Plato’s and Aristotle’s Oedipus the King by M.Gunes

As a research field, Literary Theory and Criticism, like all others, is attributed to the ancient Greek -Western- philosophers like Plato and Aristotle by the Europe-centered academy. When these two philosophers try to understand the world and the truth of it, they also think about literature and write their views on it. However, in their understanding of it, literature cannot go far from being an educational tool. Especially in Plato, it can be seen that the texts in which literature is criticised are concerned mostly with politics and ethics, not aesthetics. When we realize that literature, -or to be specific- poetry, is the mainstream media of that time, it is quite understandable why they focus on educational attitudes of literature to judge it according to their views on Political Philosophy and Ethics.

Along with this paper, some other similarities between Plato and Aristotle are exposed like the differences between them. In other words, in this paper, it will be investigated what Plato and Aristotle understand about Literature, in which topics they fall into allied and opposing sides with, using Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to illustrate the points and claims.

To begin with, the latter one of the two philosophers, Aristotle, sees and concerns with Literature more Aesthetically. Although his main focus is also educational qualification, he analyses literature as a structural phenomenon. Thus, he constitutes a more “systematic and distinctive discipline of literary theory and criticism” by comparison to Plato (Leitch, 86). For example, according to him, “Tragedy is defined through its six component parts: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. Without these it has no existence” (Day, 36). In addition to these essential components, he wants that there should be a unity in literary works. In this point, this should be asked: Why are components and them being in unity so important?

One of the main similarities between Plato’ and Aristotle’s view is that both of them see literature as mimesis, a copy or an imitation. In Plato’s philosophy, literary work is “two steps away from reality” (Leitch, 71). They are copies of the material world which is the copy of the ideal world. Poets do not have the knowledge of the ideas (only philosophers may reach this knowledge); they only have the knowledge of the material world and try to imitate it. “Plato’s greatest fear, at this stage, is that if poets are allowed to operate freely, they will produce a host of inappropriate models: slaves, women, cowards, drunks whom many may be tempted to imitate.” (Day, 30). Therefore, their products certainly will be too imperfect to give the readers any knowledge which causes the citizens of the Republic to be imperfect, evil, and harmful. Because poetry is not a high-quality educational material to the citizen, Plato bans it in his Republic.

Actually, Plato has not written about Sophocle’s Oedipus the King. However, it may be said that Plato probably is not a fan of it. The first point of this claim should be the play’s main role Oedipus. He is the “father-killer / the mother-…;- no, I will not speak about that sinful word!” (Sophocles, 55) and it makes him a very obnoxious model for the youngsters and the citizens of the Republic in the eyes of Plato.

On the other hand, Aristotle’s position on the debate about Oedipus the King may be opposed to Plato’s which is because of the differences of their thought on mimesis. In the previous paragraph, it is argued that mimesis is excessively inaccurate to be educational according to Plato whereas Aristotle thinks that it can be a great educational material if it causes catharsis which is explained as “ethical and intellectual clarification” (Leitch, 88). In other words, tragedies -or generally literature- educates its audience with catharsis by imitating action and life. “So, how can it cause a catharsis?” The second question of this paper should be this.

The answers to the first and second questions are related to each other. Aristotle writes: “Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each orits elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play); [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.” (Leitch, 95) Aristotle wants that these separate elements of the tragedy come together with “probable or necessary connection between the different parts of the action” (Day, 36) and form a unity to arouse emotion which results in “learning lessons through representation” (Leitch, 93). By saying “connection”, Aristotle means “relation of causality” because he also says: “we think we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause” (Falcon).

So, based on Aristotle’s understanding and condition of tragedy, how adequate is Oedipus the King to educate and to cause a catharsis? No need to use great effort to deduce an answer to this question because Aristotle, in his works, writes about this tragedy. He counts it as one of “the finest tragedies” (Leitch, 100). One of the reasons is that, for him, incidents that happen to Oedipus are linked with each other by reasonable connections and there is no improbability in it (Leitch, 103). Besides, Oedipus’ fortune, which changes into good from bad, makes the audience “shudder and feel pity at the outcome” (Leitch, 101). Thus, it can be said that Oedipus the King has all the elements required, unity, and power to cause catharsis.

To conclude, in this paper, Plato and Aristotle are compared on the basis of their perception of literature with using Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to demonstrate the claims of the paper. Although both of them see literary work as mimesis, the latter -in contrast to the former one- claims that it can be educational. However, Aristotle places catharsis as a prerequisite for learning. Furthermore, he also advised setting a course for it: There should be certain components and they have to be in reasonable connections with each other to form a unity. With this, the literary leads its audience to a clarification of the soul.

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