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Whose analysis of the psychological effects of tragedy is more convincing, Plato's or Aristotle's?
The value of tragic theatre to human experience has long been a puzzling topic. What is it about watching unfolding tragedy, of imagining and hypothesising discomforting situations of grief and sadness that leaves us in some way satisfied? Aristotle particularly was interested by, and set out to suggest answers to this question, whilst Plato's interest in and relevance to the discussion of tragedy is for the most part only a section of his wider contemplation of the value of the arts, but it is notable that Aristotle's enquiry into tragedy specifically seems a number of times to take its cue from Plato's condemnation of poetry, and his assertion that it should be banned from the ideal and just city. Thus when we attempt to draw comparisons between the two accounts of the psychological effects of tragedy that they present, we will likely find it most productive to consider Aristotle's argument for the most part in light of Plato's original criticisms of poetry and performance art. Given that Aristotle was a student of Plato, this does not seem an inappropriate means of comparison. We should begin then by considering how Aristotle defines 'tragedy', and subsequently explore how Aristotle's characterisation of the ultimately beneficial effects of tragic theatre contrasts with Plato's assertions that poetry is both inherently suspect and capable of subverting the rational in favour of the emotional. I will conclude that Aristotle's characterisation of the psychological effects of tragedy upon an audience seem more convincing than Plato's, if chiefly because they rest upon assumptions or arguments about the human mind that themselves seem more intuitively convincing, or acceptable. Aristotle's Poetics is practically our only record of his consideration of aesthetics, and indeed does not present us with a complete theory, but rather an in-depth discussion of a particular literary or theatrical genre - that of tragedy - from which we are able to discern or reason out a number of wider implications for aesthetics as a whole. Aristotle defines tragedy in the Poetics as 'the mimesis of a serious and complete action of some magnitude; in language embellished in various ways in its different parts; in dramatic, not narrative form; achieving, through pity and fear, the catharsis of such passions'. A number of important concepts involved in this definition will be explored throughout this essay, namely Aristotle's notion of 'mimesis' as compared to Plato's, and the solely Aristotlean concepts of 'seriousness' and 'catharsis'. We can place Aristotle's definition of tragedy directly in contrast with Plato's critique of poetry. Aristotle in the Poetics not only considers how and whether tragedy works, but asserts that it works well: Tragedy, he argues begins with a poet's knowledge, expounds universal statements, then offers the virtuous adult further moral education, and for the value of this process it deserves the place in the kallipolis denied to it by Plato. This consideration of tragedy directly contrasts with Plato's arguments that poetry is underwritten by no true knowledge, only opinion; that it propagates false perceptions of reality and is private to the poet's mind; and that poetry is inherently idiosyncratic and irrational. For Aristotle, unlike Plato, the concept of mimesis - of imitative representation - is considered 'natural to people from childhood', and whilst for Plato such image-making and imitation is perverse, Aristotle considers them as natural propensities amongst humans and, further that mimesis is both a form of learning and an enjoyable experience, since humans invariably enjoy learning. Aristotle, contrary to Plato, asserts that work that produces resemblances can be a source of knowledge, since it can both capture the
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