Writing Theory: Aristotle and Plato’s Contribution

In a few days’ time I get to do a bit of a talk; that is, in the absence of group members (holidays) and given the no show of Bury Borough Council plus writing course, I elected to provide a theme. Normally, group members read stuff they’ve done. This is followed up with a light exercise (here’s a theme, write on it for 10 mins). I’m coming armed with nukes: Writing Theory. This actually boils down to: a summary of Plato’s views on writing and, if we get through that, some thoughts on Aristotle’s Poetics. I’ve broke it down as:



Summing up

The Greek triumvirate of Socrates, Plato & Aristotle codified much that Western Civilisation (and its half shadow, Islam) have running through their world view & understandings. Creative writing as we know it didn’t exist at the time of the Ancient Greeks, yet that’s when literary criticism began. The Ancient Greeks had plays, poetry and Homer. Homer was often performed by rhapsodes. When Plato talks about poetry, this is in the context of his ideal colony (or city). Much of his critique centres around what fits in with his Theory of Forms and how it figures up in the quest for Ultimate Good. His arguments could be equally directed against creative writing of any kind – including Science Fiction and Fantasy (the kind of stuff I write) – after all they are relevant. Plato’s critique isn’t all in one place, rather it is scattered across several of his works. Prominent mentions are made in [Ion, Republic II, Republic II, Republic X, Gorgias, Phaedrus] which I will cover here. Plato a gives point of view / a prism for understanding the work of others

On the other hand, for Aristotle, one of Plato’s pupils, I have a single work called the Poetics which deals with both literary theory and the process of writing. It, however, suffers from the defect of being based upon student notes rather than original text.

Both Aristotle and Plato still have something to add to the process creative writing, and its critique. In compiling this I have raided my blog and other writings



Ion – In this Platonic dialog, Socrates invites Ion to explain the role of the rhapsode. Ion, as an expert rhapsode, is renowned in performing Homer and Ion considers himself to be an excellent interpreter of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Socrates suggests that Homer can’t have known what he was talking about; he was a writer not a general or a warrior. Similarly, Ion, as a performer, lacks technical knowledge of war. As neither poet nor rhapsode can demonstrate techne (art or skill) on the subject matter (war), its basis isn’t sound. Yet poetry can shape the soul. Early Socratic Dialogues

The Republic

Republic II – contrast poetic myth-making with ultimate good (of the state) and takes issue with content v moral imperative (in creating a model colony)Republic III – takes pot shots at what may act against the encouragement of virtue in the souls of the young, this means dumping Hell, depictions of tragedy or moral ambiguity eg unjust men shouldn’t be depicted as happy; this is extended to suggest that literary creation is inherently dangerous as it not only ennobles or degrades, it also exposes actors to the risk of psychic danger. Acting out myths or fiction meant putting aside reality to become a false persona. Even rhapsodes performing Homer were at risk.  The Republic
Republic X – Poetry is classified as a form of imitation. Plato alleges this to be a fatal flaw – the theory of forms has the idea of perfection at its heart (a perfect blade of grass, a perfect leaf, flower, tree, chair, table…) We aspire to the ideal even though no one can actually experience it. So how can poets know perfection? By imitating real life through fiction, poets attempt something for which they’re not equipped. What they actually do is pander to baser appetites encouraging the audience lose itself in vicarious emotions. Thus an audience can be led to enjoy the suffering of others or by deriving comedic value from crude and shameful acts, can become habituated to then and come to accept them as normal in real life. In effect poets stimulate the baser parts of the soul.

[here we move from creative writing – a medium which is fixed in form and thus easier to examine – to rhetoric – creative speaking]


Gorgias – In a similar vein to his objection to poetry, Plato launches an attack on rhetoric by arguing that all it amounts to is sophistry to flatter / please / gratify in order to subjugate another’s point of view. Strip away the ornament and you get prose directed at the hoi polloi (the mob). In effect the rhetorician is making beliefs in the souls of his audience (special pleading).

Gorgias concedes to Socrates that although it should be used justly, rhetoric can be misused. It follows from this that a rhetorician should know what justice, injustices and other moral qualities are; i.e. be a philosopher. But Socrates wrings an admission from Gorgias that he is no philosopher. At best he simulates knowledge with the aim of persuading the ignorant as is expedient.

Polus, a student of Gorgias, changes the discussion by asserting that moral qualities are irrelevant. If you wield power successfully you will be happy even if you are unjust. A more strident pupil of Gorgias, Callicles advances this argument in 483c8-d6

“But I believe that nature itself reveals that it’s a just thing for the better man and the more capable man to have a greater share than the worse man and the less capable man. Nature shows that this is so in many places; both among the other animals and in whole cities and races of men, it shows that this is what justice has been decided to be: that the superior rule the inferior and have a greater share than they”

in essence: the strong should take what they want.

This drifts off into debates about morals, the extent of the connection between happiness and virtue, the value of reason, the nature of the soul, the distinction between false and true pleasure.


Phaedrus has more on Rhetoric which I dwell on because the art of persuading people is that of persuading them to suspend disbelief (and to believe the speaker over the facts). It’s no coincidence that SF and Fantasy engages readers best in this way – see Aristotle’s Poetics, (11) on methods to achieve this.

Socrates opines that as Rhetoric cannot answer questions put to it, it isn’t a skill, but rather an art. Its usefulness in an ideal society is open to debate as it is a primary tool of politicians to convince people of untruths and it is regularly abused by politicians.

on Rhapsodes, Inspiration, and Poetry

Plato lumps Rhapsodes in with politicians (the users of Rhetoric) by dwelling on their similarity of function; to induce conviction “without questioning and explanation”. He goes on to deal with inspiration along with Bacchic frenzy, madness and possession. He splits madness into ordinary madness and divine madness. Three species of madness were commonly accepted, that of:

  • the prophets,
  • certain purifying or cathartic religious rites,
  • inspiration granted by the Muses, moving its possessor to poetry (244b-245a).

to which he adds:

  • the madness of love or eros “is given us by the gods to ensure our greatest good fortune”.


Aristotle’s Poetics is split into 11 parts and is actually based on the notes of one of his students. For this and other reasons, working it requires a bit of dedication. Three terms turn up a great deal where the most obvious English translation doesn’t always capture the original Greek meaning. These are:

  • Mimesis (imitation)
  • Hamartia (error)
  • Katharsis (purification)

Another term that comes up a bit is recognition. For this, read: a critical discovery, sudden awareness of a real situation, the hero’s insight, and optionally, the reader’s.

 The Poetics

Aristotle lived in an age where there were few lengthy narratives. There were a few outstanding works that fell outside the scope of Poetics and Aristotle refers to these explicitly and says whether they are [partly within / partly beyond] his scope.

Plays and poetry formed a significant proportion of creative output and he dwelt on them.  The Poetics gives a structure to understanding your own work. As is a general point, much that is written now is encompassed by his analysis.

Initially I read the piece along with the translator’s preparatory text. I confess to some irritation with some of the translator’s rationalisations. This is best summed up as: English affords the opportunity to nuance meaning; the translator tells us that he will translate rigidly and proceeds to do so. A writer must see that the obdurate mangling of, for example mimesis, is just plain wrong. I tried to put this out of my mind but I could see this to be a sticking point. It was. Within the first few pages of the translation I realised I’d need to read it again, without the obfuscation of the introduction. A writer should see that terms such as performance or creation usually fit better —unless the creative urge is asleep, or disabled by over reliance on formulaic approaches, imitation is then appropriate.
Rant out of the way. I read; waited a few months and read again. These notes are from a second reading.

Chapter list:
2) Poetry as a Species of Imitation
3) Background and History of Poetry
4) Tragedy
5) Plot: Basic Concepts
6) Plot: Species and Components
7) The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot
8) Other Aspects of Tragedy
9) Diction
10) Epic
11) Problems and Solutions
The Poetics back

2) Poetry as a Species of Imitation

2.1 Medium

Imitation – noted but it could be noted that parallel / resonance / other term signifying a use of a contrasting narrative form, might be inferred here
the medium of imitation is rhythm, language and melody – how about
the portrayal medium is rhythm, language and melody – or delivery

2.2 Object

drama is portrayal of people, better or worse than us – the basis of measurement being? excellence?

2.3 mode = tragedy / comedy (& voice)

3) Background and History of Poetry

3.2 Early History of poetry

Homer is seen as significant, outshining any that preceded him.
Socrates has much to say on the various verse forms; these have lesser significance now

3.3 Tragedy & 3.4 Comedy

Comedy is imitation of inferior people
Tragedy is imitation of superior people
…doesn’t scan well to me but from this I get:
If Tragedy is encouraging the audience to identify with the protagonists
Then Comedy is deflating their pretensions

Aristotle then goes on to talk about form (a pattern of thought that still echoes down the centuries…)

3.5 Epic

Poetry as Narrative

4) Tragedy

4.1 Definition

Language made pleasurable – rhythm & melody = song

4.2 Component Parts of Tragedy

Plot (organisation of events)
Character (protagonists)
Diction (verbal expression)
Reasoning (how a case is put or argued)
Lyric Poetry

4.3 Primacy of Plot

here Aristotle argues that poor characterisation makes poor tragedy

5) Plot: Basic Concepts

5.1 Completeness

The traditional form is a beginning, a middle, an end

5.2 Magnitude

Holdable in memory – up to the limits of simultaneous perspicuity (Archie’s downfall)

5.3 Unity

It must be relevant and contribute to the final denouement in the correct measure

5.4 Determinate Structure

The removal of just one element must impact on and change the whole – or it doesn’t belong

5.5) Universality

The kind of thing that would happen – in accordance with probability or necessity

5.6 Defective Plots

In which the sequence of events are neither necessary nor probable.

6) Plot, Species and Components

6.1 Astonishment

Poetic justice is where events fit a pattern and occur because of one another. More astonishment will be evoked than if the events were random or ill explained.

6.2 Simple and Complex Plots

A simple plot is where event and consequence occur with no reversals or recognition.
Complex plots involve events where reversal or recognition occurs one or more times AND are as a result of what has gone before.

6.2 Reversals

…are where an action achieves the opposite of its intent ie harm occurs although the intention is to help.

6.4 Recognition

…is a change from ignorance to knowledge. This may be final outcome e.g. a brother and sister discover they have unwittingly married, or may provoke further actions.

6.5 Suffering

Pain, wounding, agony…

6.6 Quantitative parts of Tragedy

choral part: entry song
episode + odes / other choral part

7) The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot

7.1 What should we aim at?

7.2 First Deduction

Complex, evoking fear and pity are desirable
It shouldn’t be predictable or too easy
reversal in fortune of bad guy / good guy is trite and simplistic
we are left with Mr average – some flaws who has a change in circumstance
invariably the best results are bad stuff happening in a plausible way
(eg Alcemon, Oedipus, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus
second best is reversals in fortune that leads to reconciliation (and no one gets killed by anybody)

7.3 Second introduction

The retelling of a plot should be sufficient to evoke fear / pity. The staging of spectacle should nor be confused with plot. Spectacle can be monstrous but that does not compensate for a poor plot.

7.4 Second deduction

Enemy slaying enemy, or neutral slaying neutral evokes little empathy. But close kin…
Terrible actions can be
harm planned in knowledge and not carried through – pointless
harm planned in ignorance, but no recognition occurs
harm planned in ignorance, recognition occurs after the act
recognition pre-empts the act – best

8) Other Aspects of Tragedy

8.1 Character

Goodness – denoted by speech or action (women more likely to be ruled by passion)
Appropriateness – women may be courageous but is this always appropriate?
Likeness – (obscure – presumably similar to what we know)
Consistency – even inconsistent actions should have consistency

In all things: is this plausible? probable?
Plot resolution should come from within the plot itself (joining things together / demonstrating unity) not from theatrical devices.
These devices may affect matters outside the piece.
People aren’t perfect – they can and should have flaws.

8.2 Kinds of Recognition

via omens, tokens, scars – reversals are the best
contrived by the author – not revealed in the natural flow of the story
memory (of a character)
inference – who else could it be?
nb false inference – identity is claimed by one method but proved by another
actual course of events (likely & probable) is best

8.3 Visualising the Action

…as if present to test if it works
gestures and expressions convey mood more authentically

8.4 Outlines and Episodisation
Lay the story in universal terms
determine the main narrative
each branch becomes an episode

8.5 Complication and Resolution

Everything before the change of fortune is complication
All after is resolution

8.6 Kinds of Tragedy

Complex (depending on reversal and recognition)
tragedy of suffering
tragedy of character
simple tragedy

8.7 Tragedy and Epic

Multiple stories are unsuitable for a tragedy.
Within an epic, each must be weighted appropriately

8.8 Astonishment

Astonishment is more agreeable when it achieves artistic objectives
eg someone clever but bad is deceived;
someone courageous but unjust is defeated

8.9 The Chorus

The chorus should be treated as another actor and should contribute to the story

9) Diction

9.1 Introduction

Reasoning includes proof, refutation, production of emotions and establishing importance and unimportance. It is covered in rhetoric (Archie hasn’t done rhetoric)
emotions should be evident without explicit statement
There follows an analysis of speech beginning from consonants and vowels, moving through grammar through ornament and devices that make diction seem striking

10.6 Diction should not be so brilliant that it overshadows character and reasoning

10) Epic

10.1 main plot, sub plots are episodes

different plots can develop simultaneously
conceal plot irrationalities through good story telling

11) Problems and Solutions

  • imitation = representation
  • An impossibility is an error
  • an error becomes bad art if it is clumsy or diminishes impact
  • it becomes good art if it enhances the artistic objective
  • an error of fact may be less important than one of art
  • things may be portrayed as they should be even if they aren’t
  • if a thing is neither true nor as it ought to be, then make it ‘this is what people say’
  • or say ‘this is how things were’ as if it is no longer true
  • an utterance or action can take account of time, place and person
  • use non-standard diction in place of overly accurate detail
  • use emphasis to clarify diction
  • and punctuation
  • and ambiguity (I do this a lot ‘more of the night passed’ more is ambiguous)
  • and common linguistic usage – (cf over accurate detail)
  • a contradiction may arise because a word has alternate meanings

Summing up Writing Theory

Plato’s point is: Don’t write, it’s bullshit, this is why
And Aristotle’s: Wanna’ write bullshit? Like this…


About Terence Park

Collections: vinyl records, comic books, paperbacks; I've plenty of them all. I also do spreadsheets.
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One Response to Writing Theory: Aristotle and Plato’s Contribution

  1. Pingback: My Notes on Aristotle’s Poetics | Terence Park – Blog

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