It’s clear from what we’ve said that the role of a poet is not to say what has happened but what could happen, within the bounds of probability or necessity. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one uses prose and the other verse. After all, you could take the History of Herodotus and turn it into verse, but it would still be history, not poetry. The historian tells us what has happened, the poet what could happen.
This is why poetry is more like philosophy and is more important than history. Poetry is about universals, while history is about particulars. A universal is what people would probably or necessarily say or do in a certain situation. Poetry does this even when it attaches a real name to a character, but history deals strictly with the actions or experiences of a particular person, like Alcibiades.
This is obvious in comedy as well. A comic writer first constructs a plot on the basis of probabilities, then makes up names for the characters. Comic poets don’t write about real people like lampoonists or satirists do.
Writers of tragedy do use the names of actual people. The reason for this is that to most people what is possible (i.e., what has happened in the past) is plausible, but they aren’t sure if something is possible if it hasn’t occurred. But it’s obvious that something that has happened is possible – otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.
Aristotle, Poetics 9
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle studied and wrote about a great many subjects, including logic, physics, biology, politics, ethics, and the arts. Born in Macedonia in 384 BC, he travelled to Athens as a young man to study in Plato’s Academy, and later tutored the young Alexander the Great. He set up his own school in Athens, the Lyceum, and many of his surviving texts are not polished literary pieces: they are generally more like outlines and lecture notes.
In his Poetics, Aristotle writes about writing poetry, especially the tragedies of Athenian playwrights. He stresses the importance of plot, which he considers more important than characters, and of keeping a work to a suitable length. The treatise – as translator Philip Freeman notes in his introduction – has even been described as the ‘rulebook’ by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, reflecting how relevant these tenets still are to some writers today.
The best tragedies are those in which a good character experiences a change in fortunes for the worse as a result of their own mistakes. And here Aristotle discloses what he feels makes such works relatable: the plot should in essence be about what anyone would or could do in a scenario, and so an opportunity for some philosophical reflection. This is, he argues, more substantial food for thought than history, which has already happened, and lacks the same air of personal possibility, yet is more believable.
This passage from Aristotle’s Poetics comes from How to Tell a Story: an ancient guide to the art of storytelling for writers and readers, translated and introduced by Philip Freeman. The book is published on 10 May by Princeton University Press as part of their Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (ISBN 978-0691205274, price £12.99). The extract is reprinted here by permission.