Thoughts on Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction and Poetics

This post is a part of the Ancient Greeks Classics Circuit. See the other stops on the tour here.

I really enjoyed the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction I read a few months ago. As I thought about my Classics Circuit visit to some Aristotle, I decided to find the VSI on the man and his writings. Aristotle by Jonathan Barnes was a perfect introduction to the life, mind, and writings of the incredibly intelligent scholar of ancient history. I also read Aristotle’s own Poetics, which was a nice introduction to my self-imposed classics unit on Ancient Greek theater.

As I’ve mentioned a few days ago, I read the Very Short Introduction, which is about 140 pages, over the course of three weeks. This meant that I was reading about one chapter, or five pages, a day. Given my busy life these days, it was perfect. Aristotle was written for amateurs, with basic explanations for the most part. I benefited from taking a break between chapters, simply because Aristotle studied a little of everything. Because he was so eclectic, it seemed appropriate that I was dedicating time to his studies a little at a time.

Some of the chapters on logic and basic philosophy were confusing to me, since the subjects are new to me, so I was grateful for the short chapters. Careful reading made them very accessible, and I don’t think any readers should be concerned about the ability to follow Mr Barnes’ discussions.

In his short chapters, author Jonathan Barnes describes Aristotle’s life and times in the 300s BCE. He does a wonderful job capturing how Aristotle’s development of thought was innovative for his time. Reading his works might reveal glaring errors (one that Mr Barnes pointed out made me laugh: Aristotle thought fire was an element from the moon) but Aristotle was doing the best thinking he could for his era, and in fact must have been a genius to be able to become so expert on everything from zoology to logic, philosophy, social culture, and literature (the Greek plays). If he wasn’t an expert, he certainly applied himself to every subject in depth.

Poetics was my chosen text to read by the man himself, mostly because it’s the shortest but also because I am interested in literary criticism. It was a good choice for me. Aristotle’s main thesis is that art, specifically theater and epic poetry, imitate the real actions of human character. According to Mr Barnes, Aristotle wrote it not for readers to criticize existing art, but to learn how to produce art (page133 of Aristotle).

In Poetics, Aristotle discusses the importance of character (although he has a few not so nice things about women as characters in plays). Then he focuses on the development of tragedies. The second half of Poetics, which may have been a discussion of comedy or epic poetry, has been lost. But since I’m looking forward to revisiting the tragedies, I was quite interested in his break down. Mr Barnes reminds us that, although his formulas don’t seem to hold up to modern plays or even Shakespeare’s tragedies, Aristotle meant to be describing how to write a Greek tragedy of the existent style at his time.

Aristotle discusses the necessity of a good plot at length, such as the significance of the resolution (denouement) at the end of a tragedy, as well as indications like “recognition.” Throughout it all, he talks about some of the authors and works that I’m familiar with, such as Homer and Oedipus, and many others I have not yet read.  If anything, it got me excited to read Greek tragedy and see how Aristotle’s analysis holds up!

In short, reading Poetics helped me put the Greek tragedians in perspective. I have not read many Greek plays, and I think, given Aristotle’s obvious love for the literature, I will find it an enjoyable experience when I do. I should also note that I loved the Very Short Introduction even more than reading the Aristotle. Mr Barnes explained things so well for me, and now I’m looking forward to reading more VSI. Is it a fault to say that I now don’t feel like I have to read more Aristotle? I’ll probably still visit Politics and maybe Rhetoric someday, but I’ll definitely be revisiting Barnes’ book again someday too. It’s just that good.

As for the man himself, I’m fascinated by Aristotle’s ability to think about and discover so many things in an inevitably short life. (He was 62 when he died in 322 BCE). Although I may sometimes have disagreed with his outlook on life, literature, and even science (although I’ll be first to admit I still haven’t read much of his works, just the summaries), he obviously had a powerful ability to look “outside the box” when he was examining the world. How he would have enjoyed the scientific tools and other general knowledge we enjoy today! Aristotle is an example of a curious successful learner who put his brain to good use: an example for us all.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I can’t remember if I read Aristotle with my college Antiquity class or not, but I think I did. I couldn’t tell which books came from which authors for the life of me, though. We read so many of them so quickly that they all blend together.

    1. Amanda, Aristotle is certainly interesting, but I have to say I almost don’t need to read him, given the thorough nature of the “introduction”! I wonder if I’d read Poetics in college. It seemed so familiar…

  2. I know Aristotle was brilliant, but I don’t love reading his work. I had to read huge chunks of Poetics for various college classes, and I got so bored and frustrated with him. I know he was just being meticulous about delineating everything. It’s not my thing though. (Philosophy in general, not really my thing.)

    1. Jenny, I don’t think philosophy is my thing either. POETICS was just right, because I do like literary criticism. I definitely can understand getting bored….

  3. Thanks for mentioning the Very Short Introduction. It sounds like a good foundation for getting the most out of Aristotle…I’ll have to check it out when I get to him.

    1. Dwight, oh I’d HIGHLY RECOMMEND that introduction. I’ve read reviews of the others — plato, etc. — and not all are praised but this one was wonderful, I can tell you. Definitely a good foundation.

  4. I read The Poetics as part of a summer college course before my senior year in high school and aside from Aristotle’s requirements for what makes a good tragedy, I remember very little from this work. Perhaps if I had the Barnes aid you used, I would have understood more of it.

    Or it may have been the distracting summer weather…

    Great post.

    1. Nancy C, I’ve found I can’t concentrate on really old classics in the summer. Last year I tried INFERNO in the middle of the summer and it was a no go….but I do think reading Barnes’ summary is a very good way to approach it — don’t even need to read the original, lol …

  5. Hi Rebecca,
    Great topic and post! One great thing to remember about Aristotle is his enduring, towering influence over future thinkers, not just those in the ancient world. That is what I always think of when pondering him (AND he tutored Alexander the Greeat(!)).

    I generally struggle with reading works of a philosophical nature, I don’t know if it’s just “laziness” or too short of an attention span to read them deeply enough, but Aristotle is one of the “easier” to read.

    Loving the tour! Thanks for organizing!

    -Jay

    1. Jay, remind me not to try the other philosophers any time soon if Aristotle is an easier one…lol. I can definitely see how Aristotle influenced future thinkers. Barnes did a great job of putting him and his teachinhs in context.

  6. I had to read Poetics for my theory class in college…along with a lot of other writers, so I barely remember it. At the time, I really didn’t “get” theory, and I don’t fully understand it now, but I think I would pull more from it now having read more of the works that are so often discussed.

    Maybe I need to go find that book….

    🙂

    Oh, and I am glad you read A Raisin in the Sun! Are you going to put up your thoughts?

  7. I’ve read a lot of the tragedies, a few comedies and pretty much all of Homer but I have never really touched on any of the Greek philosophers so it was very interesting to hear your thoughts on Aristotle. Despite your post, I’m not sure that I am going to read any Aristotle soon but he is on my “Really should read someday” list.

    1. Falaise, well, and if you don’t get to Aristotle himself, you can always read the short introduction, which really sums up his works well! (I should feel guilty suggesting to people to NOT read the original, but really, this is a case where it seems appropriate!)

  8. I’ve been wanting to read Poetics since I took an Intro to Theatre class last semester. I’m glad you got something out of it, it gives me hope I will as well. You’re doing a unit on Ancient Greek Theatre? That sounds like so much fun! I love Greek drama. =) Also, thanks so much for hosting the Classics Circuit and giving me an excuse to read some of it!

    1. Shannyn, when I say “unit” I just mean I want to start reading it in earnest! I think Poetics is interesting in context of Greek drama, but it’s not the most definitive work, or anything. And thanks for joining in the Classics Circuit!

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