Aristotelian philosophy teaches that knowing material reality can be achieved by properly identifying the essential traits of things and distinguishing things from other things by forming classification schemes based on those traits. The theory's great power is that it canproduce useful, independently verifiable categories of analysis--if we all can agree on the epic's essential traits, then we can conduct reasonable scholarly discussions about epics. Since Aristotle also was interested (like his teacher, Plato) in the proper organization of human communities, from the one-family "oikos" (whence "economy") to the city-state of the "polis," he also tried to describe the social functions of literature. This continues to be an important line of study in modern literary theory. One of the method's weakness arises from disagreements about what, if anything, can be called essential from the start ("a priori"), outside some kind of social, political, historical processes that made it. A second weakness, shared by some practitioners of Structuralism (q.v.), is Aristotle's fondness for defnition and categorizatino by "binary oppositions": states which are supposed to be mutually exclusive (i.e., "live or dead," "on or off," in that you can't be both, but must be one or the other). Many of the oppositions by which he constructed his literary analysis are suspect or simply wrong, at least in our own era (e.g., "comedy or tragedy" has become confused with tragi-comedy and satire). Post-Aristotelian thinking tends to avoid relying upon unexamined binary oppositions and to look backwards, in order to situate literature's traits in the processes which created them, but otherwise we owe a great methodological debt to "The Philosopher," as he was known to medieval readers.
Some Aristotelian principles--
1) Genre and generic attributes
Aristotle sought to anchor his definitions of literary genres in exemplary works and authors. Of tragedians, he considered Sophocles the best, and his Oedipus Tyrannus ("Oedipus the King") the finest example. That's immediately debatable because great works by two other major tragedians survived (Aeschylus and Euripides). In the case of epics, his task was easier because only one author's work were widely known to him, those of Homer. According to Aristotle, the lost Homeric mock battle narrative, Margites, is to comic drama as the Iliad and the Odyssey are to tragedy. Note that this suggests genres originate in pairs, each balancing qualities the other excells in with qualities it lacks and its partner has in abundance. When distinguishing between epic and tragedy, he said epic has a multiplicity of plots, each of which is fully developed in the epic's larger scope, but the tragedy is a compressed development of a single plot. Aristotle says epics have a major advantage over tragedy because of their multiplicity of incident, the capacity to enlarge its action to incorporate several series of events which may have happened simultaneously [representing them in narrative series by means of flashbacks, etc.].
2) Mimesis / Imitation
For Aristotle, all literature is an art of imitation (Gk. mimesis, whence "mime"). As artists imitated life to produce their literature, audiences would be inspired to imitate, in some fashion, what they read, heard or saw on the stage. The social function of epic as an exemplar of good behavior was easier for Aristotle to assume in Classical Greece. Recently, the hero-aesthetic has been dethroned as a necessary and great model of human aspiration, at least as it motivates citizens to become warriors. Comedy produced an immediate problem for Aristotle, however, since comedies tend to be about bad behavior and people doing ugly, immoral, or ridiculous things. He accepted that the primary object of comedy as imitation: imitation of low characters--not morally bad, but ludicrous, ugly but not painful or destructive. He...
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