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reading Aristotle’s poetry

July 12, 2013

Today for us there are at least two problems with reading Aristotle’s poetry. The first is that it’s poetry that is Greek. The second is that it is Aristotle’s. Let’s read anyway.

First let’s read what certain readers of Greek have written, have warned perhaps. Here’s Virginia Woolf from 1925 –

For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. All the more strange, then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek, feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek, though from what incongruous odds and ends, with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of Greek, who shall say?

It is obvious in the first place that Greek literature is the impersonal literature. Those few hundred years that separate John Paston from Plato, Norwich from Athens, make a chasm which the vast tide of European chatter can never succeed in crossing. When we read Chaucer, we are floated up to him insensibly on the current of our ancestors’ lives, and later, as records increase and memories lengthen, there is scarcely a figure which has not its nimbus of association, its life and letters, its wife and family, its house, its character, its happy or dismal catastrophe. But the Greeks remain in a fastness of their own. Fate has been kind there too. She has preserved them from vulgarity. Euripides was eaten by dogs; Aeschylus killed by a stone; Sappho leapt from a cliff. We know no more of them than that. We have their poetry, and that is all.

But that is not, and perhaps never can be, wholly true. Pick up any play by Sophocles, read–

Son of him who led our hosts at Troy of old, son of Agamemnon,

and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea.

The problem of reading Greek writers is fairly discussed, and Woolf admits, “We have their poetry, and that is all.” But, she allows something more to get beyond the difficulties. At first glance, it seems that “any play by Sophocles” solves our problem. It opens our mind, she suggests, to our familiar. But that only returns us to the place we start: we have “our ignorance” and “we do not know.” The title of Woolf’s essay, of course, is “On Not Knowing Greek,” as in her book, The Common Reader.

Then there’s the related difficulty of getting to anything by Sophocles in the first place. I do get that we have good translations, and yet there is what the translators have had to do to get to the Greek. Here’s C. S. Lewis from 1942 –

An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just insofar as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.

What Lewis is describing is from his own particular experience (as he relays that for general consideration to an audience in a sermon he preached, which we all can hear a bit of here as produced by somebody else some years later). The point is that reading Sophocles or Greek poetry in general may be difficult, especially at first, when one is initially attempting somehow to “know” it.

Now we come to Aristotle, the Greek teacher from whom so many of us have learned. How do we know? Can we? Have we? Isn’t that the sort of thing that Greek Philo-Soph-ers would struggle with themselves as Epi-Stem-o-Log-y? Our own contemporary philosopher, an epistemologist herself, C. Z. Elgin has said this about our “knowing” Aristotle:

Aristotle, of course, was not named “Aristotle”; the name he went by had a different pronunciation and a different spelling. So the claim that our use continues the chain that began with his being baptized “Aristotle” needs refinement. Then there is the worry that chains that originate in a single stipulation may later diverge. In that case a term has two different reference classes despite its link to a single introducing event…. Ambiguity occurs because correction… allows for alternative continuations of the causal chain…. Each continues the chain, but the two uses of the word… are not coextensive. Nor do we always succeed in referring to what our predecessors did, even when we intend to do so.

Elgin makes her observations about us in around 1997, in her wonderful book, Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary. She’s saying that we don’t even really use Greek (not the alpha-bet nor the sounds they represented) when we read of Aristotle and speak of him with one another. How can we understand, or know, his works? How his poetry?

Those who study Aristotle, and his works, don’t all agree. For example, there’s rhetorician, not philosopher, George A. Kennedy. We must know Aristotle, Kennedy claims, not as a philosopher, especially not as a platonic philosopher, but we must know Aristotle as a rhetorician. Oblige me a longer quotation of Kennedy. He is speaking as if he and Aristotle are the same, the Aristotle he knows and not the one the philosophers, the platonists, would know. In 1992, he argues:

Our friends the philosophers have begun to take more note of the Rhetoric in their study of Aristotle, not out of a willingness to approach philosophy as a rhetorical discourse but in apparent hopes of weaving material from the Rhetoric more tightly into the network of Aristotle’s philosophy. All too many students of Aristotle are, in their hearts, Platonists. I am not only content, but delighted, when Professor Farrell proclaims that I am not a Platonist. Not everyone has noticed. . .

But suppose Aristotle had, as Plato did, explored the philosophical issues of rhetoric and inserted some such discussion into the text [of the Rhetoric]. We can reconstruct, either in his language or in postmodern language, what he might have said about political and ethical functions of rhetoric. If he had done so, I would suggest, some of us at least would now be engaged in deconstructing his remarks along the lines of Derrida’s deconstruction of Plato’s Phaedrus. That is to say, we would be exploring the slippages between a logocentrist position that gives some fundamental moral meaning to rhetoric in society and what Aristotle actually does in the text [of the Rhetoric] as a whole. Virtually every category and strategy discussed can be used for opposed moral purposes, and the only criterion we are offered is the parenthetical remark that we should not seek to persuade what is “base.” It is perhaps not too much to say that the central problem with the Rhetoric for those who approach it philosophically is that it comes to us already “deconstructed,” filled with différance, supplements, and “traces.” Ethical meaning is constantly differed, and key terms such as topos constantly repeat themselves both as the same and as different. . . .

My suggestion to the philosophers. . . is that instead of reading the Rhetoric as a work of philosophy they should try reading Aristotle’s major treatises on other subjects as rhetorical constructs. They might, for example, begin to observe the system of imagery prevailing in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is filled with teleological, emotionally based metaphors. What appear on the surface to be rational arguments are at the most usually enthymemes, not syllogisms, and their persuasive quality is often derived from ethos and pathos. They should explore also the concept of audience in each of the treatises, seen for example in the patterns in which Aristotle shifts from use of the first person singular to the first person plural.

Kennedy is contending, against philosophers (perhaps “straw-man” philosophers), that he knows and that they should know Aristotle rhetorically, even when Aristotle is purporting to being philosophical, ethical, or logical. If we know Greek philosophy as rhetorical, then how would we know Aristotle’s poetry?

Now we might listen to Jeffrey Walker. He also is a rhetorician. And he has this to write, to contend, about Aristotle’s poetry:

Aristotle is perhaps no great shakes as a poet.

Walker is making this assertion, in 2000, as he himself has commented on and has translated a poem composed in Greek by Aristotle. This is in one of his finest books, Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. There he says:

Aristotle is perhaps no great shakes as a poet, but the basic operation of his song is of a piece with what we have observed already in Alcaeus, Sappho, Pindar, and Solon. (And one should not forget that Aristotle was, in fact, admired in antiquity for his literary skill.) The art or technê that describes the principles of this song’s argumentation is clearly rhetoric, as Aristotle understands it, supplemented by the principles of versification, music, and song performance.

So to know Aristotle’s poem, we might do well, if Walker is right, to know others who wrote Greek and were influences, literary influences, not only on Aristotle but on his audience. His poetry is “art” and more, art as argument. More context is required. More Greek is needed to know what he is doing or at the very least perhaps is intending to do to his readers, perhaps even to us, to you also, and to me too, if we can really count ourselves as reading Aristotle’s poetry.

Let’s look at the letters at least.

And let’s recall how many now have known this poem in English translation. Already at this blog we’ve considered these. The rendering by Andrew L. Ford:

The translation by “-R”:

The same lines different by Christopher North:

Now, we might consider more in this very post. Are we reading Aristotle’s poetry really? We might also consider this one English version by J. A. Symonds:


And one Diogenes Laertios has that this way:

O Virtue, won by earnest strife,
And holding out the noblest prize
That ever gilded earthly life,
Or drew it on to seek the skies;
For thee what son of Greece would not
Deem it an enviable lot,
To live the life, to die the death
That fears no weary hour, shrinks from no fiery breath?

Such fruit hast thou of heavenly bloom,
A lure more rich than golden heap,
More tempting than the joys of home,
More bland than spell of soft-eyed sleep.
For thee Alcides, son of Jove,
And the twin boys of Leda strove,
With patient toil and sinewy might,
Thy glorious prize to grasp, to reach thy lofty height.

Achilles, Ajax, for thy love
Descended to the realms of night;
Atarneus’ King thy vision drove,
To quit for aye the glad sun-light,
Therefore, to memory’s daughters dear,
His deathless name, his pure career,
Live shrined in song, and link’d with awe,
The awe of Xenian Jove, and faithful friendship’s law

Here is David A. Campbell, whose work became part of the Loeb Classical Library:



Here’s the rendering published by William D. Furley and Jan Maarten Bremer:


Finally, we come to Jeffrey Walker’s argument. Aristotle’s poem is rhetoric, an argument. In English, if we also could hear the other Greeks who come before this rhetorical poet, Aristotle might have his poem this way. Here is Walker’s rendering:



And now, problems and all, we might argue, we are reading Aristotle’s poetry of Excellence laborious for mortal kind.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2013 11:35 pm

    Brilliant! But the divisions among “experts” reminds of a story you might know, of two students taking an examination in their literature class. The students were asked, “What is poetry?”

    One student wrote, “Poetry is the transcendental metaphor by which the human spirit imposes on the finite an oblique apprehension of the infinite.”

    The other student wrote, “Poetry is writing where all the lines begin with a capital letter.”

  2. July 15, 2013 6:07 pm

    Thanks! And LOL.

    The expert we call Aristotle, when writing prose, preferred to call it ποιητικη.

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