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How To Be an Aristotelian and a Yogi

by April 30, 2021

Written by Leigh Duffy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
While yoga has exploded in popularity in the last twenty years or so, the larger system of yoga—of which the physical practice is a mere part—has been around since before the time of Aristotle. This eight-limbed (or eight-part) system of yoga, which was developed just after Aristotle’s time, is rooted in a rich philosophical school of thought addressing metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe, the nature of humanity, and the nature of knowledge.
This ancient school of thought addresses how our knowledge about the universe and our place in it can help us live better lives. In other words, it proposes answers to questions that Aristotle himself was asking. Aristotle had different answers, but there are many similarities. Those similarities help teach us how to live noble and virtuous lives. 
The yoga practice developed by Patañjali in The Yoga Sūtras sometime between the 2nd Century B.C.E. and the 2nd Century C.E. is based in Sāṁkhya philosophy, which adheres to metaphysical dualism. Dualism points to the polarities of existence. On one hand, there is an aspect of the universe that is ever-changing and temporary: prakṛti. This includes the physical stuff of the universe: from mountains and rivers to tables and chairs to human beings – including our brains, flesh, bones, and blood. But prakṛti also includes our minds. Thoughts, mental states, dreams, and emotions are all prakṛti because they are impermanent and ever-changing in nature. 
It might sound like everything in the world is prakṛti – what else is there aside from the temporary, changing parts of the world? Dualism reminds us there is another side of the coin. In Sāṁkhya philosophy, there is also an aspect of the world that is permanent and does not change. This is puruṣa and is understood to be the true nature of the self (ātman). This divine nature exists in us all independent of the qualities of the physical world. Puruṣa is considered many in nature; the same non-changing Self unites us all. 
The more well-known physical practice of yoga helps us understand this dualism and experience the nature of the true Self. The goal of the three stages of meditation –  dharaṇādhyāna, and samādhi – is to experience or realize puruṣa and to be able to distinguish that permanent self from the impermanent world. Other aspects of yoga, including the physical practice, āsana, prepare a person for this. 
While puruṣa does not act, prakṛti cannot avoid acting since its very nature is to change. Therefore, to choose not to act is an action – it is a choice one makes. The ethics of yoga include a sense of duty with regards to how we act in the world.
The Bhagavad-Gītā, one of the principal yogic texts, teaches that yoga is “perfection in action” or “skill in actions” (2.50). The perfection or skill here is understood as acting without attachment (without attachment to anything in prakṛti), selfless action where good deeds are done for the sake of the good. 
Later chapters of the Gītā give examples of this: to be sincerely generous, one must give without attachments. Giving charitably “to secure some favor in return, or again in expectation of a future reward, or with reluctance” (17.21) or “without proper regard and with contempt” (17.22) are both examples of giving with attachment. However, giving “for the sake of duty alone, given at a proper time and place to a deserving recipient … that is thought to be of the nature of goodness” (17.20). 
We see echoes of Aristotle in that very quotation. One Aristotelian virtue is generosity, which is an intermediary between “excess wastefulness and … ungenerosity” (1107b10). Actions are virtuous when they are done “at the right times…toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way” (1106b21-23). 
In yoga, the right reasons are egoless reasons, without attachment. Being attached to prakṛti — the ever-changing world, over which we have little control — is not only self-defeating, it fails to recognize the connected nature of puruṣa. In yoga, we must act for the sake of doing what’s right, out of a sense of duty.
Aristotle says something similar: “Actions done in accordance with virtue are noble and done for the sake of what is noble. So the generous person will give for the sake of what is noble and in the correct way – to the right people, in the right amounts, at the right time, and so on” (1120a24-27).
A key component of living well has to do with intention. In yoga, our actions are noble when they are done with the intention of honoring the divine nature in all beings. That implies particular duties like not lying and not causing harm. Nevertheless, yoga also teaches that it is impossible to live a life without any harm or suffering at all.
In the Bhagavad-Gītā, the protagonist, Arjuna, is told that his duty, as a warrior, is to fight a holy war for the sake of his kingdom. This war is to be fought against his cousins. Arjuna is reluctant to fight at first because of his vow to create no harm, but he soon learns that not fighting would still be a choice—and would create more harm in the world. Fighting is his duty and while it will harm others (his cousins), he must remember that the intention is to protect the vulnerable citizens of the kingdom from his cousins.
Bhagavad-Gita’s revelation: Krishna tells Arjuna the Gita, source: Mahavir Prasad Mishra 
The intention behind Arjuna’s action matters greatly: if he chooses to fight for glory, that would not be noble. Yet it is equally not-noble to choose not to fight since that choice is rooted in his attachment to his cousins. Thus, choosing to fight for the sake of the kingdom is to choose to act at the right time and for the right reasons. This is noble and good. 
What would Aristotle have said about this? His comments on the virtue of courage are relevant here. Courage, he says, is an intermediary between never acting in the face of danger (being a coward) and acting in any dangerous situation at all (bravado). Courage acts at the right time and for the right reasons and is therefore virtuous. For Arjuna, fighting a war he’s afraid to fight is courageous in exactly that way. 
In order to choose virtuous action, Arjuna must have knowledge. The importance of knowledge and the application of reason is another similarity in Aristotelian and yogic texts. Both views teach that in order to live a good life, one must have knowledge about right and wrong. One must then apply that knowledge, making conscious decisions about when it is appropriate to act and how to do so. In other words, one must also use philosophical knowledge to act well.
For Aristotle, knowledge without action is incontinence. For yoga, knowledge without action is impossible since choosing not to act is an action in and of itself.  This shifts knowledge without action to knowledge without right action
Image credit: Stoabuddhism
Aristotle teaches that to act virtuously, we must act for the right reasons and for the sake of goodness itself. He also cautions us that it is better to act in this way even if the reasons aren’t yet “right”. By acting in the way that a virtuous person would act, by making it “habit”, we will indeed become virtuous. We will come to care about goodness for goodness’ sake. 
Yoga also teaches that it is better to give for the wrong reasons than not to give at all. Giving to those in need creates more good and less harm in the world. We can continue to give while working on our attachments at the same time. The practice of yoga helps develop non-attachment. Meditation is a way to remind ourselves of the temporality of the world (prakṛti) and the permanent part of ourselves that connects us all (puruṣa). That knowledge allows us to let go of the desires attached to our actions, purifying them. We can focus on the very general intention of helping others experience less harm, less suffering while in this world. 
To be a good yogi and a good Aristotelian involves being aware of the intention behind our actions. It is about developing the “right reasons” for acting. This can be done through the yogic practice of meditation or through active contemplation of the nature of goodness and of harm.
Yoga practice also involves study (Jnana yoga is the yoga of seeking knowledge), meaning one can practice yoga while studying philosophy! Finally, to be a good yogi and a good Aristotelian, one needs to act. It’s not enough to have the right intention and the right knowledge, but we must use that knowledge to act in a way that we create more good and less harm in the world. 
Illustration by Eddie Guy, source: Tricycle
Our intentions, knowledge, and actions can all influence the way we approach both the particular yoga ethical principles (yamas and niyamas) as well as the Aristotelian virtues. We can take their shared guidelines of right intention, right knowledge, and right action to help us live better lives.
For example, rather than trying to create no harm (ahimsa in yoga), we can have the intention of less harm or as little harm as possible as we go about our lives. We can make deliberate decisions that respect that. Rather than trying to calculate the perfect amount to give in order to be generous, we can cultivate the intention to give to create more good in the world and then consider – with reason – what is the right charity to which we can give. 
Being a good yogi and a good Aristotelian might just boil down to being a good philosopher! Be thoughtful about intentions, consider the choices we have before we act, be deliberate about which choices create more good in the world, and act with the intention of doing what’s right for its own sake. Namaste!

Aristotle’s Soul ‘Psyches’ and How to Understand Them

by January 26, 2021

Written by Emma Coffinet, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

From the meaning of life to the art of politics and the nature of friendship itself, the iconic Greek philosopher Aristotle imparted much wisdom. So much of the great man’s work, penned over two thousand years ago, remains relevant, interesting, and inspiring to this day.

Countless texts and articles have been written on Aristotle’s views and ideas across all kinds of subjects. His influence has spread throughout the ages, even penetrating multiple religious bodies of thought in the process.

Indeed, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all took influence from the man known to many as ‘The Philosopher’, and some of his most intriguing comments concern the subject of the soul, a concept that has been envisioned and interpreted in countless ways over the years.

Aristotle

Here we break down Aristotle’s view of the soul and his breakdown of it in three distinct ‘psyches.’

An Etymological Introduction

In order to fully understand Aristotle’s views of the soul, we must first pay close attention to the words he chose to use and how we interpret those words. The Latin title of his famous treatise On the Soul is De Anima, but the original Greek title is Peri Psyches.

Aristotle, however, has a very specific definition in mind when he makes use of the word ‘psyche’ or ‘soul’. He argues that there are three types of substance: matter, form, and the compound of both matter and form.

On the Soul focuses on living beings, such as plants and animals. In Aristotle’s view, living beings have souls and these souls are what makes them alive. For Aristotle, the soul or psyche can be classified as ‘form’. It is a living entity, that which essentially makes it a living thing.

A Soul in Heaven, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905)

The Three Psyches

For Aristotle, a soul is not an interior, ghostly agent acting in a body. It is an integral part of every living entity, and such an entity may be a plant, an animal, or a human. This is where Aristotle’s ‘hierarchy’ or categorization of the psyches comes into play. He postulated that there were three main types of psyche:

  • Those of plants
  • Those of animals
  • Those of humans

We can look at these three forms in a different way:

  • Nutritive – For Aristotle, a nutritive soul could only be found in plants and was essentially the most basic kind of soul, focused purely on growth, nutrition, and reproduction.
  • Sensitive – Sensitive souls represent the next level for Aristotle. Aside from being focused on growth and survival, they also incorporate movement and perception of the world around them, via sensory experiences. Animals can see, feel, hear, and so on, and so have sensitive souls.
  • Rational – The rational soul, found in humans, is the highest tier of psyche. It involves all of the aforementioned abilities and processes, including growth, locomotion, reproduction, and perception, but also include intellect, thought, reasoning, and rationality into the equation.

Essentially, the simplest way to look at Aristotle’s so-called soul psyches is to think of them in the form of a hierarchy of living beings, ordered by cognitive abilities, with humans at the top, animals beneath them, and plants at the base.

 

In Aristotle’s view, all of these different living beings have souls or psyches, which make them alive and drive them to remain alive by nourishing themselves, reproducing, moving, and so on, but these souls can come in different tiers, or levels.

The more advanced souls, found in humans, are capable of more functions and processes than those found in animals and plants, while those of animals are more capable than those found in plants. The rational soul is the highest form, followed by the Sensitive soul and then the Nutritive soul.

It’s also interesting to note that, unlike many of his contemporaries and other philosophers throughout history, Aristotle felt that the soul cannot exist independently of the body. He argued that it is not a body in and of itself, but rather that it ‘belongs to a body’ and must therefore always be present in that body. Should the body cease to exist, the soul goes with it.

Aristotle’s interpretation of the soul makes for fascinating reading and his treatise continues to be read and closely studied by scholars and students the world over. The soul may forever remain something of a mystery, but it’s clear that the great philosopher had a clear view of what it was to him.

Author’s Bio:

Emma Coffinet is a content creator for a range of sites and blogs, responsible for writing articles, social media content, white papers, essay paper examples, and contributes to the platform “write my thesis”. She likes to share the benefits of her experience with others by offering assignment help to students.

Aristotle and the chatbot

by November 19, 2020

Written by Justin Osborne, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Whenever you surf the Internet, you‘re likely to bump into chatbots powered by artificial intelligence (AI). They serve all sorts of purposes: to provide website guidance, pinpoint products, answer your questions, and much more.

Chatbots are reportedly capable of answering 80% of standard questions. Research shows that nearly 70% of consumers prefer to use chatbots because they allow them to communicate quickly with a brand or company. Finally, 90% of companies report faster complaint resolution with chatbots.

But did you know that we probably wouldn’t even have chatbots were it not for Aristotle?

That’s right: modern technology owes a lot to the ancient rules of logic. Here’s why…

What’s A Chatbot?

Before we delve deeper into the topic, we need to explain what a chatbot is. By definition, a chatbot is a computer program that simulates human conversation through voice commands or text chats, or both.

There are several types of chatbots in use today, but it is the most complex one – AI-driven chatbots – which owe a large debt to the ancients. AI-driven chatbots use multiple techniques to analyze and resolve user inquiries using language processing, rules and machine learning, As such, they are able to contextualize conversations and identify customers’ specific needs and interests.

Their functionality is based on a few key principles of Aristotelian logic more than 20 centuries old. What are these key principles? Keep reading to learn more about it!

aristotle

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC, with modern alabaster mantle

How Formal Logic Powers AI-Based Chatbots

Aristotle was the first to formally identify and organize the rules of logic in the fourth century BC. In his pivotal work, Organon, Aristotle says a conclusion can be derived from a group of mutually corresponding premises.

Called a syllogism, this represents a logical argument based on deduction. The other two forms of formal logic are induction and abduction. All three types are in contrast with purely mathematical principles of logic.

The reason for this is simple – purely mathematical logic rarely ever applies to human interactions, so it’s better to use principles that reflect everyday conversations between people. These principles – taken from Aristotle – developed into term logic, a system that takes into account the context of the conversation and adjusts to a given communication pattern.

The fundamental assumption behind term logic theory is that we use words to make a point — in term logic this is called a “proposition” — which, in turn, be considered true or false. The system works to discern the veracity of simple statements based on various factors.

For example, formal logic could claim something like this:

  • All dogs are animals → All dogs have four legs → All animals have four legs

The example is very simple, but it shows how formal logic can sometimes mislead chatbots. In term logic, such inconsistencies are less likely because both fallible and infallible reasoning are taken into account when a statement is evaluated.

Image source: The Atlantic

Such a system can perform all three types of conclusion-making processes: deduction, induction, and abduction. But once the first step is done, an AI-powered chatbot has to evaluate the truth value of each statement in order to identify which answer is best-suited to a given conversation.

The latest AI-based platforms react like human beings because of how they assess and respond when communicating. The response they judge the most natural and logical (via algorithms, of course) then becomes the answer to the user’s inquiry.

Bearing in mind that chatbots contain massive data libraries, it is clear that the system can almost instantly process and analyze millions of different terms and factor them into an ongoing conversation. As the result, chatbots can quickly come up with an answer that seems to be most logical in a given situation.

The Bottom Line

Chatbots have taken the online world by storm in the last few years, but it turns out that their roots go back all the way to Ancient Greece and Aristotle. In this article, we explained how Aristotle’s rules of logic make AI more human.

Have you ever talked with a chatbot? Did you like the answers? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Justin is a blogger from Leicester, England, UK. He enjoys sharing his thoughts and opinions about education, writing for academic writing help and scholarship essay writing service.

Is Aristotle Relevant to Democracy?

by October 15, 2020

It’s time to take a philosophical deep dive…

We all know Aristotle is one of the great pillars of ancient philosophy… we also know that’s he’s not particularly easy to read.

Nonetheless, his Politics stands as one the seminal works on the topic… but two and half thousands years later, we have to ask:

Is Aristotle relevant to modern democracy? Is it time for a revival of Aristotle’s Political philosophy and theory?

Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915

This is what Adriel M. Trott, Chair and Associate Professor in Philosophy at Wabash College, Indiana and one of our Classical Wisdom Symposium speakers, has set out to prove.

While the history of political philosophy is a series of configurations of nature and reason, Aristotle’s conceptualization of nature is unique because it is not opposed to or subordinated to reason.

Adriel M. Trott, who focuses on ancient, continental and political philosophy, uses Aristotle’s definition of nature as an internal source of movement to argue that he viewed community as something that arises from the activity that forms it rather than being a form imposed on individuals.

Using these definitions, Trott develops readings of Aristotle’s four arguments for the naturalness of the polis, interprets deliberation and the constitution in Politics as the form and final causes of the polis, and reconsiders Aristotle’s treatment of slaves and women.

And she does this all to show that Aristotle is relevant for contemporary efforts to improve and encourage genuine democratic practices.

Something, I think we can all agree, is a very important topic at this time.

You can discover for yourself Adriel’s insights and Aristotle’s relevancy in her latest book: Aristotle on the Nature of Community.

Described as, “a fresh, substantial, and engaging contribution to the ongoing Aristotle revival in political philosophy and theory” by Stephen Salkever, Journal of the History of Philosophy – Aristotle on the Nature of Community is a thoughtful and provocative re-reading of Aristotle.

You can get your Own Copy Here.

But wait! There’s More! Adriel M. Trott has written extensively on Aristotle…

In her first book, Aristotle on the Matter of Form: A Feminist Metaphysics of Generation, Adriel M. Trott allows us to think anew with Aristotle… not just about form and matter, but also body and soul, male and female, and much else. Informed by and responding to feminist engagements with these issues, Trott challenges binary models of these couplets, often attributed to Aristotle, to show us innovative possibilities for thinking how we come to be and what we might become.

All Classical Wisdom Symposium Attendees will get an additional 30% OFF “Aristotle on the Matter of Form”

You can also catch Adriel M. Trott LIVE at the Inaugural Classical Wisdom Symposium… Make sure to check out all the details below!

(You may have noticed that the option to buy the Wine Included ticket has now closed… but don’t worry! You can still enjoy the full two day conference, watch the presentations and panel discussions with our One Day or Two Day pass.)

Mimesis: Aristotle vs. Plato on Poetry

by August 26, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

In a previous article, we discussed Aristotle’s inspiration to write the Poetics (a treatise on drama and literary theory), and the notion of catharsis that emerged as a result. As we concluded, it is highly probable that Aristotle’s treatise was written in response to Plato’s criticism of poetry.

Plato objected that poetry plays on the emotions and thus undermines the highest part of our soul, the part that should at all times be in control—Reason. Aristotle cunningly showed, using the notion of catharsis, that while poetry does indeed play on the emotions, it does so in a way that enhances our reasoning!

Along with catharsis, Aristotle developed another very important concept that uses Plato’s arguments against him. This concept is related to the intellectual side of Plato’s arguments.

We are all more or less familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave.  Roughly put, the main message is that the world detected by our senses is a “shadow”, a mere copy of an immaterial world of eternal Forms that are incomprehensible to us. This world of Forms consists of abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space, and which constitute the true nature of reality. Therefore, what is accessible to human beings is merely a misrepresentation of reality, a mimesis (μίμησις) of these pure Forms.

Allegory of the Cave

Illustration of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Source).

Now, if the world we encounter through our senses is already merely a copy or imitation of reality, then anything that imitates this imitation would be even farther removed from the truth! Poetry is one such imitation of an imitation. Because it imitates and relies on the world of the senses for its material, it takes us even further away from the truth, and thus nothing good can come from it.

“…I said that poetry, and in general the mimetic art, produces a product that is far removed from truth in the accomplishment of its task, and associates with the part in us that is remote from intelligence, and is its companion and friend for no sound and true purpose.” “By all means,” said he. “Mimetic art, then, is an inferior thing cohabiting with an inferior and engendering inferior offspring.” (Plat, Rep, 10.603 a-b)

Diplomatic as always, Aristotle accepted part of Plato’s theory, agreeing that art is a form of imitation. He even accepted Plato’s division of storytelling according to the different types of mimesis employed in it. Yet he did not agree that mimesis is bad in and of itself—quite the opposite! Aristotle argued that imitation is completely natural for human beings, and a necessary way of learning:

From childhood a man has an instinct for representation, and in this respect, differs from the other animals that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons by representing things. And then there is the enjoyment people always get from representations. What happens in actual experience proves this, for we enjoy looking at accurate likenesses of things which are themselves painful to see, obscene beasts, for instance, and corpses. The reason is this: Learning things gives great pleasure not only to philosophers but also in the same way to all other men, though they share this pleasure only to a small degree. The reason why we enjoy seeing likenesses is that, as we look, we learn and infer what each is, for instance, “that is so and so.”

Plato and Aristotle

Fig. 7 Wallerant Vaillant, after Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, 1658–77, mezzotint Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1910-6901 (artwork in the public domain)

Thus, for Aristotle, imitation is inherent in human nature and plays an essential role in the formation of knowledge. Mimesis represents the crucial link between pleasure and learning because the audience enjoys learning while watching the results of mimesis. The thing represented to us through mimesis helps us learn and makes it enjoyable. Mimesis does not, as Plato thought, take away from knowledge and the search for truth.

Aristotle’s Poetics, small though it is, managed to shape literary theory for centuries and continues to do so. Today, we are all Aristotelians when it comes to art. I know I’m not the only one who has left a movie theatre feeling as though I’ve learned a valuable lesson, or who has watched a tv show and related some part of it to a struggle in my own life. In short, anyone who believes that lessons about life can be learned through epics, tragedies, and comedies alike is an Aristotelian when it comes to art.

Aristotle had a knack for turning the teachings of his mentor against him. We now see that he did this with catharsis and with mimesis. Judging from the fact that Aristotle’s arguments in the Poetics prevailed over Plato’s criticism of poetry, are we to think that Aristotle does indeed have the better argument? Living in an era where emotion seems to reign over reason, should we be more open to sharing Plato’s concerns about poetry and other arts that play on our emotions?

Does it lead us out of the cave and into the light, or is it just one of the many chains that shackle us to the cave wall, leaving us only with shadows?

The verdict? I leave that to you to decide, dear reader.

Catharsis: Aristotle’s Defense of Poetry

by June 3, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Clasical Wisdom

Surely, we are all familiar with the term “catharsis.” A significant number of us have probably used it from time to time to describe an experience, such as when we leave a movie saying “That was cathartic!”

Yet, how many of us know what it really means, who came up with it, and, most importantly, why? It is quite possible that no one does, but let’s not take this pessimistic approach, and let’s try and see what we do know.

This peculiar term is what Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, discussed in his Poetics, revolves around. What is strange about it, though, is the fact that it appears only once in the entire treatise, yet is at the core of the definition of tragedy!

“The tragedy is, therefore, the imitation of a serious and completed action of a certain size, with the speech which is refined and specific for every kind in certain parts, with characters that act, rather than talk; and with the evocation of pity and fear, it achieves the catharsis of such affects.” Poetics, Part VI

Poetics

You can read Aristotle’s Poetics yourself here!

Due to the scarce information on catharsis that Aristotle provides us with here, to better understand the concept we’ll need to form conclusions based on what we have from other sources. This includes the general attitude towards poetry in Athens, Plato’s condemnation of it, and the mention of catharsis in some other of Aristotle’s works.

Since it would take too long to deal with all of this in such a short space, I will focus on a sort of silent correspondence between Aristotle and Plato on this topic. Not everyone will agree with this approach, but I find it crucial in revealing the true nature of Aristotle’s notion of catharsis.

Poetry had an important place in the life of an average Athenian citizen. From childhood onwards it was an integral part of Greek education, starting with Homer’s works being read, remembered, and recited. Along with teaching children practical skills such as reading and writing, it also aimed at instilling moral and religious values.

The importance of it did not stop with children’s education. Poetry was considered to serve an important role as a kind of moral guidance for Greek adults as well.

Aristotles school

Aristotle’s School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg

Today it is widely accepted that the aim of performing tragedy in ancient Athens was not just a mere aesthetic pleasure, but that tragedies had some kind of political and social function as well. This is due to the fact the plots of tragedies’ often questioned democracy, foreign policy, and other important aspects of Greek society. Also, the mythical stories used in tragedies involved universal subjects and common problems in human lives.

This brings us to Plato and his objections to poetry. Though he had quite a number of them, the most relevant for our purposes here is his attitude towards the emotions.

According to Plato, the soul consists of three parts: reason (λογιστικόν), will (θυμοειδές), and lust (ἐπιθυμητικόν). For him, the good life in an ideal society would mean total domination of reason over the emotional parts of the soul. There are three main emotions in the center of his attention and those are pity, fear, and pleasure.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, we can find an answer to every single one of Plato’s objections, each of which he diplomatically agreed with to a certain extent. The case is the same when it comes to emotions. He agrees that poetry evokes emotions, that it offers pleasure, and, most importantly, that the evocation of emotions through poetry has an influence on the spectator’s personality and their emotional behavior.

Plato and Aristotle

Fig. 7 Wallerant Vaillant, after Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, 1658–77, mezzotint Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1910-6901 (artwork in the public domain)

What Aristotle disagrees with, however, is Plato’s assumption that poetry presents a potential danger of evoking an excess of emotions in reality. With the concept of catharsis, Aristotle wanted to prove that emotions are not bad per se and that poetry has a very important place in human lives.

This brings us closer to the conclusion that Aristotle’s notion of catharsis was actually a response to Plato’s critique of poetry as interfering with our rationality. The most direct proof is the fact that, in his definition, Aristotle included precisely the emotions that Plato accused tragedies of evoking!

It is not typical of Aristotle to not provide a further explanation of a term that he places such an importance on. However, we should bear in mind that this treatise belongs to the final phase of his work, which means that he probably assumed that readers of his treatise on poetry had knowledge about his philosophy developed in some of his previous works.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle shows that adhering to the golden mean with regard to one’s emotions (such as pity and fear) can result in pleasure which, in turn, can result in perfecting the moral side of one’s character.

Aristotle's disciples

Aristotle and his disciples – Alexander, Demetrius, Theophrastus, and Strato, in an 1888 fresco in the portico of the National University of Athens

Last, but not least, Aristotle contemplates the role of catharsis in relation to music in the eighth book of his Politics. In this book, he points out that music has a mimetic character (that is, it represents or imitates the real world) and, as such, has an ethical influence on the soul. Music can also affect our emotions and cause pleasure. Thus, music as an imitation (μίμησις) can affect our emotions, which is very important for us as human beings because learning to govern our emotions is necessary for perfecting our character

“Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change.” ~ Politics, Book VIII.5

As with poetry and music, so with tragedy. The emotions evoked through these mediums are not something to be dominated by reason, but something to be disciplined or regulated. They do not interfere with our rationality, but can help us perfect it.

We see then that, unlike Plato, who casts a distrusting eye towards the emotions or passions in general, Aristotle believes they are not evils in and of themselves. It is not the feeling of anger, fear, or pity itself that is bad, but the extent to which we allow them to take control of us. And it is only through having these emotions evoked that we can achieve the catharsis, or purification of them.

Taking such a stance against Plato allows Aristotle to have a much more appreciative view of poetry, music, and tragedy, and the important role they have in our lives. The emotions evoked through such mediums need not bring the rational soul to ruin, but can help make us become more virtuous and well-rounded individuals.