Book Review: Aristotle’s Poetics

The first question that comes to mind when reading a review of work from a philosopher who died around 382 BC is, why? For the uninitiated, Aristotle was a philosopher in ancient Greece who did a lot of thinking and writing that helped shape modern Western civilization. Fortunately, besides this boring hobby, Aristotle was also a part-time play critic whose musings on ancient Greek theater are written in a book called Poetics. Besides these mutterings being required reading in many communications classes, they are also a fascinating look at the foundations of storytelling and a unique look at the issues storytellers encounter today.

First, Aristotle helps explain the power of different entertainment genres. Like any esteemed modern film critic, Aristotle was not a massive fan of comedy. He writes, “Tragedy was developed by the authors of hymns, while comedy was developed by the authors of the smutty songs.” Still, he does point out a truth I had never considered before in comedy. In his estimation, the reason characters in comedies amuse viewers is because of “some flaw or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” This estimation sums up modern comedies perfectly. The Minions in the beloved/hated Minions films are not evil, just stupid—likewise, Sgt. Angel in Hot Fuzz doesn’t hate people; he just takes his workaholism to a humorous extreme.

Aristotle had much more to say about Tragedy and how to make it impactful. He valued the plot above all else and believed that the most powerful things that could happen in plays were sudden reversals and moments of recognition. These sudden reversals are still vital to ratchet up the tension in modern adventure films as the audience tries to anticipate if the hero will fail or succeed. Likewise, the moments of recognition and revelation are the crux of mystery movies, such as when the detective lays out the killer’s scheme in Knives Out.

Essentially, a man who kicked the bucket several millennia before it came out understood why the “I am your father” scene from Star Wars: Episode V would strike a chord with audiences. Not only has Luke’s fortunes been reversed by being defeated by Vader, but now he realizes the man who just lopped off his hand is his own deadbeat dad. Luke’s recognition and reaction to his less-than-stellar heritage also add to the emotion of the scene.

Also, despite his age, Aristotle has much to say about today’s discussions on violence in film and video games. Aristotle’s own teacher was a philosopher named Plato, who believed that fiction in any form was deadly to society, as any commoner watching a play about a person denouncing the government or attacking a cyclops would be tempted to go out and try it themselves. This argument is the same many today use for avoiding violence or deeply flawed characters in media. However, Aristotle argues against this and claims that seeing others make mistakes and do these terrible things removes these desires in their audience through a sense of catharsis.

He believed this sense of catharsis was vital to society because it allowed audiences to feel pity and fear vicariously. Not only would they see incorrect actions, but they would also see the punishment for them. Viewers would feel sympathy for the man on stage suffering, but the “fear is caused by the man being somewhat like themselves.” Aristotle believed the ideal protagonist for these tragedies was a realistic person “whose misfortune is not a result of vice and depravity but some error or frailty.” Michael Corleone from the Godfather trilogy is a perfect example of this, as his heedless loyalty to his family, not greed or ambition, turns him into a ruthless mobster. Even though he’s the protagonist, we, as the audience, know he’s in the wrong, pity his destroyed life, and fear what we would do in his situation. Aristotle’s catharsis theory has been pivotal in modern storytelling and further explains why some of the most tragic stories in the Bible are the ones we learn from the most.

Ultimately, the Poetics has inspired creatives for generations. What Aristotle saw in plays has been passed down to what we now see in film. For those of us in creative majors that can feel discouraged when others consider them useless, it is encouraging and humbling that the man who tutored Alexander the Great decided that art and fiction are vital in society as “Poetry deals with universal themes and history with one particular person or event.” The stories we tell and view are essential because “the historian tells what happened, the poet what might happen.”