Aristotle Must Die!

by Jen R.L. Stryke

Aristotle identifies two conditions for the existence of poetry[1]: humans have a natural instinct to 1) institute and 2) enjoy imitation, which is why we enjoy poetry. That is to say, the hypokeimenon of poetry that individuates it from other techne, such as the mechanical arts, is mimetic imitation. As such, Aristotle bifurcates poetry into two genres that correlate to the poet’s twofold mimetic nature. 1) The ‘serious poet’ metrically and rhythmically represents the ‘heroic action’ of the gods and great men of myth and history in the generic modes of the hymn, eulogy, epic, and, the apotheosis of all modes, tragedy. 2) The poet ‘of a less exalted nature’ assumes as his subject matter the ‘actions of inferior men’ in the satirical, lampooning, or comedic modalities. For Aristotle, then, great representative art is not a mere similitude of the surface appearance of things, but a proto-expressionist representation of the intrapsychic reality of certain human character types, virtues, passions and emotions.

While expanding the meaning of representation inward, Aristotle also circumscribes its external meaning by establishing a hierarchy of genres grounded upon the so-called ‘virtuosity’ of the subject matter and the techniques of representing it. Clearly, the lofty noble men of tragedy, and the lowly inferior men of comedy are delimited into class configurations: tragedy’s subject matter are kings and aristocrats who share the stage with the gods; comedy represents the proletarian subject: workers, servants, slaves, women and the poor.[2] Aristotle falsely naturalizes this socio-cultural hierarchy when he claims that art need not represent what actually transpired, as history does, but what plausibly could have or ought to have transpired. This, Aristotle says, is the creative aspect of art that makes it more scientific, and hence objective, than history, because art represents universal Truths, while history presents particular, contingent and ontic facts. Whereas Plato would ban art in his Ideal Republic, Aristotle conversely reasons that it is only through art that we can think the Ideal Republic that ought to be. Unfortunately, for Aristotle, this Ideal Republic involves the apportionment of people into social classes based upon the ontological status which he assigns them. Aristotelian tragedy, too, reinforces precisely this classification of culture, the community and human nature by showing how any attempt to alter one’s social position, such as by murdering the king to become him, is destined by Fate to cause ‘a change from good fortune to bad, in a sequence of events which follow one another inevitably’. Thus, for instance, the slave’s sanctioned place in the grotesque life of hard labour, and the king’s divine right to His idle life, are reinforced by their representation in art as given, natural and ontologically fixed.

We began by elucidating how Aristotle grounds his conception of the mimetic essence of art upon his ontology of humans as representative animals. We then noticed how Aristotle apportions art’s appropriate subject matter for representation based upon the degree of socio-political representation the subject already has within Athenian society. As such, Aristotle’s hierarchical criteria of appropriate subject matter, genres and techniques taken from aristocratic and religious cultures do not represent the social reality of human nature. Rather, Aristotelian art represents the ideology of the ruling classes, thereby propagating their beliefs, values and ideas about human nature that sustains their social echelon.

[1] Although Aristotle mainly discusses poetry and theatre, he also implicitly refers to music whose rhythm, tune and harmony are aspects of poetic theatre, and very briefly to painting, so that this paper sees it fit to generalize Aristotle’s specific foci on Ancient Greek poetry and theatre to the fine arts more broadly.

[2]Whereas the proletarian subject is subordinated within Aristotle’s hierarchy of culture and the community, a worse fate still of exclusion and erasure from the Aristotelian world to the realm of inconceivability is reserved for organisms and objects which Aristotle strips of all ontological citizenship: animals, inanimate objects, fruit, etc. It is not until modern art establishes a flat ontologico-aesthetic field upon which the equality of all objects reigns that such dead objects come to be represented in art as more than just symbols that stand-in for some other idea or object.