Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, June 26, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (Literature and History)

The Great Books of the Western World set begins with Homer.  But the Preface quickly states “Readers who are startled to find the Bible omitted from the set will be reassured to learn that this was done only because Bibles are already widely distributed, and it was felt unnecessary to bring another, by way of this set, into homes that had several already.”  Western literature may really begin with the book of Genesis, or maybe the book of Job, but Homer is unquestionably at the forefront of any history of Western culture.  Homer’s stories have inspired artists, poets and dramatists from Aeschylus (Agamemnon GB 3 458 B.C.) to the Coen brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000 A.D.)  There’s a good reason why.  Aristotle knows poetic genius when he sees it.  He says “Homer…In writing the Odyssey did not include all of the hero’s adventures…No, what Homer did in the Odyssey, as also in the Iliad (GB 3), was to take an action with a unity…”  What does Aristotle mean by “action with a unity”?  The Trojan War lasted more than ten years.  When Homer wrote the Iliad he didn’t try to tell everything that happened at Troy.  And he didn’t begin the Iliad in year one.  That’s what historians do.  But neither did Homer start his story at any randomly chosen point in time.  That’s what bad poets do.  Homer begins his tale with a feud between Agamemnon (leader of the Greek expedition) and Achilles (the best Greek warrior) over the spoils of war (Chryseis and Briseis, captured Trojan women, the “booty” of war).  Their feud takes place after the Greeks had already been besieging Troy for nine years.  From this one incident the story goes on to explore the whole range of what it means to be human.  The Iliad is really just a long meditation on human activities.  It covers love and hate, life and death, war and peace.  Homer’s poetic genius compresses all these activities and emotions into one coherent story.  This is what Aristotle calls “action with unity.”  It all makes sense.  The characters in the Iliad drink wine and roast meat; they make love, fight one another and do all those things normal human beings do.  We see ourselves through them.  This is powerful literature.                   

A historian would tell a different story with a different purpose.  Aristotle says “the poet’s function is to describe not what has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen.”  For Homer it doesn’t matter whether the Trojan War really happened.  The important thing is to show how it feels to be Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector and Odysseus.  Herodotus (Persian Wars, GB 2) tells stories too.  But his primary purpose in writing history is to tell what happened when real Greeks and real Persians fought real battles.  Later on Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, GB 3) specifically calls his book a “history.”  His style is more analytic and less poetic than Herodotus.  Aristotle thinks it’s important to distinguish between genres.  How can I tell if I’m reading poetry or history?  Aristotle offers this distinction: “Where the historian really differs from the poet is in his describing what has happened, while the poet describes the kind of thing that might happen.  Poetry therefore is more philosophic and of greater significance than history, for its statements are the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are particulars.”  We started with literature; then considered history.  Now Aristotle wants to bring in philosophy too.  That’s as it should be.  The best liberal education combines literature and philosophy with history and even adds mathematics and science with the fine arts thrown in as well.  Western culture was built on these ideas; from poets like Homer, philosophers like Aristotle, and historians like Herodotus and Thucydides.  We are their cultural heirs; but only if we take the time to read them.


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