BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This volume is one in a large series of books that provide concise outlines of various subjects using graphics for support. In this case, it examines the philosophy of aesthetics. Aesthetics (the study of perception, sensation, and beauty) is a sub-discipline of axiology (the study of value), which – in turn – is a sub-discipline of philosophy.

The book consists of over one-hundred short (1 to 2 page) sections that present aesthetics from various angles. Some of that chapters focus on philosophers that had a particular impact on the subject, including: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Nietzsche, Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard. Others examine the approaches to evaluating aesthetics during various eras, including: ancient, medieval, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romance, Modern, Post-modern. Some define key terms, and others relate the subject to the broader human world. Still others relate the subject to other philosophical concepts, such as: reality, semiotics, or modes of governance and economy. There are sections that explore the subject’s classic questions, such as: “Are truth and beauty synonymous?” and “Should art have a purpose, and – if so – what?”

This entire series uses graphics as a support for the text. As with many of the books in the series, this volume mostly uses cartoon drawings that repeat key lessons from the text, sort of like an elaborate text-box. I can’t say that there was any point at which these graphics made anything easier to understand, but they don’t hurt either.

I found this book useful in getting a basic overview of the topic. There were times when it felt like it was straying from the topic of aesthetics, but I think that was just because so much of philosophy from post-modernism onwards looks at everything through a certain lens, regardless of whether such an examination seems particularly relevant or not (e.g. psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc.) [It’s interesting to think about “Communist Aesthetics” as the very term seems like an oxymoron. If you’ve ever seen the brutalist architecture or sculptures of Cold War Eastern Europe, you might conclude that the absence of aesthetic viewpoint was the prevailing Communist aesthetic viewpoint.] At any rate, while the book is not highly engaging reading, it’s a quick and concise outline of the subject (which is what it’s meant to be.)

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