Category: Ancient Greek literature

119.   Poetics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

119. Poetics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  Aristotle turns to literature and notes down his thoughts on the nature and principles of tragedy and epic.

My edition is part of the Penguin anthology Classical Literary Criticism translated by T. S. Dorsch (ISBN 0140441557) which also includes Longinus and Horace (but more of them later)

My thoughts: The next read on the blog was supposed to be Aristotle’s Metaphysics but I just couldn’t get past the first chapter, partly from the fact I was simultaneously making my way through a fantasy novel thick enough to choke a horse, and secondly my inherent dread of anything with the words ‘metaphysical’ or ‘postmodernist’ in the title. So instead I switched to his Poetics. I could also get my hands on a Penguin edition of this one (I had been severely missing their introductions and notes to help me wade through the mire)

Aristotle sees poetry, plays, dance and musical performances as imitations or representations of reality (what we would now call fiction), each using some combination of music, rhythm and/or language. Characters are represented as either good, bad or as we are ourselves, with comedy dealing with characters worse than ourselves (usually the ridiculous), and tragedy dealing with those better than us (the noble) – an interesting perspective, and with a fair degree of accuracy at first thought.

From chapter 6 onwards, Aristotle discusses tragedy (plays acted about serious subjects, evoking fear or pity) and epic poetry (narrated rather than acted) – he does mention intending to consider comedy later, but this seems to have been lost in the mists of time. He prioritises plot as the most essential element over characterisation (have to agree there!) and argues the need for wholeness of plot and relevance of actions to tell the story. He also opens the door to allow poetic license (otherwise the poet or playwright may as well write history!)

“Poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts”              page 44

Aristotle also comments on the themes or turning points of tragedies : reversal, discovery, and calamity. The discovery or revelation of identity or knowledge can change the fate or behaviour of characters, leading to reversal of fortune, and disastrous results for the ‘hero’ of the story.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Learning is a very great pleasure, not for philosophers only, but for other people as well, however limited their capacity for it may be”                                                                   page 35

“It Is their characters that make men what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse”                                                                               page 40

“Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane”                  page 55

“A convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility”                   page 73

Diversions and digressions: 

  • Homer was believed by Aristotle to have written some sort of lampoon, a precursor to comedy, called Margites, which only now survives as fragments and was probably penned by someone else.
  • Old Comedy (e.g. the plays of Aristophanes) often used the names of real people, whereas New Comedy (Menander) used stock names which may have suggested real people but did not name them as such.

 Personal rating:  Short and easily understood, yet providing good basic ideas for consideration as I read further. I think this is probably a 6.

Kimmy’s rating:   I did read a few parts out loud to Kimmy but received only a baleful stare before she went back to sleep.

The sanity in between:  As alluded to above, I also read #5 of the Wheel of Time series, The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan (a healthy 1,000 pages) along with P.G. Wodehouse’s first volume of short stories The Man Upstairs, and other stories. No one has the comic turn of phrase as good ol’ P.G., and I chuckled my way through these quite happily.

“Throughout the whole country nothing but the approaching match was discussed. Wherever civilization reigned, and in portions of Liverpool, one question alone was on every lip: Who would win? Octogenarians mumbled it. Infants lisped it. Tired City men, trampled under foot in the rush for their tram, asked it of the ambulance attendants who carried them to the hospital.”

The Goal-keeper and the Plutocrat, P.G. Wodehouse

You can see why Aristotle languished on the kitchen bench between the lolly jar and the potted succulent.

Next :  Back to the O.T. and the Book of Jeremiah.

117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  The science of persuasion, or more precisely, the identification of persuasive aspects (‘ammunition’), to prepare the orator for the ever-increasingly important role of speech making in Athenian public life.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Art of Rhetoric, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140445102)

My thoughts:  Just as with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I found parts of Rhetoric completely over my head, while other parts (with the assistance of the editor’s introduction and notes), reasonably straightforward.

Aristotle presents a structured approach which at least gives the inexperienced modern reader a handle on his explanations. There are three ways to speak persuasively, (i) by logical argument, (ii) by appealing to the character of the audience (their age or fortunes), and (iii) by appealing to the emotional state of the listener. These three rely on an understanding of logic and psychology.

The first part outlines these approaches, then looks in more detail at the reasons and key points   for persuading by logical argument : (a) to establish justice (or injustice) of a subject, a forensic or judicial approach to either prosecute or defend, and deals with past events, (b) to present the admirability, virtue or nobility of the subject (or the opposite : to denigrate a subject), usually in the present, or (c) to promote the advisability or inadvisability of a subject, which is the deliberative or political approach, to exhort or deter future action. For each of these, various examples are listed where a speaker might adopt one or more to use in their rhetoric to persuade more strongly e.g. acts which might be considered more noble (because they are more memorable or more beneficial to others) or crimes more serious (more brutal, or repeated, or fill the jury with fear)

The advice to litigants is basically to take whatever tack is best suited to their argument, from the nature of the law itself ….

“if the written law is contrary to our position, we must use the general law, and the principles of greater equity and justice …. but if the written law should be favourable to our position, then we must say .. that seeking to be wiser than the laws is what is forbidden by the most reputable legal systems”                                                                                                 pages 130-131

to the strict legality of one’s own contract versus the higher call of justice against someone else’s contract, or the unreliabilty of evidence acquired by torture when it doesn’t meet your case’s needs, etc.   One can almost hear the ghost of Aristophanes mocking.

The next section describes the characteristics of human emotions which influence decisions, and thereby ways of turning an audience to or from feelings of anger or calm, fear or confidence, friendship or enmity, shame or pride, pity or indignation or jealousy, without regard to the specific subject matter. Naturally gifted orators probably do this by instinct, identifying what will sway a crowd.

The nature or composition of the audience is also discussed, albeit briefly, with youthful audiences hot-tempered and slaves to their desires, confident, optimistic, intense and naive; while old men are the opposite in all these.

The third part of Rhetoric deals with themes common to all speeches, including the style of speech (the way of speaking) and the composition or structure of a speech. Again my concentration lapsed and I took in little of the discussions.

Favourite lines/passages:

“… unbuttonedness, leisure, lack of worry, games, relaxation and sleep are among the pleasant things … ”                                                                                                                           page 115

“Winning is also pleasant .. for it produces the imagination of superiority…”    page 117

“… in misfortune men never want to be seen by their rivals – for our rivals are our admirers”   page 160

“men who will envy … are small-minded, for all things seem great to them”       page 169


Some more new words :

Banausic : mundane, manual (particularly with regard to employment)

Knout : a heavy scourge-like multiple whip, usually made of a bunch of rawhide thongs attached to a long handle, sometimes with metal wire or hooks (Wikipedia definition)

Pancratiast: athlete who uses boxing, wrestling, choking and kicking moves to defeat their opponent, in a sporting event called a Pankration, sometimes held at the ancient Olympic Games

Veridical: truthful (you know, like everything in my blog! 😉  )

Personal rating: People who regularly make speeches or are required to speak persuasively would benefit from reading this work, or a careful repackaging with more familiar and modern examples; and taking from it what they find useful or interesting. I enjoyed some parts but found myself flagging in others, so for me it is a 4.

The sanity in between:  Ozma of Oz (book 3 of the original The Wizard of Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum) as part of the Read-along hosted by Lone Star on a Lark ( )  – surprisingly enjoyable!

Next : My interest and endurance quota for Aristotle is dwindling, yet I am loathe to give up on another author yet, especially one of such influence. So my fallback is to resume my stop-start progress with the Protestant Old Testament , starting with the Book of Isaiah.

111. Parva Naturalia by Aristotle (c. 350 BC)

111. Parva Naturalia by Aristotle (c. 350 BC)

Plot: These are seven short treatises on biological phenomena, directly flowing on from the lecture De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle. I will discuss my thoughts on each one separately below, so get comfy because this might take some time.

My copy is from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952.

My thoughts:

i) On Sense and Sensibilia

Not Jane Austen’s excellent novel unfortunately.

This picks up straight after On the Soul, and was a little easier to follow, either from having some of the ideas about the sense organs and senses already covered or perhaps a more sympatico editor/translator (J. I. Beare in this case)

Points worth sharing include:

  • Colours are a mixture of particles of black and white, sometimes in specific ratios. Likewise, flavours are combinations of sweet and bitter in different ratios. (Aristotle likes his maths!)
  • There are 2 distinct types of odours : those related to nutrition where an animal can identify what is good or bad to eat and locate it, and those related to pleasure which only humans appreciate, and once inhaled rise up to the brain where they promote health.
  • Flavours range from sweet, which directly provide nourishment, to salty, acid and bitter which act as seasoning

ii) On Memory

  • Only animals which perceive time can have memory
  • Memories are sensory imprints, and weakest in the very young and very old as their receiving organs do not imprint due to their bodies’ rapid state of growth or decay.
  • Remembering is not the same as recollection : the latter requires active effort and searching to reach the required memory.  Connection of memories allows recollection more easily.

Digression #1.  I can still remember a UK comic I read as a child (I’m sure it was in an issue of Whizzer and Chips) where the sport-mad boy was in an exam that he hadn’t studied for. The next panel showed a view inside his brain of this enormous pile of tiny pieces of paper, each with some obscure fact written on it (“Don’t eat peanut butter after cleaning your teeth”, etc.) and two little men sifting through it all one by one to find the answer to the question. It remains my favourite image of the human memory at work.

iii) On Sleep

  • Since sleep is the resting of organs of sense-perception, then it follows that plants do not sleep or dream (shame : I love the idea of dreaming trees!)
  • Since all sense organs rest simultaneously during sleep, they must be controlled by a central primary organ, which must be the heart
  • Because heat from the food eaten rises to the head, making it heavy ; then you will feel tired after a big meal. Logical.

Digression #2. Does anyone else, when reading novels, decide to call it a night when the characters in the story go to sleep? Almost as if you can be assured they won’t go off and continue their adventures while you sleep. Or should I book into a good psychiatrist?

iv) On Dreams

  • Perceptions from sense organs during waking time have a momentum or afterimage which gets distorted from the heat travelling in the body.
  • The eye can cause an effect on things it sees as well as receive an image. Hence, a woman having her period can cause a highly polished or new mirror to develop a blood-coloured haze (Aristotle had rejected belief in reciprocal effects on objects caused by the sense organs in his earlier work On the Soul,so how he came to state this is disappointing)

v) On Divination in Sleep

Aristotle is undecided on believing in the ability to tell the future via dreams. He admits that many people have reported such instances, but dismisses most as coincidence. He also thinks that most people who claim such prophetic dreams are unlikely to be sent messages from God as they are base commoners and so too ignorant and unimportant to be chosen.

vi) On Length and Shortness of Life

Some animals live longer than others, just as some plants live longer. The secret is the amount of humidity and warmth in their bodies. As the humidity cools and congeals, or dries up, we age and die. Larger organisms tend to live longer as they have a larger quantity of this humidity. Plants have a oiliness or viscosity to their liquid which resists these changes, but they also renew parts of themselves by growing new shoots and roots.

vii) On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration

  • Some animals continue to live and move after parts like the head are removed as they still have the soul attached via the dominant organ with supreme control of the sensory and digestive functions – the heart (although others thought it was the brain).

More is made of the gradual dissipation of the body’s fire with age until death ensues in a natural way. There was also a lot of talk of the need for a certain degree of cooling of the body during life, presumably to stop all the fire from escaping too quickly, but the logic here escapes me.


Aristotle was no doubt a brilliant observer of many things, even if his conclusions were not always spot on – shame he didn’t develop the Scientific Method. But in the spirit of Herodotus as Father of History, I think Aristotle merits the title of the Father of Science.

More diversions and digressions:  Some unfamiliar words turned up while reading these lectures. How many do you know?

sapidity : flavour

sanguineous :  resembling or containing blood

gustable :  a thing which can be tasted

deglutition:  act of swallowing

desiderative:  something someone wants to do (a little vague, sorry 🙂  )

murex: sea snails, used by the Ancient Phonecians to make purple dyes

atrabilious : melancholy or (probably more likely) irritable, related to an excess of bile perhaps?

Try using two or more in a sentence today (extra points for sounding either Wodehousian or Dickensian) ….

“Ah, these murex have a sapidity which is quite likely to make me atrabilious”

“Then you should refrain from deglutition, old bean!”

Personal rating: Better than De Anima, but still a struggle to understand some parts. Only  a 3.

Next :  More Aristotle. Historia animalium (History of animals)


110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

My copy is the Penguin classic edition translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140444718)

My thoughts:
Aristotle, student of Plato, was Renaissance Man 1800 years before the Renaissance, with writings on biology, physics, philosophy, ethics, literature and politics. While scholars cannot agree in what order his surviving works were written, it seems like De Anima was the beginning of a series of lectures on the biological sciences so I thought this would be an easy introduction for me. Wrong.

The first thing to note is that the word ‘soul’ in the English title is not analogous to the religious meaning we currently associate with it, but translated from the Greek psyche as some sort of life force, which endows the body with the abilities of movement and perception. While reading On the Soul, it is very hard to keep reminding oneself that it is life force we are really discussing.

Aristotle starts by reviewing the works on the subject by earlier authors, most of whom concentrate on the material composition of the soul on the atomic level. As I discovered earlier in Plato’s Timaeus, the Ancient Greek view of the universe included a belief in solids being composed of atom-sized particles, with different sorts and shapes for fire, water, earth and air. Dust motes in the air were taken to be visible atoms. This was also taken further to suggest that some objects were made from a combination of different sorts of atoms, in fixed proportions. Genius stuff!!

Other suggestions on the nature of the soul include that it is the ratio of the mixtures of various elements of the body, and different parts of the body (muscle, bone, etc.) have different ratios and therefore different souls (life forces) throughout the body; or that the soul is the intellect which is set on a circular course like the heavenly bodies (which Aristotle dismisses as it would mean that we would think the same thoughts repeatedly – circular thinking, indeed!) An even more outlandish theory was that the soul is a number, and I won’t even try to explain that!

Suffice to say that Aristotle is not having any of this. His theory introduces consideration of the type of body the soul is attached to; so he proposes three levels of soul, one for plants which provides only a nutritive drive (to seek sustenance and reproduce), a higher level for animals which also allows both perception (desire, pleasure, pain) and movement, and the highest level for man allows belief and imagination.

The last two thirds of the work dwell on the five senses  – how they work, and their importance. Much of this seemed almost within my grasp but slid away – all the more frustrating than Plato as this was based around the biological sciences which I should have a grasp on. Does not bode well for the coming weeks.

Favourite lines/passages:

“[Reproduction] is the most natural of the functions of such living creatures … namely to make another thing like themselves, an animal an animal, a plant a plant, so that in the way that they can they may partake in the eternal and the divine”         II, 4 (page 165)

Personal rating:  3.

Kimmy’s rating:  A wet rainy day for the last day of summer, so Kimmy wisely stayed wrapped in her blanket and conserved her life force.

 Next :  Aristotle will dominate the posts for the next couple of months, but the end of the Greek era is in distant sight. Next will be his Parva Naturalia.


108. Critias by Plato (c.355 BC)

108. Critias by Plato (c.355 BC)

Plot:  Socrates has explained his ideal society to his friends Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates in The Republic, and asked them to supply some real-world evidence of its likely success. Timaeus started with an account of the creation of the Universe and Mankind in Timaeus (see post 107) and now Critias describes the lead up to the ancient battle between Athens and Atlantis in this fragment. Whether it was ever finished, or if the third part of the trilogy to be supplied by Hermocrates was ever written will never be known.

My version is included in the Plato volume of Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

My thoughts:

Critias offers Ancient Athens as a workable example of Socrates’ (Plato’s) Republic, with the warrior caste of men and women living selfless, communal lives of service to the state.

Equally virtuous were the ten kings of Atlantis, until they gradually became more debased and selfish, until Zeus decided to punish them. This is where the surviving fragment ends, but presumably the war with Athens, and finally the earthquake which sinks Atlantis are divinely ordered.

The island of Atlantis, beloved by Poseidon, consisted of concentric circles of land separated by canals, with the Royal Palace on the centre island. A lush, fertile land where there lived

” a great number of elephants in the island, for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both of those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those that live in mountains and on plains …. whatever fragrant things there now are in the Earth, whether roots or herbage or woods, or essences which distil from fruit and flower, grew and thrived”

I haven’t been including most fragments in my reading unless they are the only surviving text for a renown author (e.g Sappho) or of some personal interest. Plato was apparently the first author to mention Atlantis so I was intrigued to see its description here.

Personal rating: 4/10

Next :  Probably Plato’s Laws

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

Plot:  A description of the rules of government of Sparta, providing a major source of otherwise scarce information about the daily life of that civilisation. Legend has it that Lycurgus made the Spartans promise to uphold these laws until he returned from visiting the Delphic Oracle. He never did return.

Lacedaemonia (or Laconia) is the region for which Sparta was the capital, as Athens was the capital of the Attica region, although I don’t remember seeing the names before now. I imagine if you lived a spartan lifestyle then your speech and manner might be described as laconic.

I can now return the Minor works edition of Xenophon (published 1888 by George Bell & Sons of London) to the library. How many more years will it sit quietly on the shelves at the back of the 800s?

My thoughts: My final read by Xenophon (there is another treatise on the Constitution of Athens, but that is now believed not to have been written by Xenophon, and is attributed to the “Old Oligarch”)

The points that stand out when reading this are the differences from what we think as normal for Ancient Greece. Remember the following are taken from legislation enacted by Lycurgus to establish the military themed society for which Sparta was noted.

  • To ensure healthy robust children, it was required that older men with younger wives should introduce them to virile younger men to father their children, and men unable or unwilling to have children with their wives might father children on other men’s wives (with their consent)
  • Spartan boys were raised with less clothes and food than would make them comfortable, to prepare them for hardship during campaigns. However, the boys were encouraged to steal as much cheese as they could, to foster their skills in procuring supplies in wartime. But of course, if caught they would be punished.
  • Unlike the rest of Greece, sexual relations between men and boys was considered to be on a par with incest.
  • All citizens were to eat their meals in public to ensure they did not succumb to gluttony or drunkenness,
  • Parents were allowed to chastise not only their own children, but others as well,
  • Free men were prohibited from any form of business, and the possession of gold or silver was a punishable offence,
  • Citizens were not allowed to live in other countries “lest they be initiated in licentiousness”

Lycurgus (if indeed he was a real person) lived around 900 BC, and, alas, by the time Xenophon was writing, he himself admits the Spartans did not continue to obey all these laws so thoroughly.

Personal rating:   Short but interesting. A 5.

Next :  Farewell and thanks for the company Xenophon.  Next is Timaeus by Plato, discussing “cosmology and anthropology”

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

Plot:  Consciously written to begin precisely where Thucylides’ History of the Peloponnesian War leaves off in 411 BC, and covering the last seven years of that conflict, and the subsequent ongoing squabbles between Sparta, Athens, Persia, Thebes and their various allies and subjects up to 362 BC.

My version was Rex Warner’s translation from 1966 published by Penguin (9780140441758).

My thoughts:  This was a slow and difficult read for two reasons. Firstly the editor makes no secret of the fact that Xenophon left much of the story out of his record to make Sparta and his friend King Agesilius appear in the best possible light. I am a sucker for footnotes despite their breaking my reading flow, but I found myself avoiding most of them after a couple of hundred pages as they constantly berated the author at every step. Perhaps a more enthusiastic critic might have still made the journey enjoyable.

Gross omissions and slanted reporting may be, but I also did not find Hellenica as engaging as Xenophon’s other more personal works. It details the war until its end but more in the style of Thucylides and does not offer the warmth and closeness of individuals (except for a few pages on Teleutias, a typically virtuous Xenophon leader). Of course he is writing now on a much vaster canvas, but perhaps this is also partly my subconscious preference for a personalised approach to history. Other critics have explained that Xenophon has written this book for people very familiar with the leaders, places and events; and I certainly found myself floundering to keep track of it all.

The first couple of ‘books’ do fill in the political events in Athens that have been background to much of Plato : the defeat of Athens by Sparta, the removal of their democratic government and the establishment of an oligarchy : The Thirty, led by Critias, and their gang of killers, The Eleven, putting to death all their personal enemies, competitors or those whose possessions they coveted, and the later restoration of democracy. The remaining five ‘books’ details the tug-of-wars between the major parties for control of the various neighbouring states rather than directly attacking each other.

Politics was just as much the cult of personality and popularity as it is today. Loved generals such as Lysander and Agesilius are requested by cities to lead the forces coming to their aid.

Sparta and Athens eventually come to a longer lasting peace around 371 BC, only for Thebes, Thessaly and Arcadia to start stirring up trouble. Xenophon also raises the first mention of Celts and Iberians as present in the Athenian navy commanded by Dionysius but whether they are mercenaries or slaves is not clear.

Diversions and digressions:  King Agesipolis dies of fever while on campaign, and his body is returned to Sparta embalmed in honey, as centuries later Nelson will return to Portsmouth in a barrel of brandy.

One interesting figure was Jason of Pherae, the ambitious King of Thessaly who rose from seemingly nowhere and threatened to have the ability to take over the whole of Greece (foreshadowing the deeds of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great) before his unexpected assassination. I had never heard mention of Jason yet Xenophon suggests he might have rightly been described as “the greatest man of his times”.

Personal rating:  A disappointment following my enjoyment of previous Xenophon works. I gave Thucylides a 5 but this can only get a 2.

Kimmy’s rating:  I read this title while on holiday in Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis. Kimmy is also on holiday at Kiweli Kennels and Kattery so there is no rating from her this time. The other dogs probably don’t read a lot of Greek classics.

Next :  Here’s the crunch – do I really want to read the entirety of Plato? Next on my list is his Phaedrus but I am tempted to skip the rest of his Socratic dialogues at least and only read the landmark remaining work (The Laws) and move straight on to Aristotle. I will probably start each of the remaining Platos, and skip if they seem to be more of the same.