Aristotle's Poetics in Greek
Portrait of Aristotle
Poetics (On the Topic of the Art of Literary Composition)

Section 1

(1447a.8)  Introduction, defining literature as an imitative art and categorizing the different genres according to: 1) the means of imitation; 2) the object imitated; 3) the manner of imitation. The means of imitation (rhythm, language and melody) are defined and discussed.

Section 2

(1448a.1)  Discussion of the objects of imitation: human beings. Artistic representations of people fall into 3 categories: better, worse or the same as us. Different literary genres use different categories.

Section 3

(1448a.18)  Categorization of the manner of representation: 1) a mixture of authorial narration with dramatic representation, as in the Homeric epics; 2) narration alone; 3) dramatic representation alone. Digression on the geographic origins of tragedy and comedy.

Section 4

(1448b.4)  The historical development of poetry. Its origins in the human love of imitation. Its divergence into noble poetry (heroic verse) and ignoble poetry (iambics), culminating in two distinct dramatic genres: tragedy and comedy. The historical development of tragedy.

Section 5

(1449a.32)  Comedy defined as an imitation of ridiculous human beings. An incomplete history of its development. Epic and tragedy compared.

Section 6

(1449b.21)  The definition of tragedy. Its six components: 1) story; 2) personalities; 3) stylized speech; 4) thought; 5) visual spectacle; 6) music. Definitions of the six components, with emphasis on the primacy of plot.

Section 7

(1450b.21)  Analysis of the action of tragedy. It must have 3 parts: beginning, middle and end. It must be long enough to be impressive and to allow the characters to pass from failure to success or the reverse through a logical chain of events.

Section 8

(1451a.16)  Discussion of the unity of plot, which depends upon representing a single action rather than representing a single protagonist. The story must consist of a series of events that form a unified whole, none of whose parts could be changed, moved or subtracted without destroying the entire structure.

Section 9

(1451a.37)  Definition and analysis of the art of fiction. The poet must compose a story that convinces the audience by means of the probability or inevitability of the human behavior being represented. Fiction is thus more serious and philosophical than history, because it deals with the universals of human life rather than with particulars, which is why good fiction rings true for the audience even when dealing with stories that are invented or obscure. [Aristotle here makes the surprising side remark that the Greek myths underlying the tragedies were not universally known to their audience but rather were the province of a select few. This section of the Poetics deserves careful attention, both for that reason and because of its elevation of the art of fiction to a branch of philosophy.] The worst plots are episodic. The best plots use incidents that manage to be surprising while still being logically connected. 

Section 10

(1452a.11) A distinction is drawn between simple and complex plots. Complex plots involve reversal or recognition.  

Section 11

(1452a.22) Analysis of the two previously mentioned plot devices: reversal and recognition. Mention of a third plot device: calamity.

Section 12

(1452b.14) Digression to define the quantitative parts of tragedy: prologue, episode, exode and chorus (parode and stasimon).

Section 13

(1452b.28) Definition of the ideal plot: complex but with a single outcome, a change from good to bad fortune, precipitated by the tragic error of the main character, who is neither good nor evil but simply flawed.

Section 14

Section 15

Section 16

Section 17

Section 18

Section 19

Section 20

Section 21

Section 22

Section 23

Section 24

Section 25

Section 26


Index of Terms



Note: The numbers in parentheses refer to pages, columns (a/b) and line numbers in the monumental edition of Aristotle's works published in the nineteenth century by the Prussian Academy of Sciences and edited by Augustus Immanuel Bekker.

For an approximation of the type of music that would have been heard in the tragic theater of classical Athens, Musique de la Grèce Antique, a CD from Harmonia Mundi, is highly recommended. It is based on actual musical transcriptions that have survived on fragments of papyrus and marble. Gregorio Paniagua conducts the Atrium Musicae de Madrid.