M.A.R. Habib


The most brilliant student at Plato’s Academy was Aristotle, who had come to Athens in 367 from his native Stageira in Macedonia to study with Plato. Aristotle’s enormous contribution to the history of thought spans several areas: metaphysics, logic, ethics, politics, literary criticism, and various branches of natural science. Indeed, Aristotle’s treatment of these subjects profoundly shaped the subsequent formulation of problems in these areas for two thousand years. Born in 384, Aristotle was the son of Nicomachus, court physician to Amyntas II, father of Philip of Macedon.

Nicomachus died when Aristotle was young, but it is said that he taught his son some anatomy, an early training which may have contributed to Aristotle’s eventual philosophical outlook. Indeed, Aristotle was more interested than Plato in empirical observation of natural phenomena, especially in biology, a difference which helps account for the fundamentally differing outlooks of the two thinkers.

Aristotle’s Logic:

Aristotle’s greatest contribution to philosophy lies in the realm of logic. Aristotle viewed logic as an instrument (or organon) which was a preliminary requirement for the study of every branch of knowledge. His own name for logic was “analytics” and his logical treatises include Categories, Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics and Topics. These works came to be referred to collectively by Aristotle’s followers (known as Peripatetics) as the “Organon.” While Aristotle drew some elements of his logic from the pre-Socratics and Plato, he was the first philosopher to formalise the rules and methods of logic, and to treat it as a systematic prelude to scientific thinking. Aristotle attempted to clarify the structure of propositions which assert truth or falsehood, the nature of demonstration, the connection of universal and particular propositions, the isolation of the essential qualities of a subject by definition, and so on.

The basis of Aristotelian logic, which acted as the foundation of logic for over two thousand years, was the syllogism. The Aristotelian syllogism typically consist of a major premise, a minor premise and an inferred conclusion, as in the classic example of a syllogism: “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Aristotle classified a number of different kinds of syllogism, ranging from this simple “if…then” structure to far more complex formats. Among Aristotle’s contributions to logic are the provision of a mathematical foundation for logic, the use of the dialectical mode of argument as an instrument of proof, and the employment of empirical data. The influence of Aristotle’s logic has been even greater than that of his metaphysics or politics. Even during periods such as late antiquity or the later Renaissance which saw Aristotle’s general influence eclipsed by Plato’s, Aristotle still remained the supreme authority in logic.

Nonetheless, Aristotle’s logic has been severely criticised by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell who regards the two thousand year influence of Aristotle as a period of “stagnation,” and states that Aristotle’s “present-day influence is…inimical to clear thinking.”1 Among Russell’s objections are that Aristotle puts too much stress on the syllogism, which is by no means the only kind of deductive argument; like the Greeks generally, Aristotle gave “undue prominence to deduction” over induction; the notion of “substance” or “essence,” says Russell, may be applied to a word but not to a thing, hence Aristotle mistakenly applies the subject-predicate structure of language to the world itself. Russell goes so far as to say that “practically every advance in science, in logic, or in philosophy has had to be made in the teeth of opposition from Aristotle’s disciples.”2 Aristotle’s logic has come under fire not only from modern mathematicians but from physicists, philosophers such as Hegel and his followers, Marxist thinkers, and modern literary and cultural theorists such as Derrida.

Even more fundamental than the syllogism and deductive reasoning are the three so-called laws of logic (sometimes called the “laws of thought”) as formulated by Aristotle and developed by numerous subsequent thinkers into our own day. The first of these is the law of identity, which states that A is A; the second is the law of non-contradiction, which dictates that something cannot be both A and not-A; and the third, the law of the excluded middle, holds that something must be either A or not-A. These “laws,” which can be regarded as the same law expressed from three different perspectives, have served for over two millenia as the (almost) unshakeable foundation of Western thought. As such, they bear examination in a little more detail. In general, the first of these laws, that of identity, is contained in Aristotle’s notion of primary substance as “individual” and as denoting a “unit” (Cat. 3a10-13) and as not admitting degrees (Cat. 3b34), and, perhaps above all, as never being defined with “reference to something beyond or outside” (Cat. 8a19). But what does it mean to say that A is A? Is this not an obvious and empty tautology? We can see that it is no trite proposition the moment we substitute any important term for the letter A.

Let us, for example, use the term “man.” When we say that a man is a man, we are appealing to certain qualities which compose the essence of man; we are saying that this essence is fixed and unalterable; we are also saying that a man is somehow different from a woman, from an animal, from a plant, and so forth. We can quickly begin to see how our definition will have vast economic and political implications: if we define our “man” as rational, as political, as moral, and as free, it will seem natural to us that he should partake in the political process. The woman, whom we define as lacking these qualities, will by our definition be excluded. That this law of identity is highly coercive and hierarchical will become even clearer in the case of the terms “master” and “slave.” The master might well be defined in terms of attributes that collectively signify “civilised,” while the slave is constricted within designations of “savage” (Aristotle himself defines a slave as a “speaking instrument”). Such hierarchical oppositions have in history embraced the terms Greek and barbarian, Christian and Jew, white and black, noble and serf.

The second and third laws of logic will merely confirm our implicit degradation of the woman or slave. The law of contradiction, on which Aristotle insists (Met.I-IX, 1011b-13), tells us that something/someone cannot both be a man and not a man. Again, isn’t this obvious? Surely it tells us nothing new? In fact, we are stating a further implication of the law of identity: that a certain set of qualities is attributed to “man” and a different set of qualities is accorded to woman, there being no overlap between these two sets of qualities. According to this logic, we cannot speak of a person who might come in between these two poles: a man who had womanly qualities or a woman with manly attributes. The law of the excluded middle explicitly forbids this middle ground (Met. I-IX, 1011b-23) in its urging that something must be either A or not-A. Either one must be a man or not a man; either American or not-American; either Muslim or Jew; either good or bad; either for or against. Hence, these “laws,” which unfortunately still largely govern our thinking today, are not only coercive but encourage a vision of the world as divided up sharply into categories, classes, nations, races and religions, each with its own distinctive essence or character. The elimination of the middle ground has long been an ideological, political and economic strategy, one that removes all possibility of definitional flexibility and change according to altered circumstances. So deeply rooted is this way of thinking that even attempted subversions of it, such as have issued from Marxism, feminism, deconstruction and psychoanalysis, must operate within a broader network of complicity with what they challenge. It must be recalled that the notion of identity is firmly instituted within the concept of substance; hence, not only logic but metaphysics, as well as political thought, have fallen under the sway of these so-called laws.

Aristotle on Poetic Imitation:

Near the beginning of his text, Aristotle asserts that all the various modes of poetry and music are imitations. These imitations can differ in three ways: in the means used, in the kinds of objects represented or in the manner of presentation. The means can include colour, shape, sound, rhythm, speech and harmony. The art that imitates by words, says Aristotle, is poetry. As against popular notions which equate poetry with the use of metre, Aristotle insists that the essential characteristic of the poet is imitation.3 Given that Aristotle later suggests that the origins of the poetic art lie in natural causes, namely our imitative nature and the pleasure we derive from learning through imitation, it would seem that the art of the poet is a formalisation of impulses possessed in common by human beings. Again, this stands in sharp contrast with Plato’s view of the poet as divinely possessed, composing in an irrational frenzy, and standing aloof from his fellow human creatures. For Aristotle, the poet is an integral part of human society, rationally developing and refining basic traits which he shares with other human beings.

The second way in which artistic imitations differ from one another is in the kinds of objects they address. What is common to all arts, however, is that they imitate men involved in action (Poetics, 2). As suggested earlier, the actions Aristotle has in mind are those which have a significant moral valency. The actions imitated, says Aristotle, must either be noble or base since human character conforms to these distinctions. What lies at the basis of both human action and human character, then, is morality: it is this moral component of action and character which the artist must imitate or represent. It is within this general imperative of all art that distinctions can be made concerning the kinds of objects imitated: the latter can be better, worse or like the norm (Poetics, 2). In this one stroke Aristotle lays the foundations of two broad issues: distinctions of genre, on the one hand, and the nature of an artwork’s connection to reality on the other. Moreover, the two kinds of discussions remain indissolubly tied to the moral basis from which they proceed.

Tragedy, says Aristotle, represents men as better than the norm, Comedy as worse than the norm. While this respective deviation from moral realism yields the genres of tragedy and comedy, there is no poetic genre generated by moral realism or “likeness” to the norm. As will emerge shortly, it seems that Aristotle relegates such mechanical moral realism to the discipline of history.

The final way in which imitations can be distinguished is in the manner of presentation. Aristotle allows only two basic types: narration, in which the poet speaks in his own person or through a character; and dramatic presentation, in which the story is performed and acted out (Poetics, 3).

Aristotle traces tragedy back to heroic and epic poetry, hymns and encomia, while comedy, he suggests, has its roots in invective and iambic poetry.

The contrast between poetry and history is taken up later in the Poetics where Aristotle offers some further general comments on imitation.

It is not the function of the poet, maintains Aristotle, to narrate events that have actually happened, but rather “events such as might occur…in accordance with the laws of probability or necessity” (Poetics, 9). What distinguishes the poet from the historian is not that one writes in verse and the other in prose but precisely the fact that the poet, unlike the historian, is not constrained by the obligation to express actual events.

The conclusion Aristotle draws from this is in many ways far removed from our modern conceptions of poetry, history and realism. He infers that poetry is more “philosophical” and “serious” (spoudaioteron) than history because poetry expresses what is universal (ta kathalou), while history merely deals with individuals. Another way of putting this is to say that poetry yields general truths while history gives us particular facts. Today, we tend to think of the poet as expressing general truths only through the treatment of particular objects and detailed situations; we think of history as not merely recounting a series of events but as descrying broad patterns within these events, and as being advanced from a variety of perspectives. However, some of our notions of realism, as formulated through the nineteenth century, share with Aristotle the insistence on probability or necessity.

That poetry does not depict the details of actual events does not, for Aristotle, detract from its realism. What poetry expresses is the universal, which, for Aristotle, is more real than particular events. The poet expresses the inner structure of probability or causality which shapes events, and as such, is universalisable and transferable to other sets of events. Thus a poet will not express the contingent or accidental properties of a given person’s actions, only those elements which might operate in the actions of others. The historian is actually bound by such contingency, such inextricable immersion in particularity as divested of universal application.

Aristotle on Tragedy:

Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy is by far the most well-known section of the Poetics. It remained influential for many centuries and was not seriously challenged until the eighteenth century. It is in this treatment of tragedy that the connections between the foregoing notions — imitation, action, character, morality and plot — emerge most clearly. Here is Aristotle’s famous definition of what he calls the “essence” (ousia) of tragedy:

Tragedy is, then, an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude — by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions. (Poetics, vi.2-3)*

The Greek word used for “action” is praxis which here refers not to a particular isolated action but to an entire course of action and events that includes not only what the protagonist does but also what happens to him. In qualifying this action, Aristotle again uses the word spoudaios which means “serious” or “weighty.” As Aristotle’s later comments will reveal, this seriousness is essentially a moral seriousness. The word Aristotle uses for “complete” is telaios which refers to a situation which has reached its end or is finished. And the word megethos refers to greatness, stature or magnitude. It seems, then, that the subject matter of tragedy is a course of action which is morally serious, presents a completed unity and occupies a certain magnitude not only in terms of importance but also, as will be seen, in terms of certain prescribed constraints of time, place and complexity.Moreover, since a tragedy is essentially dramatic rather than narrative, it represents men in action, and a properly constructed tragedy will provide relief or katharsis for various emotions, primarily pity and fear. Hence the effect of tragedy on the audience is part of its very definition.

The notion of action is central to Aristotle’s view of tragedy because it underlies the other components and features, which include plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. These elements include the means of imitation (diction and song), the manner of imitation (spectacle), and the objects of imitation (actions as arranged in a plot, the character and thought of the actors). It will be remembered that Aristotle also prescribes other requirements such as completeness of action, artistic unity and emotional impact. The element of tragedy which imitates human actions is not primarily the depiction of character but the plot, which Aristotle calls the “first principle” and “the soul of tragedy” (Poetics, vi.19-20).

Aristotle’s explanation of the connection between character and plot is complex and somewhat confusing. It was already seen that, in the Nicomachean Ethics, he viewed action as arising from “choice” which in turn was generated by thought or intellect and a certain disposition of character. He also saw virtue as concerning both emotions and actions and as arising from a “fixed disposition of character”. These statements seem to imply that a given character, exercising thought in a certain way, will generate a given action. And in the Poetics he repeats this formula, saying that “thought and character are the natural causes of any action” (Poetics, vi.7-8). Yet, a little later in the Poetics, he accords priority to action in poetic representation. His reasoning seems to run as follows: tragedy is not a representation of men or of character; rather it represents a sphere “of action, of life, of happiness and unhappiness, which come under the head of action” (Poetics, vi.12).

It would be a mistake here to think that Aristotle is somehow espousing an existentialist view whereby action precedes character and the latter is actually the cumulative effect or product of a series of actions.

Aristotle has said quite clearly that a fixed disposition of character 
causes a given action, not vice versa. Why, then, does he insist that what must be represented is action rather than character? Aristotle’s subsequent comments in the Poetics help us to answer this question. It is not that he separates action from its causal basis in character. Rather, as mentioned earlier, the action represented by tragedy is not the action of a single character; it is action in a much broader sense, a sphere “of life” in which the protagonist both acts and is acted upon. This wider sense of action is given in Aristotle’s definition of the plot as “the arrangement of the incidents” (Poetics, vi.12). Because tragedy is essentially dramatic, its basis cannot be the depiction of character; as Aristotle points out, one can not have a tragedy without action, but a tragedy without character study is quite feasible (Poetics, vi.14-15). A tragedy must be based on a certain structure of events or incidents to which the specific actions of given characters contribute. This overall dramatic structure, the plot, is “the end at which tragedy aims” (Poetics, vi.13).

After repeating his formula that tragedy represents not only a complete action but also incidents that cause fear and pity, Aristotle adds an important qualification. Fear and pity are most effectively aroused when “the incidents are unexpected and yet one is a consequence of the other” (Poetics, ix. 11-12). In other words, even the generation of these emotions must result from the sequence of cause and effect represented in the play.

Though the effect of pity and fear may come as a surprise, it must nonetheless be perceived as resulting inevitably from previous events. The arousal of pity and fear, then, is an integral aspect of the unity of the plot. Aristotle does concede later that these emotions could be inspired by spectacular means (i.e. visual elements of the play on stage), but he still maintains that a better poet will produce them from the inner structure of the plot (Poetics, xiv. 1-2).

Aristotle’s explanations of the effects of fear and pity provide a further insight into the connection between character and action, as given in his renowned statement of what later came to be termed the “tragic flaw” of the protagonist. Pity, says Aristotle, is aroused by undeserved misfortune; fear is aroused when we realise that the man who suffers such misfortune is “like ourselves” (Poetics, xiii. 4). Hence these emotions cannot be inspired by a wicked man prospering; nor can they issue from seeing the misfortune suffered by either an entirely worthy man or a thoroughly bad man (Poetics, xiii. 2-4). Rather, the character in question must occupy a mean between these extremes: he must be a man “who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, and yet it is through no badness or villainy of his own that he falls into the misfortune, but rather through some flaw in him…” (Poetics, xiii. 5-6). These statements clarify considerably why a tragedy represents action rather than character. For, the “flaw” which results in misfortune is not necessarily an outcome of a person’s “fixed disposition of character”. Rather, it is an oversight, an error, into which the protagonist falls, through lack of judgement or knowledge, and it flows from his character only in an accidental and contingent manner. Hence, it is the sequence of actions, and not character, on which tragedy must focus since a given action might be uncharacteristic and might occupy a position in the sequence of cause and effect beyond the knowledge or control of any given character and beyond the status of mere expression of character.