Aristotle’s “Poetics” and the Remarkable Joys of Tragedy

by George Anastaplo


This talk, on Aristotle’s Poetics, is intended to suggest many more questions than answers. Perhaps our discussion period after my prepared remarks will be helpful, contributing thereby to later reflections among us as we go our seperate ways after happening to serve as performers and audience in this theatre.

A thoughtful introduction to the Poetics is provided by Laurence Berns’s essay in the 1964 Leo Strauss festschrift, Ancients and Moderns. It is an essay for which its author has available many useful corrections.

The best translation of the Poetics into English seems to be that by Seth Benardete and Michael Davis, published in 2002 by the St. Augustine’s Press. (Mr. Benardete may have been the most learned classical scholar of his generation.) Professor Davis opens the Introduction for this volume with these instructive observations (p. xi):

Of Aristotle’s writing more has had none staying power than On Poetics. It has been commented on by scholars too numerous to name and even more impressively by the likes of Averroes and Avicenna…, Racine and Corneille, Lessing and Goethe, Milton and Samuel Johnson. Yet all this interest seems rather queer given the subject matter of the book. On Poetics [in the form that we have] is about tragedy [with whatever part there may have been about comedy having been lost].

“But,” Mr. Davis continues (pp. xi-xii),

Greek tragedy is very unlike our drama. To mention only a few of its exotic characteristics, it is performed by at most three actors playing multiple roles, wearing masks, accompanied by a chorus that is both a character in the play and a spectator of it, alternating between song and dialogue, before audiences of up to 30,000 people.

Thereafter, in the Davis introduction, there is a series of instructive questions and beginnings of answers (p. xii):

How were the tones of the individual words combined with the tones of the tunes? [B]y our standards it was strange. But did it not endure for a long time? Not really—the great age of Greek tragedy lasts for less than one hundred years. In this it seems much less impressive than the [modern] novel. Greek tragedy pretty much spans the life of one man—Sophocles [496-406/5 B.C.] (and, curiously enough, [Greek tragedy spans] also the life of Athenian democracy).

The useful Davis questions and answers continue in this fashion (p. xii):

But was not [Greek tragedy] at least very widespread? Again, not really—it was imitated of course, but tragedy is predominantly an Athenian phenomenon, restricted in large measure to the area of Greece called Attica—hence Attic tragedy. All of the Greek plays we now possess [fewer than three dozen] were originally performed in one theater—the theater of Dionysus on the slope of the Acropolis. Why then should we be concerned with a book [of fewer than seventy pages] written 2400 years ago about a literary form practiced for only a hundred years in a single theater in a city more or less the size of Peoria?

This dramatic invocation of Peoria by Mr. Davis poses an instructive challenge. Its power happens to be reinforced for me personally because of the drama I happened upon in a Chicago taxi-cab encounter with a Peoria resident more than a half-century ago, an encounter recorded in my Constitutionalist book (1971, 2005). Indeed, is not the Davis use of Peoria itself wonderfully poetic?


A massive fact has to be reckoned with upon considering the role of theatre in our lives: people enjoy going to the theatre, and will pay handsomely to do so, even when grim stories are expected to be re-told. They do not feel like they are submitting themselves to painful treatment.

The story that Athenian theatre-goers expected to encounter was usually quite familiar, whatever the twist that the playwright might provide to give it a special touch. It can even be wondered whether anything really happens in Greek tragedy.

Aristotle has been recognized for millennia as the most thoughtful student of Greek tragedy. He wrote also about Greek comedy, it seems, but that part of his Poetics text is no longer available. It could be a useful exercise to try to work out, in the Aristotelian mode, what comedy did and to what effect. A good place to begin such an exercise would be to study both the comedies of Aristophanes and Leo Strauss’s remarkable treatise on that subject

We will try, on this occasion, to see what Aristotle did with the evidence he had –and to begin to see as well how what he did may apply to us in our effort to know and truly to be ourselves. We notice that by the time Aristotle goes to work on tragedy, the very best had come and gone—and he evidently sensed that to be the case. Did the Athenian community at large also sense this?


Aristotle recognizes tragedy as the culmination of poetic endeavors, at least among the Greeks. Did the best tragedians know, or at least sense, what they were doing and how exceptional they were? They did make use of pleasure:    people, by the tens of thousands, could be counted on to like these plays. Aristotle seems to suggest that the best playwrights sensed somehow what was needed in Athens, that they were (in a deep sense) public-spirited.

Of course, other arts were also important in Athens, as testified to, for example by the temples and the sculpture therein and elsewhere. And, Aristotle indicates, Homer, as poet, was greater than any of the playwrights, even though his two epic poems were inferior to the great tragedies, those plays which drew considerably on what Homer had done. Indeed, Homer could even be acclaimed as “the educator of Greece.”


Aristotle recognizes, as the major effect on the audience of a well-wrought tragedy, the catharsis (the cleansing?) of pity and fear. This, he indicates, is evident upon examining what the tragedies deal with and how. (Whether the playwrights themselves always [or, even, usually] recognized what they were doing can be debated. Thus, it may be wondered, could any of the more astute playwrights have written the Poetics? Even more debatable is whether the popular judges who assessed the tragedies in the annual contest recognized explicitly (however they may have “sensed”) whatever catharsis was achieved.) I ask, in passing, both what can be said to be the major effect on its audience of the Homeric epic and what can be said to be the major effect on its audience of Aristophanic comedy.

Why should the catharsis of pity and fear have been critical, so vital that the best playwrights may have sensed the need for this and provided it? Was it something that the community also somehow sensed the need for and responded to as audience? Had it been sensed, across three generations, that there was a need for such disciplining of passions in a polis with the “constitution” of Athens , a polis critically , different in decisive respects from the other poleis of Greece? Thus, it can be wondered by way of comparison, what the polis of the Spartans needed for its orientation toward a truly good life? (May hints of this be seen in Plato’s Laws?)

Among the opinions and passions somehow to be addressed by a proper tragedy, at least in Attica, may have been those dealing with the gods. How, for example, were prophecies to be understood? It can be suggested that prophecies were made as to what would happen, not that things would happen because they had been prophesied. (I hope to return to this suggestion in my April First Friday talk in this theatre.)

How astute, then, were the Athenians in sensing what they needed? And may we see, in the condemnation of Socrates, a symptom of a significant decline in the spiritual and hence the political ordering of Athenians, whatever may have remained available thereafter for the grand philosophical enterprises of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle?


It can be further wondered what Greek (that is, Athenian) tragedy does to and for audiences when staged elsewhere. When we are moved by these tragedies, do we somehow yearn for something that we cannot really have?

These tragedies (with the best of them drawing on quite familiar stories from Homer and others) seem to have been, for Athenians, somewhat ritualistic in their spirit and effects. They seem also to have been civic celebrations, with (we have been told) as many as thirty thousand in attendance. (This approaches, in magnitude, a full house at Wrigley Field here in Chicago.)

The most memorable stories developed in the tragedies drew in large part on events rooted in other poleis, such as Thebes and Argos (whatever resolution there may have sometimes been in Athens, as in the Oresteia of Aeschylus and the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles).

It can be instructive to consider what had to be done to the stories traditionally used in Athenian tragedy when they were adapted (centuries later) for use in, say, Rome and France. Consider, for example, how Euripides’ Hippolytus becomes Racine’s Phedre (including the provision of a love-interest for the Hippolytus-character by Racine).


Our own circumstances, it should again be noticed, are quite different from those of Athens/Peoria. After all, we do have a country that is continent-wide in scope and with more than three hundred million residents, an extensiveness complicated by the ever-intensifying Globalization that we have to deal with. We can even wonder, for example, whether it makes sense for the current Chinese government, with far more than a billion people, to he as fiercely expansionist as it is in its inclinations. Much the same inquiry can be made, for example, about India and its desperate longing for Kashmir. [See, on, “What the United Can Learn from China and Greece.”]

What art forms are likely to be developed—and what art forms need to be developed—when a country’s population runs into the hundreds of millions? Are these questions being noticed (let alone, addressed) today? Who is equipped to begin to deal with such questions?


Consider what size has done to the United States. The Constitution framed in 1781 worked with and from a population of three to four million. Of course, steady growth was anticipated. But to more than a third of a billion? Has such growth made virtually inevitable such dubious developments as ever more emphasis upon, and deference to, the Presidency?

Even so, we can wonder why it is that only the English-speaking peoples have been able, in the modern world, to maintain on a large scale and for an extended time, constitutional government. One factor that is appropriate to notice here, in the course of our speculations about Aristotle’s Poetics, is that of Shakespeare. What does Shakespeare do—what does he address and affect (or reshape)?

How much did Shakespeare himself understand about what he was doing? Other talented English-language playwrights of his day have not had his enduring effect. And is Shakespeare losing his influence? If so, what long-term effect can that be expected to have on us in this country? (See, for a discussion of the constitutional character of the English-speaking peoples,

Further suggestions about Shakespeare and his influence can come to mind when we consider the “sovereign” artists among other peoples—artists such as Cervantes, such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, such as Balzac and Flaubert and Proust and Racine, such as Boccacio and Dante, and such as Goethe. Can we truly grasp, and be shaped significantly by, those authors (or “systems”)?


One can be quixotic in one’s efforts to minister to the modern Republic of hundreds of millions. Thus, I presumed to argue, forty years ago in a conference on public affairs at Kenyon College, for the abolition of broadcast television in the United States. I do now know of anyone (beginning with my children) who was persuaded by my argument, even when put in its more limited version of keeping political discourse (and especially advertising) off television. I recall a breakfast I had with Paul Simon, after he announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate:     he indicated that he simply did not feel up to raising the tremendous sum he believed (no matter what arguments I, along with others, made) that he would need for television advertising.

Of course, we now have “broadcast” modes that are more pervasive, and far more unsettling, than television has come to be (even with its hundreds of channels). Challenges can even be made thereby to despotic governments. But also evident, and still more extensive, are both a steady disintegration of a comprehensive social cohesiveness and a perhaps inevitable corruption of public taste and personal morals.

Symptomatic of what is happening is the conversion (including among those learned in the law) of the traditional “freedom of speech” into the much more individualistic “freedom of expression.” It is peculiar that so much can be made, in our communications with one another, of something called “Twitter” (to which I will return). Does not all this suggest that we are now, as a community, ever more susceptible to the vagaries of chance and hence passion?

The key question here may not be as to what can be done. Rather, the sadly-neglected prior question is as to whether there is here any legitimate concern that the community should recognize.


What shapes us now? No one can even pretend to be in charge. Our better artists can touch, and then usually only briefly, quite limited audiences. And we are seeing ever more important newspapers running the risk of being marginalized (something that is reflected in what the Chicago Tribune has considered itself obliged to do by providing its free daily Red Eye tabloid).

Economic globalization action has its counterpart in what has happened to the entertainment “industry.” Celebrities are worldwide in their reach—and they can come and go abruptly. It may even be wondered what our better artists aim at. How do they understand themselves? How would an Aristotle understand the passions and problems somehow addressed by their endeavors?

How much the sense of community has been neglected, if not even perversely undermined (in the name of artistic freedom), is illustrated by what could be done last year, with live nudes on exhibition, by so respectable an institution as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The spiritual disintegration I am speaking of is illustrated by the fact that that museum’s shocking perversity was barely noticed here in Chicago. (Also not noticed here in Chicago has been the unfortunate relocation, a few years ago, of El Greco’s Assumption in the Art Institute, a painting that had been wonderfully found, for decades, in juxtaposition to a rainy day in Paris.)


I have suggested that the tragedies developed in Athens (in the Fifth Century) reflected and ministered to that community—and that Aristotle chronicled that development. He recognized that much can be revealed about the Athenian way of life, and of its thinking, by examining those plays.

Consider, by way of comparison, what is done with sports among us. For example, why is stock-car racing as popular as it is? The crowds on hand are mostly people who drive automobiles that resemble those being raced. But on the racetrack there can be seen the exuberant driving that is prohibited on the highway, driving that constantly risks the prospect of spectacular accidents (adding, it seems, to the attractions [in the spirit of the Roman Colosseum] of this “sport”).

Then there are our team sports, especially the professional sports (as well as the most popular college sports which are virtually professional in spirit). The importance of such sports for us is reflected not only in the publicity they enjoy but also in the annual multimillion-dollar personal contracts that have become routine, it can seem.

“Patriotism” takes the form here of team loyalty. Is there a natural desire among human beings to have something to which they can pay allegiance? Consider the shirts with the name and number of a sports hero that are worn all around us. (I came last month upon the blocks-long line of mourners, stretched out on Chicago Avenue, waiting to get into Holy Name Cathedral where Ron Santo was being in effect venerated. This is hero-worship in a quite dramatic form.) Yet, consider how mobile most of our sports heroes can be, moving around a league (and even from one country to another) in pursuit of ever-richer contracts.

If we approach these “theatrical” enterprises as Aristotle did to the poetry of his day, what should we notice about the standards drawn on and the public effects promoted in a community? What, for example, is taught about discipline, about sportsmanship, about honor? It can be instructive to consider, for example, what forms of deception (including self-deception) are acceptable in one’s efforts on behalf of “one’s own.” Is the master-stroke of deception here the promotion of the illusion that “one’s own” can be reliably identified?

What, in short, can be expected in the shaping of the public soul when professional athletes (as well as other celebrities) are as important among us as they seem to be? (I mention in passing, as a startling comparison, that distinctive to my Southern Illinois high school seven decades ago was the award of Letters for Scholarship that were of a rank at least equal to the Letters awarded for Athletic Success.)


We have glanced at the role played by big-time sports both in revealing and in shaping the character of the people of this Country. Also instructive could be an examination of what movies, television and other electronic-based forms of entertainment do for and to us.

The Aristotelian among us, in an effort to examine what has happened to the modern soul, might be particularly challenged by the steady growth of the Detective Story during the past two centuries, beginning with the notable successes of Edgar Allan Poe and Sherlock Holmes’s creator. (An intriguing prototype may be seen in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos. A diverting alternative may be the Crossword Puzzle, a detective story in miniature.).

What should any Poetics of the Detective Story address? What, for example, are the notions about Justice and the Common Good that are taken for granted in the typical Detective Story? And what is assumed about the ultimate sovereignty of Reason in the management of human affairs? Is such Reason dependent on the efforts of gifted Persons who are somehow separate from, if not even superior to, the Community? The character (often idiosyncratic) of the Private Detective does seem to be critical to making these stories interesting. Does the presentation of such stories in electronic form tend to promote more “action,” ever less deliberation? And has a coarsening of the deeds depicted and of the language used “naturally” followed?

The Aristotelian among us might suspect that a peak has been reached in the development of the Detective Story, a peak to be assessed by considering what modern Republicanism requires and promotes in the souls of Citizens. And what should be made of reports that Romance Stories are now on the rise among us?


We have glanced at various enterprises designed to entertain us, with even political campaigns having to take account of such developments. (The three-hour Lincoln-Douglas Debates are for us simply unthinkable.) Critical to many of these developments may be an ever-greater deference to Individualism. (Related to this is an ever-greater interest in Medicine and in physical prowess of various kinds.)

Is the enthronement of Individualism a significant consequence (if not even a complicated perversion) of Christianity, with its original emphasis upon spiritual salvation? Such personal salvation can be independent of any immediate community, of family connections, and even of earthly concerns?

Salvation of the soul, in turn, can be transformed (when spiritual concerns recede) into physical self-preservation, something which can be transformed in turn into everyday eroticism. It can be transformed as well into an excessive concern about physical threats to the social order. This may be seen in the remarkable disregard for a Sense of Proportion evident in our current precautions against Terrorism.

Globalization, on the other hand, seems to undermine respect for the disciplined individual. Insofar as globalization tacitly disparages old-fashioned communities, it can leave individuals pretty much on their own, free to use a variety of electronic devices to develop apparently meaningful personal associations of their own.

Such personal associations are not likely to be dedicated in the way that conventional political associations (such as the Greek polis) could be. Did Aristotle himself sense that the polis of his youth was to be overwhelmed by such social and political developments as followed upon the career of Alexander the Great?

Just as the polis was once superseded, partly because of technological developments, so has begun to be superseded among us that political association known as the country.


And yet there may be, in human beings, a natural desive for intimate (or, at least, intimate-seeming) social relations. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of the cell-phone. Where one is does not matter: what counts are the people that one is connected with, for a few minutes at a time.

Instant gratification is ministered to, as one is radically on one’s own (even though “connected” intermitternly with multitudes elsewhere). This may be seen routinely on public transportation:     passengers can be oblivious of those immediately around them as they chatter away. The insubstantiality of such associations is nicely reflected in the very name of one current mode of “communication,” Twitter. (We can see here an intensification of that determined informality, if not even that steady repudiation of established discipline, evident in the movement from the old-fashioned letter to determinedly-spontaneous e-mail.)

It can sometimes seem (at least among us) that one is encouraged to believe that no one else matters but oneself, perhaps even that no one else “really” exists. This may be seen in the blithe recklessness of those bicyclists on sidewalks who whiz by unwary pedestrians. This may be seen as well, in a far tamer mode, in the college students who will go through doors held open for them without any acknowledgment of their benefactors. In short, the “Others” to whom one “Relates” may tend not to be those immediately around one physically.

Again and again it must be wondered what the community is that should matter. We have moved a long way, at least in the Western World, from that tendency in the Greek polis to consider citizenship grounded in generations of belonging. We have yet to reckon with the implications and consequence of that Globalization to which more and more among us are becoming accustomed. The current phenomenon of the Facebook “culture” may be understood as a pathetic effort to re-establish meaningful communities.


We can wonder (as we prepare to close)—we can wonder (in an Aristotelian mode) what gives us joy/pleasure. And what does that say about our institutions and about our character? What should we be concerned to correct or to develop? Indeed, who are the “we” that should matter?

What in us is being dealt with, by our arts, at all like what was done by that catharsis of pity and fear that Aristotle evidently saw as vital for a healthy political order (at least in Athens)? (One can usefully wonder what forms of art were needed by the various non-Greek peoples described by Herodotus or by the Hebrew Bible.)

It is no longer fashionable (except perhaps among some of the Unenlightened among us) to consider either necessary or proper any deliberate shaping of the public character. Related to this is the status of the Community, something that we should be challenged to consider by the dedication found in the Preamble to the Constitution of 1787 to “the common defence” and “the general Welfare.”


I have suggested from time to time that there may be needed, for a reliable investigation of our own circumstances and prospects, an informed application of the approach of Aristotle’s Poetics to what Shakespeare has done for the English-speaking peoples.

We have several times noticed the dramatization by Aristotle of the catharsis of pity and fear resulting from a properly-wrought tragedy. Such catharsis can be understood as serving to promote, in the community at large, two of the cardinal virtues:     justice and courage. Was effective government jeopardized in Athens by both inappropriate pity and an excess of fear?

It can be wondered whether we need, more than did the Athenians, a promotion of the virtue of temperance. It can also be wondered whether the fourth of the cardinal virtues, prudence (or wisdom), is likely to be developed for the community at large by its artists. Or does that depend much more on the thoughtfulness of those within the community who can see what artists are capable of and what may (and may not) be needed from them in a variety of circumstances?

One such observer is Aristotle, the author of the treatise we have begun to examine on this occasion (an observer whose lack of Athenian citizenship does not prevent him from assessing what the most competent tragedians had somehow developed).  I say “somehow,” for we do have Socrates’ testimony that poets may not truly know what they are doing. Thus he reported, in his Apology (22B-C) (in the properly disciplined West translation):

After the politicians I went to the poets, those of tragedies and dithyrambs, and the others, in order that there I would catch myself in the act of being more ignorant than they. So I would take up those poems of theirs which it seemed to me they had worked on the most, and I would ask them thoroughly what they meant, so that I might also learn something from them at the same time. I am ashamed to tell you the truth, men; nevertheless, it must be said. Almost everyone present, so to speak, would have spoken better than the poets did about the poetry that they themselves had made. So again, also concerning the poets, I soon recognized that they do not make what they make by wisdom, but by some sort of nature and while inspired, like the diviners and those who deliver oracles. For they too say many noble things, but they know nothing of what they speak. It was apparent to me that the poets are also affected in the same sort of way. At the same time, I perceived that they supposed, on account of their poetry, that they were the wisest of human beings also in the other things, in which they were not. So I went away from there too supposing that I had turned out to be superior to them in the very same thing in which I was to the politicians.

Still another observer is Aristophanes, for he imagines (in his comedy, The Frogs) how the three great playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) conduct themselves in Hades. How sound is Aristophanes’ characterization of these poets? We do recall that Socrates, in his Apology, had something to say about him as well. For (Socrates indicates) it had been Aristophanes, many years before, who had (in his comedy, The Clouds) wrongfully portrayed Socrates as harmful to Athens. Thus, Socrates sees even so talented a poet as Aristophanes as failing truly to understand what he is saying (something returned to in Plato’s Symposium). Indeed, may there even be something in the poetic (if not also in the prophetic) talent that keeps the purveyor from truly knowing the truth, no matter how apt his pronouncements may be. Indeed, both poets and prophets may need inquirers like Socrates and Aristotle to help them truly to know themselves.

This talk was given. on January 23, 2011, in the works of the Mind Lecture Series, The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago. The setting was the Claudia Cassidy Theater, The Cultural Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Related materials, including the taxi-cab encounter referred to in the Foreword and a discussion of whether anything really happens in Greek tragedy, may be found in

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