For 1000 years, philosophers and literary theorists have tried to make fullest sense of the Poetics by assuming, apparently without exception, that Aristotle conceives of poiēsis as the sophist Gorgias first did, as “(the making of) language in meter.” In Unit 1, Scott demonstrates how the treatise can be interpreted, and what perennial dilemmas can be resolved, if we instead take Aristotle to be following Plato and Diotima in the Symposium (205c). As Diotima states there, poiēsis means “(the making of) mousikē and verse,” whether mousikē means “music” in our sense or, as it can be, “music and dance” in the ancient Greek sense, as proved for Plato in the current context of theatrical art in the Laws and Alcibiades. Chapter 2 includes a revised version of Scott’s “The Poetics of Performance: The Necessity of Performance, Spectacle, Music, and Dance in Aristotelian Tragedy” (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Moreover, in 2003, Scott argued in “Purging the Poetics” (Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy), reprinted here as Chapter 5, that M.D. Petruševski was right in publishing in 1954 that Aristotle could not have written the word katharsis in the famous definition of tragedy. However, Petruševski kept pity and fear and amended the clause, whereas Scott gave a brief argument why the whole catharsis clause, including pity and fear, was mistakenly interpolated into the definition by a subsequent editor. Recently, Marwan Rashed (Sorbonne) follows Scott and Petruševski but tries to amend the clause, also keeping pity and fear. In Unit 2, Scott provides the additional and seemingly insuperable evidence why pity and fear cannot be in the definition, and why those two emotions are crucial for Aristotle only for a sub-type of tragedy. Included is a rigorous rebuttal of Stephen Halliwell’s seemingly impressive critique of “Purging” from Halliwell’s Between Ecstasy and Truth (2011).
With the catharsis, pity and fear clause arguably forever banished from the treatise, Scott continues in Units 3-4 to explain what the real goal(s) of tragedy are for Aristotle and how the Northern Greek truly responds without catharsis to Plato’s attacks on tragedy and comedy (showing also how Plato himself uses catharsis extensively very favorably in his own theories). Scott continues by demonstrating the too little recognized importance of comedy for Aristotle and of catharsis in that context, and then by exploring the dangers and rewards of trying to extend the principles of musical dramatic theater to other art forms. The treatise was never intended to be literary theory, nor were most of the principles intended to be directly applicable to literature. Rather they were intended to be applied to an art form that like our Broadway musical theater and almost like our opera employs language merely as one of the elements, and not even the most important one.
All of this helps prove that tragedy for Aristotle was dramatic “musical” composition that required dance and spectacle (and of course language), showing admirable people in action, with the best tragedies being specifically Cresphontes and others that end happily, not Oedipus, which is given the same ranking in Chapter 14 that it received when Sophocles lost to Philocles, — only second prize. All of this moreover absolves Aristotle of a number of other criticisms and opens the door for a fresh appraisal of the treatise that in spite of the two long-standing fundamental misconceptions is considered to be the most influential work of literary, dramatic and artistic theory in Western culture.
Author: Performance Philosophy - University of Bremen
with the support of Olivera Z. Mijuskovic, a member of the Performance Philosophy - University of Bremen