Aristotle Poetics, 1451b1-6: Poetry is Better than History. And More Philosophical.

“It is clear from what we’ve said that the work of the poet doesn’t concern relaying what has happened but instead consists in communicating what might happen and what is possible according to likelihood or necessity. Accordingly, the historian and the poet differ from one another not because one composes in meter and one doesn’t—for if the work of Herodotus were set in verse it would be no less some kind of History with meter than without it. The poet and historian differ in this: one communicates events that have actually happened and the other relays those kind of events that might happen. Because of this, poetry is more philosophical and serious than history.”

Φανερὸν δὲ ἐκ τῶν εἰρημένων καὶ ὅτι οὐ τὸ τὰ γενόμενα λέγειν, τοῦτο ποιητοῦ ἔργον ἐστίν, ἀλλ’ οἷα ἂν γένοιτο καὶ τὰ δυνατὰ κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς ἢ τὸ ἀναγκαῖον. ὁ γὰρ ἱστορικὸς καὶ ὁ ποιητὴς οὐ τῷ ἢ ἔμμετρα λέγειν ἢ ἄμετρα διαφέρουσιν (εἴη γὰρ ἂν τὰ ῾Ηροδότου εἰς μέτρα τεθῆναι καὶ οὐδὲν ἧττον ἂν εἴη ἱστορία τις μετὰ μέτρου ἢ ἄνευ μέτρων)• ἀλλὰ τούτῳ διαφέρει, τῷ τὸν μὲν τὰ γενόμενα λέγειν, τὸν δὲ οἷα ἂν γένοιτο. διὸ καὶ φιλοσοφώτερον καὶ σπουδαιότερον ποίησις ἱστορίας ἐστίν•

Yes, Aristotle was engaged in one of the earliest disciplinary pissing contests. No one caused so much grief until Callimachus complained about that dirty river.

(That’s all hyperbole. Callimachus’ dirty river? The Hellenistic poet and librarian believed that lyric was superior to epic and that epic could no longer be written. Cue Apollonius of Rhodes’ exile and writing of the Argonautica).

For those who don’t know, here’s the (somewhat unclear) passage in question from Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo 105-112

And Envy deviously whispers to Apollo’s ears:
“I do not take pleasure in the singer who sings as wide as the sea.”
And Apollo drives Envy back with his foot as he says:
“Great is the flow of the Assyrian river, but it darkens itself
Dragging so much filth and debris from the land in its water.
It isn’t as pleasing when bees draw water from everyplace
As when a small clean and unpolluted drink flows
From a sacred stream onto a petal’s tender tip.”

ὁ Φθόνος ᾿Απόλλωνος ἐπ’ οὔατα λάθριος εἶπεν•
‘οὐκ ἄγαμαι τὸν ἀοιδὸν ὃς οὐδ’ ὅσα πόντος ἀείδει.’
τὸν Φθόνον ὡπόλλων ποδί τ’ ἤλασεν ὧδέ τ’ ἔειπεν•
‘᾿Ασσυρίου ποταμοῖο μέγας ῥόος, ἀλλὰ τὰ πολλά
λύματα γῆς καὶ πολλὸν ἐφ’ ὕδατι συρφετὸν ἕλκει.
Δηοῖ δ’ οὐκ ἀπὸ παντὸς ὕδωρ φορέουσι μέλισσαι,
ἀλλ’ ἥτις καθαρή τε καὶ ἀχράαντος ἀνέρπει
πίδακος ἐξ ἱερῆς ὀλίγη λιβὰς ἄκρον ἄωτον.’

6 thoughts on “Aristotle Poetics, 1451b1-6: Poetry is Better than History. And More Philosophical.

  1. My ignorance is such that I didn’t realise that Callimachus’

    ἐχθαίρω τὸ ποίημα τὸ κυκλικόν

    meant “I hate epic poetry”. For some reason I seem to remember this being translated as “I hate the common round”. I thought he just hated popular poetry.

    On the other hand I wouldn’t ask Callimachus to choose the music for a party. His criterion for selection would be that no one liked it.

    σικχαίνω πάντα τὰ δημόσια. I hate everything popular.

    1. The ἐχθαίρω τὸ ποίημα τὸ κυκλικόν, according to most people who work on epic, refers to all the other poets except for Homer. Callimachus’ basic stance was that no one else could do epic after Homer, so why even try?

      I’m with you on Callimachus’ aesthetics. I have long felt that Hellenistic poetic values helped to ruin poetry in the west for two millennia…

      1. That’s ridiculous! We all know that poetry was alive and well in the west (with brief intermissions) until Ezra Pound and co. ruined it. (As a side note, I recently started thumbing through Pope’s Iliad, and would submit that it has been unfairly maligned.)

      2. I am interested in the reasoning behind this dramatic statement.I do not me this in a critical way. It’s just that I have never heard this said, and I am curious.

      3. Aristotle is probably just saying this to support the main thesis of the work and the importance of poetry. I think it makes more sense if we see him as trying to bolster the importance of imitative art against other philosophers who have criticized it.

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