The twofold principle of Aristotle's poetics

Epistemologia 30 (1):61-76 (2007)
Abstract
The starting point of this paper is an apparent contradiction, often pointed out by commentators of the Poetics. In his treatise on poetry, whose object is human action, why does Aristotle assign a major role to necessity, while in the Rhetoric and the Nicomachean Ethics he clearly states that in the field of human action there is no place for necessity but only for probability? One answer has been, that in the Poetics Aristotle refers to a weaker type of necessity, which in the end is more or less the same as probability. The fact that Aristotle (the argument continues) speaks almost always not only of necessity but also of probability, is proof of this weakening of necessity. I argue, on the contrary, that in the Poetics necessity and probability are two distinct principles, which concern different aspects of the tragedy (i. e. the most accomplished poetical work according to Aristotle), and which therefore should not be blurred. The first step is to make clear that the alleged contradiction is only apparent. It is in fact true that in the world of action, according to Aristotle, there can be no necessity, but action is only the object of poetry and not poetry itself. Poetry as such is a technique, which differs from other techniques (like medicine) on account of its ends, and, consequently, also on account of its object. In the world of technique, as is clearly stated both in the Methaphysics and in the Posterior Analytics, there is necessity, in the sense that to reach this or that end you have – necessarily – to do this or that. But then – this is the second step – what is the relation between technical necessity and the principle of probability? Evidently probability concerns the world of action, the object of poetry. This brings me to the following conclusion: When Aristotle tells us that the aim of the poet is to say what is possible according to probability and necessity, he means that the poet should take probable actions as objects and use them as necessary means to reach a particular end. This end, in the case of tragedy, is the tragic plot. The two principles are then strictly connected (every moment of the tragedy has to be looked at from one side and the other), but nonetheless distinct.
Keywords Poetics  Aristotle
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