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The Nature of Poetic Truth in Aristotle's Poetics

Several critics are of the view that Aristotle’s Poetics was primarily written as an answer
to Plato’s charge against poetry. Whether this is acceptable or not, Aristotle’s concept of
poetry certainly involves a ‘defence’ of poetry against the charge that poetry is a pack of lies, a
copy of a copy, a shadow of shadows and twice removed from reality. We see how Aristotle
takes the very concept of ‘imitation’ from Plato but modifies it to hold greater dimensions.

The Concept of ‘Imitation’

Plato considered poetry as imitation. But to him, the imitation was of a lower order.
Poets, according to him, imitated the world of appearances, which was a shadow or image of
the ideal conception. Thus poetry imitated a shadow; it copied a copy of reality, and hence,
was twice removed from reality.
Aristotle took the term ‘imitation’ from Plato. He gave to it a much wider significance and
greater dimensions. He turns the table on Plato by saying that poetry is an imitation, but
imitation of a special type. The imitation in poetry is not a slavish ‘copying* of the external
appearances of things. It is a recreative imitation. It is a creative reproduction of objects; it
involves the effort of the imagination and the intellect. It thus presents a higher truth, the
truth of imagination. It universalizes the particular. The poet shifts his material, selects the
most relevant portions, imposes order and design on the chaotic material of life and
universalizes the particular. Thus Aristotle contends, the truth involve in poetry is higher
than that embodied in history.
Poetry and History : Universal versus Particular.
The poet does not deal with things as they had happened in the past. To do so would be
the work of the historian. The function of the poet is to relate what may happen—what is
possible according to the laws of probability and necessity :
The poet and historian differ not by writing in prose or in verse. The true difference is
that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.
The poet could take for his material, things as they are, as they are said or thought to be,
or things as they ought to be. He uses creative vision to make something ‘new’ out of the
material of life. But what are these materials of life ? Are they the external happenings and
events which took place historically ? No. Poetry deals with the universal, the basic
elements in human nature, the permanent possibilities of human nature. History, on the other
hand, deals with the concrete particulars of existence. The historian is restricted to the
particular happenings, or the existent facts. The poet’s view is larger, deeper, more
generalised. He presents the universal through the particular.
Poetry has this in common with philosophy : there is a search for Truth—universal truth.
The historical facts appear in a chronological order. I, them, there is not a logical sequence or
causal chain. But in poetry, there is the governing appearance of design imposed on the
confused material taken from We.
The Government of Probability and Necessity
The poet, as has been already remarked, imposes order on the confused tangle of life. The
poet eliminates the irrelevant matter, the nonessential, or the merely incidental. The law of
probability and necessity refers to the internal structure of the poem. It brings about the
closecohesion of the parts. There has got to be a ‘necessity’ about the events following one
another. There has to be a ‘necessary’ relationship between the events, and between the
characters and events. There is a probably causal relationship between the incidents.
One might argue that this kind of order and design is far removed from real life, in which
things often happen without apparent cause. Things often happen in a haphazard manner,
with no proper causal relationship in life. Why, then, should we say that poetry’s truth
depends upon the law of probability and necessity, or order and the establishment of proper
relationship between cause and effect ? The very fact that the poet selects his material and
imposes order on it, and produces an effect of ‘inevitability’ about the sequence of events,
embodies the essence of poetic truth. It is through this process of ordering the material into a
cohesive1 whole that a poet achieves the idealisation of appearances. The poet takes the
haphazard material of the life as we see it. He imagines a cohesive while composed out of this
material. He creates this cohesive whole out of the chaotic material. Thus the
truth embodied in poetry is of a higher order than that of history.
Imaginative Truth
The men and women we meet in poetry are not ‘real’ in the usual sense of term. They are
always slightly different, either better or lower than average. Their thoughts and words are not
thoughts and words of ordinary men and women. The probable laws of their behaviour cannot
be measured against the standards of average humanity. The rules of ordinary experience do
not govern the higher creations of- poetry. Poetry imitates the ‘essence’ and not the
appearances. It reveals the ideal possibilities inherent in human life. All that the truth of
poetry demands is that the actions of the character in the poem be logical. The events
presented by the poet should have a relationship not only with one another, but also with the
character placed in the midst of these events. Aristotle agrees that poetry presents not facts,
but fiction. But this does not make poetry ‘unreal’ or ‘untrue’. The truth of poetry is a “higher
reality*, because poetry rises above facts. In this it becomes ‘ideal’; it presents something as it
might have been, or ought to be, according to the idea of the poet. It is the imaginative power
which makes poetic truth different from historical truth. And it is this that makes poetry
‘universal’ and permanent in its truth.
Likely Impossibility is Preferable to Unlikely Possibility
Aristotle makes a valid statement in connection with poetic truth. He remarks that in
pftetry the ‘likely impossibility is preferable to the ‘unlikely possibility’. The poet, Aristotle is
quite willing to admit, tells lies; the poet is not concerned with actualities. But what
matters, tells lies; the poet is not concerned with actualities. But what matters, is the way of
telling these lies. It is of the utmost importance that these ‘lies’ be convincing, credible,
probable. The most impossible occurrence, incident, or character becomes credible through
the poet’s vivid handling. Indeed, we find that we are quite willing to believe the ‘fantastic’ in
actual life even if it seems quite unlikely. But the same thing would appear incredible in art, if
it is not presented in a ‘realistic’ manner. Poetic illusion has to be created with a master-touch,
otherwise the required ‘suspension of disbelief will not be produced. It is’the poet’s artistic
capabilities which can create this poetic illusion, by ordering the events in a causal sequence.
It would then appear as if the events could have happened under a particular set of
circumstances. Through the poet’s art, “the impossible not only becomes possible, but natural
and even inevitable.”
Kinds of Improbabilities and Irrationalities
The probable is that which appears rational, and hence gains our credibility. Anything
improbable is irrational. The impossible is that which is not possible physically. But the
impossible can be made to look ‘probable’ if it is given a logical inevitability through art. The
improbable does not really have a place in art. But there are some types of improbabilities
which can be overcome in their presentation.
Material improbability, with regards to material facts, can be overcome. It can be made
to look logically inevitable by artistic skill. Improbabilities are admitted in poetry as they are
conducive to the heightening of the poetic effects of wonder and admiration. Homer, says
Aristotle, could handle ‘lies’ very well.
The ‘irrational’ is much more difficult to handle if it is the introduction of the marvellous.
But the supernatural elements are easily believed, if it is in accordance with the general beliefs
and received opinion. The supernatural elements are easily admittable in epic poetry, but less
so in tragedy which is presented on stage. On stage, irrationalities appear less credible.
In dramatic poetry, the events presented must be the logical and natural outcome of the
preceding events. Each event has to lead naturally to the next. There is a complex
interelationship between character and event in drama. Cause and effect have to be logically
presented. Hence, the place for the irrational, the supernatural, and the marvellous is highly
restricted in drama. Nor is there much place for ‘chance’ or ‘accident’. Chance events do not
have rationality while drama requires its events to be governed by the law of probability and
necessity. Chance is allowed only if the poet’s great skill can overcome its apparent
Moral Improbability
The one kind of improbability which cannot be overcome through the skill of any poet is
‘moral improbability’. This is the improbability arising out of the violation of the basic laws of
human behaviour. These violate the very principles of human nature, and do not have a place
in poetry at all. They cannot be glossed1 over by any skilful technique, for they are absolutely
untrue, conceptually2 or really. Artistic truth depends on the basic truths of human nature—
the eternal emotions, thoughts, feeling, and actions of human beings. If it violates these very
objects of imitation, it cannot have any credibility. Logical and moral necessity are at all times
to be adhered to.
Poetry then, is ‘imitation’, but not a photographic presentation of the world of
appearances and all its mundane trivialities. Poetry’s truth is based on the basic elements of
human nature, the everlasting, universal aspects of human life. Poetry ignores the
nonessentials, removes irrelevances, and concentrates on the essentials. It presents the
‘universal’, while history deals with particular events. Poetry takes the particular and makes it
into the universal. But the process of imitation is in keeping with the law of logicality,
probability and necessity. Poetic truth is higher than that of history. The particular object
taken by the poet is transfigured, “so that the higher truth, the idea of the universal, shines
thought it”. Aristotle defends poetry against the charge that it is full of lies.
Aristotle enunciates a doctrine which holds good for all ages—the presence of a universal
element in all great .poetry, accounting for its permanent appeal, while at the same time he
showed how a reconciliation might be effected between poetry and philosophy. “Plato had
indeed shown that an element of intuition was common to the processes of philosopher and
poet alike; but it remained for Aristotle to complete the vindication of poetry, and to
recommend the claims of philosophy and poetry by showing that both were avenues to the
higher truth.”