and Scott define krino as "to separate, divide, put apart hence to pick out ... to judge, to estimate." Henry Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968). On the meaning of krinein as "to judge" in Aristotle see, for example, Nicomachean Ethics 1.3.1094b28; 1.8.1099a23; 2.9.1109b8; 5.8.1135b26. All citations and references to this text are from Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, ed. Ingram Bywater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1894); hereafter Ethica Nicomachea.

(22) Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, in Analytica Priora et Posteriora, ed. William David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 2.19.100a11-13; hereafter Analytica Posteriora.

(23) Aristotle, De Anima 2.6; 3.2.

(24) Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.2.982b. Aristotle holds that the sciences are superior to the arts (and the speculative sciences superior to the practical), because of the nature of their objects (see Metaphysica 1.1.981b30-982a3; 6.1; Ethica Nicomachea 5.1-7). However, they both occupy the highest position in the hierarchy of forms of cognition because they provide universal rational accounts of their objects (see Metaphysica 1.1). In this paper I will not differentiate between the two, given that Aristotle seems to understand philosophia in the Poetics (Poetica 9.1451b5: "poetry is more philosophical ... than history") in the broad sense of knowledge of the truth, which includes the sciences and the arts (see Metaphysica 2.1.993b20; Topica 1.14.105b30-1).

(25) See Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.1; 1.2.982b; Analytica Posteriora 2.19; Ethica Nicomachea 1.4.1095bl-4. The goal of the highest form of knowledge is the definition of the essence of its objects and the determination of their per se properties (Analytica Posteriora 1.9), and a good definition enables us (at least) to guess the per se properties of the objects. Aristotle states: "In all demonstration a definition of the essence is required as a starting point, so that definitions that do not enable us to discover the [per se] properties, or which fail to facilitate even a conjecture about them must obviously, one and all, be dialectical and futile." De Anima 1.1.402b25-403a2.

(26) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Aristotle, Ars Rhetorica, ed. William David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959) 1.2.1356b30-3; hereafter Rhetorica, emphasis added. Note that by knowledge here Aristotle means that which is the object of episteme, which clearly includes the arts as well as the sciences.

(27) Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.1.981a15-16; 981a24-31.

(28) Aristotle, Metaphysica, 1.1.981a8-9, trans. William David Ross, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, vol. 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 1553.

(29) Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.1.981a10-11.

(30) Ibid., 1.1.981a30: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]"

(31) Ibid., 1.1.981a5; 981b30-1.

(32) Indeed, both Modrak and LaBarge suggest that, at the stage of experience, we grasp "universals of recognition," which are to be distinguished from the conceptual (noetic) universals of art and science. See Deborah Modrak, "Sensing, Experiencing and Knowing in Aristotle," Skepsis 13-14 (2002-2003): 130; Scott LaBarge, "Aristotle on Empeiria," Ancient Philosophy 26 (2006): 33, 38.

(33) It is important to remember that Aristotle systematically stresses the practical effectiveness of men of experience, a fact that speaks for the reliability of their gnosis. See, for instance, Metaphysica 1.1.981a12-15; Ethica Nicomachea 6.7.1141 b 16-21; 6.11.1143b 11-14.

(34) On this point see Paolo C. Biondi, ""De r experience ... ": un examen de quelques propos d'Aristote sur l' 'EMHEIPIA," Laval theologique et philosophique 57, no. 3 (2001): 506.

(35) Of course the separation is never complete, as Aristotle maintains that thinking never occurs without images (see De Anima 1.8.432a12-14; De Memoria et Reminiscentia 1.450a13). Moreover, in order to be effective at the practical level the doctor must be as sensitive to the specific and particular features of each patient and situation as the man of experience (see Metaphysica 1.1.981a12-15).

(36) "ETI [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Aristotle, Analytica Posteriora 1.24.86a4-7; emphasis added.

(37) Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.1.981b7-10.

(38) Aristotle, Poetica 9.1451b5.

(39) Ibid., 9.1451a38; 1451b31-3.

(40) Ibid., 9.1451b7-8.

(41) Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 2.7.1107a31; 6.8.1142a24-5. Indeed, Aristotle does not mention particular circumstances in the Poetics as a factor that discriminates between history and poetry.

(42) Aristotle, Poetica 23.1459a21-9.

(43) Ibid., 23.1459a22-9; 8.1451a18-19. In this respect, historical logoi and episodic plots do not differ for Aristotle (see Poetica 9.1451b33-5; 10.1452a21).

(44) Ibid., 9.1451b8-9; 9.1451a36-8.

(45) Ibid., 10.1452a21.

(46) Ibid., 8.1451a16--19; 23.1459a22-9.

(47) Aristotle, Poetica 7.1450b26-3; Metaphysica 5.26.1023b35-1024a6.

(48) Aristotle, Poetica 8.51a16-19.

(49) Ibid., 7.1450b26-33.

(50) G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, "Aristotle on History and Poetry (Poetics, 9, 1451a36-b11)," in Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. Amelie O. Rorty (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 29.

(51) Ibid., 28. See also Martha Craven Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, revised, ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 386; Armstrong, "Aristotle on the Philosophical Nature of Poetry," 447, note 4.

(52) Ste. Croix, "Aristotle on History and Poetry," 28.

(53) The expression hoia an genoito is ordinarily translated as "the kinds of things that could (or might) happen." See Gerald F. Else, Aristotle's Poetics: the Argument (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), 301; Stephen Halliwell, The Poetics of Aristotle: Translation and Commentary (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 40; Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 154; Dorothea Frede "Necessity, Chance and 'What Happens for the Most Part' in Aristotle's Poetics," in Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. A. O. Rorty, 205. As Donini emphasizes, this translation is misleading because Aristotle does not think that the ergon of the poet is to imitate certain kinds of things, that is to say, the things that could happen (in which case he would have probably written ha an genoito). Rather his function is to imitate things as they might happen: the emphasis is on modality or on the way in which things happen (namely, according to probability or necessity). See Donini, La tragedia e la vita, 109.

(54) Aristotle, Poetica 9.1451b5-8.

(55) Ste. Croix himself acknowledges that historia "is not absolutely disparaged: it is merely said to be less philosophical and worthwhile than poetry." Ste. Croix, "Aristotle on History and Poetry," 29.

(56) For a review of the positions on the role of mallon, see Ernst-Richard Schwinge, "Aristoteles uber Struktur und Sujet der Tragodie: Zum 9. Kapitel der Poetik," Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie 139 (1996): 114-16.

(57) For a sustained defense of this interpretation, see Niccolo Salanitro, "L'opposizione poesia vs. storiografia nella Poetica di Aristotele," Res Publica Litterarum 22 (1999): 14-32.

(58) Aristotle, Poetica 9.51b26-33; emphasis added.

(59) Ibid., 9.1451b8-9; 51a36-8. For an explanation of the meaning of this formula, see section III below.

(60) Aristotle, Rhetorica 2.20.1394a8.

(61) See, for example, Metaphysica 6.2-3; 5.5; Physica 2.6.

(62) Aristotle states: "Thus one must pay heed to the unproven assertions and opinions of the empeiroi and the elderly, or of men of practical wisdom, no less than to those they prove. For, since they have an eye from empeiria, they see rightly (orosin orthos)." Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 6.11.1143b11-14; emphasis added.

(63) Aristotle, Rhetorica 2.20.1393a30-b2.

(64) On this point see also Armstrong, "Aristotle on the Philosophical Nature of Poetry," 447.

(65) Aristotle, Poetica 23.59a21-30; emphasis added.

(66) Ibid., 23.1459a29-30.

(67) Aristotle's requirements for the unity of actions imitated in epic poems are more relaxed than that for the actions represented in tragedies; see Poetica 23-24. While in tragedy one should limit oneself to the representation of the single line of action enacted on stage, "in epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many parts can be presented simultaneously; and these, if integral to the subject, add mass to the poem." Poetica 24.1459b26-28. Thus writers of epics can imitate a number of simultaneous pragmata as long as they are relevant to the general subject at end (for example, the Trojan war), as indeed the much admired Homer did.

(68) Aristotle, Poetica 8.1451a16-19.

(69) Ibid., 8.1451a30-7; emphasis added.

(70) See also Aristotle, Analytica Posteriora 2.10.93b35-8; Metaphysica, 7.4.1030b9-13; 8.6.1045a13-14; Poetica 20.1457a29-31.

(71) See Aristotle, Poetica 9.1451b1-11; 1451b30-3; 23.1459a22-9. In addition, Poetica 8.1451a16-23 can be read as a recommendation not to write poems as if they were biographies. On this point see also Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 164-7.

(72) Ste. Croix's, "Aristotle on History and Poetry," 28. For a similar point see Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, 386. By contrast, Frede rightly observes that "history can by definition not exclude the accidental or coincidental." Frede, "Necessity, Chance and 'What Happens for the Most Part' in Aristotle's Poetics," 218, note 28; original emphasis.

(73) This can clearly be seen in the meticulous observations and endoxai that he gathers in the History of Animals. In the same text, he criticizes Herodotus for his lack of accuracy in one of his observations. Aristotle, Historia Animalium 3.22.523a17; see Herodotus, The History, 3.101.

(74) For further elaboration on the difference between history and poetry see next section.

(75) For this interpretation of the nature of poetry see Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 55-67; Halliwell, The Poetics of Aristotle, 172; Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 151-76, 186-93. Ferrari also understands poetic compositions as fiction, but rejects Redfield's and Halliwell's cognitivist reading of mimesis. G. R. F. Ferrari, "Aristotle's Literary Aesthetics," Phronesis 44 (1999): 187-8.

(76) Aristotle, Poetica 9.1451b5-7.

(77) The limit case is when--exceptionally--ta genomena conform to the possible according to probability or necessity. In this case the poet can reproduce actual events in his plots and still be their maker because he recognizes them as exemplifying the nature of the possible; see Poetica 9.1451b29-32. For a clarification of this point, see below.

(78) See previous section.

(79) Aristotle, Poetica 6.1450a5; 1450a15-16.

(80) Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 59.

(81) Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 166; emphasis added.

(82) Aristotle, Physica 2.2.194a21-2; 2.8.199a16-17; Meteorologica 4.3.381b.6; pseudo-Aristotle, On the Universe, 5.396b12.

(83) Aristotle, Physica 2.2.194a28-30.

(84) Aristotle, Physica 2.8.199a31-3; De Anima 2.2.413a20-4.

(85) Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.3.983a32-3.

(86) Aristotle, Metaphysica 9.7. Matter can resist the determinative power of form and for this reason natural processes can produce variations from the norm and "monstrosities," which Aristotle describes as "failures to attain that for the sake of which" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) Physica 2.8.199b4-5. Nevertheless these are exceptions that are identified with reference to the norm, which is the achievement of the proper end.

(87) Aristotle, Physica 2.8.

(88) Ibid., 2.2.194a28-32; 8.7.260b20-6.

(89) Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium 1.1.640a34-b4.

(90) For Aristotle, the general thesis that art imitates nature is not simply a description of the relation between making and the natural world; rather, it has normative and prescriptive force.

(91) Aristotle, Physica 2.8.199a12-15.

(92) Ibid., 2.8.199a12-15; 2.8.199a18-20.

(93) Aristotle, Metaphysica 7.7.1032a32-b1.

(94) I cannot agree with Halliwell, who argues that since the general relation between art and nature concerns only the methods of making, it cannot shed light on the mimetic character of the fine arts. While it is important to acknowledge the distinctive nature of artistic mimesis as representational, there is no reason why one should not interpret it on the basis of Aristotle's more general understanding of the relation between techne and physis. In fact, this interpretation highlights the coherence and unity of Aristotle's thought. See Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 153-4.

(95) Specifically to epics and comedy, at least to the extent that the objects they imitate are actions as well. See Poetica 23.1459a17-21; 5.1449b9

(96) Although this is an incomplete account of the nature of actions imitated in tragedy, it is sufficient for the present analysis. For the full definition of the object of tragedy see Poetica 6.1449b24-28. I will touch upon other aspects of tragic actions below.

(97) On this point, see Donini, La tragedia e la vita, 15.

(98) Aristotle, Poetica 6.1449b25; 7.1450b24.

(99) Ibid., 7.1450b23-7. On Aristotle's conception of whole (holon) see also Metaphysica 5.26.

(100) Aristotle states: "A whole (holon) is that which has a beginning (arche), a middle (meson), and an end (teleute). A beginning is that which is not after something else by necessity, but after which something by its nature is or comes to be. An end, by contrast, is that which by its nature follows something else either necessarily or for the most part, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which comes after something and is followed by something else." Aristotle, Poetica 7.1450b26-32.

(101) Ibid., 6.50a5; 6.50a15-16.

(102) Ibid., 6.1450a37-b21.

(103) This approach thus confers to poetic praxis the status of substance and arche of tragedy advocated by Martha Husain, without severing its essential connection with life, which, I believe, goes far beyond the feeble relations that she acknowledges in her book. See Martha Husain, Ontology and the Art of Tragedy, 39 and following, 71-3, 90.

(104) Aristotle, Poetica 6.1450a14-24.

(105) Aristotle, Poetica 6.1450a14-24; emphasis added. If character is for the sake of action, a fortiori dianoia is, which is third in the hierarchy of the parts of tragedy after praxis and ethos; see Poetica 6.1450a37-b4.

(106) Ibid., 6.1450a37: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]." Other comparisons between works of art and animals occur at Poetica 7.1450b35-1451a6; Poetica 23.1459a17-21.

(107) Aristotle, De Anima 2.1.412b22-4; 2.4.415b15-20.

(108) Aristotle, Poetica 9.1451b28-30.

(109) Ibid., 9.1451a37-8; 9.1451b31-3.

(110) Throughout the Poetics, Aristotle claims that both changes from good to bad fortune, and from bad to good are acceptable. See Poetica 7.1451a11-15; 9.1452a22 and following; 9.1452a31 and following; 18.1455b28. In chapter 14 he asserts that the best tragic plots are those in which the tragic heroes are unknowingly about to do something terrible to people they love, but discover their identity in time, and thus refrain from acting and avert the imminent calamity. Poetica 14.1453b35-6, 14.1454a4-9.

(111) Aristotle, Poetica 7.1451a13-16.

(112) Reversals belong only to the best kinds of tragedies, whose plots are complex; see Poetica 10. It is to these plots that the analysis of Poetics 13 and 14 applies.

(113) Aristotle, Poetica 9.1452a2-10; 15.1454b6-8; 24.1460a28-b2; 25.1461b19-21

(114) Ibid., 13.1453a10.

(115) Ibid., 14.1453b30-2.

(116) See Frede, "Necessity, Chance and 'What Happens for the Most Part' in Aristotle's Poetics," 212-13, 219 n. 39; Carnes Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1982), 168 and following. Stinton concludes that Aristotle's texts allow understanding tragic hamartia in a variety of senses including moral senses. See T. C. W. Stinton, "Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy," Classical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1975): 221-35.

(117) Yet we are still able to pity these characters, although probably to a lesser degree, because of the disproportion between their errors and the consequences that they produce. On this point see Frede, "Necessity, Chance and 'What Happens for the Most Part' in Aristotle's Poetics," 212; Nancy Sherman, "Hamartia and Virtue," in Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. A. O. Rorty, 180, 189.

(118) See Sherman, "Hamartia and Virtue," especially 186-90; Donini, La tragedia e la vita, 87-106, especially 101-3; Heath, "The Universality of Poetry in Aristotle's Poetics," 391-8, especially 393, 395; Richard Sorabji, Necessity, Chance and Blame, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1980), 295-8; Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle's Poetics, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 215-37, esp. 220, 229.

(119) Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 1.8.1099a30-b8; 1.9; 1.10.

(120) Ibid., 1.9.1110a6-9.

(121) See Ibid., 3.1.1110bl8-1111a19; 5.8.1135a23-31; 5.8.1135b11-19; 5.8.1136a5-9 if Heath's interpretation is correct (see Heath, "The Universality of Poetry in Aristotle's Poetics," 392-3); Rhetorica 1.13.1374b4-10.

(122) For the interpretation of this meaning of universal see below.

(123) Aristotle, Poetica 17.1455a34-b3.

(124) Ibid., 17.1455b4-16.

(125) Thus the philosopher presumably deems the initial outline of the story universal (katholou) because it plays in the composition of muthoi the role that the "form in the soul" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) plays in the productions of all makers. Metaphysica 7.7.1032b1. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle characterizes this form as "the essence of each thing" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) and, with reference to the techne of the doctor, he defines health as "the formula and the knowledge in the soul" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), expressions which clearly indicate the universal character of this eidos. Metaphysica 7.7.1032b1-2; 7.7.1032b5. In addition, the text of the Poetics makes it clear that the initial outline is universal because it is common to all versions of a given drama. At Poetica 17.1455b10 Aristotle mentions Euripides's and Polydus's versions of the Iphigenia. See also Poetica 18.1456a7-8.

(126) Correspondingly, it is only at this stage that the mimetic work "says" (legei) or expresses the more concrete sense of universal on which Aristotle insists throughout the Poetics, and which he defines in Chapter 9: "'universal' means the kinds of things it fits a certain sort of person to say or do according to probability or necessity." Poetica 9.1451b8-9. I agree with Armstrong on the relation between the general outline of the story and the episodes, as well as on his emphasis on plot and action in the discussion of the universality of poetry; see Armstrong, "Aristotle on the Philosophical Nature of Poetry," 451-5. Unfortunately, he does not clarify how the notion of action-type fits into the philosopher's conceptual scheme. On the other hand, it is difficult to accept Belfiore's interpretation, according to which all the events mentioned in the general outline of the story are connected by necessary causal connections; see Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures, 111-31. The examples of the outlines of the Iphigeneia and of the Odyssey mentioned by Aristotle simply do not offer support to her thesis; see Poetica 17.1455b2-23. For an effective criticism of Belfiore's position on this issue see Donini, La tragedia e la vita, 113-16.

(127) Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 1.7.1907a28-b7; Poetica 6.1450a17.

(128) Ibid., 1.5.

(129) Aristotle states: "There are by nature two causes of actions, thought and character." Aristotle, Poetica 6.1450a1-2; emphasis added.

(130) As observed in the previous section, character is completely subordinate to action, and manifests itself only through consistent patterns of choices and deeds. However, the maker must establish for himself a priori the nature of the dramatic characters, so as to be able to imagine actions and sufferings appropriate to their kind. On this see also Donini, La Tragedia e la vita, 18.

(131) Aristotle, Poetica 13.1453a7-13.

(132) Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 2.2.1106b16-28.

(133) As Frede points out, the highly unusual character of the situations in which many tragic characters find themselves explains why, according to Aristotle, the events of the plot should be organized not only according to necessity but also according to to eikos, which should be understood as "the plausible" or believable: "Since such events fall outside most of our human experiences, it would often be unreasonable to ask for a stronger criterion than the 'likely' in our judgment." Frede, "Necessity, Chance and 'What Happens for the Most Part' in Aristotle's Poetics," 209-10; emphasis added. Indeed Aristotle's requirement to organize the events according to causal relations even when it is not possible to ask for objectively necessary connections also explains why he recommends that the poet use strategies that enable him to preserve at least the semblance of causal links. For instance, he writes that the maker should rely either "on what is, or what is said and believed to be, or what ought to be," and that he should even prefer "plausible impossibilities to implausible possibilities." Poetica 25.1460b10-12; 25.1461b11-12; 24.1460a27). On this see also Frede, "Necessity, Chance and 'What Happens for the Most Part' in Aristotle's Poetics," 208-12. My account differs from hers only in that I understand the necessary connections among the events of the plot primarily as instances of hypothetical necessity.

(134) For the translation of sumbanei as "it fits," see Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 195, note 95.

(135) Aristotle, Poetica 9.1451b8-9; emphasis added.

(136) See Aristotle, Poetica 1.1447a8-13. On this understanding of the nature and status of the Poetics see also Halliwell, The Poetics of Aristotle, 3; Husain, Ontology and the Art of Tragedy, 17-18; Amelie O. Rorty, "The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy," in Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. A. O. Rorty, 3; Heath, "Cognition in Aristotle's Poetics," 62.

(137) Heath, "Cognition in Aristotle's Poetics," 61-2. On this point see also Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 200.

(138) Aristotle, Poetica 4.1448b24-8.

(139) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]." Ibid., 14.1454a10-11; emphasis added.

(140) "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]." Ibid., 8.1451a24; emphasis added.

(141) "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]." Ibid., 17.1455a23.

(142) Ibid., 17.145529-33.

(143) Ibid., 17.1455a34-5.

(144) Of course the forms with which they are in love are immanent.

(145) On this point see also Donini, La tragedia e la vita, 25.

(146) On this point see John Jones, On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 24-9; Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 54, 58.

(147) It goes without saying that the two domains are never sharply separated, for forms are immanent in sensible particulars, which are thus potentially intelligible all along. Due to our constitution, however, we apprehend the world first through our senses and only later through our intellect. Moreover, even when we comprehend the world according to what is most knowable in itself, we never think without images. See Aristotle, De Anima 3.7.431a14-17; 3.7.431b3.

(148) See section I above.

(149) See Aristotle, Metaphysica 1.1.981 and following; Physica 2.7.198a14-21; 2.7.198a32.

(150) The dramatic characters are (and should be, according to Aristotle) the embodiment of a general type. Moreover, in virtue of their prominent standing and role in the city, their vicissitudes acquire a political and universal dimension that does not belong to ordinary people (see Poet. 13.1453a11-13). However, Oedipus, Iphigenia, Creon and so forth are not simply representatives of a kind. In virtue of their particular and distinctive stories, they are individualized types.

(151) Halliwell makes this point very effectively. See Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 164-9.

(152) On this point see also Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 200; Heathz "Cognition in Aristotle's Poetics," 60-2, 71.

(153) See Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 54-5.

(154) Throughout the Poetics Aristotle insists that everything that a plot is meant to convey (and evoke) should arise from the pragmata themselves and their connections. See, for instance, Poetica 6.1450b8-12; 14.1452a18-21; 16.1455a16--19; 19.1456b2-8; 24.1460a6-13. On this point see also Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, 164-71.

(155) I wish to thank David Roochnik, who read the first and the final version of the paper, and who is always a great philosophical interlocutor.
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Author:Carli, Silvia
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
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Date:Dec 1, 2010
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