Aristotle, Art, and Greek Tragedy

Throughout the ages philosophers have wrestled with the notion of art at every possible level. From Plato to Marx, Aristotle to Hume, Kant to Danto, history’s great minds have theorized about the nature of art, testing the depths of human understanding. With art one can easily find discussion delving into ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, sociology, psychology, and even politics without even scratching the tip of the iceberg. Yet even with the enormous breadth of conceptions of art on which to meditate philosophers and theorists have concocted numerous opposing view points which have helped to shape and focus each other throughout the centuries. This paper will focus on the particular theories of one of the first great thinkers to tackle the enigmatic nature of art; Aristotle. While Aristotle did not have the vast wealth of art theory to respond to that later philosophers would have, he did immediately follow the first and one of most emphatic philosophers to comment on the nature of art; Plato. As was often the case with ancient philosophers, both Plato and Aristotle were forced to establish a theory of art based heavily on their metaphysical views about the nature of the world. It will be shown later, in contrast to Aristotle, that many thinkers, such as Kant, Hume and Freud developed theories of art grounded in their aesthetic, sociopolitical, and psychological theories. Finally, in order to exemplify the conceptions of art examined in the first part of the paper, two pieces of art from a genre which Aristotle was most passionate about will be examined critically in order to see how specific artwork can fit into the complex framework of philosophical theory. In keeping with the ancient Greek traditions of art Sophocles’ two tragedies, Oedipus the King and Antigone, will be investigated.

In order to understand Aristotle’s perspective on art it is important to first have a moderate understanding of Aristotle’s metaphysics. However, since Aristotle’s metaphysics can best be understood as a response to the theories of his teacher we must first take a look at Plato’s theories of the nature of the universe. Plato believed that all things that exist in reality are mere representations of perfect metaphysical constructs which he called the Forms. This doctrine which permeates through all of Plato’s philosophy reveals several important problems with the nature of art which shall be examined in response to Aristotle’s theories. Aristotle, in opposition to Plato developed a metaphysics which was grounded much more in the real world. For Aristotle the notion of form was really a part of all matter and the distinction between the form and the actual substance that made up an object was merely an intellectual one. This bears a relation to art because for both Plato and Aristotle art is an imitation of the actual world (Palmer, pp 447-452). The two thinkers however, interpret the nature of this imitation in opposing manners. While Plato condemns art because it is in effect a copy of a copy - since reality is imitation of the Forms and art is then imitation of reality - Aristotle defends art by saying that in the appreciation of art the viewer receives a certain “cognitive value” from the experience (Stumpf, p 99). This is to say that through the perception of art one gains a certain understanding about the nature of reality. This brings us to the question of the epistemological concerns relating to art.

For Plato, since art is an imitation of an imitation it is in effect three times removed from the truth. As a result, Plato interprets this to mean that art cannot give the viewer any real knowledge about the world (Palmer, p 438). Aristotle’s objection to this can be most easily seen in his favor for poetry and drama. While Plato would argue that we can obtain no truth from the study of art, Aristotle would say that art actually theorizes a great deal about what is possible in human society. His famous example compares poetry to the study of history. Aristotle argues that history is only concerned with specific instances while poetry deals with “basic human, and therefore universal, experience.” Aristotle reasons that “poetry … is a more philosophical and higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular” (Stumpf, p 99).

Plato’s final objection to art which Aristotle responds to is a claim of a moral nature. Plato argued that art appeals to the passions which can be wild and dangerous. Aristotle, unlike Plato, believed that while art does appeal to the more unruly side of humanity, the encouragement of these animalistic characteristics is beneficial to society because through experiencing art, particularly tragedy, the people would experience a catharsis, or a purgation, which would rid them of their dangerous emotions (Palmer, p 450). This issue of purgation is the first instance where parallels can be drawn between Aristotelian theories of art and a more modern realm; that of psychoanalysis. Surprisingly, Sigmund Freud would agree with Plato’s moral objection to art. According to Freud, art is used by both artists and art viewers alike as a form of escapism. Like Plato, Freud would argue that indulgence in art is akin to removing oneself from reality. He would suggest that art “has the result, and therefore probably the purpose, of forcing the patient out of real life, of alienating him from actuality” (Palmer, p 446).

Another aspect of art that Aristotle commented on was its sociopolitical connotations. It is in this area that we can find connections between the theories of Aristotle and Karl Marx. Aristotle believed that society could be broken up into two groups. Members of the first group were “free and educated,” while the second group was “made up of mechanics and general laborers and other such people.” He described the latter group as being vulgar and “perverted from their natural state.” In this way art provided an efficient way of “pacifying the masses” (Palmer, p 451). There are clear similarities in Aristotle’s theories with those of Marx’s socioeconomic view about the nature of art. On a Marxist interpretation art is just another way in which the wealthy upper class can oppress the proletariat through pacification (Palmer, p 458).

The last concept of art that should be investigated, before moving on to Aristotle’s interest in tragedy, is his ideas of beauty and taste. Though it is difficult to find concise references to beauty in the Aristotelian texts he does seem to support the notion of an objective beauty. That is to say that there are certain universal characteristics which a work of art must have in order to be beautiful. From his periodic reference to mathematics in relation to beautiful objects it is often extrapolated that Aristotle believed there to be a certain order to beauty. In the Metaphysics he says that “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness.” (Copleston, p 359). Empiricist David Hume had a very different idea of what could classify as beautiful or as good art. According to Hume the criterion for good art was completely subjective. On his theory there are certain educated members of society who “he felt, eventually [would] reach consensus, and in doing so, [would] set a ‘standard of taste’ which [would be] universal” (Freeland, p 9). Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, had a conception of beauty which, though it did not completely coincide with Aristotle’s criterion, was at least in a similar spirit. At this point a treatment of Kant’s metaphysics would be helpful, but for the sake of brevity a complete one will not be given. Kant believed that reality consisted of two worlds: the neuminal world and the phenomenal world. Think of the neuminal world as a world containing only essences of individuals. In the neuminal world there is no space, no time, no substance, none of the normal paradigms which we associate with reality. The phenomenal world then is the way that we interpret the neuminal world through a set of Categories which we have built into our psyches. These Categories allow one to conceive of time, space, and sure enough, beauty (Silverstein). For Kant then, beauty is not something which is completely objective since our perception of beauty is part of our mind. It does, however, have a certain level of universality to it which gives it a much more objective status than that of Hume’s taste-arbiters.

Now that the reader has a fair idea of Aristotle’s conceptions of art and some of the supporting and opposing viewpoints of his fellow philosophers it is time to consider the particular genre of art known as tragedy, which Aristotle was so fond of. He defined tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious … with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Copleston, p 363). Notice the use of the word “imitation” in the definition. Recall that Aristotle thought that by imitation of action one could get insight into the nature of the universe. Also, recall that for Aristotle one of the main objectives of art was to induce a purgation which would rid the citizens of their less pleasurable emotions. For Aristotle, a successful tragedy would be one in which the main character was neither too virtuous nor too villainous. The plot should start out well for the main character and then through no more fault of his own, other than a possible mistake in judgment, he should come to a demise which instills feelings of pity, sadness, and anger in the gallery thereby inducing catharsis.

Aristotle’s favorite tragedy was Oedipus the King by Sophocles. The play begins with the Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes. Upon the birth of their son, Oedipus, an oracle proclaims that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Petrified the king and queen abandon their son to die in the wilderness, but he is picked up and cared for by a shepherd. The shepherd takes Oedipus to the town of Corinth where he is adopted by the king and queen. One day when Oedipus is grown he learns that he has been adopted and goes to an oracle in search of answers. Instead the oracle tells him the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Not believing that he was truly adopted Oedipus leaves Corinth so as to avoid killing who he thinks is his father and marrying who he thinks is his mother. At an intersection in the road he gets into a scuffle with a group from Thebes and ends up killing King Laius who was traveling in disguise. Not knowing what he has done he continues on to Thebes and eventually ends up marrying Queen Jocasta and becoming the king. He rules well and he and Jocasta end up having four children together. Then one day a soothsayer reveals to them the truth of their situation and Jocasta commits suicide. Meanwhile Oedipus gouges out his eyes and banishes himself from Thebes, destined to become a wandering beggar.

For Aristotle, Oedipus the King is the perfect tragedy. It has a worthy main character and a complicated plot. Through a sequence of coincidences and unforeseeable events Oedipus is reduced to a pitiful end because he committed a horrible deed without knowing it. The ability for such an unavoidable mistake to cause such catastrophe is meant to illustrate the frailty of the human life. Since the drama “shows how a good person confronts adversity, it elicits a cleansing … through emotions of fear and pity” (Freeland, p 32). Eventually, after many years of wandering the land as a blind beggar, Oedipus attains sort of a saintly stature in the eyes of his fellow Greeks. On Aristotle’s more general conception of art Oedipus has worth as an imitation of what could conceivably happen to anyone in the Greek society.

The third tragedy in the Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy is called Antigone. The setting is a few decades after the tragic downfall of Oedipus in the midst of the Thebean civil war. The two sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, have been killed in battle and Creon assumes the thrown of Thebes. In order to insult his opponents Creon orders that Eteocles be buried honorably but that Polyneices be left on the battlefield to rot. Oedipus’ two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, plot to disobey Creon and bury their brother Polyneices. Under the threat of death Ismene decides not to aid her sister in the task. After burying her brother Antigone is captured and brought before Creon to face judgment. Though Antigone proclaims her sister innocent Creon imprisons the pair of them. Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé and Creon’s son comes to show his support to his father while at the same time beg him to spare his bride. Creon refuses and Haemon vows never to see him again. Though he does decide to spare Ismene, Creon orders that Antigone be locked up in a cave forever. Along comes the blind soothsayer Teiresias who warns Creon that the gods wish him to release Antigone and bury Polyneices body or else they will take away one of his children and all of Greece will turn against him and Thebes. Frightened Creon agrees to release her, but alas it is too late. A messenger arrives and tells him that Haemon and Antigone have both committed suicide and soon after Creon’s wife also takes her own life. Broken by self-blame the drama ends with Creon slinking back into his home and the chorus offering an exclamation that the gods punish the proud but the lessons learned will make the punished wise.

Antigone was another of Aristotle’s favorite tragedies. Sophocles was the third tragic playwright who revolutionized drama in Greece with his addition of more main characters and a lesser presence of the chorus. Before Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles there would have only been one character in the play and a large chorus. The chorus would be so active in the story that plays were more like narratives than actual dramas. The audience might have been surprised at the end to find out that the main tragic character in Antigone was not Antigone herself, but rather it was Creon. This drama illustrates the second way in which a tragic character can achieve his downfall. In the case of the first play in the trilogy Oedipus suffered from a hamartia; a tragic mistake rather than an evil intent (Freeland, p 34). In Creon’s case his tragic flaw is an example of hubris; an overbearing pride or arrogance. In the end the audience certainly feels pity for Creon and experiences catharsis, since it was really more of a blindness than a malicious intent that caused him to make the decisions that resulted in the loss of his entire family. As art this tragedy certainly fulfills its duties in Aristotle’s eyes.

As has been illustrated Aristotle had a very concise idea of the nature and the purpose of art, especially as it relates to tragedy and drama. While many of the philosophers who came before and after Aristotle had opposing philosophies of art one cannot deny that his theories made very good sense in his historical context and many of them still have some merit today. If one steps back and attempts to look at philosophy of art as a whole over the centuries one cannot deny that the practical merit that his theories contained and cannot help but be impressed at how early they came in the history of philosophy of art.


by Christian Ketelsen

Major: Mathematics and Philosophy Expected
Graduation Date August, 2003
Hometown Battle Ground, WA

Before becoming a math major I spent two semesters as a double major in Philosophy and English. During this time I wrote a large number of argumentative essays and literary critiques. Since becoming a Math major I have had to learn to write technical papers.

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