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Heroic History, 4

on Aristotle's bias towards "unified plots" and his rejection of biography 

Whoever first remarked that life is just "one damn thing after another" wasn't necessarily complaining about life (or "history"). The original quip's coiner was more likely longing for better stories, and for better historical and biographical storytelling. That motive would certainly fit either Mark Twain or Arnold Toynbee, but the phrase probably didn't arise with either 'great man'. We do know the saying was popular enough by the 1930's for Edna St Vincent Millay to cite it casually (in a personal letter) when she gave it her distinctly feminist slant: "one damn thing over and over". Millay was absolutely longing to see better stories, both on paper and in women's individual lives.

From all these angles, what appears is a twenty-three-hundred-year-old echo of Aristotle's famous preference for cohesive story structure. A literary or dramatic plot must present more than a mere string of episodes. Proper stories must have "a beginning, a middle, and an end" in a way that presents "a sense of unity and wholeness [with] a certain length.. such as can readily be held in memory" (Poetics 1451a, Malcolm Heath's Penguin translation). At least, so said the personal tutor of Homer's most famous fanboy, Alexander the Great.

If the "one thing after another" viewpoint was popular in Mark Twain's era, then it also anticipated (by roughly a century) a famously difficult statement by Louis O. Mink, partly in reference to Aristotle. Mink declared, "Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles, or ends." Although common sense opinions from most eras would probably agree with Twain's borrowed quip but disagree with Louis O. Mink, this pair of views would be logically inconsistent. To recognize the sense in which life (or "history") does frequently feel just like one damn thing after another is to admit that lived experience is indeed different from the experience of hearing or reading a story. But why, then, do common folks nevertheless tend to carry this pair of incompatible viewpoints? How can Twain (or Toynbee, or Millay, or whoever) seem so right, while the professor Louis O. Mink comes off like a highfalutin smarty pants, a tragically stupid smart person?

Logically, neither can be correct if the other is wrong. So what are we missing?

Why do individual lives seem chaotic while being experienced, until later, when they seem story-like while being remembered?

Is a human life lived like a story, or not? The obvious answer is too simple, but we could almost just say it depends on your definition of "story". That's true enough, in a way, but it's also unhelpful and divisive. The complicated answer holds more promise for a unified view of things. So, here we go...

Although many have tried to refute Mink on this question, Aristotle would not have disagreed. The reason stories require "beginnings, middles, and ends" is precisely because the ordinary and non-literary experience of life does not have such things. In his Poetics, Aristotle defined a story's "beginning" rather absurdly, as "that which itself does not follow necessarily from anything else", but the philosopher cannot have intended to mean this statement literally. Such would clearly contradict his own thoughts, put down in the Physics and Metaphysics, that all motions have causes, apart from the "Prime Mover". For Aristotle, the Unmoved Mover is life's scientific beginning, and so his literary opinion that stories require "a beginning" gives the statement of Louis O. Mink its complete justification. Whether the universe was formed from God, the Big Bang, or from Chaos and Erebus, we must agree that all life and history has only had one true "beginning". Therefore, all story writing about human beings is arbitrary artistry, personal poetics, literary license, or subjective illusion.

However, it's the point at which Aristotle and Mink disagree that adds a twist to our story, today.

The surprising difference comes out clearly when we look at biography. Whereas Mink was opposed to any fantasy versions of real life, Aristotle was very much in favor of making up stories based on life experience. Along with Mink, a horde of literary critics have complained that biographies often read far too much like a novel. It's ironic, they say, that libraries put biographies right next to fiction. Aristotle had the opposite problem. To the ancient philosopher, biography didn't match up nearly well enough to the way that good stories ought to read. Mink wanted more accuracy and less drama, and Aristotle was a fan of the drama, but the ancient philosopher's primary interest was cohesion. He wanted the selective unity and the narrative causality which gave an audience that helpful sense of connectedness and made the story more easy to "hold in the memory".

Essentially, Aristotle preferred stories to imitate life in a deliberately oversimplified way, which was simply unfortunate for biography, because comprehensive life-stories, by definition, defy being compressed down into "a single action" or a "unified plot". As a matter of fact, we know Aristotle recognized that there was a great degree of causality in people's actual lives. His treatises on Physics and Metaphysics present every human action as causally connected to other events and influences, and his work in On the Heavens arguably anticipates chaos theory by observing something like Edward Lorenz' key insight about "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". At any rate, it's precisely that level of widespread connectedness that was part of Aristotle's objection to biography, because while human experience of actual causation is hyper-complex, the narrative presentation of storied causality is necessarily linear. We must remember that in so-called "nonlinear narratives", of which Aristotle was actually a fan, the reconstructed plot (fabula) remains linear, not chaotic.

Audiences needed simple stories. Aristotle embraced this with great aplomb.

Who doesn't instinctively realize that real life is chaotic and that most stories are simplified!? For postmodern historians, agreeing with Mink, a biographical narrative is too simplified to represent a person's real life with accuracy. From the opposite viewpoint, Aristotle said a biography was not simplified enough to produce literature effectively. He made a similar judgment about history, stating for instance (1459a) that two battles which occurred on the same day could not be blended into one story because they had two different "endings". While Aristotle certainly granted that histories and life-stories can be written, his Poetics is adamant that such writing does not make for good storytelling. He tells us over and over, epics and tragedies need "a unified whole" with "a beginning, middle parts, and an end". He praises Homer for boiling down the complex history of the Trojan War into a simple plot structure that can be understood "in one view". Likewise, Homer's Odyssey receives high praise for surpassing the poets who wrote "everything" about Heracles or Theseus, because the superior Odyssey is deliberately not a biography but a unified plot construction centering around one single action.

In 2008, in one phenomenal chapter of Theorizing Narrativity, called "After this, therefore because of this", John Pier underscores how Aristotle's Poetics advocates the strategic leveraging of a notion which moderns decry as the infamous fallacy "post hoc, ergo propter hoc". Apparently unconcerned, the Poetics actually celebrates and promotes such deliberate narrative distortion, reminding us for example that "There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events." (Poetics 1452a). For Aristotle, a proper epic or tragedy does its best to equate after with because, as opposed to histories and biographies that merely offer a litany of "everything which happened" to some particular person, or in some particular time. What a perfect example of "one damn thing after another". Like Twain, Toynbee, and Millay, Aristotle deeply wants stories to be enjoyable.

However, what Pier was the first to observe is that Aristotle rebuts two similar ideas elsewhere; that is, two differently similar ideas. First, Pier cites the Sophistical Refutations, which invalidate the argumentative counter-move of "treating as a cause what is not a cause" (a sophistic strategy for somehow undermining an opponent's case, apparently; 167b) and second is the Rhetoric, where "non-cause as cause" is not about an error in formal logic but a harsh critique against poor thinkers who foolishly "assume that, because B happens after A, it happens because of A" (1401b). Pier's key insight here is that the syllogistical fallacy discussed by Sophistical Refutations is fundamentally different from the Rhetoric's ontologically oriented fallacy of improperly declaring (determining) actual causes. In other words, the Sophistical Refutations point out a common but invalid tactic in counter-argumentation, and the Rhetoric upholds a need for cautious rigor in making claims about natural and scientific investigating, but neither of these contradicts the Poetics. To Aristotle, it made sense that all three of these areas should engage very differently with the notion of "causes". Make that four or five areas; Pier neglected the Physics & Metaphysics. 

In addressing causes today, we prefer two categories: scientific and literary. Aristotle would not and could not have articulated Hume's helpfully careful distinction between perceived causality and actual causation - although Pier's observation arguably shows Aristotle did follow such a distinction in practice. Still, in any terminology, a discussion of physical or psychological causation would have been very much out of place among Aristotle's thoughts on storytelling and literature, especially given the Poetics' peculiar collection of interests. Aristotle says much about plot (but not much on causality), obsesses about presentation (seeming not to worry about representation), and speaks with much ease on the subject of narrative (but barely deigns to comment on the subject of history).

In areas where today's philosophers are having fits about all this, Aristotle was having a field day!


Here's my humble suggestion. To Aristotle, the proper purpose of poetry was primarily political. The Poetics was about embracing narrative distortion in order to maximize the desired effect on an audience. In his own life, Aristotle was happy to serve the king of Macedonia, or the city of Athens, or a group of wealthy private students. In any such cases, the goal of these powerful elites for any private or publicly funded dramatic performance would be to make sure that people in attendance were influenced benignly (benefiting their own elite interests), and to make sure those people would easily remember the story, so as to retain that effect for the maximum duration. To such an end, Aristotle's straightforward but understated agenda in his Poetics was all about mimesis, but not at all the kind of mimetic "imitation" debated and theorized in these days by those of us moderns and postmoderns (and, mercifully now, post-postmoderns) who care perhaps a bit too severely about accuracy in narrative representation. In its opening statements the Poetics refers to both painting and sculpture because Aristotle's particular brand of "mimesis" is concerned entirely with artistry, not with theoretical validity. It was all about putting on the right show, to maintain the social stratification.

But really, would Herodotus have provided a better public service with his challenging inquiries?

Plato struggled with his own feelings about mimesis - pledging to banish artists and poets from his ideal republic, and lamenting about silly things like a painting of a bed (which Plato hated for being merely an image of an "image" of his perfect ideal, "the idea of the bed"). Thus, Plato saw mimesis as a dangerous illusion, the enemy of true philosophy. In total contrast, Aristotle saw poetry and philosophy as privileged servants of the official establishment. Thus, Aristotle embraced artistic mimesis as no more nor less than what it actually was. As Arthur Danto would suggest twenty centuries later, a picture is not somehow faulty merely for not being that thing which it depicts. Aristotle, having secured a more than comfortable role beneath his chosen overlords (each of them in their turn), would never have worried about the so-called "treachery of images". It's not a problem for ruling elites that a picture of trees isn't an actual forest. It's just nice that each serves its purpose, and the promotion of artistic pleasure was certainly far more valuable to Aristotle himself, as a consultant in such areas, than the opportunity to cut firewood, go hunting, or harvest construction material.

For the record, there's no question that Poetry vs History is an artificial dichotomy. Aristotle acknowledged that biographies could be written. He just didn't happen to know of or possess any good reasons for attempting to write down the exhaustive past times of an individual life, or of some given epoch. When Aristotle discusses the superiority of poetry to history, he says the "universal" is more worthwhile than the particular, and he says that mimesis in tragedy or epic needs to construct plots dramatically, with a unified action and a wholeness of beginning, middle and end; and all this must be done so that a narrative "can effect its characteristic pleasure". These are reasons why poetry beats history. 

On that point some modern philosophers of historical narrative may well object that non-fiction writing is at least partly capable of doing all those things, sometimes even while minimizing certain inevitable distortions. Still, if we had a time machine to argue with Aristotle, he would simply not take the bait. When he disdainfully says that poets do not focus on "what has happened" but prefer to tell about "what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity", I don't think Aristotle meant "what is possible" in the manner of that wildly self-oriented and unrestricted imagination that public school teachers have encouraged, so tragically, in recent decades in the United States. It's just a hunch, but I suspect "possible in accordance with..." may be an oblique reference to the ubiquitous way of life in which local authorities had all power to define what was "possible" and what was "necessity". I suspect "possible" refers not to what could be said, realisitcally, or philosopically. I suspect Aristotle was alluding to that which was "possible" to say, in the political sense. 

Why promote History in the ancient Greek polis? Why write about true tragedies? Why dredge up anything that doesn't suit the agenda? Survival, among urban masses, was too dear. 

Please don't get me wrong. I know of no reason to believe the ancient Greek polis was typically stern about censorship. I'm pretty sure the authorities simply found it much easier to make their message the loudest, their art the most prominent, and their strategies the most expedient for local residents. Furthermore, my sense is that Aristotle, for his part, embraced the creative distortions of epic and tragedy because he found it most suitable for both himself and the greater good of the political body at large. A happy city is a stable city. I'm not suggesting Attic Athens or Macedonian Pella was like a pleasant, well-run kindergarten with cookies and nap time, but I don't think those particular cities were much like Stalin's Moscow, either.

At any rate, that's my view. Here comes my point.

The ancient Greek style of promoting heroic narratives (both celebrations and tragic warnings) had to be of use in supporting the social, political, religious, and all other present needs of the Greek city-state, in ways I've suggested during parts one, two, and three of this series so far. Within this heroically-oriented storytelling there's an important sub-genre of "life-writing" that's come a long way from ancient "lives" to contemporary biography. Experts like Catherine Parke and Hermione Lee can expound at length about the many positive aspects of the modern field, as it is, but they also acknowledge that popular biographies in the 21st century are veering more and more deeply into the aspects of focusing on individual life-stories that Aristotle's constituents were undoubtedly keen to avoid - gossip, trash, scandal, and shameless character assassination.

In a brilliant study of sociological memory - a chronological survey of biographies on Abraham Lincoln - Barry Schwartz traced a century's worth of development in writing Lincoln, concluding with a recent phase he calls the "Post-Heroic Era". Concluding, Schwartz says, "the egalitarianism that made American society more just and decent also eroded [Lincoln's] prestige" so much so that future "great men" of the U.S. will be used and admired, but not embraced and emulated. Schwartz's sober balancing of this trade off helps put Aristotle's political stance into a helpful relief. I'm not sure whose agenda was most helped in the 1970's by Louis O. Mink, but I must admit "one damn thing after another" (when things are especially damnable) doesn't seem to help anybody.

That is almost the end of this post. But that still isn't my point.

I said all that, above, just to give you the next three short sentences:

In the process of writing his Poetics, Aristotle explicitly disparaged the writing of both history and biography, and he did so essentially on the basis that comprehensive accounts of a lifetime or other time period do not easily lend themselves to the effective construction of a helpfully organized plot. Nevertheless, in my next post, I'm going to use Aristotle's own standard to show how he wasn't completely consistent in his views on biography. 

Unlike other types of history, it turns out biography does indeed happen to benefit from a few built-in structural and mnemonic advantages.

Thanks for reading. Come on back in a week or so.

Anon, then...