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Old Ideas Still Rule

Aristotle and Plato's ancient ideas about talent and inspiration still preoccupy both writers and theorists.

Sittende statue av Platon i Athen. Foto.

It is an amazing fact that theories about literature that were launched nearly two and a half thousand years ago are still relevant and valid. The ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Plato (427-347 BC), both wanted to frame the essence of adequate literature; and their theories are even today standard measures of the art of writing. At that time, the poets and writers were seen as the interpreters of the gods, and their creations were voices of a divine origin.

Plato and Realism

Pkato with his disciple Aristotle

Plato with his disciple Aristotle

Unlike Aristotle, his disciple, Plato, did not leave a specific work exclusively about literature. Plato’s ideas about the art of writing are presented in some of the dialogues in his major work, “The State”. In Plato’s ideal universe, the writer possessed a divine gift that would bestow him with a creative “madness”. The Greek word “enthousiasmos” and the Latin “inspiration” both mean the same – something which is spiritually imbued by a god, meaning that a god has suffused the human mind. Writers of all times have been seeking this “divine madness” to set them off.
Plato pointed out that a narrative is a copy or a representation of reality, and will therefore never be “true”. He compared writers to painters or sculptors, who also presented replicas of the real world. This idea has been a recurring issue in literary history up until today. Literature as an imitation of reality became a central point during Realism. What is real, and how is reality related to “realistic” writing? According to Marxist ideology, the writer is a messenger who dutifully must present, or represent, reality as accurately as possible to incite the reader to see what changes must be made. Marx had definitely studied Plato. Another well-known example that puts art in a “Platonic” perspective is modernist painter René Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe – with the title “This Is Not a Pipe”.
Plato also raised the issue of the writer’s presence in his work. Though with a slightly different angle, this point goes straight into an on-going discussion in literary theory: is the author’s socio-cultural setting important for an understanding of his work, or does the text stand alone as an independent work of art?

Aristotle and Literature

One of the standard studies of literary theory of all times is Aristotle’s “Poetics”, which is an extensive theoretic analysis of literature in general, and covers the definitions of the different genres, literary techniques, and other aspects of the writing process. His work has become the dogmatic framework for many writers and theorists, both classic and contemporary.
Like Plato, Aristotle claims that all arts are an imitation of reality, only with different means. Imitation is for man a natural instinct that gives pleasure and insight. As children, we have the instinctive ability to imitate, and this urge for imitation is the source of literature, according to Aristotle. Writers are people with a special talent for imitation.

Comedy and Tragedy

Theatre masks

Theatre masks

Aristotle defines comedy as an imitation of people "of lesser human quality". The comical element lies in some sort of a flaw or imperfection which is presented in a distorted way without the intention to hurt. The comical effect springs from its human and identifiable properties. In ancient Greece, it was common for actors to wear masks, which was a way to illustrate the nature of the play and to prepare the audience. The two classic masks for comedy and tragedy have since become an iconic symbol of theatre and drama in general.
The tragedy is a presentation which, by imitating a sad and grave reality, will put the audience in a state of pity and fear. The plot (the fable or the Greek word "mythos") is, according to Aristotle, the soul of the tragedy. The composition of the “mythos” will be the imitation of a series of events that ends in a disaster for the protagonist(s). The character is unable to prevent the disaster from striking, either because of ignorance or due to a flaw in his personality. Ideally, the tragedy will bring about “catharsis”, which means a cleansing of the soul. The essence of a tragedy is, according to Aristotle, when painful acts are performed between characters that are not enemies, but related as friends or family. He gives examples from classic Greek tragedies, such as “Medea” by Euripides, where Medea kills her own children, and “Oedipus” by Sophocles, where the protagonist, out of ignorance, kills his father and marries his mother.

The Legacy

It is interesting to see how Aristotle’s theories of both comedy and tragedy are manifested in the works of William Shakespeare. “Hamlet” is a classic example of how the grave reality draws Prince Hamlet into an escalating series of tragic events beyond his control. Also, in his comedies it is clear that Shakespeare works by Aristotle’s principles of comedy. And in recent times, Charlie Chaplin seemed to be familiar with the same principles; his characters are human but with a certain imperfection that is displayed without a harmful intention. And we laugh at Mr Bean and Basil Fawlty for the exact same reason: they are, as Aristotle would have put it, “of lesser human quality”. Still, we can easily recognise, and even identify ourselves with, their human traits.

Through history, many theories have been launched about the art of writing. Theorists and writers have wanted to frame the process that lies behind the art of literature. And the fact that these ancient ideas and theories still hold water after such a long time may in some way indicate the timelessness of the basic elements of literature. After all, as humans, we probably have not changed that much since the time of Plato and Aristotle – we still want to be entertained and to be emotionally moved by watching a dramatic performance or by reading a good narrative.

Tasks and Activities

  • Why do we sometimes have to remind ourselves that "it is only a story" or "it is only a film"?
  • Explain why children have an instinctive talent for imitation.
  • Give a definition of "inspiration". Then check with a dictionary or thesaurus and compare.
  • Google Renè Magritte and find his famous painting of a pipe. Why can he say that "This is not a pipe"?
  • Theories about literature have been launched both by professional literary scholars and by writers. Do you think a writer will be more qualified to define a writing process and the art of literature? Give reasons for your answer.
  • A tragedy is more than a sentimental piece that makes you sad. Sum up the basic elements of a tragedy according to Aristotle.
  • Like the tragedy, the comedy also has some mandatory and recognisable ingredients. Follow the link and read more about Humour in Literature and Film.
  • Read more about Literature in Theory and see how the ideas of the old philosophers have manifested themselves in today's literary debate.
Sist oppdatert 28.05.2018
Skrevet av Jan-Louis Nagel


Literary analysis