Do you enjoy literary theory, analysis, and criticism? Consider pursuing an education at a great books college, where you’ll encounter the earliest philosophical text to focus on literary theory itself—Aristotle’s Poetics.
In Poetics, Aristotle muses on the aesthetic principles that govern the literary genres of drama and comedy. At some point in history, the original composition was divided onto two rolls of papyrus. Only the first section (drama) survives, with the second papyrus (comedy) having been lost over time.
Shimer students read the surviving text of Poetics as part of our great books curriculum. Read on to learn about the great works that inspired it, and the great literature it has inspired in turn.
The Iliad, Oepdipus, and Medea: The Books that Inspired Aristotle’s Great Work
Aristotle’s Poetics is a great work inspired by great books, using iconic works to illustrate Aristotle’s various theories.
Poetics extols the benefits of using narration in drama by explaining how Homer effectively connects to the audience through his narration in The Iliad. Aristotle also describes ethos—or sympathetic character development—in drama using heroes from ancient Greek mythology as examples.
He explains that ethos is most effective when a tragedy comes from a hero’s own mistakes instead of from events outside of a hero’s control: The character Oedipus effectively inspires ethos because he kills his father and marries his mother in a case of mistaken identity. The character Medea makes the mistake of deciding to kill her own children, effectively eliciting ethos even though her actions are wicked.
Great Books Studies Worldwide: ‘Poetics’ has Inspired Dozens of Translations
Programs built on great books foundations give students like you the opportunity to engage firsthand with original texts. In the case of Aristotle’s Poetics, the most widely accepted primary text itself is actually a translation of the original. Because Aristotle wrote so long ago and his manuscripts only survived in fragments, the original Greek version of Poetics lives on through translations passed down over generations.
Vocabulary differences between Aristotle's original Greek and the Arabic and Syriac used in Poetics’ earliest translations created some contentious misunderstandings that took years to resolve. For example, in the Arabic version of Poetics, “tragedy” was translated to “strategy,” altering the meanings of many critical passages of text.
The version of Poetics you’ll encounter in modern great books studies programs comes from a 1741 French translation of the original Greek document, accepted by literary critics as the most accurate translation of Aristotle’s own words.
‘Poetics’ Motivating Murder in Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’
From this 1741 translation came new understandings of Poetics and a jumping-off point for great thinkers to take its themes to new heights. Umberto Eco takes Poetics into fiction with his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, a great book in its own right.
This prize-winning novel follows two friars investigating mysterious murders in a 12th century abbey. The friars deduce that the murders have something to do with the second section of Aristotle's Poetics: the missing book on comedy. They discover that the lost pages are in the hands of a killer, inspiring his reckless spree. When confronted by the friars in a library, the culprit tries to eat the pages to keep them hidden and eventually burns the entire library to the ground.
Poetics is also used to support the themes of memory and ambiguity that give Eco’s novel its name. The Name of the Rose is based on the Latin proverb “stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”—meaning “yesterday's rose endures in its name, we hold but empty names.” Applicable to the fictional library, the novel’s victims, and both sections of Aristotle’s Poetics, this saying reminds readers of masterpieces forever lost.
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