Plato and Aristotle on Drama and Poetry

Plato and Aristotle differ from each other in some important ways in their views of poetry and drama. The primary difference between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle on the subject is in what each considers the function of these arts. It is from this point of departure that the rest of their disagreements on the subject arise.

Plato sees the primary function of poetry as the presentation of examples which the viewer is intended to, or inevitably does, imitate. Plato believes that the viewer is seduced into entering into a state of empathy and even identification with the characters witnessed on the stage or told about in the story. As a result, the viewer comes to sympathize with subjects for which he should rather feel “disgust” than “enjoyment and admiration.”1  This delight in entering into the fiction being portrayed, says Plato, leads us to imitate such behavior because “what we feel for other people must infect what we feel for ourselves.”2  According to Plato, then, “bad taste in the theatre may insensibly lead you into becoming a buffoon at home.”3  In other words, one comes through the fictions of poetry and drama to identify with the bad behavior of bad characters and so to behave badly and to become bad oneself.

As a remedy to this potentially insidious influence of poetry, Plato recommends banning many of the great classics of Greek theater from his ideal state, including even those written by Homer. He orders instead that “the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men.”4  In other words, Plato believes that, because the hearers of poetry naturally imitate what they hear, they should only be allowed to hear poems which incite them to piety and to the imitation of the great deeds of good men.

Aristotle views the function of poetry and drama quite differently. According to Aristotle, the primary function of these arts is katharsis. Through viewing a tragedy, says Aristotle, the viewer is “accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing [katharsis] of these [negative] states and feelings.”5  For Aristotle as for Plato, drama is imitation, but Aristotle’s ideas concerning who is doing the imitating and who is being imitated are very different from those of Plato. Whereas Plato believed that viewers imitate the characters they see on the stage, Aristotle instead sees the actors as the imitators of plausible but ultimately fictional events. The viewers share in this imitation and, as a result, are cleansed through the “pity and fear” they feel for and with the characters. The viewers, then, vicariously participate in the tragedy and are, in fact, motivated to the opposite course of action from imitating what they have seen. This view led Aristotle to declare that “poetry is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history.”6  Rather than merely recounting the facts of a matter, says Aristotle, poetry purifies the viewer and prepares him to choose the right course of action.

For this reason, Aristotle believed that the persons portrayed in drama should be neither of an especially good character nor of an especially bad character, but somewhere in between these two extremes. The individual portrayed should be, according to Aristotle, “the sort of person who is not surpassing in virtue and justice, but does not change into misfortune through bad character and vice.”7  In other words, he should be normal, relatable, and sympathetic. He should be someone with whom the average viewer of the drama can easily identify. And his “misfortune” should result from “some missing of the mark,” a single error, rather than from some connatural or ineradicable defect of character. For similar reasons, he also expressed an apparent disdain for biography, recommending that poets tell the story of a single part of a person’s life rather than the whole of it at once.

All of this stands in stark contrast to Plato’s view. Whereas Plato preferred the biographies of great men of history in order to inspire others to imitate their great deeds, Aristotle recommends instead the recounting of particular incidents involving errors committed by fairly average men in order to allow the viewer to participate vicariously in these errors and so avoid them in the future. Where Plato and Aristotle do agree, however, is in one basic but rather important assumption; they agree that the arts of poetry and drama have a significant effect on those who view them and on the societies of which they are a part. Although they disagree on what this effect is and how this effect is accomplished, the starting point for both is essentially identical. As such, each sees the issue of poetry as of great importance. In spite of this common beginning, however, their respective views diverge significantly from each other.

1 Plato, “Poets Banned from the Ideal State,” from The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, 203.

2 Ibid., 203-204.

3 Ibid., 204.

4 Ibid., 204.

5 Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 6, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2006), 26.

6 Ibid., ch. 9, 32.

7 Ibid., ch. 13, 37.

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