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Aristotle’s Poetics. A Greek philosopher on Greek poetry



Aristotle’s Poetics occupies a unique position in the western history of literature, literary criticism and literary theory. It is the first systematic treatment of the art of poetry, which has exercised an enormous influence on modern literary theory. Starting from the view that poetry is a kind of mimesis (representation), Aristotle analyses the form, genres, value and impact of poetry.

His thorough treatment of tragic poetry can help us to understand the poetics of Greek tragedy. The famous and influential concepts that Aristotle introduces include katharsis (purification), hamartia (error), phobos and eleos (fear and pity). But what do these terms actually mean? The text of the Poetics poses many questions that are not so easy to answer. Why is it that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex seems to be Aristotle’s favourite tragedy? What is in this particular case the error (hamartia) that leads to the fall of the hero? On a more general level: how can emotions (pity and fear) contribute to katharsis? How does Aristotle’s theory relate to the practice of the three tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides? And do we agree with his views on tragedy?

In this seminar, we will closely read the complete text of the Poetics (48 pp. OCT). In addition, we will read a number of Greek tragedies in translation (Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Iphigeneia in Tauris). We will consider the relevance of Aristotle’s views to our interpretation of the surviving Greek tragedies. Can Aristotle actually help us to understand these plays?


  • Familiarity with a number of central concepts in Aristotle’s Poetics, including mimesis, katharsis, lexis, pity and fear, hamartia. – Understanding of various problems and scholarly debates related to the interpretation of the Poetics. – Basic knowledge of Greek literary criticism (Plato, Aristotle, and critics of the Hellenistic and Roman periods). – Developed skills in reading and interpreting Greek philosophical prose.



Seminar (werkcollege)


  • written examination with essay questions: 40%

  • oral presentation: 40%

  • active contributions to the scholarly discussion: 20%

For an additional 5 ects students can write a paper of ca 6.000 words.


Blackboard will be used for the exchange of material. In particular, students will make available their own translations of the passages that they will discuss in the context of their presentations.


1) Students should have the following edition with commentary:

D.W. Lucas, Aristotle, Poetics, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1968 (or later reprints in paperback).

2) A translation of the Poetics is very useful. For example:

Loeb: S. Halliwell, Aristotle, Poetics; W.H. Fyfe / D.A. Russell, Longinus, On the Sublime; D.C. Innes / W. Rhys Roberts, Demetrius On Style, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts / London, England 1995 (reprint with corrections 1999).

S. Halliwell, The Poetics of Aristotle. Translation and Commentary, Duckworth, London 1987.

R. Janko, Aristotle, Poetics. Hackett, Indianapolis 1987.

3) Students should have (or copy or borrow) translations of three Greek tragedies: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone, and Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Tauris.



Dr C.C. de Jonge:


Students who participate in this course can also participate in the MA-course on Sophocles (Greek Tragedy), which will be offered in the same semester by prof. dr. I. Sluiter. In this way, the ancient theory and practice of Greek tragedy can be studied in combination. This combination is fruitful, but not compulsory.