Plato and Aristotle on Poetry

Plato and Aristotle on Poetry

Plato is one of the most important figures in history. He was a teacher, critic, philosopher and educator. In his academy, people came from distant lands to learn philosophy and other subjects. His idea was to produce such people who would be able to make quick decisions, become good leaders and run states. Poetry fascinated many people in those days. Homer was a famous poet; he wrote many epic poems; people read them with greater interest. Plato always preferred philosophy over poetry. In his eyes, poetry was wanting whereas philosophy was more practical. In direct words, he said that poets sold lies that had no use in practical life. Plato attacked on poetry in his book Republic X whereas Aristotle defended it in his book Poetics.

Plato’s Views on Poetry

Plato observes in his book Republic X that the poets talk against the gods and create imaginary worlds for their readers which seems impossible in real life. He attacks poetry on moral, emotional and intellectual grounds. It is pertinent to mention here that the dramas that were performed in Greece were also considered poetry, hence Plato’s views on poetry contain his views on drama and in modern days it includes novels as well as fascinating short stories.

Poetry is not Conducive

Plato thinks that the world that the poets create has no direct or indirect links with the social life of people. Imagination is far away from reality and the things that a poet first imagines in his mind and then paint on paper in form of words are not practically possible. People cannot do such things in real life which causes a demoralising effect on society. Further, poets talk about human emotions. They portray such things that every human desires. Poets do not show the harsh realities of life to their readers; rather they narrate tales that are pleasant to man’s vices. 

Plato in this way considered poetry inferior to philosophy as there is no morality in it. Logic is always there in philosophy and poetry lacks it, thinks Plato but Aristotle thinks the opposite. 

Poets Tell Lies about Gods

The poets also talk about the gods and their qualities. Plato does not like it. Most poets, in their poetry, make allusions to gods and the books that are written about them. Even these days, poets talk about Greek myths and empower their poetry with tales of gods. In an epic poem, the poets show heroes and protagonists as gods-like figures but they also share human characteristics as well as human emotions, hence, the poets portray most of them as corrupt, dishonest and cunning, which Plato feels is unfair and it is an injustice to the gods. 

In addition, poetry creates a unique taste in the minds of people when they read about gods. Thus, their beliefs also change with every word of poetry that they read. Plato considers that the stories of gods are told to the children at school to learn good ethics but due to misinformation in the poetry, the children learn unethical attributes from heroes of epic poems yet Aristotle does not think so. 

Allusions Beyond Reach:

Often poetry is based on symbols and images, hence, every poet has to make allusions to make things clear; however, Plato thinks that instead of making it clear the poets add ambiguity. A word, symbol and image have more than one meaning and even the poets themselves do not know the meanings of the words that they write in their poetry. Plato says that poetry ought to be taught to children at school but the children are unable to understand the symbols. In this way, poetry is beyond the reach of young students, who come to learn in schools.

In dramatic form, poetry at the end leaves an impact on the minds of readers/audience. People become judgmental and they make decisions based on their vices and emotions. It is not suitable, says Aristotle. He observes that it is better to inform people about things rather than leaving it to them to decide what is right and wrong. The poets illustrate most of the time corrupt heroes, hence, due to irrational judgments of the audience, the society has to face disasters. 

Emotional Grounds to Reject Poetry

Plato divides the soul into three parts:

  • Rational
  • Spirited
  • Appetitive

Poetry arouses feelings of piety and fear. Although these are not harmful emotions, believes Plato yet he is against arousal of these feelings through poetry but Aristotle calls it a learning procedure. He thinks that these are uncontrolled emotions and can cause catastrophe in society. He also says that poetry is a base imitation of nature, in which the poets define apparent human nature. Plato means that poetry attacks emotions rather than intellect and there is nothing in it to learn; rather it corrupts the human emotional system. 

Human emotions are there in everybody and it is the suppression of emotions that makes a person different from the other. Every human being should control his emotions. Letting emotions control humans is a way of everlasting sadness. Philosophy, on the other hand, has a direct impact on the minds. It is about intellect and directs humans to do something for the welfare of others. 

Intellectual Grounds

Plato also does not spare attacking poetry on intellectual grounds. He says that the poets are liars, who do not know the truth. They only paint surface reality without acknowledging the materiality of life. 

Plato says that the original word lies somewhere in the mind of the creator, who created the universe, hence, from that image, which is in his mind, he created a copy. In this way, this world is a shadowy copy of the original thing. When a poet illustrates things in his poetry he again creates a copy of the world that is already a copy, as a result of which, poetry becomes twice away from reality, says Plato but Aristotle defends it. 

Plato and Aristotle on Poetry - infographic
Plato and Aristotle on Poetry – infographic

Aristotle Defends Poetry from Charges of Plato

Plato uses the word imitation and says that poetry is twice removed from reality; however, it is Aristotle, who redefines the word imitation. He agrees that the phenomenal world has been created from an idea but he opines that imitation is a creative process and not mere a copy. In such a manner, Aristotle’s concept of catharsis is entirely different from Plato’s. 

Poetry is a Creative Process

Plato, while attacking poetry, links it with painting but Aristotle, on the other hand, links it with music. He says that there is harmony in it. In addition, a poet does not just create a copy of images as they are in real life; instead, he blends them with his imaginative powers, bestowed to him. Every poet has his own experiences in life. Further, there is no limitation on imaginative powers. Thus, every poet, with his experiences and imagination creates a world which manifests senses and brings the original world closer to reality to be seen by human beings. So, it is not a lie but the truth.

Aristotle also says that poetry presents men in action. A poet either shows a man better than us or worse than us. He divides poetry into two forms: comedy, and tragedy. In tragedy, the poet says a person, who is better than us, suffers due to an err. In the second form, the poet shows the absurdities of people through comedy; whereas in both types of poetries, humans learn. In tragedy, the catharsis of piety and fear awakes the senses of a person and makes him aware not to suffer like the protagonist while repeating the mistake. In comedy, the poet again makes the people aware of their follies by showing them a mirror. 

Aristotle discharges poetry from all the allegations raised by Plato. He justifies poetry on moral, intellectual and emotional grounds while saying that poetry is not a lie, it is a creative process and it always teaches us.