Aristotle was the great disciple of Plato, and it was he who took up the challenge of Plato to show that poetry was not only pleasant but also useful for humanity. Though Aristotle does not directly refer to Plato, yet much of the Poetics is a covert reply to his great master. Aristotle suggests that poetry moulds the character of the individual.
In contrast to his master, he said that the poet’s or the artist’s world was not a shadow of shadows, but a real world made more pleasant by the artistic vision. Imitation is a creative process. The poet while imitating reality transforms it into something new and much higher. Aristotle brought the emotions within the range of imitation.
Plato likened poetry to painting : Aristotle likened it to music. According to Plato, poetry imitates only surface appearances, as does a painter; according to Aristotle, poetry imitates not only the externals, but also internal emotions and experiences.
In Plato’s view, poetry presents a copy of nature as it is. According to Aristotle, poetry may imitate men as they are, or better or worse. Poetry is not concerned so much with what is but with what ought to be. Poetry gives us an idealised version of reality. Thus the two differ widely in their views on poetic truth.
Plato condemned poetry on moral, intellectual and emotional grounds. Aristotle takes up the objections of Plato one by one, and justifies poetry morally, emotionally and intellectually. He is the first to use the term Katharsis in connection with tragedy, and this part of the Poetics is highly original and moving. We get no corresponding theory in Plato. The theory of Katharsis enables Aristotle to demonstrate the healthy influence which poetry, in general, and tragedy, in particular, exercises over the emotions.
Plato had taken up the cudgels on behalf of philosophy, and his purpose was to show that philosophy is superior to poetry, and so philosophy must replace poetry in the schools; Aristotle on the other hand, takes up the cudgels on behalf of poetry and effectively brings out its superiority. In his view, poetry is to be preferred both to history and philosophy.
Plato regarded the emotions as undesirable and so advocated their repression; Aristotle, on the other hand, stresses the need for emotional outlets. “Doubtlessly, Aristotle was never in this than Plato with hisphobea of emotion” (Lucas). Emotions may be controlled and guided, but they must not be suppressed.
This is how Aristotle defends poetry against the attack of Plato and establishes that poetry is not only pleasant but also useful.
Q. 6. Give your estimate of Plato’s greatness as a critic. What is his contribution?
Ans. Though Plato is not a formal critic, nor did he write any formal treatises on literary criticism, yet through his observations on poetry, drama and style in his Dialogues and Republic X, he contributed significantly to develop literary criticism. His views on poetic inspiration, imitation, and condemnation of poetry are of historical significance and literary interest. They are thought-provoking and have generated currents and crosscurrents of thoughts.
“In his works, appears for the first time the conception of mimesis or imitation as the essential characteristic of all arts.” (Atkins). All the arts are related in essence, for they all imitate nature; here thus is the first attempt to co-relate the arts. Further he divides the arts into (a) the fine arts, and (b) the useful arts (as, for example, medicine, agriculture, etc.)
Similarly, he makes a significant advance in his views on inspiration, when he regards it as an ecstatic power, a form of spiritual exaltation which sends the soul in quest of ideal beauty. It liberates the soul from the bondage of custom and convention and carries man nearer to truth. He regards inspiration as an ecstatic power, a form of spiritual exaltation which sends the soul in quest of ideal beauty. It liberates the soul from the bondage of custom and convention and carries man nearer to truth. Poetry is inspiration but it is also an art. As the artist has to select and organize his material he must have knowledge of the rules and techniques of his art. He must follow the law of order and restraint, and study and exercise and learning are essential. Thus art is both inspiration and perspiration.
Plato is the first to emphasise the doctrine of artistic unity. He emphasises, for the first time, that organic unity is essential for success in all arts. He compares a work of art to a living organism, having a body, as well as a head and feet, a middle and extremities, in perfect keeping with one another and the whole. He thus desires not only the unity and completeness that is provided by a suitable beginning, middle and end, but also a harmonious inter-relation of the different parts. Artistic unity means that no parts could be changed or omitted without an injury to the whole work.
His classification of poetry into dithyrambic (lyric), epic and dramatic, on the basis of methods of narration originated the classification of poetry into forms or styles.
“With his remarks on Comedy may be said to begin the theory of the ludicrous in antiquity” (Atkins). When he says that ludicrous is the outcome, to some extent, of defects, in friends, i.e. those with whom we are in sympathy, he hints at a profound truth, for true laughter can result only when we like the person exposed to ridicule. However, Plato is against excessive laughter on the ground that it leads to equally violent reactions.
As regards the function of poetry, he is definitely of the view that it is not merely the giving of pleasure, but the moulding of human character, the bringing out of the best that is latent in the human soul. In his observations that poetry must be characterised by austerity, order, and restraint, he is the founder of the classical ideals of artistic beauty. He is also the first to emphasize the value of decorum in art. He condemns incongruities of style, melody and rhythm, and also the ridiculous mixture of tragic and comic elements in drama.
Plato lays down high standards for literary criticism. A critic must have courage, knowledge and wisdom, he must lead the many, and be not led by them. Tastes of the general public cannot determine literary standards. With him literary criticism really begins, he set man thinking, he gave inspiration and direction to critical efforts, and at the same time he supplied ideas for generations to come. It was in this way that he made later criticism possible.” He placed criticism on an exalted plane.
Plato is the first literary critic of repute. Atkins says that he is “one of the greatest of critics, in the truest sense a light-bringer, ever guiding men’s steps to the spiritual side of art.” Both by his example and practice he has exercised tremendous influence on the advocates and the antagonists of poetry and fine arts. In succeeding ages the Puritans and poets like Shelley and the neo-Platonists have invoked his canons of aesthetic criticism in upholding the dignity of art and letters. He has been a source of inspiration to many a critic but his approach to art and poetry has been philosophical. Though he was more concerned with the foundation of an ideal state rather than with literature, his pronouncements on art and poetry, scattered in almost all his writings, have formed the bed-rock for criticism in succeeding ages.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
1. The first scholar to develop criticism by his views on poetic inspiration, imitations and function poetry and drama.
2. In his works appears for the first time the principle of mimesis (imitation) as the essential characteristic of all arts.
3. Plato makes a significant advance by regarding inspiration as an ecstatic power.
4. The first to emphasize the doctrine of artistic unity.
5. The first to classify poetry into lyric, epic and dramatic poetry.
6. He began the theory of the ludicrous in comedy.
7. The founder of the classical ideals of artistic beauty.
8. The first to lay down the essential qualifications of a critic.
9. The first literary critic of repute, the true guide and light-giver.