As often in Aristotle, what seems empirical is in fact metaphysical realism. The Poetics used to leave me baffled—like others—by its narrow prescriptions. But reading it now, having made sense of Aristotle through the contemporary Aristotle revival in metaphysics, commenced by Anscombe, carried by McDowell and Jonathan Lear, and now carried by Sebastian Rodl, The Poetics seem expansive and profound in their accounts of tragedy and imitation. What the contemporary Aristotelians urge us to recall is that Aristotle is always centrally preoccupied with action and judgment in his accounts of humanity; the same is true here.
The noble status of a hero means not only birth but the power to act and the education to judge; at the same time, Aristotle admits that a person of any status might have good character and show worthy judgment in a tragedy. The account of the dignity of diction is also an account of the force of judgment behind each word, implicitly suggesting that words possess dignity when chosen by those actively deliberating (this too often correlating to one of “noble” stature, and inherited power).
Aristotle is explicit on his investment in providing an account of action: “But further: the subject represented also is an action; and the action involves agents, who must necessarily have their distinctive qualities both of character and thought, since it is from these that we ascribe certain qualities to their action. There are in the natural order of things, therefore, two causes, Thought and Character, of their actions, and consequently of their success or failure of their lives. Character is what makes us ascribe certain moral qualities to the agents; and Thought is shown in all they say when proving a particular point or, it may be, enunciating a general truth.” This is very much action as described in the Ethics where character becomes habit and formation, and thought becomes the self-conscious application of judgment to a particular instance or general truth. Similarly, elsewhere: “Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery. All human happiness or misery takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity not a quality. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse. In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the characters for the sake of the action.” Virtue depends upon action; happiness depends upon virtue, and virtue in turn depends on, and is synonymous with, good judgment. And again, in line with the Ethics: “Character in a play is that which reveals the moral purpose of the agents, i.e. the sort of thing they seek or avoid, where that is not obvious—hence there is no room for Character in a speech on a purely indifferent subject. Thought, on the other hand, is shown in all they say when proving or disproving some particular point, or enunciating some universal proposition.” Self-conscious thought is present in all reflection, speech, and deliberation, but not all self-conscious thought bears on those actions that form or represent the habits of character or the disruption of habits for the sake of a good end.
Because Tragedy depends upon the failure of judgment in an individual whose judgment is usually apt, and the suffering such a failure entails, which itself represents a move from active agency to passive sufferer, and a diminishment of the human and of the human possibility of virtue, it is essential that the hero be normally capable of good judgment. “The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a double issue the change in the hero’s fortunes must not be from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part; the man himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that.”
Readers and critics have found shortcomings in probably every passage of The Poetics, but not least its prescriptive moments: “Nor, on the other hand, should 3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g. Oedipus, Thyestes, and the men of similar families.” But this is entirely reasonable, when we take “like ourselves” to represent a the “natural goodness” of human judgment and action; we cannot know what judgment should be unless we have a sense of what it is for judgment to be naturally itself, “like ourselves,” being a standard of self-conscious, self-directed measure of such a natural tendency, an Aristotelian recognition of the first-person judgment of all first-person judgments.
And most perversely in my reading, I think it crucial when Aristotle remarks: “The tragic effect is quite possible without a public performance and actors.” Now, he might be referring to a reading, aloud presumably, or to something else, but I think what he means is that the audience-reception passages are not in fact about what a Tragedy MUST do to an audience. Otherwise, it would be strange when Aristotle writes: “The best proof is this: on the stage, and in the public performances, such plays, properly worked out, are seen to be the most truly tragic; and Euripides, even if his execution be faulty in every other point, is seen to be nevertheless the most tragic certainly of the dramatists.” The performance is the proof of something that could be otherwise established; the performance and audience reaction are not what do the establishing. What then of catharsis, of all of the pity and terror in the mind? I’d suggest that Aristotle is implying that pity and terror are in the play itself, in the characters or in the self-consciousness of the text perhaps; and if this seems too far, I’d point in a direction found in John McDowell that the mind’s judgments of the world are at one with the world itself; that pity and fear, themselves being compounded judgments, are themselves quality of the play itself. Catharsis is not an eliminating but a purifying of what these are, restoring the judgments and feelings, as they are in things, to their proper status. This isn’t do deny a first-person perspective on the play, but it is to collapse that into the play itself, to make the consciousness of the Tragedy commensurate with the consciousness of the Tragedy. Mind and world alike are relevant, the pity and fear of one, the pity and fear of the other; and in so far as the Tragedy is an imitation of the world, it is both a world and a consciousness of what is possible in the world.
But the most extreme implication of contemporary Aristotelians on The Poetics is as follows: for Rodl, the self-consciousness of (and in) action (practical judgment) and the self-consciousness of (and in) (theoretical) judgment knows itself and measures itself the concept of the good and the true. These are foundational to the power of self-consciousness; they are the orders of self-consciousness. They are also infinite orders, the good and the true being uncontained in any more particular concept. The argument is Hegelian, and is lain out in a somewhat recent lecture on “evil and forgiveness,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXNXw8wWcmw&t=28s) but I take it that the roots of this understanding of the good and the true, like much else in Rodl’s Hegel, are in Aristotle’s De Anima. I suspect they are also implicit in The Poetics, where Aristotle writes: “We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude; for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of.” A whole without magnitude is infinite; it is a concept that cannot be measured. It is this measure against which the whole action of some magnitude is judged to be either good or true; and it is also this measure which is internal to tragedy, as characters think themselves to be good or true.
Now, two obvious objections might be made to this line of thought. First, that I smuggling German Idealism into Aristotle, and if not into Aristotle, then certainly into The Poetics. Second, that Aristotle says quite clearly that Tragedy involves the representation of action; he doesn’t say anything about theoretical knowledge as its prime object of representation. To respond to both, we need to consider the extraordinary pressure that Aristotle places on the concept of “action” throughout the treatise. In response to the first, I would say that only the best possible reading of Aristotle’s action will allow us to do justice to this and other texts, and that German Idealism, and its contemporary revival, seems likely to provide that reason, returning us to and restoring our sense of what Aristotle was about, here and elsewhere. In response to the second, I’d look at a strange moment early in the text when Aristotle remarks: “as an imitator Sophocles will be on one side akin to Homer, both portraying good men; and on another to Aristophanes, since both present their personages as acting and doing.” The comparison to Homer refers to the noble status of the men, but also perhaps to their character. But how can he say that Homer does not present personages as acting and doing? The answer, I think, must lie in something that dramas provide at least in greater abundance than Homer, which is the overt deliberation and exercise of practical judgment that is inherent to action as Aristotle understands it. Aside from Achilles’ famous self-critique, Homer does not, it might be said, represent the self-consciousness of action, or self-consciousness in action, as Tragedy (and here Comedy) does. And this makes for action because for Aristotle, there is no divide between judgment and action: action is not in itself theoretical judgment, but it is, in itself, practical judgment, and it may require theoretical judgment, and certainly bears some relation to it. (A similar confusion over the virtue of the contemplative life and the virtue of the active life occurs in readings of the Ethics; is the contemplative really more virtuous? Can we not more happily, so to speak, relate the two?). In other words, action itself is measured according to both the good and the true; it requires that we know something to be true and that we know something to be good. And these infinite capacities of the good and the true, forever exceeding human grasp, forever requiring forgiveness and inspiration, are brought, in Tragedy, into contact with human life—in Tragedy especially, since there we can see, Aristotle tells us, how even the most virtuous judgment, the most well-trained deliberation, is prone to error, and how it is in fact within the normal range of human experience to get things wrong, in ways that are pitiable and terrible to know. If Aristotle does in fact think Sophocles the greatest tragedian as an artist (if less intensely tragic than Euripides) it is perhaps because Oedipus shows so vividly, in the internal consciousness of its character, what it means to live exposed to the awful immensity of the good and the true as they extend beyond the human capacity for judgment in action.