In this response, I dispute Professor Narbonne’s thesis on the literary leeway of the poet, emphasizing the constraints on poetic license from both the nature of the genre and the ethical and educational role tragedy played for Aristotle in civic life.
Professor Narbonne presents us with an interesting and challenging account of Aristotle’s position on the nature and practice of poetry. He invites us to consider whether Aristotle’s conception of the poet and his or her art is not as prescriptive as is conventionally supposed. I cannot address all of the many avenues of inquiry he opens up for us in his paper, but I would like to address a few of them as they relate to the central themes of his paper.
According to Narbonne, the poet, like the painter Zeuxis, has “real creative leeway” in that he has the power to present his characters as greater than they are in order to represent such things as could happen (οἷα ἂν γένοιτο, Poetics 1451a36–38), indeed, as he puts it, “… with an even greater license, that which should be, in other words, that which the poet himself wishes to see happen” (2). Narbonne says that Aristotle’s account of poetry in Poetics is sui generis and has no explicit dependence on the other theoretical or practical sciences of his work. The poet’s art, says Narbonne, is more than just a “passive reproduction” but is a power to transfigure and transform. Thus, poetry does not suffer from the Platonic strictures of composition enunciated in the Republic where “correctness” is determined by an external standard of transcendent Truth, but enjoys a certain autonomy and is properly evaluated by norms internal to its own nature. In the interests of emphasizing the poet’s creative freedom over the limits set by the nature of the poetic craft, he asserts that Aristotle’s poetics is “in no way naturalist in intention” (5–6). While sympathetic to post-Kantian Romantic developments in the understanding of artistic process with its emphasis on the poet’s creative genius and powers of transformation, Narbonne’s reading of Aristotle’s poetics strikes me as anachronistic. This is so because much of Aristotle’s discussion of tragic drama centers on the essential nature of the art and its relation to civic life, that is, to the audience experiencing this art form. Presenting the poetic craft as wholly constituted by the native powers of the poet unmoored from guidance by its essential nature or social and ethical context is alien to Aristotle’s project.
Narbonne’s claim, above, that Aristotle’s account of poetry is not “naturalist in intention” seems opposed to his plain statement that poetry came into being from two causes, both of them rooted in our nature (αἰτίαι δύο τινὲς καὶ αὗται φυσικαί, Poetics 1448b4–5). First, Aristotle tells us that imitation is naturally implanted in us from childhood (τό τε γὰρ μιμεῖσθαι σύμφυτον τοῖς ανθρώποις ἐκ παίδων ἐστί, Poet. 1448b5–6), since human beings are the most imitative of other animals (τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων ὅτι μιμητικώτατον ἐστι, Poet. 1448b7), and such imitations are how we take our first steps towards learning. Secondly, he says that all human beings delight in such imitations (τὸ χαίρειν τοῖς μιμήμασι πάντας, Poet. 1448b8–9).
Narbonne’s account is also opposed to the summary sketch of the “coming of age” of tragic drama that Aristotle provides at the beginning of the Poetics. Aristotle views the birth of tragedy as having a certain trajectory of growth and development toward a τέλος like any other natural organism (for example, Aeschylus’s increasing the number of actors from one to two; Sophocles adding a third actor and introducing scene painting, et cetera). He says that, “after it underwent many changes, tragedy stopped, since it had attained its own nature (καὶ πολλὰς μεταβολὰς μεταβαλοῦσα ἡ τραγῳδία ἐπαύσατο ἐπεὶ ἔσχε τὴν αὑτῆς φύσιν” (Poet. 1449a14–15). Extending his biological ontology to culture, Aristotle holds that the tragic art has an essential nature and, as such, has intelligible principles and a purpose it must realize if it is to fulfill its nature and function. Thus, a credible plot-structure constructed according to probability or necessity, aimed at arousing fear and compassionate grief leading to a κάθαρσις of these emotions is the εἶδος of tragedy. The definitive form tragedy eventually assumed is just the place where the genre and poet could, together, achieve its greatest power and purpose. They are the constraints on practitioners of the art, thus limiting leeway. Still, constraints are not necessarily a straitjacket and Aristotle’s prescriptive approach is somewhat open and flexible, making for multiple realizations. Viewed differently, Aristotle himself might suggest that his prescriptive approach is liberating and not constraining in the same way that the “constraints” of the moral virtues and φρόνησιςfree a person to flourish. On this take, Narbonne’s interest in “leeway” as poetic license may be a later, Romantic preoccupation since Aristotle would view his somewhat “formulaic” framework as enabling the poet to realize the potentialities of the genre, not as a hindrance.
Professor Narbonne argues that in his discussion of tragic drama, Aristotle’s emphasis on πρᾶξις over ἦθος is due to his interest in the way that “action makes something new out of the initial character, transforms it and imparts to it an unanticipated dimension.” He contends that Aristotle has given the poet sufficient license to include characters that “can deviate immensely from normal behavior since the poetic environment is in no way normal itself.” Since virtue is a disposition of character that is not easily lost, it is not in accord with necessity or probability, says Narbonne, that Hector will abandon his courage and run from Achilles in Iliad XXII. But Aristotle states that the poet should be granted this license because the scene is “more striking” (ἐκπληκτικώτερον, 1460b25) and, paradoxically, brings pleasure (1460a17–18) even as it exemplifies “the tragic destiny of Troy and the unjust collapse of its entire civilization….”
Narbonne seems to advocate a freeing of tragic drama from the strictures of having to represent character of a certain type when he says that “ethics can conform with what is expected from characters, but poetics cannot; in other words, the ethical spoudaios and the poetical spoudaios are not the same and must be clearly distinguished.” While it is true, as we said above, that poetry is not to be limited to a rigid, external standard of correctness, this does not justify the claim that, for Aristotle, there is little or no connection between character as portrayed in tragedy and character as the subject of ethics. The very term, σπουδαῖος, is a central concept of the Nicomachean Ethics connoting the sort of person devoted to actualizing the peculiarly human excellences of moral virtue and practical wisdom. It seems clear that Aristotle has in mind a particular kind of character, and a plot-structure aimed at evoking the tragic emotions. The nexus and interplay of these three elements has ethical dimensions because the poet shows, among other things, the intelligibility of the protagonist’s failure in his human quest to flourish. For example, Aristotle says that the portrayal of good men (ἐπιεικεῖςἄνδρας, 1452b34) changing from prosperity to affliction does not evoke fear nor compassionate grief, but is only repulsive (μιαρόν ἐστιν, 1452b36); the wicked should not be portrayed going from affliction to prosperity because this is the most untragic of all, et cetera. In short, there is an in-built limitation on the kind of character that is the subject of tragedy and what that character may undergo within the plot-structure. The figure most suited to the evocation of the tragic emotions, says Aristotle, is someone who is good, but not pre-eminent in virtue, someone the audience can, in part, identify with because he is afflicted with a certain ἁμαρτίαthat will bring suffering in its train. This is formulaic, to be sure, and it conflicts with Narbonne’s emphasis on the creative autonomy of the poetic art and artist, but Aristotle does not conceive the craft as autonomous since it has a certain nature and work/function that can only be realized in certain ways. There may be other ways of writing a tragedy, but it seems that those which fail to conform to his general outline would be regarded as more or less “dysfunctional.”
Professor Narbonne argues that, for Aristotle, action is a central component of tragic drama because of its power to “remold or partially modify an initial character, rather than it being the character that, as a preset component, would determine the narrative from the outset.” The action of the drama “makes something new out of the initial character, transforms it and imparts to it an unanticipated dimension.” Thus, Narbonne emphasizes how tragic drama depicts characters vulnerable to transformation or disfigurement through the plot-structure. Their character is not, for the most part, an unyielding type. Again, I would say that this is too bold and too bald a claim given the clear strictures on the successful realization of the tragic art that Aristotle provides. However, with the above qualifications in mind, I would be in basic agreement with this assertion. Still, it seems to me that Aristotle is as interested in the transformative effects of tragedy on the audience as he is on the action’s effects on the protagonist. In part, he defines the nature of tragedy in relation to the emotional experiences of an audience, which are tied, in turn, to his understanding of moral judgment and education. All this is to say that while the poet enjoys a certain limited “leeway” his art cannot for Aristotle be defined in isolation from the social, political, ethical, and religious dimensions of the πόλις.
I have stated above that Aristotle has a more or less prescriptive understanding of tragedy, but this is not to say that tragedies which don’t conform to the standard should be censored on ethical grounds as in Plato’s καλλίπολις. Tragic poetry, according to Aristotle, should aim at enlarging an audience’s sympathies through suffering identification with a fallible protagonist, one close enough to them to provoke φόβοςbut distant enough to evoke ἔλεος. This experience, he holds, will be cathartic, community-building, and ethically significant. Not that Aristotle is proposing a crudely instrumental relation of art to the city, but he means to show what this genre of drama can do and must do if it is to realize its nature.
Aristotle’s interest in how poetry affects us emotionally is the reason why he sees it as ethically important. Ἔλεος and φόβος are not (pace Plato) irrational responses, but intelligent and intelligible reactions to a well-structured μῦθος. The emotional response and its aftermath, κάθαρσις, is central to the purpose of tragedy. What is the purpose of κάθαρσις? I will boldly go where scores have gone before! I think that Aristotle holds that the tragic art has, in part, an educational function. In his Ethics,Aristotle maintains that the accompanying pleasure or pain we feel in our actions is a sign of the state of our character-disposition (ἕξις). Delighting or being pained at the right things is a sign of ὀρθὴ παιδεία. Tragic representation arouses fear and pity as an appropriate emotional response to what is witnessed on stage. Virtue does not consist in eradicating the emotions but in shaping them to be existentially ready for excellent action. Thus, on this reading, κάθαρσις as the elimination of emotional response cannot be correct. Aristotle’s understanding of the emotions as cognitive is acknowledged when he claims that the artistic experience of the downfall of a good man is rejected as inappropriate to the arousal of ἔλεος and φόβος. The experience of tragedy aligns our emotions with the moral and aesthetic judgments we make about the world. It is an emotional pedagogy for the audience. Aristotle and Plato agree on this, though of course Plato objects to this form of education for καλλίπολις. Experiencing the arousal and release of the tragic emotions, communally, is a personal and civic education. It is not a childish clasping of our collective wound and wailing, but a schooling in the intelligibility, such as there is, of how life can veer. Thus, tragic drama has not only standards internal to the genre, but a political and ethical dimension which, while not bringing down the hammer of censorship, limits the creative leeway of the poet.