Learning and pleasure in Poetics 4

In Poetics 4 Aristotle returns to a theme we have already introduced in the discussion of Rhet. 1.11, namely the pleasures that humans may enjoy at the recognition of products of mimesis. In the Poetics, as is perhaps to be expected, these pleasures are given a more detailed treatment:[1]

ёокаот Se yEvvfjaai |agv oA»s tt|v noinTix^v amai Suo tives Kai auTai 9>uaiKaL to te yap [ai[agTCT6ai au^uTov tots av0pwnois Ёк -nraS»v ectt'i Kai tout» Siaqigpouai T»v aAA»v oti |ai|anTiK»TaT6v Ёaтl Kai Tas

[aa9fagis noigiTai Sia [ai[afag»s Tas np»Tas, Kai to x^pgiv tois |ai[af||aaai navTas. an^giov Se toutou to au^^aTvov ЁП t»v gpywv a yap auTa Aunnp»s op»[agv, toutov Tas EiKovas Tas [aaAiaTa ^Kpi^M^Evas xa^po[aEV 0g»pouvTEs, oiov 9npf»v te |aop9as T»v aTi[aoTaT»v Kai vgKp»v. amov Se Kai toutou, oti ^av0avgiv ou [aovov tots 9>iAocto9>ois ^Sicttov aAAa Kai tots aAAois o|aotos, aAA’ Ёп ^payu Koiv»vouaiv auTou. Sia yap touto yafpouai Tas EiKovas op»vTEs, oti auiaJMvgi 0g»pouvTas |aav9avEiv Kai auAAoy^ga6ai Tf EKaaTov, oiov oti outos ЁKETVos• ёпе'1 Ёav |ат| тиур npog»paK»s, ouy 7

|n|aniaa noifagi TrivriSovriv aAAa Sia tt|v aпEpyaa^av r tt|v ypoiav r Sia ToiauTnv Tiva aAAnv amav. (Poet. 4 I448b4—19)

The following two natural causes seem to account for the existence of poetry in general. First, humans have from childhood a natural affinity with imitation. In this respect they differ from the other animals because of being the most imitative of creatures, the fact that humans’ first steps in learning come about via imitation, and the fact that all humans enjoy imitations. Evidence for this is available from the following facts. We enjoy gazing at images that are particularly accurate representations even of the very things that we look upon with distress, for example the shapes of the most lowly beasts and even corpses. The reason for this too is that learning is most pleasant not only to philosophers but to all people in the same way, even if they share in it only fleetingly. That is why they take pleasure in looking at representations, because as they look they learn and reason out what each thing is, for example that this is so-and-so. Because, if the viewer does not happen to have seen the original previously, the imitation will not give pleasure as an imitation but because of its workmanship or some colour or some other reason of that kind.

In part, this passage repeats ideas we have already seen in the last section of the passage from Rhet. 1.11. Indeed it repeats one interesting piece of evidence that Aristotle has for finding in humans an interest in and enjoyment ofconsidering things that are imitations ofsomething else, namely the fact that we can enjoy looking at something if we are looking at it as an imitation or representation even ifwhat it imitates or represents would itself be unpleasant to perceive. For example, it is perfectly possible to take pleasure in looking at a statue of Laocoon and his sons being attacked by serpents. It would be odd, to say the least, to take pleasure in the sight of a father and his sons in fact being killed in this way. The reason for this difference, Aristotle says, is that we humans take pleasure in thinking of the representation as a representation. We recognise: ‘This is [a statue of] Laocoon’ and therefore we can take pleasure in the workmanship, the lifelike depiction, and so on, as well as the recognition itself of this thing as a representation of something else.

Of course, were we not to know anything of the story of Laocoon, we might still take pleasure in the statue. Aristotle recognises that we might take pleasure in the craft, in the colour, or perhaps in the formal arrangement of the elements. Later, in Poet. 7 i45ob35-i45iaio, he famously insists that all beautiful things must have both a certain orderly arrangement and a certain magnitude, so that a beautiful object takes some time to perceive as a whole. Animals that are too small cannot be beautiful since they are perceived more or less all at once, and those that are too long are not beautiful since it is difficult to perceive them as wholes. Something similar holds, he says, for the plots ofgood tragedies: they must be neither too brief nor too long.[2] What is worth noting is that there is a certain kind of arrangement that we humans perceive as beautiful which can be viewed as a whole but not in an instant. It is hard to be certain, but the idea might be that it must be possible to perceive the whole as an arrangement ofparts and that is why something that is perceived all at once as a unit will not fit the bill, nor will something which is so large that its overall structure cannot be grasped. (A beautiful piece of music is a good example: it cannot be so short as not to be perceived as having a structure at all, nor too long so that the listener cannot keep in mind the recognition of its overall form.) The recognition of this structural beauty will bring a certain kind of pleasure. In so far as recognising such structural arrangements is dependent on a rational appreciation since the fineness and beauty of the structure is related to the good, then this pleasure too will be a kind of rational pleasure.[3] So without knowing whom this statue is supposed to depict, we can nevertheless take pleasure in its formal and structural properties as we look at it.[4] Certainly, at EE 3.2 i23ob36-i23ia5 Aristotle notes that although other animals often have rather sharper senses than we humans, nevertheless they do not recognise some pleasant objects of perception that we do. They do not, for example, recognise good order or beauty (suappooTia p KaAAos, i23iai—2) and, barring certain very unusual circumstances, are not affected by beautiful sights or sounds as such. This must be a case in which our human capacity for reason allows us to take pleasure in perceiving items as beautiful or as fine in a way that other animals that can hear or see simply


There is a further pleasure beyond the simple appreciation of beautiful order to be had from our contemplation of imitative art. Were we not to know that this is a statue ofLaocoon, we would be missing the additional pleasure of recognising the imitation as such. This enjoyment of imitation as such is taken by Aristotle in this passage of the Poetics to be a sign of a general human enjoyment of learning. Quite how it is supposed to instigate the ‘first steps in learning’ is not made clear, but we might speculate that it is part of a general process of cognitive development that involves seeing how things differ from and resemble one another, drawing general inferences about kinds and the like. What is more, someone who takes pleasure in the statue as a mimetic object also shows some appreciation of the fact that it has been deliberately fashioned in order to resemble something else; recognition of its causal history and its being the product of deliberate rational skill are also involved in enjoying seeing something as an imitation of something else. Aristotle is certain that there is a pleasure to be had just in the recognition of that kind of design. This also provides a second reason for distinguishing two kinds of pleasure available from such works of art. The first argument is the fact that, in the absence of recognition of the imitation we might nevertheless take pleasure in the formal arrangement. The second is the mirror image of the first: even if the object under consideration is not formally or structurally beautiful we might nevertheless take some pleasure in recognising it as an imitation of something else. Something grotesque and ugly might nevertheless be enjoyed as a product of skilful imitative craft.[6]

The ‘reasoning out’ involved here (syllogizesthai: the cognate noun is used in the parallel claim at Rhet. 1.11137Л9) is not an onerous cognitive labour and the ‘learning’ involved is similarly undemanding. The viewer works out what this statue imitates and the product of this working out is something that is learned. The whole process requires the prior knowledge in some sense of what is being imitated and the recognition of the imitation as a deliberate attempt at representation. The viewer must remember what is being imitated, recall it, and perform some basic intellectual operation that concludes with the thought that this particular statue, for example, is an attempt to depict this particular individual.[7] This is all some distance from the pleasures of philosophy, as Aristotle notes, but the fact that everyone can enjoy something of this kind of intellectual achievement, even at the very low level of recognising that this is a statue of a snake, or of Laocoon, or that it depicts that passage in that poem, shows that there is a common psychological capacity in all humans.[8]

There is a similar kind of pleasure noted at Rhet. 3.10 I4i2a33-i4i2b3. Aristotle describes a kind of joke or pun that depends on the similar sound in Greek of the phrases ‘something bothers you’ and ‘you are a Thracian slave’ said by one Theodorus to Nicon.[9] There is a pleasure in recognising the play on words for anyone who knows also that Nicon is a Thracian and that therefore the double meaning is appropriate. Here too Aristotle describes the relevant pleasure as one of learning (Sio paQovTi qSu, i4i2bi), where the learning involved is not much more demanding than a certain kind of recognition of the relevance of a possible double meaning. This learning itself depends on a prior background knowledge of the situation but the pleasure of this learning is nevertheless distinct from any enjoyment of that prior knowledge.

The connection between the pleasure of seeing naturally well-arranged items and similarly ordered products of imitative craft is made even closer if we bear in mind Aristotle’s general notion that art imitates nature. He makes explicit the connection between natural and imitative design in PA 1.5 when making the case for there being something wonderful (thaumaston, 645ai7) in all natural things and identifies a pleasure to be had in contemplating even the lower animals. In this case, the pleasure involved might require a prior commitment to a certain kind ofphilosophical enterprise or, at the least, some capacity to appreciate natural philosophical explanations. But for anyone suitably predisposed, there will be a pleasure in considering natural living things that is perhaps even better than the pleasure we can all enjoy in contemplating the products of human design.

The chapter opens by restating the now familiar idea that the best and most pleasant objects of thought are things that are eternal and ungenerated, although it is likely in this case that what Aristotle means are not necessary truths but eternal perceptible things such as the heavenly bodies. (This seems to be the sense of the parenthetical phrase at PA 1.5 644b25-8; cf. 645a4-6.) But the chapter concentrates on making a case for there being pleasures to be had also in the investigation and understanding of corruptible things such as animals and plants (644b20-3i). These may not admit of the divine contemplation that the eternal objects do but, in compensation, they are more easily investigated. Indeed, the eternal objects are much more honourable and provide more pleasure even if they are grasped only fleetingly or in part (kata mikron). This much is also familiar from the arguments for the superiority and pleasure of contemplation in the Nicomachean Ethics. But here in PA 1.5 Aristotle adds that there is a pleasure to be had also in considering the perishable natural world and, what is more, the natural world offers much closer and more accessible objects of study. Moreover, there is pleasure and value in considering the full range of natural living things, even those that might initially appear lowly or ugly.

xai yap gv tois цп Kgyapiaygvois auxov npos rf|v aiaOnuiv ката tt|v 0s«>pfav o|a«>s Л бпцюируиаааа qiuors a^nyavous fSovas napgygi tois Suva^gvois Tas amas yvwpkgiv Kai фйол фЛостофо^. ка'1 yap av gin

napaAoyov ка'1 атопоу, gi Tas |agv giKovas auTov QgwpouvTgs yafpo|agv oti TT|v SnHioupyuaaaav Tgyvnv auv0gwpou^gv, oiov tt|v ypaфlкr|v n TT|v nAaaTiKnv, auTov Sg tov фйол auvgaTWTwv цп naAAov ayan&mgv Trv 9g«^av, 5uva|agvoi yg Tas amas KaQopav. 5io Sgi цп Suoygpawgiv naiSiKos Trv ngpi tov aTimoTgpwv Z^»»v g-ma-Kgiyiv. (PA 1.5 645a7-i6)

For also in the case of those animals that are not agreeable to look at, nevertheless nature’s craftsmanship provides enormous pleasures to those who contemplate them: those who are able to recognise their causes and are naturally lovers of wisdom (‘philosophers’). For it would be paradoxical and odd if, when contemplating representations of these things, we take pleasure in considering the craftsman’s skill in painting or sculpture, for example, but do not take more pleasure in the contemplation of those very things that are put together by nature when we are able to survey their causes. Hence we must not grumble like children at the consideration of the less noble animals.

The themes introduced in Poetics 4 are brought together here in defence of Aristotle’s project of investigating all natural things, including those animals that might be thought less worthy of attention and even perhaps unpleasant to look at. He notes first of all our enjoyment of recognising the art and skill of painting and sculpture and then offers an argument a fortiori. He reminds us that there should be more enjoyment in seeing the products of nature’s skill, particularly since we take pleasure in looking at depictions in paint or marble of just these same natural things. If someone enjoys looking at a fine and beautiful statue of a deer then there should be no less pleasure to be had in contemplating the fine and beautiful natural design of a deer itself. To be sure, it might take a particular kind of philosophical nature in this case to recognise natural design but the principle is precisely the same as in the case of human arts: recognition of the explanations for the arrangement and construction of the item under consideration is part of taking pleasure in appreciating the item in question. Presumably, this will also be the case even for those animals that were in Poetics 7 thought too small to be pleasant to view; in those cases too there might nevertheless be a pleasure to be had in recognising the cunning natural design of an insect’s eye or a tiny worm’s body.[10]

  • [1] My understanding of this issue has been helped by discussion with Pierre Destree. See Destree 2012and 2014.
  • [2] Cf. Poet. 23 i459ai7—21: Aristotle insists that a story must be whole and complete with a beginning, middle, and end so that, like a single and complete living creature, it can generate its own properpleasure (nspi Ss Tqs 51пулИат1кЛ5 ка! sv цбтр^ щцфчклд, oti SsT tou$ цибоид кабапнр sv таТд трау wSfaig auviaTavai йрацатжоид ка! nspi ^fav npa^iv oAr|v ка! TsAsfav е'хоиаа apx^v ка! цестака! тбАод, iv’ &ansp Z&ov iv oAov noif Tqv о^кs^av ^Sov^v, S^Aov).
  • [3] See Richardson Lear 2006, i22—3, and Moss 20i2a, 206—19. In Chapter 7 below I return to this themeand suggest that the virtuous agent has a similarly pleasant appreciation ofthe arrangement and orderofhis own life. This may be compared also with Plato’s account in the Philebus of the good and piousman discussed in Chapter 6.
  • [4] This would also allow Aristotle to give an account of the pleasures to be had from nonimitative art.
  • [5] Compare Plat. Laws 653e3—654a3: ‘The other animals do not perceive orderliness and disorder inmotions — what we call rhythm and harmony — but those same gods we called our companions in thechorus gave this tousasa gift: the pleasant perception of rhythm and harmony’ (та psv ouv aAAa Z&aouk eysiv ai'o-0r|O4v t?>v sv TaTs Kiv^osaiv Ta?sa>v ou5s ora^i&v, ots 5f pu0pos ovopa Kai appovfa^ ^pTv5s oug si'nopsv tous 0sous auyxppsuTds 5s56a0ai, toutous slvai Kai tous 5s5a>K6Tas Tf v evpuOpov tsKai svapp6viov ai'a0naiv ps0’ ^Sov^s). See also Warren 20x3a.
  • [6] See also Plutarch’s account of the pleasure to be had in recognising the products of deliberate,rationally guided craft: Quaest. Conv. 5.2 673D—e and De Aud. Poet. i8b—c. Plutarch too notes thatthis pleasure may be taken even in objects which imitate things we would not perceive with pleasure.
  • [7] Recollection too is a kind of syllogismos: De Mem. 2 453aio—12. Again, compare Phaed. 73c5—74a4.
  • [8] For further discussion of this passage see Halliwell 1992 and 2011, 208—9; Heath 2009, 62—8; Destree2012, 98—103.
  • [9] The phrases are 0pd?si as and ©pa? s! au.
  • [10] Cf. Destree 2014, 8—9.
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