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Aristotle on Teaching Science

“In all things of nature there is something marvelous.”    Aristotle


by Surendra Singh, Ph.D. , Professor of Biology, Newman University; J.C. Moore, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry , Friends University;  Andrew Tadie,    Ph.D., Associate Professor of English,  Seattle University, Aristotle on Teaching Science,  Seventh International Conference on Teacher Education, New Delhi, India (2009).


An understanding of nature and science makes it possible for all of us to share in the richness and excitement of comprehending the world around us. Today science has become a vital, integrated part of education, society and culture. Consequently, an effective science teaching must include its integration in a way that is meaningful to the everyday lives of the students and in a way that is helpful to them in developing their self-esteem and critical thinking. A literary analysis of classical works of Athena in Homer’s Odyssey, Venus in Virgil’s Aeneid, Lady Philosophy in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and Beatrice’s in Dante’s Divine Comedy still teaches us something about the art of being a good teacher (Tadie, 2007). A pilot study conducted by Singh, 2002 where 110 K-8 grade school teachers were interviewed at a large cosmopolitan city in the Midwestern region of the United States to determine their science teaching methodologies. Over 89 percent of the teachers in this survey were teaching science using investigative  instructional strategies, that is, learner is learning by doing science based on observations and experimentation. Victor and Kellough 2000 further suggested that in adding to doing science by implicating questioning strategy immensely helps students learn how to solve problems, to make decisions and the value-judgments, to think creatively.

Aristotle, 384-322 B.C., marks a turning point in the history of Greek science, for he was the first to embark upon extensive empirical inquiries. Greek philosophers at that time had erected large bodies of theory upon slender empirical foundations. The scientific works of Aristotle discussed in this paper demonstrate his growing divergence from the philosophies of Plato to his investigations based more closely upon observations and the teaching strategy he carried out to his pupils at his own school known as Lyceum where he taught while walking, observing, questioning nature with his students in the garden. He taught at Lyceum from 336 to 323B.C. with great emphasis on observations and critical inquiry. As stated by Singer, 1970 that the surviving works of Aristotle place him among the very greatest biologists of all time. He set himself to cover all human knowledge, and succeeded in this vast task in a way in which no one has succeeded before or since. Greek catalogues list 146 books attributed to Aristotle; however, many manuscripts have since been lost.

Aristotle was a logician and a scientist rather than a normal philosopher. He came to occupy, for a variety of reasons, a central place in the history of science. The great contributions of Aristotle were to logic, physics, biology, and humanities; in fact he founded all these subjects as formal disciplines and even added meta physics (Bernal 1971). His greatest contribution was the idea of classification, which ran through the whole of his book and was the basis of his logic. He was also the first encyclopedist and tried to give some account of every aspect of nature and human life of interest in his time. It is the glory of Aristotle that both his observations and reasoning of biological subjects can stand present day comparisons as well as they do. Considering the handicaps he had to face and the enormous range of his work in biology alone, it is surprising that he accomplished as much as he did. His were original investigations, and he was, indeed, a great pioneer in biology as well as other areas of learning. We have to remember that his study was new and he had no books to consult, no instruments to help, no scientific nomenclature, no learned societies to encourage and support him.

Aristotle’s profession as a teacher brought him illustrious honors and made him a wealthy man, and was highly esteemed by a constantly increasing throng of pupils. He founded Lyceum, the archetype of learned educational institutions through out the world. Here every morning Aristotle gave scientific lectures to his chosen pupils, often old and highly reputed men of science, and every evening he held more popular courses for younger collegiate (Nordenskiold 1928).  Aristotle enunciated for the first time as really complete theory of evolution where he observed a consistent evolution from lower to higher forms of being. This idea has proved for all time a fertile one in the biological sphere, for the very reason that it is here in agreement with actual fact. Aristotle thus represents in most field of science, the highest that the culture of antiquity could attain. Admiring Aristotle’s contributions to science and his teaching strategies, Sarton, 1959 added that the Alexandrian empire was a material thing which ceased to exist when it was broken to pieces after Alexander’s death; on the other hand, Aristotelian synthesis was spiritual reality based on observations, which was often modified in the course of time, yet is incapable of destruction. The museum of Alexandria was a distant continuation and simplification of the Lyceum of Athens. It may be further added that Benoit and Serres in 1995 described the Greek and Arab works which invaded the west that of Aristotle had a special place. It furnished a coherent system of explanation of the world, based on a scientific method. There was an enormous gap between the works known to the twelfth-century Europe and the monumental work of the Greek philosopher. For the thought of the west in full effervescence, the discovery of Aristotle was a scientific revelation. Aristotle’s greatest contribution of modern science was his demonstration of the scientific method. Most of his knowledge was based on his own observations and deductions. A vast amount of information was collected, classified, recorded and evaluated (Gardner, 1970).

Aristotle’s Contributions in Biology

It is only within the last century that Aristotle’s biology work has really begun to be appreciated; previously it was overshadowed by his achievements in the physical science (Ronan 1982). Four important works on biology dealing mostly with animals and containing Aristotle’s methods, observations, deductions and theories have been preserved. These include, Natural History of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, On the Generation of Animals, and on Psyche.

Aristotle’s careful observations of the dolphin, for instance, made it quite plain that although it was a fish-like creature in superficial appearance and habitat, it was quite unfish-like in many important respects. The dolphin had lungs, breathed air, warm-blooded, and gave birth to living young which nourished before birth by a placenta. These similarities, it seemed to Aristotle, were sufficient to make it necessary to group the cetaceans (the whales, dolphins, and porpoises) with the beasts of the field rather than with the fish of the sea. In this Aristotle was two thousand years ahead of his time, for Cetaceans continued to be grouped with fish throughout ancient and medieval times (Asimore, 1964). Another example of his keen observations is his remarkable account of the breeding habits of the catfish as quoted below.

“The catfish deposits it eggs in shallow water, generally close to roots or close to reeds. The eggs are sticky and adhere to the roots. The female catfish having laid her eggs, goes away. The male stays on and watches over the eggs, keeping off all other little fishes that might steal the eggs. He thus continues for forty or fifty days, till the young’s are sufficiently developed to escape from the other fishes for themselves”.

Louis Agassiz around the middle of the 19th century studied the habits of the catfish that included the male looking after its young just as described by Aristotle. Another example of illustrating his method of study can be taken from his description of cuttlefish or sepia. The morphology, habits, and development of the cuttlefish were recorded with such faithful accuracy that little can be added. He began with an outline of the general form, described the body and fins, the eight arms with three rows of suckers, and mentioned the abnormal position of the head. He described the two great teeth that formed a beak with which the animal could cling to rocks and sway back and forth. Aristotle observed the two long arms in the sepia and noted their absence in the octopus. After carefully dissecting several species and noting differences, he described the eggs and the embryos with the yolk sac attached to the head. He further noted that in certain males, observed in breeding season, one of the arms was modified into long coiled whiplash, used in copulation. Aristotle’s ecological observations included the interactions between the animals to their environment. He studied adaptations of sea animals, and took particular interest in the migration of fish. During Aristotle’s time there was no formal classification system. He conceived an evolutionary concept and classified animals according to structure, function, and reproduction. He classified some five hundred and forty animal’s species according to the gradation of their forms, and he dissected animals from at least fifty different species while studying their anatomical structures, which, for Aristotle was expression of their formal causes (Mason, 1962). Aristotle noted some correlations between structures of animals, such as; no animal has, at the same time, both tusks and horns for protection. He also observed that ruminants had complex stomachs to compensate for their deficient teeth. It may be added that in our modern classification we employ two most important terms, which are genus and species which are Latin translations of Greek words used by Aristotle. We owe our idea of the species in modern biology directly to Aristotle.

Although no botanical treatise by Aristotle has survived but we have, however, very full botanical works of Theophrastus 380-287 B.C. Aristotle’s pupil and successor as head of the Lyceum. Theophrastus was devoted to Aristotle and carried on his teacher’s investigative approach based on direct observations of plants. The whole active life of Theophrastus may be said to be a commentary on Aristotle. (Singer 1962). Theophrastus’ affection and devotion to Aristotle expresses itself in his will, in which be inserted special clauses for the preservation of the busts of his teacher.

Aristotle’s Contributions in Physics

A search of the ERIC database shows 78 papers in the last three decades on the use of Aristotle’s ideas in teaching. Today, theories in Physics are based on abstract and mathematical models of the world and students often use them without understanding how they were developed or what problems in nature they address. A study of the development of an idea from Aristotle to the present makes physics more interesting and understandable (Stinner, 1994). Aristotle’s works are from fragmentary notes, he had the most rudimentary of scientific equipment, his measurements were not quantitative, and he considered only things that were observable. Ignoring these limitations lead some to distort the significance of his work, sometimes to the point of considering his work an impediment to the advancement of science. However, teachers should not project the framework of contemporary science on Aristotle’s work but they should read his works and examine his Natural Philosophy in the context of his times (Lombardi, 1999).

In ancient times, nature had been explained as the actions of the gods. The early Greek philosophers questioned the role of the gods as the cause of events and by the fifth century B.C. the Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, had separated philosophy from theology. But, if the gods were not the cause of events, what was? Philosophers advanced explanations based on philosophical principles and mathematical forms. Aristotle thought the general principles of nature could be found within nature and could be found using inductive reasoning and careful observation. Observations must be capable of being observed by the senses and should include the four causes of composition, the shape or form, the motion or change, and the end result or purpose. Identifying all of the four causes insured a thorough understanding of the event. Chance and spontaneity were not causes.  Aristotle thought all things in Nature should be open to examination and subject to reason and he set about applying his methods to all knowledge. His founded a school in Athens at the Lyceum which provided the world’s first comprehensive study of human knowledge from the perspective of natural philosophy. His lectures followed a pattern that formed the basis of the scientific method. They included a statement of the idea or problem, the  precise definition of terms, a statement of what he and other  scholars thought the matter,  observations and arguments based on how well the ideas agreed with observation, and finally what could be concluded. His lectures notes are important as they not only show clearly his reasoning but they preserve many of the ideas of his contemporaries (Durant and Ross, 1949).

In his Physics, according to Hardie and Gaye Aristotle examined the nature of matter, space, time, and motion. He had few tools for experimentation and could not measure time or speeds. He would not allow invisible forces so his reasoning did not include gravity. Things fell to Earth and the moon circled the Earth because that was their nature. He proved that infinite linear motion and voids could not exist on Earth. Without those, he could not escape the complexities of the real world or fully understand inertia. In spite of his limitations he made some remarkable contributions to physics and laid the groundwork for Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. He also reasoned that infinite velocities could not exist, that time and movement are continuous and inseparable, and that time was even flowing, infinite, and the same everywhere at once. These are all true and a part of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Some consider Aristotle’s greatest contribution to physics was his description of time.

Reading Aristotle reminds one of reading Einstein. He takes the simplest of observations and in it discovers fundamental truths. Force is a push or a pull. A horse can pull a cart and the cart pulls back on the horse and when the horse stops, the cart stops.  Rest, then is the natural state of matter and the mover is acted on by that which it moves. These ideas became part of Newton’s Laws. He observed that there was both static and kinetic friction that opposed motion by studying ship haulers. A hundred men could pull a ship but one man could not. Furthermore, he observed that the power needed to keep the ship moving depended on the force required and the speed. That is like the definition of power used today and, incidentally, something that Newton got wrong.  Aristotle examined objects falling in fluids and realized friction existed there also. He found that the speed of objects falling in fluids increased as the weight of the object and decreased with the thickness of the fluid. This is now a part of Stoke’s Law for an object falling at its terminal velocity. He also considered what would happen if the fluid became thinner and thinner but rejected the conclusion as that would lead to a vacuum and an infinite speed, both impossibilities. Galileo allowed those impossibilities and is credited for discovering kinematics.

We sometimes forget that Aristotle proved the Earth was a sphere. He observed that the shadow of the Earth on the moon during an eclipse was an arc. That was not conclusive as a disk might give the same shadow. The phases of the Moon and its appearance during eclipses show it to be a sphere and the Earth might be also. As one walks toward the horizon, the horizon falls away; and, as one walks North or South, different stars appear. These are as if one is looking out from a sphere. All things made of Earth fall to Earth in such a way as to be as near the Earth as possible. A sphere is the shape that allows this as it is the shape with the smallest surface for a given volume. All things considered, the Earth must be a sphere. Interestingly, an extension of that last argument is used today to explain the erosion of mountains, surface tension, the shape of droplets and why the moons, planets, and stars are spheres.

Aristotle concluded that since all things fall toward the center of the Earth or move round the Earth, that the Earth must be the center of the Universe. The Moon and planets move around the Earth in circular orbits but must move in circles within circles to explain the variance observed in their orbits. The stars are fixed spheres that rotate around the Earth and the Universe must be finite else the stars at the outer edge would have to move at infinite speed. Aristotle was aware that if the heavenly bodies were made of matter, that they would fly off like a rock from a sling. He therefore added to the elements a fifth element, aether, to compose the heavenly bodies. Aether could not be observed on Earth but objects composed of it could move forever in circles without friction or flying away (Stocks)

Perhaps Aristotle should have stopped with the moon, but the planets and stars were there and needed explaining. In spite of his model’s imperfections, Aristotle gave us a universe whose laws are invariant and capable of being discovered by observation and understood by reason. Aristotle’s model of the Universe lasted almost 20 centuries without significant modification and was so compelling that Renaissance philosophers and theologians built it into church doctrine. However, the model did not fit well with new observations of made by 15th century scientists. Copernicus realized that the planetary motions would be simpler and better explained if the Sun were the center of the universe. Tycho Brahe’s careful observations of planetary motions supported the Copernican model. Galileo used the first telescope to observe that Jupiter had moons that revolved around Jupiter and not the Earth. This was convincing evidence and Galileo championed a revision of Aristotle’s model.

Galileo’s kinematics was also in conflict with Aristotle’s work. Galileo’s experiment with falling bodies is considered as one of the ten greatest experiments of all time. He showed that a small weight fell from the Tower of Pisa at the same rate as one ten times as heavy. This was considered by some to be a triumph of Galileo’s kinematics over the simple empiricism of Aristotle. That was not, however, the whole story. Aristotle had not only examined objects falling in air but also in liquids. He found that the speed in liquids increased as the weight of the object and decreased with the thickness of the fluid. This idea is consistent with Stoke’s Law for an object falling at its terminal velocity in fluids. Aristotle even had considered the case of a fluid with no thickness (a vacuum), but rejected the possibility since the speed would become infinite. However, the experiment was performed in air and Galileo’s mechanics were not correct in air. Had Galileo dropped his objects from a much greater height, he would have found that the heavy object would reach the ground half again as fast as the small object. This is observable in hailstones where a large stone will strike the ground at almost twice the speed of a small stone. Galileo’s mechanics are only valid in a vacuum and even then would allow the velocity to become infinite which conflicts Einstein’s Relativity.  No one has though to criticize Galileo for this.

Many thought, and still think, that Galileo’s work was the final overthrow of Aristotelian physics and the start of a revolution allowing science to advance. That is not the case. It is just the normal progress of science that models and theories are revised as better observations and understanding occur. The Revolution was not so much an overthrow of Aristotelian Physics as it was in moving from the observable to the imaginable and in again separating science from theology and philosophy. It is ironic that Galileo was accused of heresy for questioning the theories of a man who thought everything should be open to question and reason.

Aristotle’s Poetics: the Scientist as Literary Critic

The importance of Aristotle’s Poetics in the history of literary criticism is beyond dispute.  As Lane Cooper, (1947), observed in his translation of the work, it “has commanded more attention than any other book of literary criticism, so that the course of literary history after it is unintelligible without an acquaintance with the Poetics at first hand, whether in the original or through a translation” (xviii).   Aristotle’s approach to literary criticism in the Poetics, the distinctions he made and explained, and the terminology he employed, as Humphrey House noted, “still have a vital currency.  Confining ourselves to dramatic criticism only, consider merely the terms plot, character, complication, denouement, episode, chorus, unity of action (to go no further), and ask how criticism could proceed without them”.

The Poetics has also exerted its influence upon the way poets have approached their craft.  Ben Jonson called Aristotle “the first accurate Critic, and truest Judge,” and Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism described succinctly the reason poets have been guided by Aristotle:

Poets, a race long unconfin’d and free,

Still fond and proud of savage liberty,

Receiv’d his laws; and stood convinc’d ‘twas fit

Who conquer’d Nature, should preside o’er Wit.  (Potts, 1962)

The influence of the Poetics on critics and poets is remarkable considering that the surviving manuscripts are incomplete and that the work itself was never intended to be published.  It is part of what commentators regard as having been composed during the third and final period of Aristotle’s work as a philosopher.   Excepts for fragments from the first two periods, the only works of Aristotle to have survived are from the final period of his life.  However, ancient commentators have described Aristotle’s works from the first two periods.  In the first period Aristotle exhibited “an intense interest in physical science, especially in biology and physiology; and from it, ultimately perhaps, was derived the systematic thoroughness of his method” (House 20).  The reason for Aristotle’s initial interest in science was likely due to the fact that he was the stepson to the physician of King Amyntas II of Macedonia.

Among the lost works from the second period was an extended dialogue titled On the Poets.  As ancient commentators describe the work, Aristotle’s method of approaching the subject of poetry is evidently similar to his studies in the natural sciences.  Once he chooses a subject to investigate, he then amasses evidence.  The conclusions Aristotle draws in On the Poets are based upon an enormous collection of data.  “Together with his nephew Callisthenes he made a list of the victors in the Pythian games, which was finished by 335 B.C.  The Pythian Games were contests partly in music and poetry, partly in athletics; and thus the evidence collected would in part be material for a history of Greek poetry.  After this Aristotle compiled a catalogue of Athenian dramas with their writers and dates….  [T]he evidence for Aristotle’s detailed work on the history of Greek poetry is important as showing the inductive method that underlay the generalisations which much of the Poetics puts forward.  It is the parallel work in Poetics to the detailed study of 158 separate constitutions which preceded the more general treatment of the Politics (House 33).

Aristotle’s third period began after founding the Lyceum, his school in Athens.  His extant works from this period reveal his strong interest in natural science, “but he was also a logician, psychologist, moralist, metaphysician, and student of political and social history.  He taught, to the most advance standard then reached, most of the subjects studied at a university nowadays” (Potts 13).  Works from this period were not prepared for publication, but instead were lectures, some of which were more polished than others: “the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most finished, the Poetics one of the least….  The early commentators – but not Aristotle – referred to these as acroamatic – ‘works for listening to’.  Though nothing is now known about the way these were actually used in the Lyceum, it is generally agreed by scholars that they were used in oral instruction and were not intended to be widely circulated outside the school.  The Poetics is one of these – and a very small one” (Whalley 4-5, 1997).

Aristotle’s approach to literary criticism is recognized as being scientific.  Aristotle’s “primary purpose was to deal with poetic forms, to classify and distinguish one kind of poetry from another, one species from another, within the general description of the genus: this was entirely consistent with his general philosophical method….  He starts with the observation and analysis of things as they are; and this affects not only his handling of practical matters in the Poetics – things like the management of plot and episode; the use of the chorus, and so on – but also the psychology upon which he bases the discussion of the emotional effects of Tragedy” (House 13, 34, 1966).

Lane Cooper described Aristotle’s method as a “scientific inquiry” that begins with the assumption

“that each distinct kind of literature must have a definite and characteristic activity or function, and that this specific function or determinant principle must be equivalent to the effect which the form produces upon a competent observer….  Next, after selecting tragedy as the focus of his inquiry, he collected “instances as exhaustive as he knew how to make it….  By penetrating scrutiny of these crucial instances in tragedy, he still more narrowly defined what ought to be the proper effect of this kind of literature upon the ideal spectator, namely, the effect which he terms the catharsis of pity and fear, the purgation of two disturbing emotions.  Then, reasoning from function back to form, and from form again to function, he would test each select tragedy, and every part of it, by the way in which the part and the whole conduced to this emotional relief….  He proceeded, in fact, as does the anatomist, whose representation of the normal skeleton and muscles is an act of the imagination, ascending from the actual to the ideal truth, and is never quite realized in any individual, though nearly realized in what one would consider a normal man….  (xx-xxi.)

From the portion of the Poetics that has survived, certain conclusions can be made about the deductions Aristotle draws from his inquiry and about the way his method of analysis differs from other methods of literary criticism.

It is clear that Aristotle defines poetry as the making of a fictional story.  The story may be based on an historical event, but fiction is distinguished from history because “the Historian relates what has happened, and the Poet represents what might happen – what is typical.  Poetry, therefore, is something more philosophic and of a higher seriousness than History; for Poetry tends rather to express what is universal, whereas History relates particular events as such” (Aristotle 31.  Cooper’s translation used here and elsewhere).

Aristotle also compares tragedy to several other forms of story-telling, focusing mainly on the dramatic form of comedy and on the narrative form of epic poetry.

As a dramatic form of communication tragedy is a complex art because of the many facilitating agents required to mount a theatrical production, the most important of which are the fable-making playwright, the actors, and the audience.  For Aristotle, tragedy merits investigation because of a fact — it is popular.  Since the ancient Greeks were obviously drawn to it, the power of tragedy to attract large audiences is a phenomenon worthy of investigation.  This observation generated two questions:  (1) what in the nature of the art has the power to attract human beings to it; that is, what are the elements of the tragic form that evoke pleasure, and (2) what about human nature makes it susceptible to being attracted to tragedy; that is, what are the particular pleasures derivable from this form of communication.

Aristotle’s approach to answering these questions began by compiling a list of known examples of tragedies, noting which of them were successful.  His critical method is scientific because he began not with a theory about tragedy.  Rather, he derived a theory only after carefully studying a large number of actual tragedies in order to discover what tragedy is and what its properties are that differentiate it from types of fable-making related to it.

To distinguish his method from that of other critical methods, consider some of the principal steps in the process of communication, whether initiated by a few, simple, easily forgotten words or gestures or by a memorable work of great art.

After a person conceives an idea and then decides to communicate it, a narrative voice or disposition must be chosen, as well as the physical object to be crafted which is necessary to make the idea communicable.  If the idea itself is comprehensible, if the crafting of the properties of physical object is artful, and if the audience is capable of interpreting the changes made to the physical object, then the original idea will to some degree be communicated.

For example, when someone conceives a story considered to be worth communicating, the story-teller must decide whether the story will be communicated more effectively if the narrator were involved in the story or removed from it.  The fable-maker must also decide which physical object should be crafted as the means to communicate the story to best effect.  Should the story be communicated by spoken word alone, as most stories are related, by the studied gestures of dance, by a painting or sculpture, by singers setting words to music, or by some other physical means, each of which can be crafted into a fine art?

A fable-maker who chooses to communicate a story in the dramatic form has chosen a particular physical means, a complexes of sounds and sights, words and songs assigned to costumed actors portraying characters who act out the story in speech and gesture on stage in a public performance.  Such are the main physical elements of the dramatic form.

The scientific method of Aristotle’s method of analysis is distinguished from other methods of literary criticism.  Investigating the way the stylistics of a work, especially figures of speech and thought, contribute to its persuasive effect would be the starting point of a rhetorical critic, who might begin with the question about the effect of stichomythia in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  A biographical critic investigates how a work of art may have been affected by the artist’s personal experiences and the influence of his culture, while a formal critic approaches a work of literature as an object, irrespective of its creator and its historical importance.  A historical critic, to the contrary, begins with the question about the ways a story affected a particular social or cultural change, such as the influence Voltaire’s Candide or Rousseau’s Emile exerted on the events in 1789 which led to the French revolution.   Ideological critics, such as Freudian, feminist, or Marxist critics, begin by investigating a work of art according to some preconceived psychological, sociological, or political premise.

Aristotle is aware of these various types of criticism, and disregards none of them, but his approach begins differently.  His approach to literary criticism is often distinguished from that of his teacher Plato.  In his Republic Plato addresses the power of fable-making upon the well-being and the stability of the commonwealth.  In so far as poetic tales affect the state negatively, the telling of them and their makers should be controlled scrupulously by the state.  Aristotle’s more scientific approach to fable-making begins with the observation that normal human beings of all ages obtain pleasure from well-told stories.  Yet, they are observably affected differently by different kinds of stories.  Like a rhetorical critic, Aristotle chose tragedy as a type of story-telling worth investigating because of its recognizable power to attract an audience, but he began his investigation of tragedy as a scientist would by undertaking the laborious task of compiling a list of known examples to serve as the basis of his inquiry.  After doing so, he analyzed the specimens in an attempt to discover the difference between the few successful, prize-winning tragedies, the more perfect examples of the tragic form, and the less successful ones.

Following this method of inquiry he is able to deduce several matters.  Among the most important is a three-part distinction that applies to all forms of human art-making.  Each type of art achieves its particular effect by imitating objects using a medium employed in a particular manner.  A poet in composing a tragedy is constricted by the nature of the form to communicate a story of a particular type, a serious story of conflict involving the characters’ personal well-being and the well-being of the state.  Such characters must imitate those of the noble class who are “better than we ourselves” (6) using the medium of “language alone” (3) spoken by actors who represent the story “in the form of an action carried on by several persons [on stage] as in real life” (7).  If the objects, medium, and manner are executed effectively, then the tragedy will exert its proper effect, which “is to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in the audience; and to arouse this pity and fear in such a way as to effect that special purging off and relief (catharsis) of these two emotions which is the characteristic of Tragedy” (27).  By the purging of these emotions “tragic poetry, like passionate melody, is not only ‘healing’ but that in its experience the soul is lightened, delighted, and energized” (Nahm xv).

To achieve this effect, all tragedies necessarily have six constituent parts of greater and lesser importance.  Plot is the most important, being “the First Principle, and as it were the very Soul of Tragedy…. Character is second in importance, … an imitation of personal agents…. Third in importance comes the Intellectual element … manifested in everything the agents say to prove or disprove a special point…. Next in importance among the four essential constituents comes the Diction, … interpreting the sentiments of the agents in the form of language….  Of the two elements remaining, Melody [songs of the chorus] is the more important….  Spectacle, though it arouses the interest of the audience, is last in importance … and is least connected with the art of poetry as such” (25-27).

Aristotle recognizes that unsuccessful tragedies are usually defective in the conception and construction of the plot:  the story itself may not treat a matter the audience considers to be of great importance, the incidents may not form a single, unified story, or perhaps they are not linked together such that one incident follows upon another in a reasonable way.  Moreover, the tragic form requires that the dramatic performance be neither too long nor too brief (27-29).

To clarify his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle compares it to other dramatic forms, particularly comedy: “the nobility of the agents is what distinguishes Tragedy from Comedy.  Comedy tends to represent the agents as worse, and Tragedy as better than men of the present day” (7).  Characters in a tragedy are of a high social station involved in an action that is serious, while the characters in a comedy are not noble, nor does the action concern the well-being of the state.  Consequently, comedy does not aim at evoking in audiences the emotions associated with tragedy, pity and fear.  Although Aristotle does not specify the emotions evoked by comedy, they are commonly observable:  the audience’s feeling of exuberant moral superiority over the characters, the jocular risibility arising from the improbable situations of the plot, and the witty dialogue of the comic characters.  In Greek Old Comedy the characters exhibit a humorous incongruity of traits in that they possess both a defective moral nature and an extraordinary degree of self-serving intelligence.

Aristotle also compares tragedy and epic poetry, two poetic forms that recount stories of high seriousness and of noble characters.  He grants that the epic form is superior in its diction because dactylic hexameter “is the stateliest and most impressive” of all Greek meters.  In addition, because the story is narrated and not performed, the plot of the epic allows for the telling of simultaneous events and events that are marvelous (78-79).  However, Aristotle concludes that tragedy is the superior form of story-telling because it uses all of the elements of epic poetry yet achieves a greater emotional effect.  It is the superior form of story-making because its “concentrated effect is more delightful than one which is long-drawn-out, and so diluted…” (93).

In the history of literary criticism Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy as a form of story-telling and of story-telling itself has endured largely because of his discoveries.  By his scientific approach in collecting and studying known specimens of his chosen subject, he was able to discern the constituent elements of tragedy and to distinguish these elements from those of other forms of fiction-making.  These and other of discoveries in the Poetics are a record, as Lane Cooper noted, of Aristotle’s “profound thoughts … expressed in language suited to scientific inquiry” (xix-xx).

Unlike some contemporary critics, Aristotle employed a method of inquiry that is neither cleverly idiosyncratic nor is it grounded on any trendy psychological, sociological, or political theory.  Instead, he begins with a fact, that tragedies are a popular dramatic form that effects people in particular ways.  The Poetics is his account of the causes that generate in theater-goers particular emotional and intellectual pleasures they expect when attending a performance of a tragedy.


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This article was originally written as Aristotle's Enduring Contribution to Biology,Physics,and Poetics by Surendra Singh,
J.C. Moore, and Andrew Tadie.It was published as Aristotle on Teaching Science at the Seventh International Conference on Teacher
Education, New Delhi, India (2009).

(c) 2010