Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 24

‘PERFECT AND WHOLE’: ARISTOTLE’S POETICS

ON THE STRUCTURE OF THE PLOT

Bart A. Mazzetti

IN his work, Aristotle’s Vision of Nature, the classical scholar Frederick J. E. Woodbridge,
discussing the problems involved in a reading of Aristotle, considers two possibilities to
account for their difficulty. In his view, these writings

may be the preserved notes from which he lectured, for he is supposed to have
lectured in his school, called the Lyceum. They may be the treasured notes of those
who heard him. Either hypothesis is good enough as an hypothesis. But neither is
very helpful, for as notes of either speaker or hearer, they too frequently indicate a
multiplicity of occasions when the lectures were delivered, or a multiplicity of
hearers who attended them. The whole matter looks rather hopeless of solution. 1

Having reached an impasse with regard to his framing of this problem, he goes on to say,

There may be no necessity of solving it, but the embarrassment involved is this,
there is so much disorder, so many cross references, so many evident misplace-
ments, so many parentheses and omissions, so many elliptical expressions, that the
reader readily gets in the habit of yielding to mass impressions which are often
difficult to support by specific expositions in the text. He must read one book in
light of another. He must make supplementations of his own. He must correct what
he reads in one place with one import, by what he reads in another place with a
different import. If the writings only went straight ahead progressively and con-
tinuously, as they do now and then, they would be far more readable, and there
would be far less danger of misinterpretation. 2

While these remarks are made apropos the entire Corpus Aristotelicum, they are
particularly apt when applied to Aristotle’s Poetics, especially with regard to the problems
of “evident misplacements” and “omissions”. With respect to the latter, among the greatest
losses the Corpus is known to have suffered is that of the entire second book of his peri\
poihtikh=j, or work About the Poetic Art, dealing with comedy.3 Second only in im-
portance is the loss of the discussion of katharsis. As for “misplacements”, several of the
most important were recognized by the Renaissance commentator Daniel Heinsius in his
work Ordo Aristotelis, appended to his De Tragoediae Constitutione (first published in
1611).4
1
Aristotle’s Vision of Nature, by Frederick J. E. Woodbridge, John Herman Randall, Charles H. Kahn, Harold
A. Larrabee (orig. pub. Columbia Univ. Press, 1965; Greenwood Press Reprint 1983), p. 10.
2
ibid. An excellent overview of their difficulties, as well as a vindication of the works’ scientific character, is
provided by Hippocrates G. Apostle in the Introduction to his collection Aristotle: Selected Works (Grinnell,
Iowa: The Peripatetic Press, 2nd ed. 1986), Sec. III, pp. 5-12.
3
As with most subjects connected with the study of Aristotle, this evident truth has been controverted. See,
for instance, A. P. McMahon, “On the Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics and the Source of Theophrastus’
Definition of Tragedy,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 28 (1917), 9-19.
4
For an English translation, see Daniel Heinsius, On Plot in Tragedy. Translated by Paul R. Sellin and John
J. McManmon, With Introduction and Notes by Paul R. Sellin (Northridge, California: San Fernando Valley
State College Renaissance Editions, 1971). The Ordo will be found on pp. 155-164.

1
Taking his beginning from the definition of tragedy in Chapter 6, he summarizes the con-
tents of the surviving book, noting, almost in passing, most, though not all, of the mis-
placed passages that are arguably present from that point on.5

How can one tell that such misplacements have occurred? As an acquaintance with
the preeminent works of the commentary tradition makes clear, in the writings that have
come down to us Aristotle not only treated logic, but also embodied logical procedure. Ac-
cordingly, understanding Aristotle to be a supremely logical thinker, the educated student 6
expects his works to follow a strictly logical order. 7 In the Poetics itself, for instance, in
Chapter 1 he begins with a treatment of the poetic art itself, determining its genus, before
ending with a treatment of the first difference, which is that in which an imitation is made,
which is the means; Chapter 2 then treating the difference consisting in the object imitated,
while Chapter 3 deals with the difference in manner; the argument thereby going from the
most to the least evident of these differences.8 Now if the manuscripts which have reached
us all were to begin with Chapter 2 followed by Chapter 1, or if a part of the argument con-
cerning the manner of imitation belonging to Chapter 3 were to be found in Chapter 2, no
one would doubt that their order had been disturbed and therefore needed to be corrected.

An excellent example of Aristotle’s orderliness will be found in the proem to his


work, a starting-point which may be fruitfully examined both as an exemplary instance of
his method, as well as an initiation into the subjects to be treated in the investigation to
follow:
5
A brief overview of these misplacements is the subject of Part II of this paper.
6
By “educated”, I mean one in possession of what Aristotle calls paideia: Cf. Marie I. George, “Aristotle on
Paideia of Principles.” Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy (1998) (Abstract): “Aristotle maintains that
paideia enables one to judge the method used by a given speaker without judging the conclusions drawn as
well (I.1 De Partibus Animalium). He contends that this ‘paideia of principles’ requires three things: seeing
that principles are not derived from one another; seeing that there is nothing before them within reason; and,
seeing that they are the source of much knowledge. In order to grasp these principles, one must respectively
learn to recognize what distinguishes the subject matters studied in different disciplines, see first principles as
coming from experience and acquire the habit of seeking them in one’s experience and, finally, see first
principles as being the source of conclusions. While the second and third points might at first seem to pertain
to ‘nous’ and science, respectively, rather than to paideia, the case can be made that paideia involves more of
a firm grasp of principles than ‘nous’ and a less perfect way of relating conclusions to principles than
science.” Thus, when one has attained science, he will be able to judge the conclusions as well.
7
Consequently, the exposition in question being a mature work of the Philosopher, one may reasonably
suppose any deviation from the canons of method to be due to textual corruption.
8
As a help to understanding Aristotle’s method here, cf. the following: “It would seem, then, that according
to the general doctrine of the distinction of speculative and practical knowledge, the resolutive or analytic
process abstracts the universal formal principles of objects—whether operable or non-operable. It proceeds
by defining its object according to genus and differentia, dividing its object and demonstrating its proper pas-
sions” (Bro. Edmund Dolan, “Resolution and Composition in Speculative and Practical Discourse”, Laval
théologique et philosophique 6, 1950, p. 19). In line with this method, Aristotle in the Poetics first divides the
genus “the poetic art” into certain principal species (sc. epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, and the melic arts);
then defines the art by genus and differentiae; a work of the poetic art being an imitation (genus) using cer-
tain means (difference) to represent certain things (difference) in a certain manner (difference), the second of
these being the species-making difference; then proceeds to demonstrate its proper passions, for example,
that it belongs to tragedy to carry out a purgation of the passions of pity and fear. Not surprisingly, commen-
tators unfamiliar with the several modes of proceeding often suppose the Poetics to be written like a ‘how-to’
manual for poets, which would be a practical rather than a speculative treatment of an operable object, and
thus begin with the matter and proceed compositively, from “the ground up”, so to speak, instructing the
would-be poet how he is to construct his poem, rather than proceeding analytically, as Aristotle does, in order
to inform the student of poetry how a poem is to be constructed if it is to be good.

2
About the poetic art itself and its forms themselves, what power each one has, and
how plots [10] should be constructed if the making in which poetry consists is to
be well disposed; and further, from how many and of what sort of parts [each one]
is; and likewise about whatever else belongs to the same method let us speak,
beginning according to nature first from first things. 9

The “first things” from which Aristotle begins are, as we have seen, the genus and differ-
ences defining the poetic art, while the next major division of the text treats its “forms
themselves”, principally tragedy, comedy and epic, the principal conclusions concerning
which are reached in Chapters 4 and 5 respectively, while treatments of their power, dispo-
sition, and parts (in number and kind) follow in due course. Beginning with Chapter 6,
Aristotle unfolds the definition of tragedy, investigating in the following chapters its prin-
cipal qualitative parts, plot, character, and thought, before turning to language (chs. 20-22),
then epic (chs. 23 and 24), then devoting single chapters to things consequent to his con-
sideration as a whole, namely, problems and solutions in the poetic art (ch. 25), and the su-
periority of tragedy to epic (ch. 26), thereby staking out a position contrary to that of his
teacher Plato in the Laws, while reaching a satisfying conclusion to the first part of his
work. Then would have come the second book on comedy. As for the treatment of plot, its
proper disposition will be discussed in Parts II and III of this paper.

In marked contrast to the approach taken here is that employed by the eminent
classicist Ingram Bywater. In the opening paragraphs of his Introduction to his edition of
the Poetics, he lays out his position in the following terms:

The text of the Poetics has been supposed to have suffered more seriously than
most prose Greek texts in the process of transmission; and many scholars ac-
cordingly have allowed themselves a very free hand in dealing with its diffi-
culties. One cannot help suspecting, however, that not a few of their doubts and
suspicions start from a certain preconceived idea, inherited from the Middle Ages,
of the general character of the Aristotelian writings—that the ‘master of them that
know’ could never for a moment forget his logic; that his mind worked with all the
sureness of a machine; and that a treatise of his must not only have been written
throughout on the straightest lines, but also have left his hands as free from
oversights and inconsistencies as a modern published work is expected to be. The
untenableness of these assumptions, as thus stated, is obvious, and no one, I
imagine, would confess to them in so many words. But it is impossible to read
much of the current criticism of the Poetics without seeing that its working hypo-
thesis is in many instances what I have said.

Aristotle, with all his scientific formalism, is even as a thinker much more human
than we are apt to suppose; his writing, too, is marked by great inequalities, pass-
ages of admirable lucidity and finish being often followed by a stretch of text in a
style so curt and crabbed as to be the despair of his interpreters, ancient as well as
modern. The Poetics begin fairly well, but as the work advances, there are signs of
failing attention to form, and the statement becomes in places little better than a
series of notes. The continuity also of the expression is frequently broken by [xiii -
xiv] parentheses, sometimes on matters of very minor importance for the imme-
diate argument.10

9
Poet. ch. 1 (1447a 8-13) (tr. B.A.M.).
10
Ingram Bywater, Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), pp. xiii-xiv.

3
Much of the foregoing is mere impertinence; a person who recognizes Aristotle’s employ-
ment of logical procedure being in no way committed to the view that he composed his
works in simplistic fashion; whereas the claims that he was incapable of avoiding “over-
sights and inconsistencies” because he lacked the resources of modern publishing, or that
his attention flagged, are insults to the intelligence. Equally objectionable is the insinuation
that the logical is opposed to the human, as well as his sneer that a principled reading of
the Philosopher’s works is a relic of the Middle Ages.

In the paragraphs which follow, Bywater then proceeds to enumerate five headings
comprising what he calls “anomalies and informalities” in the text, some of which are
sound, but others questionable: First, “The anticipatory use of technical terms, which are
defined afterwards”, a practice Bywater plausibly accounts for by supposing that “most of
these and similar technical terms may have already been sufficiently recognized and
established in the language of the period, and that Aristotle only defines them for a special
reason, in the interest of scholastic precision or clearness”. 11 Second, “Variations of
terminology”; it apparently being a fault of Aristotle’s not to use exactly the same form of
words every time a subject is dealt with (evidently Bywater has forgotten his objection to
the view that Aristotle’s mind “worked with the sureness of a machine”; nothing being so
mechanical as the rigid adherence to an unchanging nomenclature). Third, “Inconsistencies
in the use of terms”; it being another fault of Aristotle’s that he used the same words in
more than one meaning; the Philosopher apparently being of the opinion that certain things
are said in many ways. Fourth, “Inconsistencies of thought”, and fifth, “Lapses of mem-
ory”; these last two certainly being possible, but needing to be judged on a case-by-case
basis.
Before accusing Aristotle of contradiction, however, one must carefully consider
the rule he lays down in Poetics ch. 25 (1460b 31—1461a 4), where he explains that when
a charge of inconsistency is made such that what is said would give rise to a contradiction,
it must be considered in the same way as refutations in arguments are, i.e. one must see
whether the same thing is said, that is, “without using the subject or predicate equivocally”
(cf. De Int. 6, 17a 35, tr. H. G. Apostle), and with respect to the same thing, that is, “the
opposition of the same predicate with respect to the same subject” (ibid.), and in the same
way, that is, taking the predicate in the same manner in its relation to the same subject, and
thus one must see whether the author has contradicted himself with respect to what he
himself says or what a sensible man would suppose—that is, what a man of reasonable
intelligence would think the author actually to have said (especially, it must be pointed out,
when the text before him may be corrupt), as opposed to what a captious critic would sup-
pose—that is, one ignorant of the principles appropriate to the subject-matter, the know-
ledge of which is necessary if the pronouncements made upon a given work are to be just.12
As those who read Aristotle with care well understand, when this procedure is fol-lowed,
many of the criticisms leveled at the Philosopher fall to the ground.

Clearly, then, one who reads Aristotle as Bywater does will be out of sympathy
with the method I employ in the investigation to follow.
11
ibid., p. xiv. One may also suppose that he prefers not to delay his investigation unnecessarily.
12
“For to refute is to contradict one and the same attribute—not merely the name, but the reality—and a
name that is not merely synonymous but the same name—and to confute it from the [25] propositions
granted, necessarily, without including in the reckoning the original point to be proved, in the same respect
and re-lation and manner and time in which it was asserted.” (Soph. Ref., 5, 167a 23-27; tr. W. A. Pickard-
Cam-bridge)

4
II

Before turning to our discussion of Aristotle’s introductory treatment of the structure of the
plot—a part of Aristotle’s investigation which I believe to have suffered both misplace-
ments and omissions—it will be helpful to look briefly at several other, principal, dislo-
cations I believe to exist in the text.
First of all, the proper order of treatment to be observed in the remainder of the
Poetics through Chapter 18 is indicated by the conclusion concerning the qualitative parts
of tragedy which Aristotle reaches in Chapter 6 (1450a 9-11):

...[T]here must therefore be six parts to every tragedy according to which tragedy
is of a certain sort: and these are plot, characters, language, [10] thought, appear-
ance, and song.

As Aristotle goes on to explain, first comes plot, second is character, and third is thought. 13
One would therefore naturally expect the discussion that follows to conform to this order.
But if so, one can easily see that Chapter 15, being concerned with character, coming as it
does while the handling of plot is ongoing, is out of place; 14 its natural place being imme-
diately after the treatment of the plot has been completed, and not somewhere in the
middle.
Almost as easy to see is the mistaken placement of Chapter 12 on the quantitative
parts of tragedy,15 coming, in the received versions of the text, immediately after a dis-
cussion of reversal, recognition, and suffering, and right before the treatment of the requis-
ites of “the finest tragedy”, two subjects with which it has no discernible connection. But,
as Heinsius notes, the most natural place for it to occur is immediately after Chapter 6
where Aristotle has determined the qualitative parts of tragedy, in which case a brief dis-
cussion of its quantitative parts, before turning to a detailed treatment of the former, would
not be out of place.
Next comes the observation that the treatment of pathos or suffering comprising
Chapter 14 should come right after its definition in Chapter 11, at 1452b 9, being its con-
tinuation;16 the claim here being that the body of this chapter investigates what suffering
consists in, as well as the best way to achieve it. 17 As for the discussion of reversal and
recognition preceding it, I must disagree with Heinsius (cf. sec. XIII, p. 158) that Chapter
16 on the species of recognition belongs with it, as its first sentence clearly has the charac-
ter of a return to a subject previously discussed, 18 rather than being a continuation of it. We
suppose, rather, that Chapter 11 and its continuation, Chapter 14, should come right after
Chapter 9 (for which, see below), followed by Chapter 13 on the construction of the finest
tragedy19 (which would reasonably follow a discussion of pathos, as would an explanation
of katharsis), and then Chapter 16 on the species of recognition. Then would come Chapter
17 on what the poet should aim at, and Chapter 18 on lusis and desis (et alia).

13
Cf. 1450a 37 ff. That language is given third in the initial listing is probably due to a copyist’s error.
14
Cf. Heinsius, op. cit., sec. XVI, p. 162.
15
Cf. Heinsius, sec. VII, pp. 155-156.
16
Cf. Heinsius, sec. XIV, pp. 159-169.
17
When the chapter is so placed, the argument will then conform to a pattern recurrent in the Poetics
whereby the last member of a series becomes the first elucidated in the discussion to follow, an example
being ch. 4, 1449a 4ff. where Aristotle, after giving two causes for the poetic art, begins with the second,
namely, that all men delight in imitation. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.
18
Sc. “What recognition is has been stated earlier; let us discuss its species”.
19
Minus its first and last sentences, which I treat next.

5
Much more difficult to see, and an admirable indication of the perspicacity of the
Renaissance commentator,20 is the need to move the opening sentence of Chapter 13 to the
beginning of Chapter 17, so that the text reads as follows:

As a consequent to what has been said, in the next place we must show what the
poet should aim at and what he should avoid in constructing his plots, and
whence the work of tragedy will be effected. (= ch. 13, 1452b 28-30)

But in constructing plots and in bringing them to a finished state with the lang-
uage, one should, as much as possible, set them before the eyes: for in this way,
observing with the utmost vividness as if he were present at the deeds themselves
while they were being carried out, he will discover what is appropriate and will
least overlook any inconsistencies. (= ch. 17, 1455a 23-26)

Another dislocation, albeit one missed by Heinsius, is this: the final words of Chap-
ter 1421 ought to be appended to the end of Chapter 18, being the last part of Aristotle’s
treatment of the plot, and therefore most suitably placed before the treatment of character,
which therefore comes next. Among the remaining places where I believe displacements
and lacunae are indicated, one of the most important is the discussion of the history of
poetry in Chapter 4, and another is Chapter 25 on problems and solutions in the poetic art.
These chapters, however, are of such difficulty that even a cursory indication of the major
problems would be out of place here.22
Having adequately dealt with these preliminary matters, we now turn to the subject
of this paper.

III

As we shall see from the considerations to follow, beginning with Chapter 7, Aristotle’s in-
troductory treatment of the structure of the plot23 can be shown to include not only the
whole of the following chapter, but also the brief Chapter 10 on the division of plots into
simple and complex, as well as the last two discrete sections of Chapter 9, the first of
which treats the problem of when a plot is episodic, the second and last, the composition of
incidents most effective for evoking pity and fear. Yet the course of the argument is marked
by several omissions, some of them quite obvious, others less so.
By the opening words of Chapter 7, for instance, Aristotle informs us that he had
earlier defined tragedy as “an imitation of an action perfect and whole, having a certain
size”, going on to add that “there is a whole which does not have size” (1450b 24-25). Yet
the text which follows tells us nothing further on either point, while the next passage oc-
curring speaks of a whole without qualification, as though Aristotle had not just said that
there are two different kinds. Now it is not like the Philosopher to proceed in this way, the
recognition of which anomaly leads one to suppose that something must have been lost
from the text.

20
Cf. Heinsius, sec. XVI, pp. 161-164.
21
Sc. “The makeup of the incidents, therefore, and of what sort plots ought to be, has been sufficiently
discussed.” (= ch. 14, 1454a 14-15)
22
On the difficulties of Chapter 4, a good place to start is Carnes Lord, “Aristotle's History of Poetry” Tran-
sactions of the American Philological Association 104 (1974), 195-229. Treatments of Chapter 25 abound,
but see especially Mitchell Carroll, Aristotle’s Poetics, c. XXV in the Light of the Homeric Scholia (diss. Bal-
timore, 1895). A third, well-known instance of these defects, is Chapter 20 on the parts of lexis.
23
The treatment in detail of matters dealt with by way of introduction taking up subsequent parts of the work.

6
Returning to the body of Chapter 7, at 1450b 34 we observe that, in contrast with
its possession of order, the next subject taken up is the plot’s possession of size:

Further still, since that which is beautiful, whether it be a living thing or anything
else which is composed of certain things, should not only [35] have these things
arranged, but also not just any chance size—for the beautiful consists in size and
order.... (1450a 34-35)

Here Aristotle not only indicates by way of summary the last subject discussed, namely,
order, but also gives us to understand that he has just completed his introductory treatment
of it.24 Now for our present purposes there are two things we can take from his remarks:
first, that whatever pertains to that treatment belongs to his argument; and second, that any
such texts ought to occur before his treatment of size. Yet two passages concerning order
are found afterwards:25 the brief Chapter 10 on the division of plots into simple and com-
plex,26 and the portion of Chapter 9 on the badness of episodic plots. 27 Now when these
passages are read in tandem, it becomes immediately apparent that they go together. The
first reason for supposing so is their agreement in treating the structure of the plot as
arising from a necessary or likely connection between successive incidents, which connec-
tion pertains to order, being an embodiment of it. 28 The second reason is indicated by the
transitions Aristotle has helpfully provided in the text:

Of plots, however, some are simple, but others complex; for the actions of which
the plots are the imitations are also such to begin with. (ch. 10, 1452 a 12-13)

But simply speaking, of plots and actions the episodic are the worst. (ch. 9, 1451b
34)

As the reader will observe, such words and phrases both establish (in the manner of joints
and ligaments), and reveal (in the manner of signs), the unity as well as the continuity of
the argument, and so are a great help in discovering the proper ordering of its parts. I do
not, of course, maintain that such correspondences are by themselves sufficient for deter-
mining that order (there being many points in the argument where Aristotle returns to a
subject previously discussed); but if one carefully consider the subject under discussion, as
well as the course of its development, then surveys the argument as a whole in the light of
its principles (which, when inevident, are always discoverable), an order of treatment
hinging on these transitions will quite often come into view.

24
He also introduces, somewhat abruptly it seems to me, the comparison with a living thing and its identi-
fication with the beautiful, a subject to which I return below.
25
There also being a third, to be discussed shortly.
26
Which partition, being a per se division of the genus—that is to say, one made of the plot insofar as it is a
plot, or as such—being made with reference to the necessary or likely connection of its incidents, reveals to
us that this attribute, whereby it is both continuous and one, is the plot’s defining characteristic.
27
Which badness arises when the defining characteristic of the plot is absent.
28
Cf. ch. 10, 1452 a 19-20: “These, however, should arise from the very way in which the plot is put together
[or ‘from the structure of the plot itself’], so that from what has already taken place [20] it happen that the
things mentioned [e.g. recognition and reversal] come about either of necessity or in accordance with
likelihood.” Cf. ch. 9, 1451b 34-35: “I call ‘episodic’ a plot in which it is neither [35] likely nor necessary
that the episodes follow one another.” The discussion of what makes a plot episodic manifestly having no-
thing to do with the matters treated up to that point in Chapter 9 (which has to do with plot being composed
of the sort of thing the might happen, etc.), we have an additional reason for supposing the text to have been
wrongly placed.

7
Having dealt with its possession of size, the received version of the text sub-
sequently treats the question of what makes a plot one, in the course of which argument
Aristotle concludes that the parts of the plot must be so arranged that the transposition or
removal of any of them changes the whole, which is to say that they must be arranged in a
determinate order for it to have its species; a conclusion indicating that this entire chapter
ought to come before the treatment of size, rather than after it. But the passage defining a
whole as something having a beginning, a middle, and an end is the explanation of just
what that order is, and so should follow this part of the argument rather than precede it.
That the precise placement of the whole of the text of our Chapter 8 is after the opening
statement of Chapter 729 will be clear from the commentary to follow.
Now as we have observed above, the opening statement of Chapter 7 tells us that
the plot of tragedy must be ‘perfect’ as well as ‘whole’. But the text of Chapter 9 com-
prising 1452a 2-11 begins with a transition indicating that he has just completed his con-
sideration of what is perfect,30 demonstrating that this passage also belongs to his treat-
ment, being, in fact, its culmination. That this is so may be seen by considering the Philo-
sopher’s summary statement occasioned by his comparison of epic poetry to tragedy found
in Chapter 23:

As for the imitative art which is narrative and in verse, it is clear that its plots
should be constructed the way they are in tragedies, dramatically, and around one
action, whole and perfect, [20] having a beginning, middles, 31 and an end, so that,
like one whole living thing, it may produce its proper pleasure.... (= ch. 23, 1459a
17-20)

But the producing of its proper pleasure consists in the evoking of pity and fear, making it
immediately evident that the final section of Chapter 9 is the concluding portion of Aris-
totle’s introductory treatment.

Having briefly indicated the parts belonging to the argument, I will now give the
pertinent texts in full, restored to their proper order, and supplemented with brief additions
of my own indicating what I believe to have been lost from the text. 32 Having done so, I
shall then add explanatory notes in support of my supplements and re-orderings, 33 before
turning to a consideration of the argument as a whole.

IV

As the reader will observe, the entire course of the argument as I conceive it is comprised
in seven parts, which may be laid out as follows:
1. Poetics ch. 7 (1450b 21-25) (the beginning):
29
That is, following the words “for there is a whole which does not have size”, a point in the argument which
I have already indicated as suffering a loss of text.
30
“But since imitation is not only of a perfect action...”, etc. A problem associated with the wording of this
sentence will be noticed in my note to this text below. I will also argue hereafter that its last sentence,
namely, that “such plots of necessity are more beautiful”, is better suited to another part of the argument and
should be moved accordingly.
31
With other commentators, I believe the presence of the plural here to be due to textual corruption.
32
In accordance with the principle of parsimony, I have given these supplements (printed in italics and set off
from Aristotle’s text | in upright braces |) in as brief a form as possible.
33
Far from ‘speaking out of myself”, I hasten to add that my supplements are drawn in their entirety from
Aristotle’s own works, fleshed out and illuminated by relevant texts of St. Thomas Aquinas, which texts, in
every instance, are either restatements of Aristotle’s own teachings, or helpful elaborations of it.

8
With these things having been determined, let us next discuss the sort of makeup the
things done should have, since this is the first and most important part of tragedy.

It has been laid down by us that tragedy is [25] an imitation of an action perfect and
whole, having a certain size: for there is a whole which does not have size.

| But a whole having size, of the sort an action is, being composed of certain things
arranged in a certain order (cf. ch. 7, 1450b 34-36), has a certain single form, for which
reason it is one.34 |

2. Poetics ch. 8 (1451a 16-35) (complete):

A plot <, however,> is not one, as some think, if it is about one man; for many—indeed an
infinite number—of things happen to one man, out of some of which no one thing arises. So
also there are many actions of one man out of which no one action results. For this reason all
[20] the poets seem to have erred who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, and such-like
poems. For they think that since Heracles was one man, a story about him is one thing. But
Homer, just as he excels in other things, appears to have grasped this point well, whether by
art or by nature. For in [25] making the Odyssey, he did not compose everything that ever
happened to him, for example, his being wounded on Parnassus, and his feigned madness at
the gathering of the army, the one thing being done, it being neither necessary nor likely that
the other come about; but he constructed the Odyssey around one action, of the sort of
which we are speaking; and likewise the [30] Iliad. | But when the incidents composing the
plot are so constructed—that is to say, some one thing being done, it is either necessary or
likely that the other come about—then such a plot will be both continuous and one. |

Accordingly, just as in the other imitative arts, one imitation must be of one thing, so also
the plot, since it is the imitation of an action, must be of one thing, and this a whole; and
the parts of the thing must be so constituted that when some one part is transposed or
removed it makes a difference in the sense that the whole is changed; for what makes
[35] no noticeable difference when it is present or not present is no part of the whole.

3. Poetics ch. 7 (1450b 26-33) (continued):

But a whole <of the sort we are concerned with here> is that which has a beginning, a
middle, and an end. A beginning is that which itself is not of necessity after anything else,
but something else naturally is or comes to be after it. An end, conversely, is that which
naturally is after something else, either [30] of necessity or for the most part, but nothing
else after this. A middle is that which itself is after something else and another thing after it. 35
A well-constructed plot, then, should not begin or end just anywhere, but should use the
species mentioned.36 | For then, like one whole living thing (cf. ch. 23, 1459a 21), it will

34
While what is perfect and whole is that of which nothing is outside. (For the sources of these additions, as
well as their explanations, see the notes to their respective sections below.)
35
Cf. Aristotle, Metaph., V. 26 (1024a 1-5) (tr. W. D. Ross): “Again (3) of quanta that have a beginning and a
middle and an end, those to which the position does not make a difference are called totals, and those to
which it does, wholes. Those which admit of both descriptions are both wholes and totals. These are the
things whose nature remains the same after transposition, but whose form does not, e.g. wax or a coat; they
are called both wholes and totals; for they [5] have both characteristics.” Cf. also St. Thomas Aquinas, In V
Meta., lect. 21, n. 21 (tr. B.A.M.): “For when it is so that in a quantity there is an order of parts, because there
is a beginning, a middle, and an end there, in which the account of ‘position’ consists, every such continuous
whole must have position in its parts.”

9
have its parts fittingly arranged (cf. ch. 7, 1450b 34). | [And so such plots of necessity are
more beautiful. (= ch. 9, 1452a 11)]37

4. Poetics ch. 10 (1452a 12-21) (complete):

Of plots, however, some are simple, but others complex; for the actions of which the plots
are the imitations are also such to begin with. But I call ‘simple’ an action in which [15]
(being, as defined, continuous and one) a change without reversal or recognition results; but
‘complex’, [one] from which there is a change involving recognition, or reversal, or both.
These, however, should arise from the very way in which the plot is put together [or ‘from
the structure of the plot itself’, ex autes tes sustaseos tou muthou], so that from what has
already taken place [20] it happen that the things mentioned come about either of necessity
or in accordance with likelihood. For it makes a great difference whether these things 38 come
about because of these things39 [= propter hoc] or (merely) after them [= post hoc].

5. Poetics ch. 9 (1451b 34–1452a 1) (excerpt):

But simply speaking,40 of plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call ‘episodic’ a
plot in which it is neither [35] likely nor necessary that the episodes follow one another.
Such are made by bad poets because of their own <badness [sc. lack of skill]> but by the
good because of the actors; for, composing works to be per-formed at contests, and
extending the plot beyond its capacity, they are often forced to distort the connection [sc. of
the episodes].

6. Poetics ch. 7 (1450b 34—1451a 15 (tr. B.A.M. based in part on Theodore Buckley) 41
(continued):

Further still, since that which is beautiful, whether it be a living thing or anything else
which is composed of certain things, should not only [35] have these things arranged [=
their connection], but also not just any chance size—for the beautiful consists in size and
36
Thus Odysseus’ slaying of the suitors must come after his return to Ithaca, and so must be preceded by his
shipwreck on Calypso’s island, the poem’s beginning; the many episodes intervening constituting its middle.
37
My reason for moving this sentence here will be found in my note on this section given below.
38
Namely, recognition and reversal.
39
Namely, the incidents which precede them in time; it being Aristotle’s view that a plot which is continuous
and one will consist of incidents which do not merely precede a recognition or reversal, but which precipitate
them.
40
For the justification of this translation, cf. the note of H. G. Apostle in his edition:

Perhaps there is a corruption of the Greek text. If the Greek term a(plw=n (= “of simple,” in the
plural) is kept, the resulting translation, which is “Of simple plots and actions the episodic are the
worst,” leaves out plots and actions which are not simple…. Our explanation is simple. If the last
letter of the Greek term is changed to “s”, the term becomes a(plw=j (= “without qualification”); then
the resulting translation becomes “Without qualification, plots and actions which are episodic are the
worst,” which is another way of saying that plots and actions which are episodic are without exception
the worst. (Hippocrates G. Apostle, Elizabeth A. Dobbs, and Morris A. Parslow trans., Aristotle’s
Poetics. Grin-nell, Iowa: The Peripatetic Press, 1990, note 8 to Chapter 9, pp. 63-64)

Actually, there is an even stronger reason for making the emendation Apostle adopts. At 1452a 14-15, simple
as well as complex plots and actions are defined as “continuous and one”; but to be episodic is by definition
to be discontinuous and lacking unity; consequently, a simple plot or action that is episodic would be a con-
tradiction in terms.
41
Cf. The Poetic of Aristotle, literally translated, with a selection of notes, an analysis, and questions. By
Theodore Buckley (London and New York: Bohn, 1906; rpt. Prometheus Books, 1992).

10
order—hence, neither can any very small animal be beautiful; for the contemplation of it is
confused, since it is effected in a nearly insensible time; nor yet a very large animal; [1451a]
for it is not contemplated at once, but its being one and a whole escapes the view of the
onlookers; such as if there should be an animal of ten thousand stadia [in length]. And so, as
in bodies and in animals there should be size, but such as can be easily seen; so also in plots,
there should be length, but this such as can be [5] easily remembered.

But the definition of the length with reference to contests and the senses does not fall under
the consideration of art. For if it were necessary to perform a hundred tragedies, the per-
formance would have to be regulated by a water-clock, as they are said to have been at one
time. But the definition according to the nature of the thing is this, that the plot is [10] al-
ways more beautiful the greater it is, if at the same time it is perspicuous. But in order to
define it simply, one may say, ‘in whatever extent, in successive incidents in accordance
with likelihood or necessity, a change from bad fortune to good fortune or from good fortune
to bad fortune takes place, is a [15] sufficient limit of the size’.

| But a plot or an action that has attained the sufficient limit of its size will for that very
reason be perfect.42 |

7. Poetics ch. 9 (1452a 2-11) (continued to the end):

But since tragedy is not only the imitation of a perfect action, but also of things evoking
fear and pity, but they become such to the greatest extent when, contrary to expectation,
they are accomplished [5] through each other, <it is evident that they ought to be made to
happen in this way>.43 For then they will have more of the wonderful than if <they were
brought about> by chance and luck, since even in things brought about by luck, these seem
most wonderful whenever they appear to have been accomplished as though [10] by design,
as, for instance, the statue of Mitys of Argo killed the man responsible for Mitys’ death,
falling upon him while he was looking at it; for such things seem not to have happened at
random.44

N.B. Inasmuch as the remainder of Chapter 9 has to do with the modality of the pragmata
composing a plot; being concerned as it is with “the sort of thing that might happen in accor-
dance with either necessity or likelihood” (1451a 36), that is, with what happens always and
necessarily or for the most part; whereas the last thing mentioned in Section 7, concerning
chance things which “seem not to have happened at random”, being things happening per
accidens, or for the least part, also concerns that modality; these being the three ways in
which things happen, as Aristotle explains (cf. Metaph., XI. 8, 1064b 36—1065a 2); that
block of text would reasonably follow upon this. On the other hand, as I point out in a note
appended to this paper, an additional passage may have stood between the two; a subject to
which I have devoted a treatment of its own.

42
As with the text I have appended to Section 1 above, the foregoing statement furnishes in the briefest form
compatible with clarity my understanding of what has been lost from the text.
43
As the reader will observe, the text of this section, being unusually lacunose, has required several addi-
tions; the words needed to complete the sense being easily inferred from the context; the first words added
being especially required to avoid a manifest falsehood, since not every imitation evokes pity and fear.
44
It should be noted here that the case of Mitys is presented as something that actually took place.

11
Note to Section 1

Let us turn now to the first supplement I propose making to the text. As Aristotle
explains in the Physics (cf. III. 6, 207a 8-12, tr. R. Glen Coughlin), “[t]hat of which no-
thing is outside...is perfect and whole. For thus do we define a whole, that of which no-
thing is absent, like a whole man [10] or coffer. But as the particular [whole is], so too is
what is properly [a whole], as the whole is that of which nothing is outside. That of which
there is something absent outside, whatever be absent, is not all”. But ‘perfect’ means “that
outside of which it is not possible to find any, even one, of its parts; e.g. the perfect [or
‘complete’] time of each thing is that outside which it is not possible to find any time
which is [15] a part proper to it” (Metaph., V. 16, 1021b 9-15, tr. W. D. Ross; slightly rev.
B.A.M.). “Whole and perfect, however, either are entirely the same 45 or are close in
nature.46 Nothing not having an end is perfect, but the end is a limit”47 (Phys., III. 6, 207a
12-14). For “[a] ‘limit’ means the extremity of each thing, understood as the first thing
outside of which there is nothing to be found and the first thing inside of which everything
belonging to it is” (Metaph., V. 17, 1022a 5-6, tr. B.A.M.). But by ‘a whole which does not
have size’ Aristotle means the whole which is said of but not composed of its parts, as the
genus ‘animal’ is said of but not composed of its species ‘man’ and ‘ox’ (i.e. the universal
whole; cf. Metaph., V. 26, 1023b 28-33), whereas the whole which does have size is com-
posed of but not said of its parts (i.e. the integral whole), as the sole, heel and upper make
up a shoe but are not said of it. But as the Philosopher goes on to explain (cf. Metaph. V.
26, 1023b 26, tr. W. D. Ross), this second kind of whole, being “that from which is absent
none of the parts of which it is said to be naturally a whole”, is “that which so contains the
things it contains that they form a unity…”; not, to be sure, “as being each severally one
single thing…” [i.e. the universal whole], but “as making up the unity between them….”.
[i.e. the integral whole] (ibid., 1023b 27-28). In the latter case, “the continuous and limited
is a whole when it is a unity consisting of several parts, especially if they are present only
potentially [as with a body continuous by nature, like water], but, failing this, even if they
are present actually [as with two or more bodies conjoined in some way, as sticks by glue].
Of these things themselves, [35] those which are so by nature are wholes in a higher degree
than those which are so by art,48 as we said in the case of unity also, wholeness being in
fact a sort of oneness” (ibid., 1023b 32-37, tr. W. D. Ross).
45
“For’ perfect’ and ‘whole’ is that which lacks nothing....” (St. Thomas Aquinas, In V Meta., lect. 8, n. 6, tr.
B.A.M.).
46
“And the reason why he says this is because a whole is not found in simple things, which do not have parts,
in which, nevertheless, we do employ the name of ‘perfect’” (St. Thomas Aquinas, In III Phys., lect. 11, n. 4,
tr. B.A.M.).
47
Cf. also Metaph. V. 16 (1021b 24-25) (tr. W. D. Ross): “Things which have attained their end, this being
good, are called perfect”. But “the end and that for the sake of which” is “‘the what it is’ and the form”
(Phys., II. 7, 198b 3, tr. R. Glen Coughlin). Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., Ia-IIae, q. 49, art 2, c., ad
1 (tr. B.A.M): “And because the very form and nature of a thing is the end and that for the sake of which
something comes to be, as is said in the second book of the Physics (ch. 7, 198b 3), thus, in the first species
[of quality] there is considered both good and bad, and also movable with ease or with difficulty, according
as some nature is the end of a generation and a motion.” Also relevant here is the fourth species of quality,
where the end is the form and figure of the whole; ‘figure’ being defined as “a quality around a quantity” (St.
Thomas Aquinas, In VII Physic., lect. 5, n. 2), being its “termination” (ibid., n. 3); a thing having such an end
possessing that form of the beautiful called “the limited” or “definiteness” (cf. Metaph., XIII. 3, 1078b 1).
48
“For when a whole consists of parts, the form of the whole which does not give being to the individual
parts is a form which is composition and order, like the form of a house, and such a form is accidental” (St.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., Ia, q. 76, art. 8, c., tr. B.A.M.); whereas the form of the whole which does
give being to the parts is substantial, as is the soul with respect to the body, as St. Thomas goes on to explain.

12
Consequently, the parts of the plot must be arranged in such a way that the plot is
one species: For, “[w]hile in a sense we call anything one if it is a quantity and contin-
uous,49 in a sense we do not unless it is a whole, i.e. unless it has unity of form [or
‘species’]; e.g. if we saw the parts of a shoe put together in just any way we should not call
them one all the same (unless because of their continuity); we do this only if they are put
together so as to be a shoe and to have already a certain single form [or ‘species’]”.
(Metaph., V. 6, 1016b 11-17, tr. W. D. Ross; slightly rev. B.A.M.) 50 That is, we call some-
thing ‘one’ in this sense when its parts are so arranged that the kind of thing it was meant
to be results (‘one’ here meaning “undivided being”; cf. Summa Theol., Ia, q. 11, art. 1, c.).
But when it is so constituted, a whole possesses that form of the beautiful called “order”
(cf. Metaph., XIII. 3, 1078a 37).
Note how the treatment of a thing’s being ‘perfect’ and ‘whole’ reveals the way in
which it is both ‘continuous’ and ‘one’. As for the course of the argument, we may suppose
that Aristotle, after having stated that “there is a whole which does not have size”, could
have gone on to speak of the whole having size as being the sort that is one by having a
unity of form—that is, one whose parts are so put together as to have “a certain single
form”; something being one in this sense when (as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it), it is “a
certain totality requiring a determinate order of parts”. Then would have come the text of
our Chapter 8: “A plot <, however,> is not one, as some think...”, etc., concluding with the
words, “Accordingly, just as in the other imitative arts, one imitation must be of one
thing”, etc., where the necessity of having a determinate order of parts is indicated by
Aristotle’s statement that “the parts of the thing must be so constituted that when some one
part is transposed or removed it makes a difference in the sense that the whole is changed”,
etc., in which case the course of the argument would be both continuous and clear. It must
be emphasized, however, that an imitation of an action is understood as coming under the
foregoing species of whole according to a likeness, inasmuch as it is not truly a quantity
and continuous, but is merely similar to one. Thus Aristotle speaks of the plot as “the be-
ginning and, as it were, the soul of tragedy” (ch. 6, 1449b 37) when, properly speaking, it
is not the soul of anything.51
Note to Section 2
49
Something being continuous when, in those which touch, the limit of each comes to be one and the same,
and are held together. Cf. Aristotle’s definition of the continuous, from which the foregoing formulation has
been adapted: “The ‘continuous’ {sunexe/j} is what is indeed something contiguous, but I call a thing
‘continuous’ when, in those which touch, the limit of each comes to be one and the same, and, as the name
signifies, are held together {sune/xhtai}. This is not possible if the extremes are two. This being determined,
[15] it is apparent that the continuous is among those things from which something one is naturally apt to
come to be according to contact. And in the way in which the continuous comes to be one at some time, so
too the whole will be one, e.g., either by a nail or by glue or by touch or by growing together.” (Phys., V. 3,
227a 10-18, tr. R. Glen Coughlin). Cf. the discussion of ‘poetic’ continuity in my Note to Section 2 below.
50
Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In V Meta., lect. 8, n. 5 (tr. B.A.M.): “And he says that sometimes some things are
called ‘one’ solely by reason of continuity, but sometimes not, except something be whole and perfect; which,
in fact, happens when it has some one species, not indeed as a homogeneous subject is called ‘one species’
[like the silver of a drinking vessel, for which see below], which pertains to the second mode set forth earlier,
but according as the species consists in a certain totality requiring a determinate order of parts; just as it is
clear that we do not call something ‘one’, like a work produced by art, when we observe the parts of a shoe
composed in any way whatsoever, except perhaps according as ‘one’ is taken for the continuous; but we do
say all the parts of a shoe are one when they are so composed that there is a shoe and it have some one
species, namely, of a shoe”. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In V Meta., lect. 3, n. 3 (tr. B.A.M.): “For it must be
understood that sometimes one thing is of one matter simply, like the silver of a drinking vessel; and then the
form corresponding to such a matter can be called a ‘species’”.
51
When he goes on to compare the plot to an outline or sketch in black and white, Aristotle shows the sort of
form it most closely resembles. Cf. GA, II. 6 (743b 24-25).

13
In describing Homer’s procedure in the Odyssey, Aristotle informs us that it would
be bad poetic practice to so compose the plot that, “the one thing being done, it [is] neither
necessary nor likely that the other come about”, from which it follows that a plot will be
properly constructed when, some one thing being done, it will be either necessary or likely
that the other come about. But if so, then the plot will be both continuous and one, having
been “constructed . . . around one action”. With respect to this supplement, however, it
must be emphasized that, unlike the state of the text at the end of Section 1 where an omis-
sion is clearly indicated, the place where I have inserted the definition of poetic continuity
in no way appears to require any addition. There are two reasons why I have added some-
thing: First, while the text as it stands is unproblematic in describing what Homer does, or
rather does not do, in constructing the plot of the Odyssey, it nevertheless lacks a positive
statement of what correct poetic practice consists in; but one expects to find such a
statement somewhere, and I have found no better place to put it than here. Second, his
remark at 1452a 14-15 would seem to demand it; 52 it being unlikely that the Philosopher
would refer to a definition as given unless he had actually given it.

Note to Section 3

Three things are to be noted here: First, that a plot, inasmuch as it is a whole having
a beginning, a middle, and an end of the sort whose species is changed by the transposition
of its parts, comes under the second member of Aristotle’s last division from the passage of
the Metaphysics quoted above (sc. V. 26, 1024a 1-5); but that being the case, my or-dering
of the second and third sections gains support, since each includes a part of this de-
scription, thereby revealing an otherwise unnoticed connection between them. Second, as
with the previous supplement, while the statement I have appended to the end of this sec-
tion is by no means demanded by the state of the text, it nevertheless establishes an other-
wise absent continuity with the beginning of Section 6; the mention of a living thing and
its identification with the beautiful seeming, as I have said, somewhat abrupt. But the state-
ment about “such plots” being “of necessity more beautiful” with which Chapter 9 ends
clearly belongs here, since the beauty of plots is indicated by Aristotle’s reference to their
being “well-constructed”—the “well” here pertaining to a good disposition of the parts,
which is precisely what beauty consists in, as we shall hereafter see—while the subject un-
der discussion in the final section of the text preceding its appearance is neither about plots
nor beauty, nor does the removal of this sentence impair the conclusion of Aristotle’s
argument, which ends fittingly with the death of Mitys’ murderer.

Note to Section 4

The final point Aristotle makes here, concerning, as it does, the difference between
things happening post hoc versus propter hoc, further specifies the need for the parts of the
plot to be disposed in a determinate order, and thus connects this part of the argument with
the parts comprising Sections 2 and 3.

52
“But I call ‘simple’ an action in which [15] (being, as defined, continuous and one)...”, etc., there being no
previous mention of this attribute in these terms. Yet Aristotle’s statement could only refer to a definition
such as I have supplied, since, as is clear from his account of the continuous excerpted above, a plot could be
continuous and one in no other way.

14
Note to Section 5

Notice how the last thing mentioned here, concerning the practice of bad dramatists
in distorting the sequence of the episodes, connects with Aristotle’s criticism of incom-
petent epic poets in Section 2, as well as with the remarks on the parts of the plot being ar-
ranged found at the opening of Section 6, thereby making the argument continuous in both
directions.

Note to Section 6

As will become clear from Aristotle’s treatment of the relative sizes of the parts of
the plot in his consideration of the unity of epic in relation to that of tragedy, 53 the resultant
whole, by virtue of the parts composing it being neither too big nor too small, will neces-
sarily possess that form of the beautiful called “symmetry” (cf. Metaph., XIII. 3, 1078a
37). Cf. Plato, Timaeus 87d-e (tr. Benjamin Jowett):

[N]or do we reflect that when a weak or small frame is the vehicle of a great and
mighty soul, or conversely, when a little soul is encased in a large body, then the
whole animal is not fair, for it lacks the most important of all symmetries; but the
due proportion of mind and body is the fairest and loveliest of all sights to him
who has the seeing eye. Just as a body which has a leg too long, or which is un-
symmetrical [e] in some other respect, is an unpleasant sight....

In the foregoing passage, Plato speaks of symmetry in terms of what is most evident to us,
namely, that a part too big is unsymmetrical, and hence unsightly, whereas Aristotle, in the
passage under discussion, considers the size of a thing as a whole, explaining how there is
both an upper and a lower limit to that size, a consideration which presupposes the more
elementary understanding of symmetry found in his later account, as well as in Plato’s text.
As for the statement I have appended to the end of this section, namely, that a plot
or an action possessing the sufficient limit of its size will for that very reason be perfect, its
truth will already be clear to one who has understood the definitions of “whole”, “perfect”,
and “limit” given above. For our present purposes, however, it will be helpful to arrive at
the same conclusion starting from Aristotle’s statement in the Metaphysics that “...each
thing is perfect and every substance is perfect, when in respect of the form of its proper
virtue [or ‘excellence’], it lacks no part of its natural magnitude” (Metaph., V. 16, 1021b
15-17, tr. W. D. Ross; slightly rev. B.A.M.). Likewise, a thing possessing the limit of its
size with respect to its continuous quantity will necessarily be perfect, as with an animal or
any other living thing which has grown as large as it can grow. 54 To see how these conten-
tions help us in ordering Aristotle’s text, we must first consider the whole of the Philos-
opher’s second account of the perfect, from which this statement comes, as well as St.
Thomas’ commentary on it:
53
Cf. ch. 18 (1456a 14-15) (tr. Apostle et al, Aristotle’s Poetics, op. cit., p. 21): “In epic, the parts assume a
suitable magnitude because of the epic’s length, but in drama, [the use of episodes suitable for one epic] goes
far beyond what is expected”. Thus “one should not try to make a tragedy out of an epic structure” ( ibid.,
1456a 12). Cf. also ch. 26 (1462b 4-11), where he speaks of “such parts each with a considerable magnitude
of its own” (idem, p. 37), a subject previously touched on in ch. 23 (cf. 1459a 30-1459b 37).
54
To deny this would be like claiming that a tank which holds fifty gallons of water is full when it is holding
only forty-five, or that a man capable of growing to six feet is as tall as he can be at five. Alternatively, it is
impossible for a thing that has attained the utmost of its magnitude, of whatever sort it may be, to be lacking
any part of that magnitude. But when its utmost has been attained, then it is perfect, a point I return to below.

15
[What is called ‘perfect’ also means] [t]hat which in respect of virtue [or ‘ex-
cellence’] and goodness cannot be excelled in its kind; e.g. we have a perfect
doctor or a perfect flute-player, when they lack nothing in respect of the form of
their proper virtue [or ‘excellence’]. And thus, transferring the word to bad things,
we speak of a perfect scandal-monger and a perfect thief; [20] indeed we even call
them good, i.e. a good thief and a good scandal-monger. And virtue [or ‘excel-
lence’] is a perfection; for each thing is perfect and every substance is perfect,
when in respect of the form of its proper virtue [or ‘excellence’], it lacks no part of
its natural magnitude. (Metaph., V. 16, 1021b 15-24, tr. W. D. Ross)

But, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains (cf. In V Meta., lect. 18, n. 5, tr. B.A.M.):

[T]hat something is called ‘perfect’ by comparison to its proper virtue comes about
because virtue is a certain perfection of a thing. For each thing is perfect when no
part of the natural magnitude, which belongs to it according to the species of its
proper virtue, is lacking to it. Now just as any natural thing possesses a deter-
minate measure of natural magnitude according to continuous quantity, as is said
in the second book of the De Anima [cf. ch. 4, 415a 15ff.], so also any thing pos-
sesses a determinate quantity of its natural virtue. (emphasis added)

Thus, in accordance with the analogy between a thing’s dimensive quantity and its quantity
of virtue or power, Aristotle’s account of the second way in which something is called
‘perfect’, namely, with respect to virtue or ‘excellence’, may be adapted to expressing the
first way, as I have done, which is taken with respect to a thing’s “determinate measure of
natural magnitude according to continuous quantity” (which is the kind of quantity directly
at issue in the passage currently under discussion), as St. Thomas explains. As for the help
in ordering the text the foregoing passages afford, it is readily apparent that the point made
in the present section concerning the plot’s attaining the limit of its size (cf. “in whatever
extent”) regards its “continuous” quantity, whereas the principal point made in the next and
final section concerning its attaining the limit of its power (cf. “to the greatest extent”) re-
gards its quantity of virtue or “excellence”, a correspondence no reader of philosophical
temperament will, I think, be willing to ascribe to chance. Having, then, given a reason for
believing the foregoing species of quantity to be at issue in Aristotle’s treatment, one is
naturally led to wonder what else he might have said concerning them at this point in the
argument.
Some further observations helping us to understand the way in which a work of the
poetic art is determined or determinate, and thus possesses the third species of the beauty-
ful, which is “the limited” or “definiteness”, are in order here.
In the Nicomachean Ethics (cf. X. 3, 1173a 24-25, tr. W. D. Ross) Aristotle asks the
pertinent question, “...just as health admits of degrees without being indeterminate, why
should not pleasure? The same proportion is not found in all things, nor a single pro-
portion always in the same thing, but it may be relaxed and yet persist up to a point, and it
may differ in degree. The case of pleasure also may therefore be of this kind”. 55 With re-
spect to this observation, St. Thomas Aquinas points out (cf. In X Ethic., lect 3, n. 8, tr.
B.A.M.) that things admitting of more or less, like pleasure or health—and likewise beauty,
although unmentioned here—“may be called ‘determined’ insofar as they some-how attain
that to which they are ordained”, which is their “proper term”:

55
But what is true of health and pleasure, also being true of beauty, will therefore be true of the plot insofar
as it attains this excellence, it also being the sort of thing admitting of more or less.

16
But “the very form and nature of a thing is the end and that for the sake of which some-
thing comes to be, as is said in the second book of the Physics (ch. 7, 198b 3)” (Summa
Theol., Ia-IIae, q. 49, art 2, c., tr. B.A.M). For “…the form is the term [or ‘limit’] of each
thing; the reason being that by the form the matter of each thing is terminated at its proper
being, and by the magnitude at its determinate measure. For the quantities of things follow
upon their forms”. (In IV Phys., lect. 3, n. 3, tr. B.A.M.) And so “…in material things each
perfection is terminated and finite, since it also has one determinate form through which it
exists in one species; and also through a determinate power it has an inclination and order
to certain things proportionate to it, as the heavy [is inclined and ordered] to the center.”
(In III Sent., d. 27, q. 1, a. 4, c., tr. B.A.M.) Thus a work of the poetic art, like a tragedy or
an epic poem, will be determinate when it possesses its form and nature as its end, limit,
and perfection (the form in this case being the plot). But, as is clear from the foregoing
texts, this happens in two ways: in one way, with respect to its continuous quantity (so-
called according to a likeness); in another, with respect to its quantity of virtue or power.
With respect to its continuous quantity, a work of the poetic art like a tragedy will be deter-
minate when its plot has attained the sufficient limit of its size in the way in which Aris-
totle has explained. With respect to its quantity of virtue or power, it will be determinate
when its plot has the ability to evoke fear and pity in the most effective manner, as is made
clear in the final passage given above, which is to attain the limit of its power. On this last
point, cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In II De Caelo, lect. 4, n. 5 (= The Heavens, translated by
Fabian R. Larcher and Pierre H. Conway, n. 334):

Now, Aristotle uses this manner of speaking here. He says that anything which
possesses its own operation exists for its operation, for everything seeks its
perfection as its end; but operation is the ultimate perfection of a thing (or at least
the product of the operation is, in the case of those things in which there is some
product beyond the operation, as is said in Ethics I [1094a 3-7]). For it is said in
On the Soul II [412a 23] that form is first act, and operation second act as the
perfection and end of the thing acting.56

Also worth quoting here is the following text from the same work (In I De Caelo,
lect. 25, n. 4, = The Heavens, n. 249):

To explain the first [180] he says that if a thing is capable of something great, for
example, if a man can walk 100 stades or can lift a great weight, we always
determine or describe his power in terms of the most he can do. For example, we
say that the power of this man is that he can lift a weight of 100 talents or can walk
a distance of 100 stades, even though he is capable of all the partial distances
included in that quantity, since he can do what exceeds. But his power is not
described by these parts – we do not determine his power as being able to carry 50
talents or walk 50 stades, but by the most he can do. Consequently, the power of
each thing is described with respect to the end, i.e., with respect to the ultimate,
and to the maximum of which it is capable, and with respect to the strength of its
excellence. Thus, too, the size of a thing is determined by what is greatest – for
example, in describing the size of something that is three cubits, we do not say that
it is two cubits.

56
“But ‘act’ [energeia] is said in two ways, as in the case of knowledge and as in the case of the exercise of
knowledge.” (Aristotle, De Anima, II, 1, 412a 23, tr. H. G. Apostle) [= Aristotle. De Anima (On the Soul)
(Grinnell, Iowa: The Peripatetic Press, 1981, p. 19); rev. B.A.M.] Thus, the possession of knowledge, being a
form, is like first act, whereas the exercise of knowledge, being an operation, is second act.

17
Similarly, we assign as the notion of man that he is rational, not that he is sensible,
because what is the ultimate and greatest in a thing is what completes it and puts
upon it the stamp of its species [lit. “and giving its species to the thing”, et dans
speciem re]. Consequently, it is plain that one who can do what exceeds, ne-
cessarily can do what is less. For example, if a person can carry 100 talents, he can
also carry two, and if he can walk 100 stades, he can also walk two; yet it is to
what is excelling that the virtue of a thing is attributed, i.e., the virtue of a thing is
gauged in terms of what is most excellent of all the things that can be done. This is
what is said in another translation, “the virtue is the limit of a power,” because,
namely, the virtue of a thing is determined according to the ultimate it can do. And
this applies also to the virtues of the soul: for a human virtue is that through which
a man is capable of what is most excellent in human actions, i.e., in an action
which is in accordance with reason.

Note to Section 7

As noted above, that these remarks complete Aristotle’s introductory treatment of


the structure of the plot is clear from the corresponding summary statement found in Chap-
ter 23 (1459a 17–30), especially the last part regarding the “proper pleasure” produced by
a plot that is perfect and whole, which pleasure consists in the evoking of pity and fear, the
previous sections having adequately treated the construction of the plot “around one action,
whole and perfect, having a beginning, middles, and an end”. (With respect to the last
sentence found in the received text of this passage, I have given my reasons for moving it
in my Note to Section 3, above.)
One final point before taking leave of this section: since the text as it currently
stands makes the way in which the plot attains the limit of its power into something other
than being perfect, when, as we have seen, it is itself a form of perfection, our interpret-
tation suggests a further revision of its opening sentence is needed.57

We now turn to the final part of our paper, concerning Aristotle’s treatment of the
structure of the plot as a whole, a consideration to be made with reference to the principles
we are now in a position to recognize as underlying the argument, namely, the three great-
est forms of the beautiful.

Aristotle begins his treatment of the structure of the plot with what is most material
in it, namely, the parts making it up as a whole, first considering their order before turning
to their size, then ending with what is most formal in it, namely, the attainment of its
limit,58 a perfection itself presupposing the plot’s possession of the right size and order. It
will be observed that the principal divisions of the text as I have organized it above cor-
respond to the three greatest forms of the beautiful as follows: What pertains to order:
sections 1 through 5. What pertains to symmetry: the first part of Section 6. What pertains
to the limited or definiteness: the second part of Section 6 as well as Section 7. Thus the
entire course of the argument as I conceive it may be laid out as follows:

57
For example, were the text to read, “But since imitation is not only of a perfect action <in the way stated;
that is, with respect to length>, but also <, in the case of the serious,>”, etc., no inconsistency would arise.
58
Cf. In II De Caelo, lect. 20. n. 7, where St. Thomas explains that “the contained and the limited pertain to
the notion of matter, but to be containing and limiting, to the notion of form”.

18
I. What pertains to order (sections 1 through 5):

1. Being ‘perfect and whole, having a certain size’, manifesting the way in
which the plot is ‘one’: Section 1
2. Being ‘one’: the way in which the plot is not ‘one’ manifesting when it is
so, and thus ‘continuous’:
3. (a) Being ‘continuous and one’, which is to have its parts so constructed
that, “the one thing being done, it is [e]ither necessary or likely that the
other come about” (this being the plot’s defining characteristic) Section 2;
the plot then being divided:
(i) with respect to quantity into what has ‘a beginning, a middle, and an
end’ (a division of its composing parts into species) and so pos-
sessing the first ‘form of the beautiful’, namely, order: Section 3
(ii) with respect to quality into what is ‘either simple or complex’ (a
division of the plot itself into species): Section 4
4. (b) Being neither ‘continuous’ nor ‘one’, the ‘connection of the episodes’
being ‘distorted’, from which it follows that, ‘simply speaking, of plots and
actions, the episodic are the worst’: Section 559

II. What pertains to symmetry: Having ‘not just any chance size’ but a determinate
one, being neither too small to be seen nor too big to be grasped as a whole, and
thus composed of parts possessing symmetry, which attribute is the second of
the ‘three greatest forms of the beautiful’: the first part of Section 6

III. What pertains to the limited or definiteness, which has to do with the plot’s
being ‘perfect’ in magnitude (the last part of Section 6, as well as Section 7):

1. With respect to its dimensive quantity: when the plot has attained the limit
of its size: the last part of Section 6
2. With respect to its quantity of virtue or ‘excellence’: when the plot has at-
tained the limit of its power; both attributes coming under the third of ‘the
three greatest forms of the beautiful’, the limited or definiteness: Section 7

Before taking leave of this division, it must be emphasized that, as Aristotle nowhere uses
the word symmetry in the extant Poetics, the role it plays in the course of his argument
must be inferred from what he says about the size and structure of plots as these are suit-
able to epic or tragedy (a plot being too large or too small in virtue of the parts composing
it), as I have indicated above in my Note to Section 6.

As a way of rounding off our investigation, it will be helpful here to take a brief look
at Aristotle’s statement concerning the greatest forms of the beautiful in the Metaphysics:60

Now since the good and the beautiful are different (for the former always implies
conduct as its subject, while the beautiful is found also in motionless things), those
who assert that the mathematical sciences say nothing of the beautiful or the good
are in error.

59
Note that the members of this division may also be ordered in another way, inasmuch as the first three
come under the heading “possessing order”, but the last, 3 (b), under “not possessing order”.
60
Metaph., XIII. 3 (1078a 31—1078b 6) (tr. W. D. Ross, rev. B.A.M.).

19
For these sciences say and prove a great deal about them; if they do [35] not
expressly mention them, but prove attributes which are their results or their
definitions, it is not true to say that they tell us nothing about them. The chief
forms of beauty are order and symmetry [1078b] and definiteness, which the
mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree. And since these (e.g. order
and definiteness) are obviously causes of many things, evidently these sciences
must treat this sort of causative principle also (i.e. the beautiful) as in [5] some
sense a cause. But we shall speak more plainly elsewhere about these matters. 61
What Aristotle understands by these terms is helpfully unfolded by the following text:

As the mathematician investigates abstractions (for before beginning his invest-


tigation he strips off all the sensible qualities, e.g. [30] weight and lightness, hard-
ness and its contrary, and also heat and cold and the other sensible contrarieties,
and leaves only the quantitative and continuous, sometimes in one, sometimes in
two, sometimes in three dimensions, and the attributes of these qua quantitative
and [35] continuous, and does not consider them in any other respect, and ex-
amines the relative positions of some and the attributes of these, and the com-
mensurabilities and incommensurabilities of others [tôn de tas summetrias kai
assumetrias], [1061b] and the ratios of others; but yet we posit one and the same
science of all these things—geometry)—the same is true with regard to being. 62
(emphasis added)

Now inasmuch as order consists in the before and after of things, 63 it is easy to see that
“the relative positions” of quantitative and continuous things pertains to this species,
whereas their relative sizes, insofar as they admit of a common measure, 64 will therefore
enter into symmetry.65 The third species of the beautiful, definiteness (or, as others translate
to hôrismenon, the limited), will therefore have to do with their ratios. How this is so may
be seen from the following passages from the De Anima and the De Partibus respectively:

[B]ut a thing which is composed by nature of all [the elements] has a limit and a
[certain] ratio [of elements] with respect to both size and growth, and these [i.e.
limit and ratio] belong to the soul and not to fire, 66 and to the formula{= logos}
rather that to the matter of the thing.67

For nature is more a principle than matter [ a)rxh\ ga\r h( fu/sij ma=llon th=j
u(\lhj, ed. Loeb].
There are indeed passages in which even Empedocles hits upon this, and following
the [20] guidance of fact, finds himself constrained to speak of the ratio (logos) as
61
To this statement Ross appends the following note: “Apparently an unfulfilled promise”; but see De Parti-
bus I. 1, 641b 16–642a 30, where Aristotle discusses “order and definiteness” in just these terms.
62
ibid., XI. 3 (1061a 29—1061b 3) (tr. W. D. Ross).
63
Cf. Cat. ch. 6 (5a 25-30) (tr. R. Glen Coughlin): “In the case of number, though, one could not see how the
parts have a certain position with regard to each other or lie somewhere.... Nor those of time.... But you
would say rather that there is a certain order, by there being a before and an after of time.”
64
Cf. Euclid def. X.1: Those magnitudes are said to be commensurable which are measured by the same
measure, and those incommensurable which cannot have any common measure, from which it follows that
the parts of a composed whole will be symmetrical when they are measured by something ‘common’ or one,
which is the nature of the whole they compose, as the texts cited below from St. Thomas make clear.
65
In which case they will be commensurable rather than incommensurable.
66
Fire being a single element which grows indefinitely as long as there is fuel to feed it, as Aristotle explains.
67
De An., II. 4 (416a 15-20) (tr. H. G. Apostle, op. cit., pp. 25-26). Cf. In V Meta., lect. 18, n. 5, cited above,
as well as St. Thomas’ commentary on this passage, excerpted below under n. 73. And note how, in the next
passage cited, logos means both the ‘form and nature’ of a thing, as well as the ‘ratio’ of its ‘elements’.

20
constituting the essence and real nature of things. Such, for instance, is the case
when he explains what is a bone. For he does not merely describe its material, and
say it is this one element, or those two or three elements, or a compound of all the
elements, but states the ratio (logos) of their combination. As with a bone, so mani-
festly is it with the flesh and all other similar parts. 68
Thus, with respect to a thing composed by nature of all the elements, since its being limi-
ted or definite presupposes its possession of a certain ratio of those elements, the under-
standing of it will involve their consideration as well, 69 not only in the sciences of nature,
as in the above-mentioned examples, but also in mathematics, as Aristotle says.
Since, then, “each thing is perfect when no part of the natural magnitude, which
belongs to it according to the species of its proper virtue, is lacking to it”, and the same is
true with respect to its continuous quantity, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains—but that
magnitude is a function of the ratio of the elements composing it, as we have seen 70—it
follows that a thing will possess the perfection of definiteness when the elements com-
posing it possess whatever ratio will allow it to attain the limit of its size (in living things
there also being a limit to its growth), as well as the limit of its power. But it will also
possess symmetry and order: symmetry from the relative sizes of its constituent parts, and
order from their relative positions.71
With respect to their sizes, we understand that the parts must be neither too big nor too
small, not only taken with reference to each other, but also looking to the nature of the
thing, so that it will be neither too small to be perceived nor too large to be taken in at a
68
De Part. Animal. I. 1 (642a 16-24) (tr. William H. Ogle, except for the first sentence, which I have trans-
lated after Apostle, Selected Works, op. cit., p. 316, in order to represent the Greek more accurately).
69
And this is true whatever the elementary composition of bodies is taken to be. Note also that, inasmuch as
art imitates nature as much as it is able, the same arguments will apply to works resulting from techne as
much as those existing phusei, as is the case with the subject discussed in this paper.
70
But this within a certain latitude. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In X Ethic., lect. 3, n. 5 (tr. B.A.M.): “Now when
there is some form which implies in its own account a certain proportion of many things ordered to one, such
a form also according to its proper account admits of more and less. This is clear in health and in beauty, each
of which imply a proportion agreeing with the nature of that which is called ‘beautiful’ or ‘healthy’. And
because a proportion of this kind can be more or less suitable, for this reason the very beauty or health
considered in itself is said according to more and less. And from this it is clear that unity insofar as something
is determinate is the reason why something does not admit of more and less. Since, then, pleasure admits of
more and less, it will not appear to be something determinate and consequently not to belong to the genus of
good things.” Cf. also In Psalm., Ps. 44, n. 2 (tr. B.A.M.): “I reply that it must be said that beauty, health, and
the like are said through a respect to something: since a certain co-tempering [or ‘balancing’, contemporatio]
of humours makes health in a boy, which it does not do in an old man: for there is a certain health of a lion,
which is death to a man. And so health is a proportion of humours in comparison to some nature. And
likewise beauty consists in a proportion of the limbs and colors. And so the beauty of one thing is other than
that of another thing.” Cf. also Aristotle, Top., III. 1 (116b 20-23) (tr. E.S. Forster): “For health is inherent in
moisture and dryness and in heat and in cold, in a word in all the primary constituents of the living creature,
whereas the others are inherent in the secondary [constituents]; for strength is generally con-sidered to reside
in sinews and bones, and beauty to be in a certain symmetry of the limbs.” Cf. also Plato, Soph. 228b-c (tr. F.
M Cornford): “Str. And when things having motion, and aiming at an appointed mark, continually miss their
aim and glance aside, shall we say that this is the effect of symmetry among them, or of the want of
symmetry? Theaet. Clearly of the want of symmetry.” Thus symmetry in the composition of the body will
consist in the parts having an appropriate size relative to the whole, which means “hitting the mark” aimed at
by nature. Consequently, where there is a proportion of many things ordered to one (the ‘one’ here being
understood as the nature of the thing, nature being determined to one), there will be ‘symmetry’. (N.B. A
brief but comprehensive overview of habitus, the genus of symmetry, comprising an article from the Summa
of St. Thomas, will be found as an Appendix below.)
71
Cf. Plato, Phaedrus 26a-e, especially the remark about the epitaph of Midas the Phrygian: “Now in this
rhyme whether a line comes first or comes last, as you will perceive, makes no difference....” (= 26e, tr. Ben-
jamin Jowett), the defect here being a sort of non sequitur.

21
glance; while with respect to their order there must be a beginning, a middle, and an end
there, as Plato recognizes when he compares a complete discourse to an animal having a
head, a trunk, and limbs.72
As we have noted above, then, a whole having a beginning, a middle, and an end
will possess that species of the beautiful called order when its parts are so arranged that its
form or species results; whereas symmetry will belong to a thing the commensuration of
whose parts allows it to attain its appropriate size; but the limited or definiteness to that the
ratio of whose ‘elements’ allows it to attain the limit of its size, 73 whether taken with re-
spect to its continuous quantity (being neither too big nor too small), or with respect to its
quantity of virtue or power, in which case it will have the ability to produce its proper
effect—which is to say, to carry out its proper operation in the most effective manner.
From the foregoing considerations, then, we observe how definiteness presupposes
symmetry, which in turn involves order, making Aristotle’s introductory treatment of the
structure of the plot in terms of order, symmetry, and definiteness a reasonable procedure.

[N.B. Inasmuch as it reduces to unity many parts of the foregoing investigation, the following
consideration of habitus, the genus of symmetry, and thus of beauty, deserves to be cited in full.]

Appendix on Habitus: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., Ia-IIae, q. 49, art. 4 (tr. B.A.M.)

To the fourth one proceeds as follows. obj. 1. It would seem that it is not necessary for there to be
habits. For habits are that whereby something is well or badly disposed toward something, as has
been said. But something is well or badly disposed through its own form, for according to form
something is good, as well as a being. Therefore, there is no necessity for habits.
obj. 2. Further, habit implies an order to an act. But power sufficiently implies the principle of an
act, for natural powers without habits are principles of acts. Therefore, it was not necessary for
there to be habits.
obj. 3. Further, just as a power relates to good and bad, so does habit; and just as powers do not
always act, so neither do habits. Therefore, powers existing, it was superfluous for there to be
habits.
sc. But to the contrary, habits are certain perfections, as is said in Physics VII (ch. 3, 246a 11).
But perfection is most necessary to a thing, since it has the notion of an end. Therefore, it was
necessary for there to be habits.

72
Cf. Phaedrus 264c (tr. Harold N. Fowler): “Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a
body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities
that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work.”
73
Inasmuch as symmetry and the limited both involve the attaining of a term, it will be helpful here to
distinguish between them. As we have seen, things admitting of more or less may be called ‘determined’
insofar as they somehow attain that to which they are ordained, which is their proper term (cf. In X Ethic.,
lect 3, n. 8)—the ‘somehow’ here indicating a certain latitude—and this pertains to symmetry. But when the
utmost a thing can possess is attained, as when a thing has grown as large as it can grow, then one has the
perfection consisting in the ‘limited’ or ‘definiteness’. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In II De Anima, lect. 8, n. 9
(tr. B.A.M.): “Now it is obvious that in all things that are according to nature there is a certain term, and a
determinate ratio of size and growth; for just as in any species certain proper accidents are due, so also proper
quantities, although there is some latitude by reason of a diversity of matter. But there is nonetheless a certain
quantity beyond which the human species cannot go; and there is another quantity so small beyond which a
man cannot be found. That, therefore, which is the cause of the determination of size and growth is the
principal cause of growth”; the cause here being the logos understood as the form or nature of the thing. And
note how the admitting of a certain latitude is due to the matter, and so pertains to the individual, whereas the
existence of an upper and lower limit to both size and growth is due to the form, and so pertains to the
species. Note, too, that symmetry is taken with reference to the ‘secondary’ constituents of a thing, as with
the limbs and colors of an animal, whereas the limited or definiteness has to do with its ‘elements’.

22
c. I reply that it must be said that, as was said above, habit implies a certain disposition in an
order to the nature of a thing, and to its operation or end, according as something is well or badly
disposed for this. For this, however, that something stand in need of being disposed toward another,
three things are required. First, indeed, that that which is disposed be other than that to which it is
disposed, and thus relate to it as potency to act. Thus, if there is something whose nature is not
composed from potency and act, and whose substance is its operation, and exists on account of
itself [i.e. for its own sake], there habit or disposition has no place, as is clear in God. Second, it is
required that that which is in potency to another be determinable in many ways, and to diverse
things. Thus, if something is in potency to another such that it is not in potency except to it, there
disposition and habit have no place because such a subject from its own nature has its due relation
to such an act. And so if a heavenly body is composed of matter and form, since that matter is not
in potency to another form, as has been said in the first part, a disposition or habit for form has no
place there; nor also [is that matter in potency] to an operation because the nature of a heavenly
body is not in potency except to one determinate motion. The third thing required is that many
things concur for the sake of disposing the subject to one of those things to which it is in potency,
which can be made commensurate to it in diverse ways, so that it is thus disposed well or badly to a
form or an operation. And so the simple qualities of the elements, which befit one determinate
mode of the nature of the elements, we do not speak of as dispositions or habits, but as simple qual-
ities. But we call dispositions or habits health, beauty, and other things of the sort which imply a
certain commensuration of many things which can be made commensurate in many ways. 74 On
account of which the Philosopher says, in Metaphysics V (ch. 20, 1022b 10) that a habit is a
disposition, and a disposition is an order of the thing having parts either according to place, or
according to power, or according to species, as was said above.75

74
An excellent account of the role played by commensuration in beauty is provided by Plotinus, Ennead I, vi,
1: “What is it that impresses you when you look at something, attracts you, captivates you, and fills you with
joy? The general opinion, I may say, is that it is the interrelation of parts toward one another and toward the
whole, with the added element of good color, which constitutes beauty as perceived by the eye; in other
words, that beauty in visible things as in everything else consists of symmetry and proportion. In their eyes,
nothing simple and devoid of parts can be beautiful, only a composite”. Cf. also Robert Grosseteste, Comm.
in Div. Nom. (quoted in Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, p. 48): “For beauty is a concor-
dance and fittingness of a thing to itself and of all its individual parts to themselves and to each other and to
the whole, and of that whole to all things”. And again, cf. Werner Heisenberg, “Across the Frontier” (Harper,
1974, p. 183): “Beauty is the proper conformity of the parts to one another and to the whole”. Now inasmuch
as symmetry is understood to consist in a “due proportion”, cf. also Summa Theol, Ia, q. 21, art. 1, c., where
St. Thomas explains that “[t]o each one is due what is his own”—that is, “...it is due to a created thing that it
should possess what is ordered to it.” But a proportio is “the habitude [or ‘state of being related’] of one
quantity to another, in the way in which the double, the triple, and the equal are species of proportion ” (that
is, of ratio; cf. Euclid def. V. 3); or, generally, “of any habitude of one thing to another” (ibid., Ia, q. 12, art.
1, ad 4). Consequently, the nature of a thing being its end, and thus that to which it is ordered, the ‘habitude’
or relationship of one part to another will be ‘due’ when it is in conformity with that end. But as several of
our witnesses note, that order may be taken not just with reference to the parts toward one another, or toward
the whole, but also with reference to the whole in relation to some end outside.
75
Beauty specifically being a disposition in the second way mentioned, which is said “according as the order
of parts is looked to according to power or virtue; and in this way ‘disposition’ is placed in the first species of
quality. For something is said to be disposed in this way as, for instance, according to health or sickness,
from the fact that its parts have an order in an active or passive virtue” (St. Thomas Aquinas, In V Meta., lect.
20, n. 2, tr. B.A.M.). On this matter, cf. also Summa Theol., Ia-IIae, q. 49, art. 2, ad 1 (tr. B.A.M.): “To the
first, therefore, it must be said that ‘disposition’ implies a certain order, as has been said. And so something is
not said to be disposed by a quality except in an order to something. And if ‘well’ or ‘badly’ be added, which
belongs to the notion of habit, this must be considered in the order to the nature, which is the end. And so,
according to figure [or ‘shape’], or according to hot or cold, something is not said to be well or badly dis-
posed, except according to an order to the nature of the thing, according as it is suitable or not suitable. And
so, both figures [or ‘shapes’] themselves and passible qualities, according as they are considered as suitable
or not suitable to the nature of the thing, belong to habits or dispositions; for figure [or ‘shape’], as it befits
the nature of a thing, and color, pertain to beauty; hot and cold, however, according as they suit the nature of

23
Since, therefore, there are many beings for whose natures and operations it is necessary that many
things concur which can be made commensurate in diverse ways, it is therefore necessary for there
to be habits.
ad 1. To the first, therefore, it must be said that the nature of a thing is perfected through its form,
but it is necessary that in an order to its form the subject be disposed by some disposition.
Nevertheless, the form itself is ordered in the last place to an operation which is either an end, or
the road to an end. And if, indeed, it have a form determined to just one determinate operation, no
other disposition is required for an operation beyond its form. If, however, there be such a form
which can operate in diverse ways, as is the soul, it is necessary that it be disposed to its own
operations through some habits.
ad 2. To the second, it must be said that a power sometimes relates to many things, and therefore
it is necessary that something be determined to another. But if there be some power which does not
relate to many, it is not in need of a habit determining it, as was said. And on account of this,
natural powers do not perform their own operations with some habits mediating, because they are
determined to one thing according to themselves.
ad 3. To the third it must be said that the same habit does not relate to good and bad, as will be
clear below. The same power, however, relates to good and bad. And therefore that a power be
determined to the good, habits are necessary. 76

*****

NOTE ON THE FURTHER COURSE OF THE TEXT

The reader will recall that in a note at the end of my reconstruction, I suggested that following upon
the last discrete section of my reordered text would come (the remainder of) the text of Chapter 9,
inasmuch as it is concerned with the two additional ways in which things occur, thereby making up
a coherent whole: Section 7 addressing things happening for the least part; the latter text determin-
ing that the task of the poet is to relate the sort of thing that might happen according to either
necessity or likelihood. While that argument is valid, I there refrained from pointing out that the
aforementioned Section, being concerned as it is with what produces an effect of wonder, for that
very reason connects with the further discussion of this subject in our Chapter 24. In a Supplement
to be given next,77 I endeavor to demonstrate the unity of these separated discussions, as well as the
way in which the latter passage fits in with the course of the argument up to that point.

(c) 2013; Rev. 2019 Bart A. Mazzetti. All Rights Reserved

the thing, pertain to health. And in this way, hotness and coldness are placed by the Philosopher in the first
species of quality.” But the thing having beauty will possess a disposition in the third way mentioned, which
is said “according as the order of parts is looked to according to the species and figure of the whole….” (op.
cit., n. 3), as with the plot of a tragedy or an epic poem, which is the sort of whole the possession of whose
species requires a determinate order of parts, as we have seen. Accordingly, where there is “a beginning, a
middle, and an end”, there is a before and after, and hence order; but where there is “not just any chance
size”, but a determinate one, there is a due proportion, and hence symmetry; but where there is an “extent”
that is “the greatest”, there is a perfect magnitude, and hence the limited or definiteness.
76
For a passage furnishing a succinct overview of the considerations of this paper, cf. also Plato, Laws II
(668d–669e) (tr. Thomas Pangle, rev. B.A.M.): “Ath. What then, if someone doesn’t know what each of the
bodies of the things imitated is? Would he ever know what is correctly executed in them? What I mean is
something like this: [would he ever know,] for instance, whether [the statue] has the proportions of the body
and the positions and arrangements of each of the parts, how many [parts] there are and how they fit next to
one another in the appropriate order, and also the colors and shapes, or whether all the things have been put
together in a confused way? Do you think someone can ever know these things if he is completely ignorant
of what the living thing is that has been imitated?”
77
On the Four Things Producing an Effect of Wonder According to Aristotle. (Papers in Poetics 2)

24