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Aristotle on the (Alleged) Inferiority of History to Poetry

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Chapter Summary

Aristotle’s claim that poetry is “a more philosophic and better thing” than history (Poet. 9.1451b5–6) and his description of the “poetic universal” have been the source of much scholarly discussion. Although many scholars have mined Poetics 9 as a source of Aristotle’s views toward history, in my contribution I caution against doing so. Critics of Aristotle’s remarks have often failed to appreciate the expository principle that governs Poetics 6–12, which begins with a definition of tragedy and then elucidates the terms of that definition by means of a series of juxtapositions. The juxtaposition between poetry and history is one such instance that seeks to elucidate what sort of plot exemplifies a causal unity such that the events of a play unfold with likelihood or necessity. Within that context, Aristotle compares history and poetry in order to elucidate the object of poetic mimesis rather than to criticize history as a discipline. Viewing Aristotle as antagonistic toward history fails to appreciate the expository structure of the Poetics and obscures the resource that history provides to the poet, a point that I explore by considering what Aristotle would have thought of an “historical” tragedy like Aeschylus’s Persians.

10.1163/9789004340084_013
/content/books/b9789004340084_013
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