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Aristotelian impersonality

October 27, 2015

I alluded in my last post to this passage from Aristotle’s Poetics (ch. VIII), writing “Aristotle discourages us from thinking that a life constitutes a whole,” but for some reason did not post it. I now correct this omission:

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

I could be reading in, but Aristotle seems to suggest here that tragedy has to imitate action because nothing would count as imitating an entire life; an entire life has too many “infinitely various” incidents to be reduced to a unity. This is not just an aesthetic statement, for it implies a certain understanding of human life, as if superhuman forces were working themselves out through human actions, but did not particularly care whose actions they were, since nothing substantial connects any one action a person performs with any other.


“On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” I am reminded here of a passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.

In Eliot’s view, often denoted “impersonality,” the poet is not a personality, but merely a medium for the recombination of emotions. in the peculiarly impersonal anthropology implied by the Poetics, all agents are merely media for the working out of human action.


I concluded my original comment by noting that “we often think differently than the Greeks about such things.” I might have said, more strongly, that Aristotle often thinks differently about such things. I find it difficult to square the above anthropology with the considerably more personal one implied, e.g., by this passage from the Nicomachean Ethics (I.7):

… human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.

The answer, I suppose, is that for Aristotle personality is real, but an achievement; an activity of the soul. The biography of a happy man could supply a tragedy with its unity, for the happy man performs one action all his life. But tragedies are, for various reasons, rarely about happiness.

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