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.