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Aristotelian Poetic Concepts in Plato’s The Apology, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1107

Essay

 Plato’s The Apology is above all, of course, a philosophical text, concerned with philosophical problems such as ethics and the meaning of justice. These concepts emerge within the specific narrative of Plato in terms of Socrates being tried before the rulers of Athens, insofar as he is charged with corrupting the youth. Through this narrative, Plato thus is able to investigate various themes, such as the tension between the normativities of a particular law and higher transcendent notions of justice, and what it means to truly to remain committed to a basic ethical position. Socrates’ apology, which is essentially an example of a refusal to apologize, demonstrates the basic Platonic notion of the importance of the search for the transcendent (in Platonic terminology, the forms) over mere mundane appearances. Yet part of what gives this philosophical discourse its force and vibrancy is that it occurs in the standard Platonic medium of the dialogue: that is to say, that Plato’s philosophical explorations always emerge through a certain narrative form. He does not merely expound upon philosophical concepts, but unfolds them through the spontaneity of conversation, which almost resembles a dramatic form. In this regard, The Apology lends itself to be read from an Aristotelian theory of drama, as developed in Aristotle’s The Poetics. To the extent that specific elements of Aristotle’s dramatic theory, such as character, plot, thought/reason, and diction are present in Plato’s Apology, it can almost be suggested that the vivid power of Plato’s text provides an example for Aristotle of the dramatic art at its highest, such that Plato’s use of narrative influences Aristotle’s viewpoint.

This point is most lucid when one considers the Aristotelian concept of ethos or character and its essential nature to drama. For Aristotle, character consists of “that which reveals moral choice – that is, when otherwise unclear, what kinds of thing an agent chooses or rejects.” (53) In the case of Plato’s Apology it is arguably character or ethos which provides the driving impulse of the entire narrative. Socrates as brought to trial does not try to defend himself so as to avert the death penalty which he faces, but rather attempts to defend his own viewpoints, irrespective of the consequences. Socrates already anticipates that this approach to his defense will yield his sentencing to death, hence his concluding lines, “the hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” (Plato, 20) For Socrates has demonstrated the Aristotelian concept of character, as his concern is with defending a vision of the truth that transcends the particular normativities of the court of law: to the extent that these normativities are inconsistent with the love of wisdom, they must be rejected. Socrates’ essential decision to die and to accept his sentence is thus consistent with the commitments of his character.

Plato thus develops the character of Socrates through a plot that highlights and frames the ethical choices of the protagonist. Plot is also a crucial element of Aristotelian dramatic theory; for Aristotle, plot is made up of the “construction of events.” (49) Plot is obviously crucial to the narrative, insofar as it consists of the events which either grip or do not grip the viewer’s attention: “without action there could be no tragedy.” (Aristotle, 51) Such a notion is also clearly present in The Apology, since Socrates’ basic philosophical commitments and their relevance are themselves heightened by the events in which they are iterated: the severity of the court case against them. Hence, Socrates’ belief “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death” (14) itself gains its philosophical import in its apparent contradiction with the very course of events occurring: that Socrates is being unjustly charged, and thus that a good man is suffering. Without this mise-en-scene, the vividness of Plato’s communication of Socrates’ philosophy would be lost, since the ethical commitment to this philosophy is itself a rejection of common opinion and the investigation into truth irrespective of the beliefs of the many. Plot thus not only serves a role in the drama of The Apology, but also in terms of its philosophical content.

Furthermore, all Socrates’ arguments emerge through a rational discourse. For Aristotle, this is a crucial element of the dramatic art: “for what would be the point of the speaker, if the required effects were evident even without speech?” (19) The speaker thus presents the logic of the narrative, its rationality: a story with consistent narrative, without holes in plot, is often viewed as a good narrative. Socrates’ entire discourse in The Apology expounds this aspect, as he presents the logic for his actions from a multiplicity of different angles. The decisive argument for Plato against his accusers, who suggest he is claiming to possess absolute knowledge, is as follows: “I neither know nor think that I know” (12), which reveals a contradiction on the part of the view of the court, who by condemning Socrates, are precisely stating that they know what is true. As a philosophical text, therefore, the entire discourse of The Apology is constructed upon the bedrock of the rationality of thought.

All these aspects are essentially summarized in the Aristotelian concept of diction:  “expression through choice of words.” (53) Socrates as philosopher understands that argumentation occurs through the medium of language and discourse; Plato accentuates this by composing his works in a dialogic form. Hence, the effect of conveying reason can only be achieved through the correct presentation of words. Socrates explicitly acknowledges this: “I hope…that my words may find favor with you.” (12) Socrates here is not playing the role of the sycophant to the judges, as his arguments make clear that he will die for his beliefs, but rather acknowledges the fundamental role of language in rationality and thought: this, in essence, is a reflection of the decisive philosophical concept of logos, understood as language or discourse.

To the extent that Plato’s Apology wholly corresponds to the Aristotelian theory of drama, it would be incorrect to suggest that Plato anticipates Aristotle. Rather, insofar as both are philosophers, and because of the lucid fact that Plato precedes Aristotle historically, the philological thesis may be advanced that a work such as Plato’s Apology helped inform Aristotle’s theory. Whereas Plato’s Apology is clearly more akin to a philosophical work than a work of tragedy, Plato’s incorporation of tragic techniques consistent with the Aristotelian perspective demonstrates that any philosophy worth its name is inseparable from life and its underlying tragic character.

References

Aristotle, The Poetics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Plato, The Apology, New York: United Holdings Group Classics, 1997.

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