The wisdom of the past can be a perfect source to resort to when one needs advice on the present situation. Ancient Greek civilization has been a recognized treasury of knowledge and philosophic ideas that are topical even nowadays, many centuries later. The names of prominent Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are written in golden letters in almost every science and philosophy. When reading literature, a person should resort to his/her own feelings to interpret a work of imaginative literature in a proper way. However, it may be very useful to take into account the advice on literature given by ancient men of wisdom. Thus, the main task of the present paper is to analyze Aristotle and Plato’s points of view concerning art and to choose the one that is the most appropriate to reading literature.
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First of all, a fact that is worth mentioning is that the philosophers’ points of view are opposing, thus, each of them needs special consideration before making a final choice. We will mention the main ideas of the philosophers that can be applied to reading literature.
A spacious and the most well-known work of Plato in The Republic, the work that throws light on many spheres of human life. Still, the tenth volume is of primary importance for us since it dwells on the theory of art that can be of use when reading literature. In Book X, Plato announces his verdict of conviction of poets as unnecessary and even dangerous for the rest of society. We remember that the primary goal of the philosopher in his book is to introduce the concept of an ideal state with the philosophers in the head of it. Thus, it seems that Plato sees poets as the primary rivals of philosophers, as rebels who are capable of starting a revolt against the order. They have no right to do this as they are inferior to philosophers; they create an impression of being proficient in many spheres while they are not. The reason for that is the specificity of their work: their scope of activity is not real, they write about things that have no physical embodiment, poets deal with images. Consequently, they are “beautifully ill-informed about the subjects of [their] poetry” (Plato 344). Thus, they use this distorted vision of reality to corrupt citizens’ souls and infect them with their lustful and mean ideas.
Plato says that “poetry appeal to, and represent, the lowest, less rational part of our nature” (345). This negative part of our soul gains strength to the prejudice of the good part. He states that even the best people can be harmed by poetry as very few people are capable of realizing that what we feel must infect what we feel for ourselves, and if we let our pity for the misfortunes of others grow too strong it will be difficult to restrain our feelings in our own. (Plato 350)
Thus, Plato states that “the audience is helplessly caught up in … action” that is “unbalanced, transgressive, pernicious to the community” (Goff 126). The audience sympathizes with fictional characters and is deluded by them; we think that our sympathy and involvement with the characters will never influence our own lives as they are not real. Still, the feelings and emotions are the same and as soon as they find favorable ground in our soul, they start developing, captivation the soul and affecting our life negatively.
As for the point of view of Aristotle regarding drama, it can be found in his Poetics and it contradicts Plato’s ideas. The point of special interest for our work is the theory of catharsis that clearly states that “effecting through pity and fear the purification of … emotions” is beneficial for people (Aristotle 10). He presents seven characteristics of tragedy, among which purification of emotions is very important. Aristotle states that the protagonist of a tragedy should possess greater nobility than any representative of the audience so that they could fully sympathize with his failure. Thus, ethical and educational functions attributed to drama and poetry are evident.
Both philosophers present their point of view in relation to poetry and drama, however, the theory of catharsis can be applicable to reading imaginative literature as well. If Plato had written about imaginative literature, he would have, probably, disapproved of the writers and would have added them to the group of outcasts that consisted of poets. The “harm” of imaginative literature would have coincided with the ruinous effect of poetry.
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Thus, the theory of catharsis should be applied to the reading of imaginative literature. Aristotle’s ideas about the purification of emotions on reading a novel or watching a tragedy seem more reliable. In fact, the writers have their primary goal of influencing the human mind and feelings with the help of their creative work. Every person can extract a moral or ethical lesson from reading a book. It often happens that readers sympathize with the characters and analyze their models of behavior, deciding if their deeds should be approved or disapproved. The successful use of imaginative literature for educational purposes also proves the rightness of Aristotle’s position.
Drawing a conclusion, it is possible to state that the main value of Plato’s ideas is that he understands that banishing poetry from society will engender negative consequences though he is persistent in his desire to do this. His theory presents the audience as a passive element and this underestimation is his main weakness. In its turn, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis can be perfectly applied to reading literature since the feelings that are stirred up in the soul of the audience are the same when watching a tragedy and reading a book. Purification of soul and emotions is the best way to describe a reader’s satisfaction with a good book.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath. Toronto: Penguin Classics, 1996.
Goff, Barbara E. The Noose of Words: Reading of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytos. GB: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. London: Penguin Classics, 1974.