This Boise State University e-Classics Internet Library ebook
The Poetics, by Aristotle
was composed from the public domain text
found on a prominent public domain web site.
Its public domain graphics of The School of Athens by Raphael
came from wikimedia commons.
It was designed and edited by Clay Morgan of Boise State University,
and a Senior Seminar student editorial board, including Brittany Dozier,
Ciara Gearheard, Garrett Hostmeyer, Amy Howarth, Laura Johnston, Megan Justice, Cooper Lee, Melody Paris, Michelle Perreira, Jason Richter
and Nicholas Richy.
This ebook is dedicated to
Michael S. Hart
1947 – 2011
Director, The Story Initiative
Boise State University
Forward, by Clay Morgan
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher (384 BCE – 322 BCE) shaped the way we moderns view the structure of stories. He may have been the first to analyze, recognize and categorize the structure and elements of successful stories, and his influence remains strong. Indeed, it may be strongest in the dominant literature of today — Hollywood movies — which thrive by adhering to Aristotle’s Poetics elements: beginnings, middles and ends; realizations and revelations; and reversals of fortune and situation.
Aristotle comes third in a line of an amazing succession of teachers and students. Socrates (469 BCE – 399 BCE) developed inquiry and dialogue. Socrates taught Plato (424 BCE – 348 BCE), who developed intellectual thinking to such an extent that philosophy itself has been called Plato’s invention. Plato taught Aristotle, who developed logic and scientific study. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE), who conquered much of the world that was known to the Greeks.
Born in northern Greece to the King of Macedon’s court physician, Aristotle studied in Athens at Plato’s Academy. King Philip II of Macedon hired him to tutor his son, Alexander, who later subdued the Greek city states and went on to conquer the Persian Empire. Under Alexander’s protection, Aristotle lived in Athens. When Alexander died, Aristotle fled Athens, and died soon after.
His was the best of minds in the worst of times. When Aristotle wrote The Poetics, around 335 BCE, the Golden Age of Greece was ending, the dominant city-states of Athens and Sparta had practically destroyed each other in war, and Alexander the Great was off conquering the known world. Alexander would soon die of mysterious causes. And the empire that Alexander created would soon splinter and be eclipsed by an expanding Rome.
I tell my young writing students to be aware: If half of their readers are smarter than they are, and if half of their readers are older than they are, then many of their readers are more experienced and wiser than they are. Their readers bring more to the page.
But that’s a good thing, I say, because a story is a shared, intellectual, chronological experience — a simulation of human life, inside the human mind. We writers should hope for wise and experienced readers. Good readers make good stories better.
The wisest of readers was Aristotle. He absorbed Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, intellectually and emotionally, and outlined in his Poetics the basics of story-making. Beginning, middle and end. Revelation and realization. Reversal of fortune. A sense of meaning and consequence. And an emotional, cathartic experience, inside the powerful logic-system of Story.
I read The Poetics often, but not religiously. By that, I mean that I don’t go to it for rules and commandments. The Poetics is not a writer’s Bible. It doesn’t tell us writers what to do. Rather, The Poetics tells us what good stories do. Stories engage us, they change us, and they improve us all.