Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (and Beauty)

There’s an old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I may think one thing is beautiful and you may think something else is beautiful.  And if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder then we’re both right.  Our assumption is people don’t agree on the meaning of beauty.  But this is a troubling assumption.  For one thing we’re questioning the very foundation of language and the meaning of words.  If we agree the word beauty means one thing for me and another thing for you does the same claim hold true for the word justice?  Is there one “justice” for me and another one for you?  Is there one “history” for me and a different History for you?  This is a problem.  Maybe it’s all just a problem of semantics, a confusion of words.  But maybe it’s a very real and practical problem.  If we adopt the motto that beauty is in the eye of the beholder are we willing to go on and make the claim that any painting is just as good as any another?  Then why do some paintings cost a fortune while others end up in the trash?  We could ask the same thing about movies, books, songs, furniture or clothes.  What makes one thing more beautiful or more valuable than another?  Is it entirely personal preference?

Aristotle doesn’t think so.  He answers that question in this week’s reading selection taken from his Poetics.  As usual he doesn’t try to tackle the whole problem all at once.  Aristotle takes complicated problems and breaks them down into simpler parts.  In this case he restricts the idea of beauty to “poetry” and even further limits his scope by saying, “We shall have something to say about Epic poetry and Comedy later on.  Let us now consider Tragedy…”  What he wants to do is lay down some basic principles we can use to evaluate performances of tragic drama.  A Tragedy (King Lear for example) is a very complex artistic creation.  Aristotle’s goal is to break tragedy down into simpler components.  First he defines tragedy so we begin with the same notion of what it is: “A tragedy is the imitation of an action.”  That’s pretty simple.  Then he describes four requirements of tragedy: (1) it needs to be “serious, have magnitude, and be complete in itself.”  A tragedy is not a modern-day sitcom.  (2) It has to have “language with pleasurable accessories.”  The characters need to speak in noble language that elevates the soul; no slang terms or street talk.  (Note: in Aristotle’s day tragedies were performed like modern operas and included music.  He says “pleasurable accessories” should also include “rhythm and harmony or song superadded.”)  (3) It is “a dramatic as distinct from a narrative form.”  A tragedy is a play, not a novel.  The story has to be told through dialog between characters.  (4) It should include “incidents arousing pity and fear.”  We should feel sorry for the characters and be afraid that the same thing could happen to us.

These are the four basic elements Aristotle uses to designate tragedy.  Of course we don’t have to agree with him.  For example, does tragedy necessarily have to use noble language?  Consider the American hit play and movie West Side Story.  We might tell Aristotle the characters in West Side Story use street language.  But it’s still a tragedy.  Aristotle might reply that’s your opinion because you live in a democracy and your standards are low.  Plots about street gangs do not make good Tragedies.  Or he might say: you’re right.  I lived a long time ago and times have changed.  Then we’d be faced with this question.  Can ugly characters using ugly language still tell a beautiful story?  Now we’re right back where we started; what do we mean by beauty?  Can a sad movie be beautiful?  Aristotle wants to train the beholder’s eye to see beauty even in tragedy.   


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