What Aristotle Can Teach us About the Power of Literature

Part of what I hope to achieve with this blog is not only a theoretical basis for cultivating a new Christian culture. I hope to show practically how it can be done. To begin that rather difficult process, I’d like to share the first half of a paper I wrote for my philosophy class in Holy Trinity Seminary. I hope this paper inspires your own input in the comment section.

The Death of Civilization

power of literature


It is no understatement to say that we live in an unstable time. Politically and religiously speaking, it seems there is not even a desire for conversation or constructive argument. Social media has exacerbated the loneliness and alienation many were already feeling in the wake of Modernity’s death throes. The countries who consistently rate as the happiest in the world are also the ones with the highest rate of suicide.

Yet perhaps the most frightening development of our time is none of these. It is the gradual death of the humanities in the universities, the subsequent dumbing-down of the youth, and the gradual transformation of a literate civilization into a mass of easily-manipulated sheep.

The solution, however, is not out of the realm of possibility. Since many of society’s ills can be explained by a loss of critical thinking, empathy, and genuine virtue among many people, the fix might be found in a new Poetics. This would be a new approach to writing and reading the written word that, with sufficient care and attention, might counteract the effects of Modernity at least in a sizable enough group of people to form a new cultural elite. That cultural elite can then do what all cultural elites are supposed to do—inspire, educate, and edify others to aspire to virtue, truth, goodness, and beauty.

A New “Poetics”

power of literature

This new Poetics would have to incorporate the ageless wisdom of the Classical tradition and combat the deleterious effects of the Analytical Philosophical standard, but it would also have to account for the positive changes in literary theory that have occurred since the Classical age. Ultimately, it would have to also wrestle with the transformational reality of the Incarnation of Christ, Who sanctified all of matter, making even something seemingly so worldly as literature a tool for the ennobling of man.

A thorough rulebook for such a new Poetics is beyond the scope of this paper, because it is a subject worthy of a book-length treatise. However, this paper will lay down certain foundational principles for the new Poetics, taking the works of Aristotle, Roland Barthes, and J. R. R. Tolkien as a theoretical backbone, in addition to considering modern literary theory and advances in neurobiology that dovetail in surprising ways with the works of the aforementioned philosophers and writers.

As perhaps the most important work of literary theory in the history of Western Civilization, no discussion of literature, or its philosophical and ethical importance, can fail to begin with Aristotle’s own On Poetics.

Summary and Analysis of Aristotle’s On Poetics

power of literature

Aristotle begins by setting out his main purpose: to discuss and formally analyze poetry. It is important to define what exactly Aristotle meant by the term “poetry,” and whether it means a certain kind of literature, or all literature in general. Aristotle himself, aware of the importance of this definition, goes on to explain that first of all, poetry is a mode of imitation that can differ in its forms in three ways: “either by a difference of kind in their means, or by differences in objects, or in the manner of their imitations.” Thus, poetry can include such varieties of creative expression as epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dancing, and flute piping.

The difference of kind in means, as mentioned above, is determined by the combination of three aspects—rhythm, language, and harmony. In this discussion of how rhythm, language, and harmony can work together to form the different kinds of poetry, Aristotle mentions an important art form that in the Classical age had no name.

“There is further an art that imitates by language alone, without harmony, in prose or in verse, and if in verse, either in some one or plurality of meters.”

This form, which is more recognizable as the form of literature most common in the modern age—the short poem, the novel, the memoir, the novella, and so on—is, therefore, also included in the general category of “poetry.” Although Aristotle does not consider this particular form the most advanced or even the most interesting of forms, since it belongs to poetry in general, we can use Aristotle’s formal analysis of other forms such as tragedy to properly define the most effective and even edifying structure for contemporary literature.

This general association of poetry with various forms of literature is further reinforced by Aristotle’s insistence that poetry is not merely defined by rhythm, meter, and rhyme:

“Homer and Empedocles, however, have really nothing in common apart from their meter; so that, if the one is to be called a poet, the other should be termed a physicist rather than a poet.”

This further reinforces the definition of poetry as something much wider than the dictionary definition. Without belaboring the point, it is necessary to establish this fact if we are to use Aristotle’s formal analysis of tragedy as a template for well-written fiction (and even some narrative poetry and nonfiction) with the capacity to inspire modern readers toward the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The three ways of depicting mankind

power of literature

The second chapter of On Poetics explains how the poet, as imitator of life, represents actions that are indicative of life itself, through the agency of characters who are “necessarily either good men or bad.”Aristotle considers that there are three possible approaches to the depiction of mankind—describing characters who are better than we are, characters who are on the same level of goodness as we are, and characters who are worse than we are. For the purpose of this analysis, the most important point in this section is that Aristotle defines tragedy as ultimately dealing with people who are either the same or better than we are, while comedy deals exclusively with people who are worse than we are.

By doing this, Aristotle may be showing his hand slightly—it is clear that his own preference is for tragedy as a high art, capable of catharsis that leads to genuine change in the reader/viewer. Comedy, by dwelling on the absurdity of the failings of those who are morally worse than the reader/viewer, is not generally capable of leading toward virtue. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but Aristotle’s more detailed analysis of the form of tragedy makes this point clear.

On Point of View

In chapter three, Aristotle makes a foundational point about what would eventually be called in narrative literature “point of view.” He explains that in poetry there are three ways of representing objects:

“One may either 1) speak at one moment in narrative and at another in an assumed character, as Homer does; or 2) one may remain the same throughout, without any such change; or 3) the imitators may represent the whole story dramatically, as though they were actually doing the things described.”

From the perspective of modern literary theory, what Aristotle describes, without assigning value to each, is the different kinds of point of view available to the author, especially of fiction. The first is roughly the same as what is now called “third person omniscient,” which allows for the narrator to have his own voice, as well as the ability to dive down into the perspectives of the individual characters and tell certain portions of the story from their point of point of view, in their distinct voice.

Omniscient third person is rarely used in literature today, partly because it was overused in the 19thcentury, and it has become associated with a certain kind of narrative voice that postmodernists like Barthes took great exception to, sometimes for good reason. It is also notoriously difficult to write well in omniscient third person.

The second point of view that Aristotle mentions as “changeless throughout” is also a third person point of view, where the representational voice never changes. However, it is difficult to accomplish in a way can pull a reader in. Most often, such writing is what we might call “expository,” meaning, for the purposes of narrative literature, lacking in distinctive voice. For the purposes of this paper, we need not consider this mode of representation as effective or worthy of further consideration.

The third way of representing reality, where the imitator represents the story as though he himself is the agent, come in two distinct kinds of point of view in modern literature. The first is first person, when the narrator and the main character are the same person. The second, and the more widespread in our time, is what is called “deep third person.” In this kind of writing, the author limits his voice to the point of view character, either in the book as a whole, or in a given scene. The effect is the same as watching a movie or television show.

The reader is inside the head and “behind the eyes” of the main character, even though the narrative happens in the less intimate third person perspective. Not surprisingly, most commercial fiction, and even some so-called literary fiction and nonfiction, use this point of view, since it is the most effective at grabbing the attention of readers who have been conditioned by the television to a kind of emotional experience that doesn’t allow for a superimposed narrator (as in omniscient third person) to offer commentary on the events from his godlike perspective.

Imitation is a natural human activity

After offering his definition of the kinds of poetry, Aristotle turns to the reasons for writing poetry in the first place. He makes an important point that imitation is a natural human activity, being one of the things that defines man’s superiority over animals, this being especially reinforced by the fact that human beings learn primarily by imitation.

The second important point in this section is that human beings feel pleasure at imitation done well, because they feel inherent pleasure at the process of learning as the “gathering of the meaning of things,” that is, as the ordering of the chaos of the natural word into the synthesis of the human experience. Interestingly, Aristotle also includes the sense of harmony and rhythm as equally inherent in man, a point that will be important when considering what a new Poetics might look like for our own time.

In chapter 6, Aristotle begins his analysis of tragedy, which this paper argues is the poetic form that offers the best model for a new literature that has as its purpose the edification and improvement, not simply entertainment, of its readers. The first reason for this is given by Aristotle himself:

“Tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself …with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”

The important elements to take away from this definition are those that are easily applied to more narrative forms of poetry—the completeness of the serious action and the catharsis in the reader that accompanies the series of incidents presented by the poet. This emotional core, if done properly, produces an intense physical response in the body of the viewer or reader, a fact that has been supported by some startling neurobiological research, which will be discussed in a later section of this paper. This physical response can have important ramifications on human behavior that will also be discussed later.

Plot is more important than character

Any good tragedy will, furthermore, contain six elements—spectacle, character, fable (or plot), diction, melody, and thought. Aristotle then makes an interesting assertion that is galling to many proponents of so-called “literary fiction.” He insists that the most important element of tragedy is not character, but plot. The reason is simple:

“In a play… they do not act in order to portray the characters; they include the characters for the sake of the action…. Besides this, a tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without character.”

In amateur writing groups or conferences, one of the most popular questions to ask is “what’s more important—plot or character?” Most authors will pedantically assert that both are equally important. Aristotle does not agree, and his point is that the emotional response of catharsis in the reader/viewer, so necessary to the ethical and aesthetic purpose of poetry, is impossible without a well-constructed plot. The tragedy is better, naturally, if the characters performing the actions are well-constructed as well. Therefore, it is possible to have a good tragedy without well-developed characters, but impossible to “produce the true tragic effect” if there is no plot.

How to Construct a Good Plot

Since plot is necessary for tragedy, its proper construction is vitally important. First of all, there must be a beginning, middle, and end. Modern novels of a more abstract kind tend to avoid this primary rule, seeing it as a restriction. The result is that fewer and fewer people read modern novels, making “literary fiction” an abstraction that has little chance to inspire readers to virtue.

Secondly, a tragedy must be of a definite length:

“Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long.”

The specifics of length are dependent on the tolerance of a given audience. This is clearly seen in the current fad for fantasy novels to be so-called doorstoppers, just as Dickens’s late novels pushed the 1,000 page mark, while shorter works were preferred during the Enlightenment (novelettes like Poor Liza by Nikolai Karamzin, for example). At the same time, no story should be longer than it needs to be: “As a rough general formula, a length which allows the hero passing by a series of probable or necessary stages from misfortune to happiness, or from happiness to misfortune may suffice as a limit for the magnitude of the story.”

Next, Aristotle makes an important point about poetry being the representation of possible realities, not definite historical ones:

“The distinction between historian and poet…consist really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Here poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”

Interestingly, the modern preference for history has gone hand-in-hand with the lessening importance of literature on a societal level. This point will be discussed in further detail later as formative for the new Poetics.

Three Elements of Good Plot

The plot must also contain three elements: Peripety, Discovery, and Suffering. Peripety is a reversal of fortune for the main character that propels the plot forward inexorably toward its climax. Discovery is a change from ignorance to knowledge as a result of the Peripety, as well as a change from hatred to love or vice versa, depending on the nature of the story. Aristotle believes that the best plots include Peripety and Discovery, if not at the same moment in the tragedy, then in close succession, for the most surprising possible effect, producing fear and pity in the reader/viewer.

This moment of crisis is must be a natural consequence of the story itself, not an artificial construction such as a deus ex machina, for the tragic effect to occur. Suffering is an element of the action that involves actual violence or death to the characters in the story, and is an effective tool at helping the reader/viewer reach catharsis.

Having defined the technical aspects of the plot, Aristotle then defines the best kind of tragedy, giving very specific indications of what must be included:

“The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a single…issue; the change in the hero’s fortunes must be not from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part; the man himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that. Fact also confirms our theory.”

Is Aristotle’s Formal Analysis Entirely Useful?

Interestingly, this part of his formal analysis of tragedy is perhaps the least applicable to modern literature. The question of what sort of an ending—tragic or uplifting—will be left to a later section. As for the rest of the qualities of the perfect plot, there are plenty of examples in the finest literature of the last two thousand years that includes a fall due to depravity, not the quintessentially Greek “tragic flaw.”

Furthermore, writers both tragic and comic have used the various moral stances of the main characters to excellent effect. Charles Dickens’s and Nikolai Gogol’s grotesques and caricatures, for example, can lead to a spectacular form of catharsis in the reader. The amoral characters of Dostoyevsky were so effective that there were recorded cases of people changing their entire worldview for the better as a result of reading his novels. At the same time, the virtuous characters of someone like George Eliot or even J. R. R. Tolkien can move the reader just as effectively. Thus, this aspect of Aristotle’s argument is less useful for a new Poetics.

Predictably, Aristotle’s definition of the perfect character is also not ideal for a new Poetics. However, two elements of character that he includes are useful, since they have stood the test of time in literary analysis to our day. These are the following:

  • 1) characters should be “like the reality,” that is, realistic, and
  • 2) they have to be consistent throughout.

This may sound obvious to a casual reader, but it cannot be overstated—many bad or inexperienced writers mishandle these two qualities, whether by design or ignorance, and their absence will make even the most well-intentioned work of literature fail in its essential mission to move the reader to virtue.

Show, Don’t Tell

In a final point about Plot and Character, Aristotle anticipates one of the modern, foundational rules of good writing: “show, don’t tell.” This is a rule that especially applies to the representation of emotion, and it is difficult to do well in any art form. In fact, it may require a kind of Platonic divine madness to create this effect properly:

“He who feels the emotions to be described will be the most convincing…Hence it is that poetry demands a man with a special gift for it, or else one with a touch of madness in him.”

This madness of the genius-writer would, unfortunately, be taken to an extreme in the Romantic era, leading to a gradual degradation of literature from which it is only now recovering.

Neurobiological Confirmation of Aristotelian Aesthetics

It is truly remarkable to consider that Aristotle, writing in the Classical period, was able to identify and classify so many aspects of good literature that have stood the test of time, including the following:

  • 1) the kinds of points of view that an author may use to simulate reality in his story
  • 2) the inherent nature of human beings as imitations, and the role of harmony and rhythm in determining what is the best form of such imitation
  • 3) the importance of perfect plot over perfectly realized human characters
  • 4) the structure of the perfect plot
  • 5) the superiority of poetry to history.

One important point about all of these characteristics of poetry is that they place the creation of an effect in the reader as having primary importance. This is partially a result of the nature of poetry as an oral form of art during that time. However, even when writers began to write their stories down, not read them out or perform them, the rules stayed the same.

There have been many studies done in the past decade confirming that plot-driven narratives of a commercial nature—the kinds of stories that structurally resemble Greek tragedy—tend to increase empathy in readers by actually fooling the brain into thinking that the reader is performing the actions of the main character (certain motor areas of the brain connected with walking, for example, are activated when a main character is described as walking).

A particularly interesting study was conducted in Emory University in 2013 that showed that even reading a trashy novel had a quantifiable effect on the language centers of the brain for five days after the test subjects stopped reading. Of course, it has become symptomatic of modernity to use scientific research as “proof” for obvious assertions, but the fact remains interesting.

In effect, literary tradition, folklore studies, neurobiology, the reality of Christ’s parables, and human experience in general confirm that there is a story structure—specifically the one described by Aristotle—that is extremely effective at producing a physical, emotional, and spiritual response in the reader that can, and in some cases does, inspire him toward the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Look for the second part of this paper in the next few weeks. Please feel free to comment and criticize this paper in the comment section.

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