Literary Criticism 101: Plato and Aristotle, Greek Muses for Modern Critics

It is undeniable that Greek philosophers put forward significant contributions to the philosophical field. They were the first to criticize, evaluate, and assess Literature. To this day, they continue to influence modern scholars. Greek critics did not make the difference between what is Literature and non-literature. Everything was perceived as a text. Two of the most famous Western philosophers and critics are Plato and Aristotle, the latter being the student of the former and one of his most brilliant disciples. Plato and Aristotle criticized Literature from a different perspective. Although having some similarities, their theories on Art, Literature, Forms, and Ethics present huge differences. They had opposite views on numerous notions, such as human nature, social hierarchy, and the origin of rhetoric. Plato was considered an idealist whereas Aristotle believed in reality. They are known as the “Fathers of Western Philosophy”.


Plato, marble portait bust, from an original of the 4th century BCE; in the Capitoline Museums, Rome
Plato

When it comes to poetry, Plato considers it as an imitation of reality. He explains that art is an imitation of the truth. Furthermore, he thinks that ideas are the most real things in the world because that’s where creation is born. Anything else is just a mere imitation of the creator’s perspective. Poetry becomes an imitation of an imitation, which means that it was three times removed from reality. Thus, all art invokes emotions that are based on misrepresentations of reality, which blurs out the truth even more. Imagination is the lowest faculty of the mind. Plato dislikes Art, and he thinks that it can influence people in a bad way, provoking immoral thoughts and actions. Ideally, all art should be moral, but in reality, all art is immoral, because “artists” intentionally make it deceptive. Plato even encourages censorship: every literary work should be checked by the Philosopher ruler. Furthermore, he believed that Poetry shall only be for educational purposes. Although he introduced the first ideas of censorship, Plato never thought that Art should be banned. However, it should be used for beneficial purposes and for making the ideal city through praises to the Gods and promoting good morals. When it comes to human nature, Plato sees the individual as a soul, trapped in a body with no interaction between the two whatsoever. He argues that the body senses bring imperfection and stands as an obstacle for the soul and the mind. In addition, Plato believes that the only way for people to become what they are, they should live in this “ideal society”. Aristotle rejects this ideal and instead advocates for a state that promotes people’s welfare by providing for the poor. He insists on the middle class taking up the largest part of the community.


Aristotle, marble portrait bust, Roman copy (2nd century BCE) of a Greek original (c.325 BCE); jn the Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy
Aristotle

On the other hand, when it comes to tragedy and aesthetics, Aristotle disagrees with Plato’s point of view. It is very much noticeable that Plato and Aristotle’s differences prevail over their similarities. Although he also considers it an imitation, art in Aristotle’s perspective isn’t immoral or bad. He views imitation as something natural, considering it a way of how we learn during our childhood. We imitate our parents, and we learn through representation and symbolism. Not everything should accurately reflect reality. Things aren’t any less worthy or less beautiful if they don’t perfectly portray reality. Sometimes we can further understand our reality and cope with it through something that’s isn’t quite entirely true. Art helps us learn despite its limitations; it enhances our understanding of things we might not experience otherwise. We derive pleasure from art even if it represents the most repelling things. Aristotle criticizes Plato’s ideals and his views on human nature.


He refuses his principles and claims instead that humans are responsible for being who they are because it’s their choices, that made them that way, and that each individual is responsible for their accomplishments and failures. Simultaneously, Plato claims that the individual is born with prior knowledge, which he forgets at birth and will spend the rest of his life trying to remember. This statement shows that Plato believes in an immortal soul and that it transfers knowledge from one life to the next through reincarnation. On the other hand, Aristotle claims that the individual is born as a clean, blank slate with no prior knowledge whatsoever. According to him, souls don’t return to the earthly world. Aristotle continues by saying that knowledge is constructed through the different experiences one goes through. This construction is supported by the body and the senses (which reaffirm their different views on the body since Plato finds it lacking). In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he explains three ways of persuasion: the first lies in the character of the speaker, the second focuses on the emotions of the listener, and the last emphasizes the argument itself. He describes different techniques of persuasion depending on the audience in question and the message to communicate. In opposition, Plato believes that arguing has to win as aim and doesn’t hold any acquisition of knowledge.



The School of Athens: A Renaissance painting by Raphael (1509-11)
Western Philosophers


In conclusion, Plato defends philosophy and thinks of it as something ideal and elite, whereas Aristotle defends Poetry and justifies it on moral grounds. Both agree that Poetry affects our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Furthermore, while both consider Art as being an imitation, Plato views it as Mimesis, a mere reproduction, whereas in Aristotle’s perspective, it’s a recreation of inner human action. Both philosophies are relevant and are still accurate and studied, which shows us how avant-garde these Greek philosophers were. This explains why, over 2000 years later, we still refer to their work in various academic fields.





References


Griswold, C. L. (2003). Plato on rhetoric and poetry.


Plato and Classical Literary Criticism.(2017).Wordpress.


Olson, Elder (1965).Aristotle's Poetics and English Literature a Collection of Critical Essays.University of Chicago Press.


Lucas, D. W. (1968). Aristotle Poetics. The Classical Review.18 (02):168.

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Gaelle Abou Nasr

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