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  • 1. Aristotles Study of TragedyAuthor(s): Henry Alonzo MyersReviewed work(s):Source: Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Dec., 1949), pp. 115-127Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 23/09/2012 12:17Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Educational Theatre Journal.
  • 2. ARISTOTLES STUDY OF TRAGEDY* HENRY ALONZO MYERS Cornell University HIs METHODAND HIS AIM Among its procedures are the use of in- The Poetics of Aristotle, which con- ductive reasoning, the analysis of speci-tains the best known definition of trag- mens into their constituent elements oredy, has been more lavishly praised and parts, and the synthesizing of conclu-more bitterly condemned than any other sions in a definition by genus andwork of literary criticism. These ex- differentiae. Of these, the most import-tremes of judgment seem to be founded ant is induction, the mode of reasoningon a common misunderstanding: friend which derives general propositions fromand foe alike have erred in treating a careful study of particular instances.Aristotle as a prophet and law-giver If any of Aristotles generalizations con-rather than as a scientist and philoso- cerning tragedy are valid, they owe theirpher. Those who have praised the validity to the fact that before formulat-Poetics most highly have often revealed ing them he examined the tragediestheir ignorance of the scientific method available in his time as carefully as aupon which it is based by accepting botanist examines a collection of rareAristotles findings as thoueh they were plants.oracles from on high, and those who A generalization which is supportedhave most bitterly condemned the Poet- by all the known facts or instances isics have done so because they have mis- incontestable, and may properly be re- takenly ascribed to Aristotle the dogma- garded as scientific description. If all tism which is all too evident in the the tragedies with which we are familiar writings of some of his disciples. had been available to Aristotle, we may The outstanding merit of the Poetics, be sure that he would have taken them the quality which makes it the necessary into account and that as a result the starting point of any inquiry into the Poetics, greatly modified, would be for nature of tragedy, is its application of us a much more satisfactory and accurate a scientific method to the study of poetry. description of the general nature of This method is more important than tragedy. But he had only the Greek the particular conclusions which have tragedies, including the many now lost and the few that have survived, to study; inspired so much fruitless controversy. and he himself implies that his con- *This essay was planned and written as an clusions may be tentative by raising theintroductory chapter in a book to be entitledTragedy: A View of Life. At a number of points question "whether tragedy has as yetin the discussion of the Poetics I have intro-duced, in commenting on the limitation of perfected its proper types."Aristotles study, some of my own conclusions on It had not yet perfected all its possiblethe meaning of tragedy. For longer statementsof these conclusions, see H. A. Myers, "The types, as we know; and for this reasonTragic Attitude Toward Value," Ethics, Vol. the Poetics is for us a compilation ofXLV, No. ., April, 1935; "Dramatic Poetry and conclusions which are based on incom-Values," The English Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. ;, May, 1939; "The Tragic Meaning of Mobv plete evidence. We may determineDick," The Newz England Quarterly, Vol. XV, whether these conclusions need to beNo. i, March, 1942; and "Heroes and the Way ofCompromise," in Essays in Political Theory, ed- modified by carefully examining the newited by M. R. Konvitz and A. E. Murphy, Cor-nell University Press, 1948. types and examples of tragedy, or we may
  • 3. 116 EDUCATIONAL THEATRE JOURNALaccept them as they stand because they the poet copies a particular object whichare the dicta of an eminent philosopher. in turn is a copy of a universal idea.If we accept only those generalizations Many of the best known poems containwhich are supported by the facts, we immoral fictions which represent godsfollow Aristotle in the use of inductive and heroes as even worse in behaviorreasoning, his chief contribution to the than ordinary men. The pleasures afford-study of literature; if we accept his find- ed by poetry are at best of an inferior or-ings as dicta, we turn from scientific der; at worst they may lead men intodescription to literary prescription, to a weak sentimentalism or buffoonery. Po-kind of a priori critical authoritarianism etry feeds the passions, which should bewhich is the exact opposite of the Aris- starved. For these and other reasons Pla-totelian method. to would expel the poets from his ideal The excellence of Aristotles method republic.cannot make up for the outstanding Aristotles attitude toward the poetsweakness of his study, namely, his indif- is so much less uncompromising thanference to the meaning of tragedy and Platos that he seems at first glance to dohis consequent failure to trace the gen- justice to the significance of poetry. Writ-eral outlines of the tragic view of life. ing at a time when the philosophers hadThis failure of a great philosopher to gained in prestige at the expense of theirjudge, or even to notice, an important rivals, he is generous in victory, and seeksview of life can only be explained as an to end the ancient quarrel by assigningafter-effect of that "ancient quarrel be- to the poets a respected sphere of activitytween philosophy and poetry" which Soc- and to poetry an important function.rates describes to Glaucon in Platos Re- The true end of poetry, he maintains, ispublic. The cause of the quarrel was the to give pleasure, and the pleasure deriv-desire of the philosophers to replace the ed from poetry is a good which contrib-poets as the sole interpreters of life and as utes to the well-being of the virtuousthe recognized teachers in questions of man. The effect of great poetry uponconduct. Since the Greeks were unique the emotions is beneficial, not injurious.among early peoples in their freedom As for the fictions of the poets, they arefrom a priestly caste, their poets enjoyed dangerous only to children, who cannotfor many centuries, and particularly distinguish between fiction and fact; forfrom the time of Homer to the time of mature men the poet is an artist andEuripides, a secure prestige as recorders not a teacher, and the appeal of poetryand interpreters of experience and tra- is to the feelings and not to the intellect.dition. When the early Greek philoso- While conceding to the poet an im-phers turned from the study of nature portant role as a contributor to theto the study of man, however, they en- emotional well-being of man, Aristotlecroached upon the preserves of the poets, reserves to the philosopher the more im-and the resulting rivalry reached a peak portant function of interpreting life.of intensity at the end of the Fifth Cen- This division of functions between thetury B.C. Aristophanes presents a bit- rivals has merit. By stressing the fact thatterly satirical picture of Socrates in The the reading of poetry has a value apartClouds; and Plato, using Socrates as from any moral guidance which may bespokesman, strikes back hard at the poets found in the experience, it helps the criticin The Republic. Poetry, he maintains, to distinguish a poem from a didacticis thrice removed from the truth since jingle. But it implies a sharp division
  • 4. ARISTOTLES STUDY OF TRAGEDY 117between the intellect and the emotions of the ideal tragic hero, and the famouswhich does not in fact exist. Our reason definition of tragedy-reveals that, inand our feelings are not shut up in sepa- spite of his excellent method of investi-rate compartments; on the contrary, our gation, he never credits the tragic poetfeelings are stirred solely by our ideas, with an important view of life, and isand our ideas are all too often inspired content to explain, as best he can, howsolely by feeling. The feelings which tragedy affords intense pleasure by ex-inspire a system of philosophy and the citing and purging the emotions of pityintellectual pattern of a poem may be and fear.implicit rather than explicit; but they THE ELEMENTSOF TRAGEDYare present, and not to be ignored. If a The constituent elements of tragedy,tragic drama has the power to restore us according to Aristotle, are, in their orderto tranquillity after stirring our deepest of importance, Plot, Character, Thought,feelings, the reason is that the poet has Diction, Melody, and Spectacle. By Plotshaped his tragic incidents into a pat- he means the structure of the story whichtern, implicitly intellectual, which we are is unfolded in dramatic action, the or-usually unable to discover when similar ganization of the incidents which pro-incidents occur as parts of the chaos vides the pattern and unity of the trage-of everyday experience. The question dy. By Character (ethos) he does notwhether that pattern is the true pattern mean an individual agent in a tragedy,of human life is the most important as Agamemnon or Romeo; he means thequestion concerning tragedy, but it is a moral bent which disposes an Agamem-question that we are not likely to raise non or a Romeo to choose or avoid aif we assign the realm of feeling to the certain course of action. His illustrationspoet and the realm of ideas to the philos- of Thought (dianoia) refer to passagesopher. in which speakers use rhetoric to excite Aristotle seems to have been at least feeling, offer arguments in proof or dis-partly aware that the power of poetry to proof of a point, or use general maximsexcite and soothe our feelings implies in commenting upon events; Thought,that poetry has intellectual aspects of a therefore, means either the intellectualhigh order. Poetry, he tells us, is higher ability of a speaker, his skill in sayingand more philosophical than history, for the right thing at the right time, or ex-poetry stresses the universal while history amples of this ability. By Diction Aris-stresses the particular. This recognition totle means the poets choice and ar-of the universality of poetry might well rangement of words; by Melody hehave raised the essential question con- means the choral songs of Greek trag-cerning tragedy in Aristotles mind, for edy; and by Spectacle he means theif poetry tends to express the universal, costuming and scenery required in thethe tragic hero may truly represent man- theatrical production of a tragedy.kind, and his fate may be the fate of all Aristotles treatment of Thought,men. If not, why not? But Aristotle is which is consistent with his solution totoo deeply committed to his solution of the rivalry between the poets and thethe ancient quarrel to probe deeply into philosophers, is the principal defect inthe intellectual patterns implicit in his analysis of tragedy into its constituentpoetry. An examination of the high elements. Since he is convinced in ad-points of the Poetics-the analysis of vance that the proper appeal of poetrytragedy into its elements, the description is to the emotions, he ignores the tragic
  • 5. 18 EDUCATIONAL THEATRE JOURNALview of life implied in the possibility ways represents a single action, a changethat the heros fate may truly represent of fortune in which no incident may bethe destiny of man. His Thought-the displaced or removed without disturbingintellectual ability of the hero or of other the organic unity of the whole. The bestagents as evidenced by their skill in plots combine Change of Fortune (meta-persuasion, in argumentation, and in the basis) with Reversal (peripeteia) anduse of apposite maxims-is too narrow Discovery (anagnorisis). Change of For-a conception to throw much light upon tune is a series of events in probable orthe over-all meaning of tragedy. necessary sequence carrying the hero Since the intellectual ability of an from prosperity to adversity, or fromagent may play as important a part as his adversity to prosperity-as the downfallmoral bent in disposing him to choose of Oedipus in Oedipus the King, or hisor avoid a certain course of action, we restoration to the favor of the gods inmight well treat intellectual ability and Oedipus at Colonos. Reversal is a changemoral bent as two aspects of Character, by which a course of action results in thethereby eliminating Aristotles Thought opposite of the effect intended by theand making room for the element of agent-as in Oedipus the King the Mes-tragedy which he ignores, namely, Mean- senger intends to cheer Oedipus and freeing. For Plot, Character, and Meaning him from his fears by revealing his iden-are in fact the principal elements of tity but instead hastens his fall intotragedy, and their interdependence and misery. Discovery is a cliange fromequal importance may best be indicated ignorance to knowledge, and the mostby a simple formula: Plot plus Charac- effective discovery, Aristotle concludes,ter equals Meaning. is a recognition of identity accompanied For Aristotle, however, Plot is the first by a reversal and a change of fortune, aselement of tragedy, and his discussion of in Oedipus the King.its importance is a masterly combination Nothing in the later history of dramaof analysis and induction. A well- discredits Aristotles main observationsconstructed plot, he tells us, has a begin- on the parts of Plot. Forms of drama toning, a middle, and an end; and the which his generalizations are inapplica-series of incidents which it comprises ble have appeared and enjoyed popular-follow one another in a probable or ity, but only the hazier critics have mis-inevitable sequence, forming an organic taken these new forms for tragedy. Thewhole. It is neither too short to be im- slice-of-life play, of which Gorkis Lowerpressive nor too long for its parts to be Depths is the archetype, always repre-easily held in memory; within these lim- sents many actions instead of one action,its its precise length is best determined and often derives its unity mainly fromby the number of incidents necessary to its setting. The expressionistic play,represent a change from bad fortune to stemming from Strindbergs Dream Playgood, or from good fortune to bad. and Spook Sonata, is composed of epi- The relative effectiveness of plots, ac- sodes which usually follow one anothercording to the Poetics, may be explained in a kaleidoscopic or dreamlike fashionby an analysis of their construction. The quite unlike the probable or necessaryworst plots are the episodic, in which the sequence which events follow in the plots episodes or events follow one another of effective tragedies. But Gorki, Strind- without probable or necessary sequence. berg, and their followers have artistic An effective plot, on the other hand, al- aims different from the aims of such
  • 6. ARISTOTLES STUDY OF TRAGEDY 1i9artists in tragedy as Aeschylus, Shake- however, the more we must be disap-speare, Goethe, Ibsen, and ONeill; and pointed by his failure to expand histheir slice-of-life and expressionistic findings into a description of the tragicplays, when subjected to the Aristotelian view of life. Since he asserts withoutmethod of study, reveal new principles reservation that Plot is the soul of trag-of construction peculiarly suited to the edy, its animating principle, and sinceachievement of the new aims. The emo- he considers the manner in which thetional and intellectual effects of tragedy, incidents of the best plots mirror thehowever, still depend upon the sense of events of life, we might expect that ifinevitability which the tragic dramatist ever he is to pose the question of theconveys to the reader or spectator by over-all meaning of tragedy, he will dounfolding the events of his plot in a so at this point in his discussion. Sig-probable or necessary sequence. nificantly, at this point we do find his The later history of drama fully famous assertion that poetry is moresupports Aristotles observation that philosophical than history in that itChange of Fortune is the indispensable stresses the universal rather than theelement of a tragic plot, and that the best particular.plots combine a change of fortune with Aristotle persists, however, in treatinga reversal and a discovery. The best dis- even the plot of his favorite tragedy ascoveries in later tragedies, it is true, do though its values were chiefly or alto-not always depend upon recognition of gether emotional. That Oedipus thepersonal identity, as Aristotle thinks they King was his favorite we may infer fromshould; but although the discoveries of his comments on its qualities: he men-the Elizabethan or modern hero mav be tions Oedipus first in a list of personagesintangible truths or values, they are suitable for treatment in perfect trage-nevertheless correctly described by his dies, and from the plot of the play hegeneral definition of Discovery as a derives his first example of Reversal and change from ignorance to knowledge. his first example of the best kind of Similarly, although Sophocles prefers to Discovery. Yet he analyzes the perfec- use only a half-turn of the great wheel tions of its plot only because they height-of fortune in each tragedy, representing en the feelings excited by the downfall the fall of Oedipus in one play and his of Oedipus: the plot is so admirably con- subsequent rise in another, Shakespeare structed, he tells us, that a reader, or one prefers a full turn of the wheel, repre- who hears the play read, will experience senting in single plays the fall and rise the same intensities of pity and fear of Lear and the rise and fall of Macbeth. which affect one who sees the play en- These minor changes do not affect the acted, with costuming and scenery, in the validity of Aristotles analysis of Plot; theatre. and any one who examines the plots of How stultifying a preoccupation with King Lear, of Faust, of Hedda Gabler, the emotional effects of tragedy can be is and of Desire Under the Elms, will find evident from the fact that Aristotle fails that, like the plot of Oedipus the King, to mention the reversal and the discovery their effectiveness mainly depends upon which most clearly indicate the profound an artful combination of a change of meaning of Oedipus the Kiing. As his fortune with a reversal and a discovery. example of Reversal, he instances the re- The more we are impressed by the coil whereby the Messengers attempt to brilliance of Aristotles analysis of Plot, cheer Oedipus prodluces the opposite
  • 7. 120 EDUCATIONAL THEATRE JOURNALeffect, a recoil which is accompanied by able: when the hero attempts to evadehis example of the best kind of Discov- it, an inevitable recoil of events hastensery, the recognition by Oedipus of his his fall into misery. Finally, the impor-true identity as the son of Laius and tant discovery in every great tragedy isJocasta. This combination is indeed the revelation to the hero of some mean-emotionally exciting, but in the most ing in his fate and to the spectator ofwonderfully intricate of all plots it is some of the fixed and universal condi-merely a move toward the revelation of tions of human destiny.the best of all combinations. The su-preme reversal in the tragedy is the re- THE IDEAL TRAGIC HEROcoil of events whereby Oedipus, who fled Aristotle considers five basic situations,from Corinth to evade the oracle that involving various kinds of persons inhe will kill his father and marry his changes of fortune, as possible materialmother, brings on his doom by his ef- for tragic plots, rejecting the first three,forts to escape. The discovery which praising the fourth as suitable for aaccompanies this supreme reversal is perfect tragedy, and describing the fifththat he who seeks to evade the inevitable as a concession to the inferior taste ofmerely hastens its fulfillment, a proposi- theatre-goers. (1) On two grounds hetion as profoundly significant as any in rejects the fall of a virtuous man fromscience or philosophy, and more con- prosperity to adversity: first, it excitesvincingly demonstrated than most. To neither pity nor fear, and secondly, itOedipus, who at the end accepts the is revolting to our moral sense. (2)oracle as the will of the gods, this dis- Similarly, he rejects the rise of a badcovery is proof of his own responsibility man from adversity to prosperity becausefor his fate; to the spectator who no it neither satisfies the moral sense norlonger believes in oracles it is nevertheless excites pity and fear. (3) On a single a light thrown upon the nature of what- ground, however, he rejects the downfallever he accepts as the inevitable; but of an utterly wicked man: although it to Aristotle it is apparently a discovery satisfies the moral sense, it is neither in a realm in which the poet lacks au- pitiable nor terrible. (4) After these thority. rejections there remains, he tells us, as When we seriously consider the ten- intermediate between these extremes, dency of poetry to express the universal, the man, neither vicious and depraved we find in tragedy, and particularly in nor eminently virtuous and just, whose the parts of Plot, an intellectually sig- misfortune is brought on by some failure nificant pattern which Aristotle over- (hamartia) to find the path of wise and looked. If poetry stresses the universal, virtuous conduct. This situation is ideal, then surely Change of Fortune, the in- he maintains, for the downfall of such dispensable part of the first element of a man excites the pity which we feel for tragedy, represents the fundamental con- one whose great misfortune is unmerited dition of life, the essence of human des- and the terror which we feel in witness- tiny: good and evil are the necessary ing the misfortune of a man like our- poles of experience, and no man may selves. And presumably-although Aris- hope to enjoy life without paying the totle does not say so-his change of for- price in suffering. The main reversal tune also satisfies our moral sense. (5) in a great tragedy demonstrates that this As a concession to the weakness of the fundamental condition of life is unalter- audience, however, the dramatist often
  • 8. ARISTOTLES STUDY OF TRAGEDY 121chooses a story with a double thread of innocent and punishes the guilty. Sinceplot, in which the good personages rise they indicate that injustice prevails, theand the bad fall. This is an inferior downfall of a good man (1) and thekind of drama, and more like comedy rise of a bad man (2) are effective inthan tragedy. drama only as the bases for the prob- Aristotles description of the ideal lem and propaganda plays which incitetragic hero as an intermediate between the spectator to take action against thethe extremes of the eminently virtuous status quo in society. The overthrow ofman and the utterly depraved man is a villain (3) satisfies the demands ofconfirmed by the distinction which we poetic justice, but since a villains defeatnow make between melodrama and trag- is usually a heros victory, the story withedy. In the black-and-white world of mel- a double thread of plot, with appropriateodrama men are divided into two sharp- rewards and punishments for the inno-ly opposed classes, represented by the un- cent and the guilty (5), is always theblemished hero and the unspeakable most effective material for popular melo-villain. In tragedy, however, the hero drama.whose deeds match his intentions in How does tragedy itself satisfy ourgoodness and the villain whose deeds re- ingrained love of justice? Aristotle doesflect his evil intentions disappear, and not answer this question. Moreover,are replaced by a single representative of since his ethical views are set forth inmankind, a man whose intentions are detail in the Nichomachean Ethics, healways good, but whose judgment of does not trouble in the Poetics to analyzewhat is the good for himself and for or define the failure (hamartia) whichothers is clouded by the urgencies of his he describes as the immediate cause ofappetites and passions. The first premise the heros misfortune. Some interpretersof melodrama is that there are two dis- of the Poetics have reduced tragedy to tinct kinds of men: the first premise of the level of melodrama by insisting that tragedy is that all men are essentially the heros hamartia is a sin, and that our the same. That the Poetics foreshadows pleasure in tragedy is partly derived this distinction is evident from the fact from our discovery of a condign punish- that Aristotle rejects as unsuitable for ment in the heros downfall. The avail- tragedy all changes of fortune (1,2,3,5) able evidence clearly indicates, however, involving melodramatic heroes and vil- that Aristotle found in tragedy a pleas- lains. ure different from the pleasure afforded The changes of fortune which Aris- to moralizers by an instance of poetic totle rejects are not, however, all suit- justice. First, he attributes the pity able for melodrama. Although they all properly excited by the best tragedies to involve either eminently virtuous or ut- the spectacle of a misfortune greater terly vicious men, only two of them (3.5) than the fault which is its cause. Sec- provide a conclusion agreeable to our ondly, he describes the best possible il- ingrained sense of justice. The first lustration of poetic justice (5) as a con- premise of melodrama may misrepresent cession to the weakness of spectators. the facts of life, but once it is accepted, Finally, it is most unlikely that he, the it renders all conclusions save one un- author of the Nichomachean Ethics, acceptable to our moral sense; conse- could have failed to understand the true quently, every effective melodrama ends nature of the tragic heros hamartia. in the poetic justice which rewards the The final test of the good life, of hap-
  • 9. 122 EDUCATIONAL THEATRE JOURNALpiness as it is described in the Nicho- too little and too much is always rela-machean Ethics, is completeness. Happi- tive to the facts of a particular situation;ness or well-being (eudaemonia), the consequently, its determination is notrue aim of life, is to be found only in easy task.complete self-realization, in full partici- Aristotle discusses important excep-pation in the activities proper to a hu- tions to his doctrines of the golden meanman being. As eye, hand, foot, and all and the complete life. An exception toparts of the body have specific functions, the doctrine of the golden mean is thatand as the musician, the sculptor, and no mean between too little and too muchthe artist have each a distinct function, can be found in respect to certain pas-so man must have a function which dis- sions and acts; as their names indicate,tinguishes him from other beings. This such passions as spite, shamelessness, andfunction cannot be merely living, for the envy, and such actions as adultery, theft,life of nutrition and growth is shared and murder, are always bad. One can-even by plants; it cannot be life at the not, for example, make adultery rightlevel of perception, for perception is a by moderation, by committing it onlyfunction of all animals: consequently, with the right woman, at the right time,the true function of man must be activ- and in the right way: it is always wrong.ity which follows or implies a rational An exception to the doctrine of the com-principle, for man is the only rational plete life is that the doing of an unques-animal. The function of the good man tionably noble deed may be compensa-is to perform in a great and noble man- tion for the loss of a complete life. Ifner activities involving reason: happi- necessary, the good man will cheerfullyness may be found only in activity of sacrifice his life for his friend or for hissoul in accordance with virtue. But, country, for he will prefer one great andAristotle tells us, the happy life is a noble deed to many petty activities, andcomplete life. One swallow does not one year lived nobly to many yearsmake a summer, nor does one day; and spent in routine day, or a short time, does not make a In respect to the moral virtues theman happy. Nichomachean Ethics is a philosophical The good life requires moderation in refinement of the common sense whichthose spheres of activity in which reason is based upon experience, particularly ofmust co-operate with the appetites and that kind of common sense which eval-passions. Here we must always aim at uates the passing moment by the longthe golden mean which lies between the view rather than the short view. Longextremes of too little and too much, at before Aristotle, some sensible manthe courage which is the mean between coined the adage that one swallow doesthe extremes of cowardice and rashness, not make a summer, and generations ofat the proper pride which lies between sensible men have since repeated it toabject humility and vanity, at the tem- make the point that a momentary pleas-perance which lies between abstinence ure may not lead to lifelong happiness.and indulgence, at the liberality which Like Aristotle, the sensible man con-lies between miserliness and extrava- demns those acts which everywhere havegance, at the friendliness which lies be- a bad name and praises those acts whichtween surliness and obsequiousness. But are everywhere regarded as noble. Thesince acts involving moral choice are al- moral problems of the sensible man areways particular events, the mean between not raised by clear cases of vice and vir-
  • 10. ARISIOTLES STUDY OF TRAGEDY 123tue; they arise when he is confronted by quence of this heroic extremism is exact-the particular situations which require ly what experience has taught the sensi-him to choose the mean between too lit- ble man to expect: the tragic hero livestle and too much, to discover the mod- intensely but not long-his summererate course most likely to lead to the often ends with the first swallow. If welong and complete life which he prizes judge him by the standards of the ordi-above all else. In short, Aristotle, the nary sensible man, he fails, through aphilosopher of common sense, is alto- lack of moderation, to realize the su-gether worldly in the best sense of the preme good of a long and complete life.word: his object is to attain the good And it is doubtless this failure whichhere and now, not in the hereafter; his Aristotle has in mind when he ascribesconception of the good includes the life the tragic heros misfortune to hisof the appetites and passions as well as hamartia.the life of reason; and his means of at- But although Aristotle correctly de- taining the good, in so far as problems scribes the ideal tragic hero, he fails toof moral virtue are involved, is chiefly explain what John Dewey has called "the the moderation which experience has peculiar power of tragedy to leave us at proved the best course for one who aims the end with a sense of reconciliationat a long and complete life. rather than with one of horror." That How, then, would the author of the tragedy has this power to make us feel Nichon7achean. Ethics regard the tragic that the conditions of life are as just as hero and his hamartia? First, we must they are ineluctable countless other wit- remember that for Aristotle the ideal nesses have testified. At points in the tragic hero is not one whose misfortune unfolding of a great tragedy we experi- is brought on by a vice which is every- ence the pity and terror which, as Aris- where regarded as a vice, nor is he one totle maintains, the misfortunes of menwhose change of fortune consists in his like ourselves normally excite, but theselaying down his life for his friend, or for and other deep feelings which we ex-his country, or in any similar act of un- perience as we follow the hero in hisquestionable nobility. But if he is moments of glory and despair are at theneither utterly depraved nor eminently end merged with our recognition of avirtuous, what is his outstanding trait? pattern in the heros fate into a totalAs we meet him in the worlds great impression as significant as it is moving.tragedies, he is, first and foremost, an And since meaning is as important aextremist. To reach his goal, whatever it part of this total impression as feeling,may be, he is always willing to sacrifice a philosopher who limits his study ofeverything else, including his life. Oedi- poetry to its emotional effects can neverpus will press the search for the unknown adequately explain the wonderful powermurderer, although he is warned of the of tragedy.consequences; Hamlet will prove the If we analyze those intellectual aspectsKings guilt and attempt to execute per- of the total impression of tragedy whichfect justice, whatever the cost may be to Aristotle neglects, we find that the idealhis mother, to Laertes, to Ophelia, and tragic heros change of fortune may sat- to himself; Solness will climb the tower isfy our sense of justice in at least threehe has built, at the risk of falling into important ways. First of all, we discover the quarry; Ahab will kill Moby Dick or in the intensity of the heros experiencedie in the attempt. The usual conse- a compensation for its lack of breadth
  • 11. 124 EDUCATIONAL THEATRE JOURNAL and duration. As Aristotle points out prevailing justice which brings to every in the Nichomachean Ethics, the good man equal measures of suffering and joy. man who lays down his life for his friend prefers the intense satisfaction of a sin- THE DEFINITION OF TRAGEDY gle noble deed to years of dull existence. Aristotles definition of tragedy epit- The ideal tragic hero is not an eminent- omizes the virtues of his method and the ly virtuous man, but he too prefers drink- weakness of his aim in the study of po- ing the cup of life at a single draught etry. Since the definition appears in the to taking it in the manner of a valetudi- Poetics near the beginning of the dis- narian sipping milk. Nor is any man cussion of tragedy, and is followed by free from the temptations of the extrem- generalizations which seem to depend ists attitude: many a lonely and unno- upon its acceptance, an unwary reader ticed soul would gladly exchange the might mistakenly infer that these gen- seemingly empty years ahead for the eralizations are consequences deducedgreat moments of a Romeo or a Hamlet. from supposedly self-evident assumptions.And what can we say of their choice ex- The answer to such a misunderstandingcept that it is not the choice of the sensi- of the Aristotelian method is to be foundble man? Secondly, we discover a just in the difference between the order ofbalance between the depths of the heros investigation and the order of demon-suffering and the heights of his joys. stration. In his investigation of tragedy,That the heros joys and sorrows are Aristotle started by analyzing the avail-equalized by his capacity for feeling, able specimens into their distinguishablewhich is the same for one as it is for parts, proceeded by generalizing concern-the other, we cannot doubt, for how can ing the constituent elements of tragedy,the bitterness of the loss of a Juliet, or and ended by synthesizing his findingsof a kingdom, or of power, or of reputa- in the definition. In demonstrating histion, or of life itself, be measured except results, however, he reverses the steps ofby the sweetness of possession? How investigation: in the Poetics he startsmuch it means to the hero to possess what with his definition, proceeds by discuss-he prizes, so much the loss-no more, no ing the generalizations which it sum-less. Thirdly, the power of poetry to marizes, and ends by supporting eachshadow forth the universal suggests to generalization with examples chosenus, as we follow the fortunes of the hero, from particular tragedies. Properly un-that in a correct reckoning one man is derstood, then, the definition marks theneither better off nor worse off than end of the investigation of tragedy andanother. The heros change of fortune, the beginning of the demonstration ofuniversalized, suggests that good and evil, its nature. But although the definitionthe fundamental modes of experience, is the culmination of an admirable sci-imply one another so necessarily that no entific method, its ending in a puzzlingone may hope to escape from the grief metaphor signalizes the inadequacy ofwhich is the counterpart of his gladness. Aristotles attempt to explain tragedy by And it is this power of poetry to uni- treating it as though it were charged withversalize-to present a tragic hero as the feeling but lacking in meaning.representative of mankind-which final- "Tragedy," says Aristotle, "is an imita-ly lifts us, as we witness the rise and fall tion of an action that is serious, complete,of a man like ourselves, above envy and and of adequate magnitude-in lan-pity, filling us with a sense of an all- guage embellished in different ways in
  • 12. ARISTOTLES STUDY OF TRAGEDY 125different parts-in the form of action, ticular pleasure derived from its specialnot of narration-through pity and ter- emotional effects, a poem which meetsror effecting the purgation of these emo- the other tests may be positively identi-tions." Here we have the kind of logi- fied as a tragedy by the pleasure it affordscal definition, invented by Socrates and while purging us of the emotions of pityperfected by Aristotle, which first places and terror.the object to be defined in its proximate Interest in Aristotles definition hasgenus and then distinguishes it as a always centered on his concluding phrasespecies by listing its specific differences. -"through pity and terror effecting theLike all other forms of poetry, tragedy purgation of these emotions"-on theis an imitation of an action: imitation famous metaphor which brings to anis the genus to which tragedy, as one of anticlimax a study which, had it beenthe imitative arts, belongs. The action guided only by a scientific method,represented in a tragedy, however, has should have resulted in a clear, literal,qualities which distinguish it from the and objective definition of tragedy.actions represented in other arts and When we remember that Aristotle is nec-other kinds of poetry. It is serious, com- essarily defining only Greek tragedy inplete, and of adequate magnitude. A relation to Greek art and poetry, wesingle incident of suffering or enjoying must admit that the early parts of hismay serve as material for a lyric poem or definition possess the qualities of scien-a dramatic episode, but the action of a tific description. The concluding phrasetragedy cannot be less than the series of manifests, however, a sharp break withincidents, in probable or necessary se- his method. From a consideration ofquence, of a change of fortune. Unlike those qualities of tragedy which may bethe little ups and downs of comedy, objectively observed and analyzed, hewhich can be laughable because they are turns suddenly to the effects of tragedytrivial, the change of fortune of a tragedy as they are subjectively experienced byis serious, with great and grave conse- the spectator. At the end of a series ofquences; therefore, a tragedy loses ef- generalizations, literally applicable tofectiveness if its action is too brief to the individual tragedies from which theymake a serious impression or too long for have been derived by induction, he fallsits incidents, which reveal the probabil- back upon a metaphor suggested by theity or necessity of the change of fortune, science and art of be easily retained in memory. A Though it does not take us far, prob- (Greek) tragedy is composed of choral ably the only safe guide to the meaningodes and dramatic episodes, and each of of Aristotles medical metaphor is thethese is embellished in its own way, one passage in the Politics in which he dis-with melody, the other with meter- cusses the place of music in education.a point which further distinguishes Many benefits, he tells us, are derived (Greek) tragedy from other kinds of from music: some melodies are valuable (Greek) poetry. Tragedy is distinguished aids in education; others offer relaxationfrom epic and narrative poetry by its and recreation after exertion; and stilldramatic form: its main incidents are in others offer a restoring and healing pur-the form of action taking place at the gation to those who are troubled by anmoment they are seen or read. And since excess of such feelings as religious en- (presumably) each kind of poetry is thusiasm. This purgation, he goes on tomost clearly distinguished by the par- say, is an important function of art;
  • 13. 126 EDUCATIONAL THEATRE JOURNALthrough catharsis those who are especial- der to passion and suppression of feel-ly susceptible to pity, fear, and enthu- ing. The poets, Plato had charged, aresiasm, and all others in a lesser degree untrustworthy teachers. The poets, Aris-of intensity, find a pleasurable relief. totle seems to reply, are to be judged, notThat is all we find in the passage, ex- as teachers, but as contributors to thecept the promise that he will provide a emotional well-being of mankind. In-fuller explanation of catharsis in his deed, the theory of catharsis is Aristotlesstudy of poetry. solution to the ancient quarrel between Since the Poetics, as we know it, fails poetry and philosophy: the poet is grant-to keep this promise, some scholars have ed an honored function in the realm ofassumed that the part of the text con- the feelings, but the philosopher remainstaining the explanation has been lost. king in the realm of meaning.Several considerations suggest reasonable If Aristotles metaphor were alto- loubts concerning this possibility. Al- gether clear and illuminating, we mightthough parts of the Poetics may be miss- accept it as proof that philosophy anding, is it likely that the most important science must end, as they so often begin, in poetry. Instead of a clear and fullpart should be lost and completely for-gotten? And since Aristotles promised illumination, however, it provides anexplanation of catharsis would necessar- intriguing and tantalizing partial illumi- nation: in it we find the question to beily trace this mysterious effect to itscauses, making possible a consideration answered rather than the answer to theof the relative effectiveness of these causes question. This question presents an ap-as they appear in particular tragedies, is parent paradox. The misfortunes ofit likely that Aristotle had worked out men like ourselves excite such unpleasantan explanation of how pity and terror feelings as pity and terror, and yet theare pleasurably purged and yet failed to total effect of tragedy is pleasing. Aris-use it or to refer to it in any of the many totle recognizes this apparent paradoxscattered passages in which he discusses but fails to explain it. Although he dis-how these emotions are effectively ex- cusses in detail the objective causes ofcited? It seems more likely that Aristotle, the spectators pity and terror, judgingrealizing that an explanation would the suitability of heroes, of plots, and ofraise the question of the meaning of the parts of plots by their effectivenesstragedy, decided that his metaphor was in exciting these emotions, he nowhereby itself sufficiently clear to serve its pur- points out the cause or causes of thepose. catharsis which supposedly transforms Although a metaphor is anticlimactic pity and terror into pleasure. His meta-at the end of a scientific investigation, phor merely asserts that this transforma-Aristotles theory of catharsis, as it is ex- tion takes place; it contains no hint as toplained in the passage in the Politics, ad- why it takes place. For this reason,mirably suits his purposes in the study scholars who accept Aristotles meta-of poetry. It answers Platos extreme phorical definition of tragedy are obligedcriticisms of poets and poetry. Poetry, to furnish their own explanations of itsPlato had charged, feeds the passions, meaning, with the result that there arewhich should be starved. Poetry, Aris- said to be now available more than sixtytotle seems to reply, provides a healthful interpretations of the theory of catharsis.emotional outlet, a beneficial mean be- The theory of catharsis, as Aristotletween the dangerous extremes of surren- presents it, ignores the manifest inten-
  • 14. ARISTOTLES STUDY OF TRAGEDY 127tion of the Greek tragic poets to demon- to afford the spectator a healthful but in-strate the fundamental conditions of hu- explicable destiny. Aeschylus, the inventor of Aristotles preoccupation with thetragedy, obviously regarded himself as a emotional effect of poetry obliged himteacher of personal freedom and responsi- to ignore the plain and obvious fact thatbility and his tragedies as striking illus- every true tragedy is a demorstration oftrations of the divine justice which final the justice of the unalterable conditionsly prevails in human affairs. Sophocles, of human experience. If he had beenby stressing the dignity and beauty of the willing to admit that the reason thatheroic human spirit, taught a religious tragedy leaves us at the end with a senseacceptance of ordained events, however of reconciliation rather than with one ofterrible they may be. Euripides, the horror is that it affects both the mindrebel and sceptic, was torn between a and the feelings by presenting a view ofdesire to equal the triumphs of his prede- life in which the idea of justice is cen-cessors in demonstrating the justice of tral, he might have avoided his puzzling and unsatisfactory metaphor and con-strange dooms and a desire to surpass cluded his definition with a clear, literal,them by using drama to expose the in- and objective statement of its essentialjustices of the status quo in society. Each quality. "Tragedy," he might then havepoet developed a distinctive attitude or said, "is an imitation of an action that issolution, but all aimed at the solution of serious, complete, and of adequate mag-one and the same problem, the problem nitude-in language embellished in dif-of justice; and it would be ridiculous to ferent ways in different parts-in thesay of any one of them that as an artist in form of action, not of narration"-re-tragedy his purpose was merely to play vealing a just relation between good andupon the emotions of the spectator or evil in the life of a representative man.