Aristotle's Poetics: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Aristotle's Poetics &…
  • 0:32 Synopsis
  • 2:53 Analysis
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You may have taken a look at Aristotle's 'Poetics' and thought to yourself, 'This sounds like Greek to me.' But, that doesn't mean you can't get a grasp on the philosopher's message. Watch this video for a synopsis and analysis of this ancient aesthetic treatise!

Aristotle's Poetics & Aesthetics

Like its companion piece Rhetoric, Aristotle's Poetics is an exploration of aesthetics, a branch of philosophy concerned with the concept of beauty and other artistic principles. Ancient aesthetic philosophers were some of the first theorists in the fields of art and literature, and Poetics is considered the earliest extant work in literary theory. In fact, public speaking was an important part of Greek civic life, so doing it well by practicing rhetoric and understanding poetics was considered an art form.


As its name would suggest, Aristotle's work is a philosophical investigation into what makes good poetry, especially as it relates to the verse of the dramatic arts. Primarily, the author is concerned with categorizing genres and differentiating them based on the processes of imitation employed in each. That is to say Aristotle classifies genres depending on what sort of people, actions and events example works might reflect. For instance, epic poetry is a representation of grand events and actions, comedies display ridiculous people and situations, lyric poetry may mimic the sounds of nature, and tragedies involve noteworthy individuals in unfortunate situations.

Although Aristotle proposes in the opening of the Poetics 'to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each,' he spends considerably more time focused on the features and nature of tragedy than on any other genre. He not only lists certain quantitative tragic elements, such as prologue, epode and choric song, but also delves deeply into the six qualitative features that he discusses in order of importance:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Thought, or the correlation between a character's action and personality
  4. Diction, or a poet's particular use of language
  5. Song, or the relation of music to the plot
  6. Spectacle, or the visual element of performance

Once Aristotle comes to talking about diction, he digresses a great deal as he expounds on language in general and its constituent parts, noting everything from individual letters and syllables all the way to phrases and sentences. This discussion leads into a mention of style and how it should be consistent both internally and in terms of the genre to which a piece belongs.

The text that we now have ends with a brief discussion of the epic genre, though, there is considerable evidence to suggest that a similar treatment of tragedy's counterpart, comedy, has been lost to us.

A far cry from his original proposition, Aristotle doesn't seem to have developed much theory concerning other genres other than tragedy. Nevertheless, from his discussion of epic at the existing close of the Poetics, we can infer that he considered many of the same principles that apply to tragedy also to apply to poetry or drama more generally.

Art Imitates Life: Analyzing the Poetics

Have you ever heard the saying 'art imitates life?' Many who use this phrase may not realize it, but the idea can be traced all the way back to Aristotle's Poetics. For this philosopher, there was no other way that art could be interpreted as interacting with the real world because he saw the act of mimêsis, or the art of imitation and representation, as essential to all human interactions. Take for instance an example Aristotle himself uses when he cites how we learn to talk, walk, and behave through imitating what we see from our parents and others around us.

If all poetry, or art in general, is the product of some form of imitation, then defining the different genres is simply a matter of identifying what sort of people and events they represent. For Aristotle, there were three types of characters that could be portrayed:

  1. Those superior to us, such as gods, heroes and kings
  2. Those inferior to us, such as practitioners of villainy
  3. Those by all rights our equals, or everyone else

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