Aristotle and Plato as pioneers of literary criticism [Archives:2007/1102/Education]

November 12 2007

Dr. Bashar Ghazi Askar
Assistant professor of English
[email protected]

Criticism is the exercise of judgment in the area of art and literature. It is the overall term for studies concerned with defining, analyzing, and evaluating works of literature. It refers to description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of literary works. Literary criticism deals with different dimensions of literature.

The critic is a person who is possessed with the knowledge necessary to enable him to pronounce right judgments upon the merit or worth of such works.

The function of literary criticism is to examine the merits and defects of a work of art and finally to evaluate its worth. The chief function of criticism is to enlighten and stimulate. The true critic is one who is equipped for his task by a sound knowledge of his subject. The true critic can discover the qualities of power, beauty and depth of significance. He can give us a fresh point of view. He is sometimes a path finder, breaking new ground, with a friendly passion. As such the primary functions of literary criticism are interpretation and judgment.

Until our time these two functions have been combined since the majority of critics, while conceiving judgment to be real end of all criticism, have freely employed interpretation as a means to that end.

Different views about criticism

First, the view of criticism is directly related to the critic's own intellectual philosophy or outlook of life. It is determined by the likes, dislikes, and prejudices of the critic himself.

Second, the theory of criticism is related with the theory of poetry.

Third, critical theories are closely connected with the spirit of the age.

Principles of Criticism

The first principle of literary criticism is the pursuit of truth. But the truth of literature is different from the truth of science. Poetic truth is the truth of ideas, and experiences of a work of art.

The second principle of literary criticism is emphasis on symmetry. This principle implies right selection and arrangement of material.

The third principle is the principle of idealization. This principle implies aesthetic consciousness of the reader.

The Qualities (characteristics) of a critic:

1- He must be a man of rare organic sensibility. He should have a rare and unique sense of judgement.

2- He must be a man who is widely read.

3- He must have a proper training and technical skill in different branches of literature.

4- He must rise above all prejudices, personal, religious, national, political, or literary. He must be objective in his views.

5- He must have imaginative sympathy. He must be sensitive and humane.

6- He must possess a sound knowledge of human psychology and human nature.

7- He must have knowledge in all branches of literature.

8- The critic must get at the mind of the author.

9- The critic must have a philosophical mind.

10- He must be of varied experience. He must be thoroughly acquainted with the great authors in several languages.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato as a Greek critic and philosopher was the first among those who approached literary criticism in the fourth century B.C. Plato was concerned with the problem of the utility of poetry. Plato was against poetry. Poetry corrupts minds of children which is why Plato banished poets from his ideal commonwealth (Republic). He regarded poetry immoral and untruthful. To Plato, philosophy is superior.

Aristotle, Plato's student and critic took up the challenge of Plato and asserted the superiority of poetry over philosophy. Poetry gives instruction and delight.

Plato thinks that the poet is restricted to imitating the realm of appearance. Furthermore, a poet is possessed by madness and is not in control of himself. The poet leads men away from truth. Thus he considers him dangerous to society. Plato accepts the poet in The Republic if he limits himself to songs offering praise of the state or God, that is to say, fostering morality. The poets are misleaders and they are followed by the misled.

Plato's moralistic and didactic criticism

Poetry is antirational and without content. A poem for Plato is a collection of copies of the ideas or forms. His opinion has been outlined in his dialogues and in The Republic. Poetry tends to arouse emotions. So, the poet is not fit to be a good citizen. The moralistic approach believes that literature is morally good or has a capacity to influence people so as to make them morally better. Plato thought that bad and evil influences of literature should be kept from the young generation during their formative years.

Plato defends philosophy. His purpose is to demonstrate the practical superiority of philosophy over poetry. Plato attacks poetry and drama on moral grounds:

1- Poetry is not conducive to social morality.

2- A poet “tells lies about gods” and gods and great heroes who descended from the gods are represented as corrupt, dishonest, indeed subject to all faults and vices of common humanity. Works of poets like Homer must not be prescribed for school study.

3- Drama is even more harmful because dramatists and poets appeal to the baser instincts of men, their love of the sensational and the melodramatic.

Plato's condemnation of poets

Plato attacks poetry on intellectual, emotional and moral grounds, and demonstrates its uselessness, and its corrupting influences. He condemns the poets because “they feed and water the passions instead of drying them.”

Plato's The Republic and poetry

The Republic is a philosophical work written by Plato in the form of a dialogue. It is an inquiry into the nature of justice and the organization of a perfect society. The work is a lengthy exposition of the ideas underlying Plato's earlier dialogues. The government acts to enforce the virtue, the true happiness, productive life and perfection.


Aristotle, a student of Plato, was a Greek philosopher and critic. He shares with his seniors – Plato and Socrates- the distinction of being the most famous of ancient philosophers. His famous work is The Poetics which outlined the three Unities of drama: unties of time, place, and action. His famous enunciation is in the realm of Poetic drama. He applied his principles of drama to Oedipus, the king by Sophocles. He refers to this play to illustrate his critical terms: plot, character, thought, language, spectacle, catharsis, tragic hero, the three unities, hamartia. According to Plato and Aristotle, the tragic hero has to be noble and from a high class like Oedipus.

Aristotle aims at answering Plato's criticism of the poet as a mere imitator of appearances. To Aristotle, the poet is an imitator and creator.

Aristotle's theory of tragedy

Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete in itself, possessing a certain magnitude, is clothed in language that gives delight. Tragedy is an imitation of an action. By an action, we mean an event or process of events- something happening. Action is a process of events embodied in the lives and wills of human beings.

Aristotle's Poetics

Poetics is Aristotle's great work on the principles of drama. He believed that the major function of art is to provide satisfaction, for happiness is the aim of life. He argued that tragedy stimulates the emotions of pity and fear.

Aristotle's Poetics is one of the most influential documents ever produced on the art of drama. It had its influence on the 17th-century drama. In Poetics, Aristotle discusses the six essential elements of drama plot, character, thought, tragic hero, catharsis, the three unities, hamartia. He states his opinion on the best type of tragic plot, and suggests it as the most effective means to arouse essential emotions such as pity and fear.


By plot Aristotle means the arrangement of incidents. Incidents mean action. Tragedy is an imitation of action, both internal and external. The plot should be so framed as to arouse the emotions of pity and fear among the spectators.


Aristotle lays down four essential qualities for characterization:

1- The characters must be good.

2- The characters must be appropriate.

3- They must have likeness.

4- They must have consistency.

Aristotle is against introduction of evil and wickedness in the plot of the play.

Tragic hero

The tragic hero is a man of ordinary weakness and virtues, leaning more to the side of good than of evil. He is a man of noble feelings and emotions. He falls from a position of lofty eminence and the disaster wrecks his life because of some great error or frailty.

Hamartia (tragic error or flaw)

According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must fall through his or her own error or Hamartia. This term is also interpreted as ” tragic flaw” and usually applied to the tragic hero's overweening pride or hubris (pride), which causes fatal error leading to his fall.


Catharsis is defined as purgation or purification. Pity and fear are related feelings. We pity others whereas we fear for ourselves. The tragic sufferer is a man like ourselves.

The Unities

Aristotle emphasizes only one of the three unities; the unity of action.

Aristotle is against plurality of actions (incidents). As for the unity of time, Aristotle mentions it in relation to dramatic action. Aristotle never mentions the unity of place. However, he considers it desirable to confine the action to a single place.

Plato and Aristotle: similarities

Aristotle agreed with Plato that:

1- Poetry is an imitative art.

2- Poetry arouses the emotions.

3- Poetry gives pleasure.

4- Emotion has an effect upon the whole personality of the spectator or reader and on his emotional behavior in real life.

5- Both considered poetry from a practical and utilitarian point of view.

Aristotle and Plato: differences

1- Plato set out to reorganize human life; Aristotle to reorganize human knowledge.

2- Plato was a transcendentalist and had the temperament of an artist; Aristotle was a scientist, a biologist, an experimentalist, who arrived at his principles through observation and analysis.

3- Plato was an idealist. He believed that the phenomenal world is but an objectification of the ideal world. The ideal world is real; the phenomenal world is but a shadow of this ideal reality.

4- Plato's language is poetic and charming; that of Aristotle is dogmatic, telegraphic.

5- Aristotle makes full use of terminology and doctrines of Plato. Plato was a more original genius; Aristotle more comprehensive and systematic.