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Kenneth Rexroth on Aristotle’s Poetics

Bashing on Aristotle has become a fond pastime since the Scientific Revolution, but the mere fact that he was wrong about many, many things isn’t enough to explain the repulsion he attracts, nor my own persistent lack of interest in him. Laura Riding, in Lives of Wives, portrayed a fictionalized Aristotle as prodigious and indefatigable, but also smug, opportunistic, and terminally pedestrian. She’s merely quoting Aristotle’s works here when she has him rebut Plato, but does so in a way to highlight some of his most unflattering traits:

‘Is this not to put philosophy in place of the laws,’ asked Aristotle, ‘and make philosophic justice a rival to legal justice? Should we not use philosophy to strengthen the laws rather than to compete with them?’

Laura Riding, Lives of Wives

His Poetics is one of the earliest works of literary criticism that have come down through the ages. It gets Oedipus Rex completely wrong, but nonetheless, Aristotle’s aesthetics held great sway well beyond the point that his physics did. None of that is Aristotle’s fault, but I think it’s a good indicator of how the appearance of systematic, elegant thought can trump the reality of sloppiness and fiat, not only in a work’s own time but for centuries thereafter.

Kenneth Rexroth’s passionate assessment of the Poetics may be roughshod, but it hits on something quite profound about Aristotle’s sensibility and its virtues and defects–that only someone so shallow in sensibility should cast such a wide-ranging net over the founding of logic and various sciences, for a keener mind would have fallen into the many hopeless conundrums that Aristotle rather blithely passed by and considered, if not settled, at least untroubling. It substantially lines up with Laura Riding’s assessment: he organized better than he analyzed.

Around each of the key words of Aristotle’s short definition of tragedy the most violent controversies have raged, and to this day no two translators or commentators agree on the meanings of all of them. If Greek tragedy is the etherialization of myth, Aristotle’s little essay–it is not really booklength–on tragedy is something like myth itself. It has functioned as a myth of criticism, the subject of innumerable etherializations….

There is no evidence in the Poetics that Aristotle possessed any sensitivity to the beauties of poetry as such. Although the Poetics is concerned almost exclusively with tragedy, Aristotle had less of what we call the tragic sense of life than almost any philosopher who ever lived, less even than Leibniz with his “best of all possible worlds.” Aristotle was an optimist. Leibniz’ judgment never entered his mind. The world he studied was simply given. It was not only the best, it was the only one possible. There was nothing in the human situation that could not be corrected by the right application of the right principles of ethics, politics, and economics. Even Plato, who banned the poets from the Republic, and in the Laws permitted only happy, patriotic plays to be performed by slaves, had a greater awareness of the meaning of tragedy–which is precisely why he banned it….

The Poetics is a textbook of the craft of fiction and as such it is far more applicable to the commercial fiction of modern magazines than to Greek tragedies. It has been called a recipe book for detective-story writers. Actually the fictions that come nearest to meeting Aristotle’s specifications are the standard Western stories of the pulp magazines. These are not to be despised. Ernst Haycox and Gordon Young raised the American Western story to a very high level. Year in, year out, Western movies are better than any other class of pictures. The great trouble with Haycox and Young is that they were rigorously Aristotelian and therefore ran down into monotonously repeated formulas. It is hard to think of any other kinds of fiction, either novels or dramas, which do exemplify the Poetics. The neoclassic theater of Corneille and Racine or Ben Jonson is governed by rules which are pseudo-Aristotelianism, the invention of Renaissance critics….

By katharsis Aristotle means the same thing that we mean when we say “cathartic.” His attitude toward the arts was not at all that they were the highest expression of mankind, but that they served as a kind of medicine to keep the ordinary man who lived in the world between the machines of meat– the slaves–and the philosophers who spent their time thinking about first principles; free from emotions, and hence motives, that would disrupt the social order. Like Freud after him, Aristotle’s esthetics are medical. What the Poetics says in the last analysis is, “Timid, sentimental, and emotionally unstable people will feel better, and be better behaved, after a good cry on the stone benches of the theater.” This is an esthetics identical with that of the child psychologists who are hired to apologize for lust and murder on television. There is never a hint in Aristotle that tragedy is true.

The Poetics could have been written substantially unchanged if Aristotle had never seen a Greek tragedy. The imaginary tragedy which could be deduced from the Poetics resembles the commercial fictions of our day for a very simple reason. It is a projection of the ordinary mind, the same then as now. It is the kind of play Aristotle himself would have written if he had possessed, not the genius of Sophocles, but the learned talents of an ordinary craftsman. It is the kind of play that a highly competent academic philosopher, biologist, physicist, or psychologist would write today.

Kenneth Rexroth, More Classics Revisited

Rexroth’s critique here, of the supposedly profound thinker revealed to be conventional and conservative, elevated only by the breadth and depth of his conservatism, is surprisingly representative of a fictional figure who is portrayed in similarly scathing terms: Arnheim in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

Myles Burnyeat presents a more substantial variation on this general argument, focusing on Aristotle’s comparative embrace of accepted opinions (endoxa):

Aristotle is unique among ancient philosophers in his respect for people’s opinions: both the opinions of other philosophers and the opinions of the ordinary man. He does not defend a ‘common sense’ philosophy in the manner of G.E. Moore, but if something is believed by absolutely everyone, then, he holds, it must be true. Aristotle also does something that a 20th-century philosopher like Moore could never have dared. He establishes science on the basis of the opinions of ‘the majority’ and of ‘the wise’….

Aristotle’s official methodology implies that if the stock of available endoxa were significantly different, the conclusions of his dialectic would be different too. How then can he claim that his conclusions are true?…

Consider some of the conclusions for which Aristotle argues with the help of some of the opinions which were accepted and esteemed in his day. Slavery is just; the world is eternal and the same things have always existed in it; the atomic theory of matter is defective because it fails to explain the difference between dinner and breakfast. I have of course chosen examples which tell against Ross’s conviction that Aristotle ‘rarely writes what anyone would regard as obviously untrue’. But the point of choosing them is to raise the question whether reputable opinion can fulfil the heuristic and evidential role that Aristotelian philosophy assigns to it….

The fact that a proposition is believed by the majority or by experts is not for Aristotle just a sign that, if we asked them, they could cite evidence for the proposition. Their belief, as he treats it, is already some evidence in favour of what they believe; even if the opinion is not correct, it is likely to contain an element of truth which the dialectic can sift out and formulate clearly….

The appeal to ‘our’ beliefs, ‘our’ intuitions, ‘our’ way of speaking, is as common in philosophy today as it was earlier in the century, and Aristotle’s name is still frequently invoked to show that opinion of one sort or another is a reputable basis for philosophy to start from. The irony is that if Aristotle’s professed methodology was sound, there would be little to add to The Complete Works of Aristotle.

Myles Burnyeat, “Good Repute”


  1. Oh no, we must not say these things about Aristotle. It’s true he always came back to the ordinary way of seeing things — but only after he had seen everything for himself, and put it in its proper place. It’s also true that he wasn’t a tragedian; but the beauty of Aristotle lies precisely in restoring the dignity of those parts of our life that are not tragic.

    I demand a retraction — and from Kenneth Rexroth, a heartfelt apology.

  2. Without getting into the rest of it, I’m not sure Rexroth is correct on the paucity of Aristotelian-based drama. The “pseudo-Aristotelianism” he finds in the Renaissance is five act structure, whose principles were laid down by Horace. And Horace was mostly deepening and fleshing out Aristotle’s conception of drama, with the quite logical innovation that falling action should balance equally with rising action. It’s useful for Rexroth to exclude Shakespeare from Aristotelian art, but it is also inaccurate.

    • “Aristotelian art,” yes indeed perhaps! But “Aristotle’s art”…I don’t think so. Five act structure already violates so many of the Poetics’ precepts that I think it’s fair to say Horace was misreading Aristotle. Again, the Poetics is vague enough for all sorts of things to be read into it, but that’s pride of place rather than of content.

      • Des Esseintes

        1 March 2014 at 03:53

        The Poetics are not easy, in the sense that reading Aristotle demands more than with many authors–even many ancient ones–a great deal of contextualization about to whom he was responding and for whom he was writing. I don’t think that’s synonymous with vagueness. We are just very distant from his milieu. In some ways, the Greeks were near to us, and in others they were a long distance off. The role of drama in society is definitely one in which there is a gulf.

        As for whether he was “unphilosophical,” as you mention in a below comment, I’m not sure what that means. I think it is incontrovertible that he added greatly to human knowledge. 3-act structure, 5-act structure, more experimental forms–Aristotle gave us our basic understanding of scene, of the importance of oppositions and reversals. I would argue that you can unpack *any* successful scene from *any* play, film, or novel, and that scene will be doing what Aristotle said a scene must do. Frankly, I’m astounded that an individual was able to codify these discoveries several centuries B.C.; they feel tremendously modern.

        • I think the vagueness charge holds. Imitation, pity and fear, unity, catharsis…these aren’t terms that reveal themselves as more definite in the context of Greek society. (The flaw does reveal itself further, to be fair.) Instead, like much of the Metaphysics and the Physics, they chart out a vague area with indefinite markers and unreliable “facts,” Aristotle’s method,across the board, was “This is the way things seem to be some of the time, therefore it’s the way things must be and should be.” That, to me, is contrary to everything philosophy should be. Aristotle was a keen observer and so he charted out a lot of territory, but his ability to grasp that territory was, I’d argue, a result of his philosophical expeditiousness.

          The Poetics is significant work because artists often do better with constraints than without constraints, but it requires elevating Aristotle as an authority not because what he says is true, but because one needs some authority. The Poetics’ function is more like the Bible; it’s a structuring mythos.

  3. “the supposedly profound thinker revealed to be conventional and conservative”

    Really? How so? Is what Rexroth said to be taken as ‘revelation’? Why?

    Rexroth himself claimed that he had no use for critics, in general; how much less, then, for philosophers? I don’t see anything in this view that convinces me that he ever gave Aristotle’s views a fair shake. I do see clearly that Rexroth didn’t (properly) distinguish between criticism and aesthetics. Notably, Aristotle did! (And the provocative assumption that Aristole knew nothing first-hand of tragic drama is ludicrous on its face.)

    With due respect to a great poet and a very learned fellow (self-taught, mostly), this view strikes me as the kind of armchair bloviating that even good writers too often succumb to in their dotage or in their self-satisfied complacency. (Remember Mailer’s famous armchair philosophy: ‘Of course abortion is murder, but I believe we can kill what we create.’ Thanks for the deep thought, Norman!)

    Aristotle’s views on Poetics, and Tragedy in particular, were not intended to be understood as evaluations of the power or defect of power of the existing forms. His essay is a work of philosophical psychology: it is speculative in nature, analytical in method, and general by necessity. He focused on how the art form works, not on whether it is worth doing. (That, apparently, he took for granted.) It has also stood the test of time and offered writers through over two millennia a structural basis for comparison and elaboration –though few have been able to offer anything that counts today as a substantial increase in understanding of the motive or method of Tragic drama.

    Rexroth wrote good poems and bad prose. (He admitted as much.) He can also be said to have written worthwhile poems and worthless prose. This ‘revelation’ falls into the latter “Category.”

    • The quotation isn’t meant as an argument, but as a means of elaborating on what people may already feel. It’s certainly not going to convince any fan of the Poetics, nor did Rexroth or I think it would. I do think he gets at something very significant about Aristotle’s character and approach, regardless of how close or deep his reading is. YMMV.

      As far as the Poetics itself, it is certainly evocative, but ultimately consists of aesthetic heuristics, not even remotely analytical or general, and their most productive use has been by people reading into them or misinterpreting them. The Poetics is fragmentary and incomplete, but as a philosophical system, there is no sign that it was even remotely satisfying in its full form. It is sloppy and it doesn’t add up–which is why it is evocative and heuristic…but as philosophy, lacking.

      Here is the assessment of Jonathan Barnes, who has probably spent as much time with Aristotle as anyone:

      “But what does all this all amount to-what, after all, is “one” action? How are actions to be individuated? The question is of some philosophical interest – and Aristotle offers implicit answers to it in his Physics and his Ethics. But he does not address it in the Poetics, and he has no reason to do so. For the Poetics is not concerned with the individuation of actions, and its point is unphilosophical: the insistence on “one action” serves to exclude two types of plot – first, the episodic plot, in which a sequence of unrelated incidents follow one another: secondly, a layered plot, in which plots and subplots intertwine.

      “And why exclude such things? Is Aristotle’s insistence on “one action” anything more than a stipulative restriction, either trivial or pernicious? (Trivial if Aristotle simply refuses to apply the word “tragedy” to plays which do not limit themselves to a single action; pernicious if he hopes or intends to discourage playwrights from writing more complex plots.) For my part, I prefer complexity to simplicity, and I like character as well as plot; and I find nothing in the Poetics which makes me fear that my taste may be puerile or perverted.”

      Geoffrey Lloyd, always generous in his assessments and quite sympathetic toward Aristotle, likewise finds fault:

      “Aristotle’s discussion of poetry is dry and analytic, and it suffers from certain fairly obvious shortcomings. His analysis sometimes strikes one as artificial, as when he distinguishes tragedy from comedy by referring to the moral quality of the persons represented, or when he considers what type of change of fortune makes the best plot. Many of his ideas are influenced by his taking the Oedipus Tyrannus as die chief model for his ideal, but this was in some ways an untypical play, and it leads him to take a rather narrow view on such topics as the mechanics of plot construction. Again he assumes too readily that while the various genres, tragedy, epic and so on, had evolved in the past, they had in his day reached their natural forms, and the analogy of the living organism, which he uses to suggest that there is a normal length for a tragedy or for an epic, is a dangerous one.”

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