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Plato and Aristotle on Poetry (review)
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Critical Discussion Plato and Aristotle on Poetry, by Gerald F. Else, edited with introduction and notes by Peter Burian; xxii & 221 pp. Chapel Hill: University ofNorth Carolina Press, 1986, $27.00. Discussed by Francis Sparshott The late gerald else taught classics for a living. Plato and Aristotle were part of his job. But why should the rest of us be interested in what they thought? They belonged to a different age. Their way of life, their level of scientific and technological understanding, their philosophical sophistication, their religion, their daily life, are so remote from ours that they seem as exotic as a pair of toucans. We cannot even translate their language into any language spoken today. From the literature ofwhich they write only a few texts remain, and the institutions within which those texts were initiated and consumed were quite unlike any with which we are familiar. Plato's and Aristode's thoughts on literature (a word for which they had no equivalent), then, should have lost all interest for us. But in fact they continue to fascinate us, even if we are not antiquarians, and not only because they influenced later thinkers in whom our interest is less remote. We still want to read them and teach them. The strength of this fascination, its nature, and the reasons for it, are the basic topics with which a book on Else's topic has to deal. Part of the reason is no doubt that Plato and Aristode, having (it seems) no serious predecessors in their speculations and criticisms, had no inhibitions, and are correspondingly free from jargon and obfuscation; that their combination of extreme acuteness with cultural naivety makes their work endlessly 298 Francis Sparshott299 stimulating without being oppressive; and, above all, that the combination of familiarity and strangeness in their presuppositions and in the world they confronted gives their thought a perennially stimulating obliquity in relation to our own concerns. Whatever the explanation, Else says nothing directly about the problem, and writes as if he were quite insensitive to it. At one level, his work is shallow. The book before us combines an almost-completed monograph on "Aristode's Theory of Literature" with a much sketchier one on "Plato on Poetry," which the audior (who died at 74 in 1982) did not prepare for publication. The editor completed the latter, added notes to the whole, and tied everything together. His work has been entirely successful , and earns our warmest thanks. He seems to have done exactly what was best to do, including his decision to issue the works as a single volume. Many posthumous publications arouse misgivings; this one does not. For all its defects, not all due to the circumstances ofits composition and compilation, the book deserves the careful attention of anyone already versed in its subject matter. It is lucidly and engagingly written, and full of challenging and instructive material. Else's work here has no direct interest for students of poetics as such, and relatively little for students of Plato. Its main contribution is to the understanding of Aristode's Poetics. In 1958 Else published a colossal commentary on that book, daunting in its erudition and notorious for its independence ofjudgment. But it was too long and tangled to read easily. The present work presents the major points of the earlier argument in an accessible form, clearly stated and engagingly written. Else has changed his mind somewhat on a few important matters, but what is mosdy new is the accessibility. One often has to refer back to the older book for evidence and argument, and in one or two places such reference is necessary before the new version even makes sense, but on the whole the present work stands as an independendy important contribution to its topic. It is not, however, an easy read: one needs to refer constandy to Aristotle's text, and at many points one really requires a recent critical edition of the Greek text to see what is at issue. But that is not Else's fault; it is because the Poetics is what it is. Aristotle's Poetics is evidently a set of rough notes, presumably prepared for Aristode's own use...