Plot and Form in Aristotle's Poetics

C. Michael Sampson

University of Michigan

The structure of plot (muthos) in the Poetics is without question the key to what Aristotle considers the finest tragedy.  While other forms of poetry are left undiscussed to various degrees, Aristotle is transparent in arguing that a tragic plot most successfully achieves its telos of arousing pity and fear through a complex plot that utilizes anagnôrisis, peripeteia, and pathos occurring between philoi according to probability and necessity.  So central is plot to Aristotle's treatment of the genre that the two are even sublimated; like tragedy (1449b24-8), plot is also the mimêsis of a praxis (1451a31; 1452a13).  But in addition to the identity of plot with the genre as a whole, Aristotle's concern with the telos of tragedy creates what one critic has called a biological analogy.  In this analogy, tragedy becomes "a craft that imitates nature"[1]: in the same way that the soul's activity is the telos of an organism (for soul is the form of the body and its activity is the organism's essence), the activity of plot, in striving to arouse pity and fear is likewise the telos of the genre. 

This paper seeks to explain both the sublimation of plot and genre and the biological analogy by presenting plot as the ontological form (eidos) of tragedy – that is, as its essence or soul (1450a38-39).  This ontological point demands articulation because it helps to explain the often misinterpreted point that tragedy "speaks of universals" (ta katholou… legei, 1451b7): unlike the ontologically separate Platonic forms, plot as Aristotelian form is the essential universal element of each particular drama, through whose structure the genre as a whole can be comprehended.

[1] Elizabeth Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion, (Princeton: 1992) 53.

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