28 pages 56 minutes read



Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Poetics, written around 335 BCE, is one of the most important works of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. This guide refers to the 2013 Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated and edited by Anthony Kenny.

Poetics sets out to analyze the nature and uses of poetry. To Aristotle, poetry doesn’t just mean verse but theater; the works he examines are mostly plays. While Poetics is one of the most influential works of world philosophy, it’s also incomplete: The section on comedy is long-lost and only Aristotle’s thoughts on tragedy and epic remain.

As Aristotle lays it out, the role of a tragedy is to inspire pity and terror, thus provoking catharsis—emotional release—in the audience, allowing them to purge themselves of repressed feeling. Tragedy thereby serves a social as well as an aesthetic purpose: It’s sort of like a controlled burn— eating up the underbrush so the whole forest doesn’t burn down.

Good tragedies should meet a number of criteria. They should deal with believable, consistent characters—who are nonetheless just a little better and more intensely drawn than real people. They should involve a revelation, discovery, or recognition. And they should take place in a concentrated span of no more than 24 hours, all in one setting, and focused on a single plotline. (Epic poetry, on the other hand, can take as long as it likes, but should still have a clear plot thread with a marked beginning, middle, and end.)

Plot is deeply important to Aristotle’s conception of tragedy. In his view, the mere description of a tragic plot should be enough to evoke pity and fear in listeners. Tragic plots should not just be affecting, but plausible and consistent; too many writers, in Aristotle’s view, fall back on easy coincidences or violent, unearned shifts in character to move from point A to point B.

The trick, he argues, is for poets to truly inhabit their scenes as they write, envisioning the scene and feeling with the characters. While poetic truth is different from scientific truth, it must obey its own internally-consistent laws.