Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


One question that never seems to get resolved is this: what’s beautiful and what’s not? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, as we’ve often heard? Or is beauty somehow in the object itself? The “eye of the beholder” may help us determine what’s beautiful in the visual arts but what about music? How can we tell if something we hear is beautiful? By the emotional impact it has on us? If that’s the case, were the Beach Boys better than the Beatles? Was Bach better than Beethoven? There’s a strong current of thought in contemporary society that all beauty is merely subjective: I know what I like, and that ain’t it. Aristotle doesn’t agree. He thinks that art, like any other subject, can be clarified by rational analysis. Aristotle’s general method is to take a complex subject and break it down into simpler parts that are easier to understand. In this selection he takes drama as his example. There are two types of drama: Comedy and Tragedy. Let’s deal with Tragedy. As Aristotle sees it every tragedy must contain six (and ONLY six) parts which determine its quality. They are (1) spectacle, (2) melody, (3) diction, (4) character, (5) thought, and (6) plot. That’s an impressive start. But is it true? Are there ONLY six parts to a tragic play? Can you come up with any others? Off the top of my head I can’t. Not only does Aristotle think there are these six parts but he even ranks them in order of importance: Plot is the first essential; the very soul of Tragedy. Character comes second… Third comes Thought… (Thought is quite distinct from Character… Character in a tragedy is that which reveals the WILL of the agents (the kind of things they choose or reject… Thought on the other hand is shown in all that is said)… Fourth among the literary elements is Diction, the expression of thoughts in words… Melody (is Fifth and)… Spectacle is the least artistic of all the parts and has least connection with the art of poetry. Here there may be room for legitimate disagreement. Is Plot really more important than Character? Some authors may think it’s more important to concentrate on Character. Can there be tragedy when nothing much happens? Aristotle states his opinion firmly: Plot is the very soul of Tragedy. It can’t get any clearer than that. He would probably not be impressed with many of today’s films. Spectacle is at the bottom of the list as the least artistic of all the parts and has least connection with the art of poetry. Using special effects cheats the audience of its own imagination. On the other hand, this essay deals strictly with the art of Tragedy. It’s not the purpose of tragedy to wow us with flaming car chases or galactic firefights. Aristotle says that one must not expect every kind of pleasure from a tragedy but only its own distinctive pleasure. Car chases and space ships don’t move us. They thrill us but they don’t make us feel sorry for the actors. We have to be deeply moved by the action because for Aristotle Tragedy is a form of poetry. And in his opinion the poet’s function is to describe not what HAS happened, but the kind of thing that MIGHT happen… Why is this important? What difference does it make? For starters, it means that poetry is more important than history. Why? Where the historian differs from the poet is in his describing what has happened, while the poet describes the kind of thing that might have happened. Poetry therefore is more philosophic and of greater significance that history, for its statements are the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are particulars. A movie about an historical event will show us what happened to specific people at a particular place in a particular time. The writer or director can’t change the outcome of a historic film about Queen Elizabeth. But the writer or director CAN change what happens long ago and far away to a king named Lear. So in Aristotle’s view Tragedy by its very nature is a “philosophic” endeavor. Its whole purpose is to give us deeper insight into life. Is this beauty? Or is it wisdom? Good tragic drama seems to be both. For Aristotle, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but resides in the content of the play itself. Good tragedy is a kind of wisdom expressed beautifully; bad tragedy is just plain ugly.


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