Aristotle’s On Poetics (c. 335 BC) Translated by Seth Benardete and Michael Davis
St. Augustine’s Press 2002
Introduction by Michael Davis
Insofar as all human action is always already an imitation of action, it is in its very nature poetic. This places the beginning of Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy—that tragedy is an imitation of action—in a new light. On Poetics is about two things: poiêsis understood as poetry, or imitation of action, and poiêsis understood as action, which is also imitation of action. It is the distinctive feature of human action, that whenever we choose to do, we imagine an action for ourselves as though we were inspecting it from the outside. Intentions are nothing more than imagined actions, internalizings of the external. All action is therefore imitation of action; it is poetic.
xvii We are rational animals. Poetry, connected to the self-conscious character of action, at the same time manifests the doubleness of human action within itself. Aristotle turns to drama because, to a degree even greater than narrative [end of page xvii] poetry, it reflects the distinction between doing and looking at doing—between acting and reflecting. On the one hand drama must attempt to convince its audience of the reality of its action; on the other hand it must always remain acting—actors always imply spectators.
xvii-xviii Now, if poetry is paradigmatic for action, and drama for poetry—and if tragedy is the most complete form of drama, story the soul of tragedy, and reversal and recognition the core of a story—then by looking at Aristotle’s treatment of recognition and reversal, we ought to be able to learn
something about why tragedy is singled out as the model for human action.
Xix [Since] the turn of events involves not to much a change as a reinterpretation of what has already occurred, some recognition seems necessary. Reversal must, therefore, be our recognition as an audience that what we thought to be is not what we thought it to be…Recognition as an-agnorisis, is a privation of ignorance. But might we not understand its etymology as ana-agnoroisis—knowing back or re-cognizing? As the very same syllables give us two quite different etymologies, it is not so obvious what “the name signifies.” When this sort of ambiguity arises within a play, the conditions are present [end of page xx] for recognition. A prior confusion is discovered in a way that alters the action of the play. Recognition is thus the awareness within the play, i.e., of a character, which parallels the audience’s awareness of a reversal.
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action [mimesis praxeos] that is of stature and complete, with magnitude, that, by means of sweetened speech, but with each of its kinds separate in its proper parts, is of people acting and not through report, and accomplishes [end of page 17] through pity and fear the cleansing49 of experiences of this sort. 49. “Cleansing” is katharsis; Aristotle treats it at somewhat more length at Politics 1342a5-16.
In addition to these [end of page 21] parts the greatest things by which tragedy guides the soul61 are parts of the story, reversals and recognitions.62 Further, a sign of this is that those attempting to make
poetry [poiein], like almost all of the first poets, are able to be precise with respect to talk and characters earlier than they are able to put events together. Story, then, is the first principle63 and like the soul of tragedy, and characters are second. 61. “Guides the soul” is psuchagôgei; it referred originally to the leading of souls into or out of Hades and therefore to a kind of sorcery and black magic. The adjective psuchagôgikon occurs at 1450b16 of opsis. Neither word occurs anywhere else in Aristotle 62. “Recognition” (anagnôrisis) occurs once at Eudemian Ethics 1237a25 and nowhere else in Aristotle. It occurs once in Plato. It does not occur in any other classical author. “Reversal” (peripeteia) occurs twice elsewhere in Aristotle. 63. Archê, elsewhere translated as “beginning” is translated here as “first principle.”
21-22 We have posited tragedy to be an imitation of a complete and whole action having some magnitude; for there is also a whole which has no magnitude. What has a beginning, middle, and end is a whole. A beginning is whatever in itself is not of necessity after something else but after which another [heteron] has a nature to be or to become. But an end, on the contrary, is whatever in itself has a nature to be after something else—but after it nothing else. And a middle is that which is both in itself after something else and after which there is another. Well-put-together stories, then, ought neither to begin from just anywhere nor end just anywhere but use the aforesaid forms.
8. A story is one not as some suppose it is if it is concerned with one human being, for countlessly many things happen to one human being out of which, with the exception of [end of page 25] some, nothing is a one…Just as in the other imitative arts the single imitation is of a single thing, so also the story, since it is an imitation of action, ought to be of one action, and this a whole. And the parts of the events ought to have been put together so that when a part is transposed or removed, the whole
becomes different and changes. For whatever makes no noticeable difference if it is added or not added is no proper part of the whole.