Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, July 06, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (Entertainment and Education)

Why do we go to movies?  One GB participant said it keeps life from being blah.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1) Freud said “Life is too hard for us.”  So according to Freud we go to movies for the same reason we drink booze, use mind-altering drugs, play video games or turn to religion.  These are all just various forms of psychological escapism.  We use any means we can find to escape from real life.  Modern Man is constantly seeking relief from the psychological stress and meaninglessness of modern civilization.  Freud put it this way: “The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.”  Aristotle thinks that’s just plain nonsense.  According to him (On Happiness GB1) “the good which we have been seeking is a human good and the happiness a human happiness.”  Most people don’t go to movies to escape from real life.  We go because it’s a very human thing to do.  We go to be entertained and, in a looser sense of the term, to become educated.  We learn about the world around us by seeing life through the eyes of the director and rest of the film crew.

But as Hamlet (GB3) says “all the world’s a stage.”  So why can’t we just go get entertained and become educated by watching “real life” on a street corner somewhere?  Because we’re not Shakespeare or Aristotle or Sophocles or Euripides.  To rise to the level of art real life has to be filtered through carefully chosen words and images.  A total experience, what Aristotle calls “a complete whole,” must be condensed into a story lasting no more than two or three hours.  Condensing a story requires the precision of a good artist.  In this section Aristotle shows four ways the good artist portrays a well-defined Character.  First, “All the characters should be good.”  This sounds a little priggish.  There are lots of modern movies with bad guys.  There were lots of plays in his own day with bad guys.  So what can he mean by this?  Aristotle says “goodness is possible in every type of person.”  We don’t go to movies to become worse people.  We don’t necessarily go to movies to become better people either.  But Aristotle says “Tragedy is an imitation of persons better than the average man.”  We assume then that most people (average people) go to a movie to see performers acting better than they themselves could do (either literally on the stage or figuratively in the plot).  That’s the entertainment part.  And we learn by imitating (either consciously or subconsciously) the actors.  That’s the education part. 

Whether art (movies, music, painting, poetry, etc.) can make us better people is not Aristotle’s focus in this selection.  That would be the subject of Ethics.  He’s really just evaluating the technical details of Tragedy; what makes it either good or bad.  And that’s more in the realm of Aesthetics.  Aristotle thinks every subject can only be as precise as that subject allows.  Obviously Tragedy is not Mathematics but he still thinks we can deduce common characteristics from the many dramatic performances we’ve seen.  Here are the three other rules Aristotle would use in delineating Character.  “All the characters should be appropriate.”  “All the characters should be like the original.”  “All characters should remain consistent throughout the play.”  Each one of these rules takes some serious thinking to determine exactly what Aristotle means.  But they’re well worth the effort.  It’s all part of Aristotle’s method of educating the theater- (or movie-) goer about how to distinguish between good art and bad art.  Obviously our world is much different than the world Aristotle lived in.  Or is it?  The question is still the same.  What’s the difference between entertainment and education?  Aristotle thought those two activities could converge through art.  Good art can be entertaining even as it educates us to become better people.  Surely (despite Freud) this is a message that can still resonate in the modern world.


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