1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Aristotle on Aesthetics

(Part 9)



A loftier conception of the aims of poetry was afforded by the strictures of Aristophanes in the Frogs and elsewhere. But the one Greek who, as far as we know, fully appreciated and clearly set forth the ends of the fine arts, considered, independently of ethical and political aims, as the vehicles to the mind of the ideas and delights of beauty, was Aristotle.

Unlike Plato, he proceeded less metaphysically and more scientifically to investigate the phenomena of beauty by a careful analysis of the principles of art. In his treatises on poetry and rhetoric, he gives us, along with a theory of these arts, certain principles of beauty in general; and scattered among his other writings we find many valuable suggestions on the same subject.

First of all, Aristotle ignores all conceptions of an absolute Beauty, and at the same time seeks to distinguish the Beautiful from the Good. thus, although in the more popular exposition, the Rhetoric, he somewhat incorrectly makes praiseworthiness a distinguishing mark of the Beautiful regarded as a species of the Agreeable or Desirable, he seeks in the Metaphysics to distinguish the Good and the Beautiful thus: the Good is always in action (en praxei); the Beautiful, however, may exist in motionless things as well (en akinetois). Elsewhere he distinctly teaches that the Good and the Beautiful are different (heteron), although the Good, under certain conditions, can be called beautiful. He thus looked on the two spheres as co-ordinate species, having a certain area in common. It should be noticed that the habit of the Greek mind, in estimating the value of moral nobleness and elevation of character by their power of gratifying and impressing a spectator, gave rise to a certain ambiguity in the meaning of to kalon, which accounts for the prominence the Greek thinkers gave to the connection between the Beautiful and the Good or morally Worthy. Aristotle further distinguished the Beautiful from the Fit, and in a passage of the Politics set Beauty above the Useful and Necessary. Another characteristics of the Beautiful fixed by this thinker in the Rhetoric is the absence of all lust or desire in the pleasure it bestows. This is an important point, as suggesting the disinterested and unmonopolising side of aesthetic pleasure. The universal elements of beauty, again, Aristotle finds in the Metaphysics to be order (taxis), symmetry, and definiteness or determinateness (to orismenon). In the Poetics he adds another essential, namely, a certain magnitude, it being desirable, for a synoptic and single view of the parts, that the object, whether a natural body or a work of art, should not be too large, while clearness of perception requires that it should not be too small. At the same time he seems to think that, provided the whole be visible as such, the greater magnitude of an object is itself an element of beauty. This is probably to be understood by help of a passage in the Politics, which lays down the need of a number of beautiful parts or aspects in a highly beautiful objects, as the human body.

With respect to art, Aristotle views are an immense advance on those of Plato. He distinctly recognized, in the Politics and elsewhere, that its aim is simply to give immediate pleasure, and so it does not need to seek the useful like the mechanical arts. The essence of art, considered as an activity, Aristotle found in imitation, which, unlike Plato, he considers not as an unworthy trick, but as including knowledge and discovery.

The celebrated passage in the Poetics where he declares poetry to be more philosophic and serious a matter (spoudaioteron) than philosophy, best shows the contrast between Plato and Aristotle in their estimates of the dignity of artistic labour. In the Poetics he tells us that the objects to be imitated by the poet are of three kinds -- (1.) Those things or events which have been or still are; (2.) The things which are said to be and seen probable; (3) The things which necessarily are (einai dei). The last points, as Schasler supposes, to the ideal character of imitation as opposed to mere copying of individual objects or events, and accounts for the lofty value assigned to it by Aristotle. More particularly the objects of imitation in poetry and music, if not in all art, are dispositions (ethe), passions, and actions.

Aristotle gives us some interesting speculation on the nature of the artist's mind, and distinguishes two varieties of the poetic imagination -- the easy and versatile conceptive power of a man of natural genius (enphues), and the more emotional and lively temperament of an inspired man (manikos).

He gives us no complete classification of the fine arts, and it is doubtful how far his principles are to be taken as applicable to other than the poetic art. He seems, however, to distinguish poetry, music, and dancing -- all of which are supposed to imitate some element of human nature, some feeling or action -- by the means they employ, namely, rhythm, harmony, melody, and vocal sound.

Painting and sculpture are spoken of as imitative arts, but their special aims are not defined. Architecture seems ignored by Aristotle as non-imitative.

His peculiar theory of poetry can only be just glanced at here. Its aim, he says, is to imitate dispositions and actions. Metrical form is hardly looked on as an essential. Poetic imitation, as including the selection of the universal in human nature and history, is ably treated; and from this part of Aristotle’s theory all modern ideas of poetic truth are more or less derivable. He distinguishes, somewhat superficially, the epic poem, the drama, and a variety not named, but apparently lyric poetry, by the manner in which the poet speaks in each variety, whether in his own person, or in that of another, or in both alternately. The epic and the dramatic poem require unity of action, a certain magnitude, with beginning, middle, and end, and also those changes of fortune and recognitions that make up the thrilling character of plot.

The end of tragedy Aristotle defines as the effecting, by means of pity and fear, of a purification of these passions; and this is perhaps the point of greatest interest for aesthetics in the whole of his theory of poetry. Whether he is referring to any moral influence of tragedy on the emotions, bringing both fear and pity in the spectator’s mind to their proper ethical mean, as Lessing and others conceive; whether he simply means the elimination of all painful ingredients in these feelings, either by the recognition of the imaginary nature of the evil represented, or by the simultaneous satisfaction of other and deeper feelings as moral approval or wide human sympathy; or, finally, whether by "purification" we are to understand the grateful relief by artificial means of a recurring emotion needing periodic vent, as Ueberweg argues, -- this subtle point may be left to the student to decide.

It would be interesting to know how far Aristotle attributed something analogous to this katharsis to the other arts. In the Politics he certainly speaks of a purifying effect in certain kinds of music in quieting the wilder forms of excitement.

Finally, it might perhaps be conjectured from his definition of the Ludicrous, as something faulty and disgraceful, yet free from pain, and not destructive, that he would find in the laughter of comedy something analogous to this purification, namely, the gradual resolution of the more painful feelings of contempt or disgust into the genial moods of pure hilarity.

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