Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 20.
Ĝivind Andersen and Jon Haarberg (edd.), Making Sense of Aristotle. London: Duckworth, 2001. Pp. viii + 230. ISBN 0-7156-3131-4. UK£40.00.
The Queen's University, Belfast
This collection of ten papers records a conference held in Oslo in 2000, itself the end product of a three-year research project. It is hard to discern much common theme among the individual contributions, other than scholarly attention focused primarily, though not exclusively, on the Poetics. The title of the collection is accurately modest.
Sense is indeed made of the work, as the volume's sub-title promises. That was bound to be so, because these writers are scholars of proven competence. In most cases they have already made signal contributions to the commentary on Aristotle's work and here they address themselves with clarity and circumspection to discrete topics that can be handled in the space of a brief essay. Some pieces concentrate on the Aristotelian treatment of an issue, even where there is caution as to whether the Aristotelian approach is actually Aristotle's. Others cast their literary net wider, using Aristotle as a touchstone for a more comparative approach. Both approaches can help illuminate Aristotle's Poetics.
The topics of the Poetics on which readers should seek to quarry from this collection are: the role of aesthetic pleasure in the good life (Heath, pp. 7-23), the time-scale of tragic material and experience (Belfiori, pp. 25-49), the significance of universals in the theory of mimesis (Halliwell, pp. 87-107), the ethical significance of the same key concept (Fossheim, pp. 73-86). Moving further afield, but still within the compass of Aristotle, there are discussions of his almost vanished work on comedy (Janko, pp. 51-71).
Some of the essays seek to illuminate Aristotle's work by considering its influence on subsequent theorists and artists. Here we have a discussion of Aristotle's influence on early Roman tragedy (Feltham, pp. 109-25), his reception in the theories of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century poetic, particularly Giraldi and Shakespeare (Javitch, pp. 127-44, and Minsaas, pp. 145-71), reflections of Aristotle in the theories of Rapin and Brecht (Silk, pp. 173-95), and likewise of Goethe (Cave, pp. 197-214). The last named author helpfully constructs a hermeneutic map of the different approaches to the Poetics which are adopted by his co-contributors in the volume.
The book ranges interestingly over a great deal of the Aristotelian text and also the numerous literary traditions which look back to Aristotle. In what follows I shall concentrate on the essays of Halliwell and Heath which bear directly on central themes in the Poetics. In my view both these pieces, and the volume generally, might have been usefully supplemented by awareness not only of how Aristotle's influence reaches forward into later tradition, but also of how he himself looks back dialectically to the sources of his own problems.
Stephen Halliwell works together two themes -- the importance of mimesis in Aristotle's account of human nature, and the claims about the philosophical character of tragedy in Poetics 9. In the latter text Aristotle famously categorises tragedy (here generically called 'poetry') as more philosophical than history, on the ground that it is concerned with the universal while the history sticks with the particular. Tragedy shows the sorts of things that might get done, while history recounts actual individual events, and that makes the former more philosophical and 'worthy' than the latter.
Halliwell rightly probes the terms of Aristotle's contrast between the two genres. If history tells us what Alcibiades did at Syracuse, is not a tragedy similarly specific in its depiction of people and events? It certainly does not present universals in the manner that a scientific treatise, conceived after the prescriptions of the Posterior Analytics, might do. Halliwell presses the point that tragedy is mimetic; it operates through comparisons -- and recognitions of comparisons -- between individuals. The intellectual benefits of tragedy are expressed in terms of such comparisons. So how do universals play the role that they must do if this judgement about the philosophical character of tragedy is to be supported?
His answer is to remind us that in Aristotle's general philosophy universals are not separate entities but instead should be understood as immanent in the individuals which they serve to connect. This is how art is able to function as a valuable bridge in human intellectual progression from perception and experience to scientific knowledge and wisdom, as that process is outlined in Metaphysics A and Nicomachean Ethics Z. There is a certain kind of insight that can portray the universal through -- because in -- the individual and that is how art in its mimetic manner contributes to human knowledge.
This sound analysis of Aristotle's epistemology enables Halliwell to avoid a number of pitfalls in his reading of Poetics 9. But a richer reading is available if we bear in mind the Platonic background against which Aristotle is working. One of Plato's main criticisms of art, including tragedy, as an aid to human rationality concerned the ontological deficiency of the material which it handles. Copies of copies are feeble guides to the true nature of reality. There is, therefore, considerable piquancy in Aristotle's commentary on these ideas here in the Poetics. Not only is the subject matter of poetry at least as real as is that of history; it contains greater reference to precisely that element in things -- the universal -- that supplied understanding for Plato. Just as with his revision of Plato's ontology, so in aesthetic theory too Aristotle explicitly corrects the judgements of his predecessor.
Malcolm Heath is interested in the peculiar character of the pleasure that Aristotle attributes to the spectacle of tragedy. He is scrupulous in identifying his problem. The events of tragedy about which pleasure might plausibly be felt, are certainly not apt to excite that feeling in a context other than the aesthetic. Moreover the greater emphasis we place on the role played by mimesis in the experience of tragedy, the more likely we are to delineate too broad a range of experience for the purpose in hand. The focus of aesthetic reaction must be on the plot, not on other features -- like words or spectacle -- that might arouse pleasure.
He reviews the life of leisured excellence, in particular as described in Politics Theta, and on this basis he argues that where an audience that views a tragedy contains such members, their moral excellence makes their response of pity and fear to the tragic events an appropriately pleasurable response. So their pleasure is justified precisely by the focus of their attention on the pitiable actions of the plot. Heath himself finds this account of the pleasure in tragedy implausible, and he is doubtful whether it can truly be attributed to Aristotle. I agree on both counts. A better line, I suggest, is to construe pleasure in tragedy as the kind of 'mixed case', involving elements of pain as well as pleasure. Aristotle wrestled with the legacy of the thoughts of Eudoxus and Plato on this topic and in Nicomachean Ethics K2-4 he shows how anti-hedonism is not entailed by a refusal to assign pleasure the highest value. The way through the dialectical minefield lies in recognising how the mixed cases do not simply combine good and bad elements. The pleasure of tragedy supplies an excellent example of this phenomenon.
My point in both these examples is that there would be interpretative gain in paying more attention to the dialectical background to Aristotle's own discussion, as he himself in many contexts -- although not much in the Poetics -- enjoins us to do. This line of thought is notably missing from the otherwise comprehensive discussions in the volume.
There is much more in the collection than I have been able to discuss in any detail. The editors (who contribute an introduction, pp. 1-5, a bibliography, pp. 215-17, an index locorum, pp. 219-23, and a general index, pp. 225-30) are to be congratulated on a well turned enterprise. Read it with profit.