The Preface to Aristotle's Art of Poetry

Page 4 of 7

If 'twas possible to oblige Men to follow the Precepts of the Gospel, nothing could be more happy, they would find there true Peace, solid Pleasure, and a Remedy for all their Infirmities, and would look on Tragedy as useless and below them. How could they do otherwise than have this opinion? since those Pagans who apply'd themselves to the Study of Wisdome, consider'd it with the same Genius. They themselves own, that could the People be always brought up in the solid Truths of Philosophy, the Philosophers need have no recourse to Fables, to give their Instructions: But as so much Corruption was inconsistent with such Wisdom, they were forc'd to seek for a Remedy to the Disorders of their Pleasures; they then invented Tragedy, and inspir'd them with it, not as the best Employment Men could take up, but as a means, which was able to correct the excess, into which they plung'd themselves at their Feasts, and to render those amusements profitable, which Custom and their Infirmities had made necessary, and their Corruption very dangerous.

Men are the same now, they were then, they have the same Passions, and run with the same Eagerness after Pleasures. To endeavour to reclaim them from that State, by the severity of Precepts, is attempting to put a Bridle on an unruly Horse in the middle of his carrier, in the mean while, there is no Medium, they run into the most criminal excess, unless you afford them regular and sober Pleasures. 'Tis a great Happiness that their remaining Reason inclines them to love Diversions, where there is Order, and Shows, where Truth is to be found, and I am perswaded, that Charity obliges us, to take advantage of this, and not to allow too much time for Debauches, which would extinguish that Spark of Reason, which yet shines in them. Those People are distemper'd, and Tragedy is all the Remedy they are capable of receiving any advantage from; for it is the only Recreation in which they can find the agreeable and Profitable.

Tragedy does not only represent the Punishments, which voluntary Crimes always draw on their Authors, these are too common, and well known Truths, and leave too much liberty to our Passions; this is the meanest sort of Tragedy: But it sets forth the misfortunes which even in voluntary Crimes, and those committed by Imprudence, draw on such as we are, and this is perfect Tragedy. It instructs us to stand on our guard, to refine and moderate our Passions, which alone occasion'd the loss of those unfortunate ones. Thus the aspiring may learn to give bounds to his Ambition; the Prophane to fear God; the Malicious to forget his Wrongs; the Passionate to restrain his Anger; the Tyrant to forsake his Violence and Injustice, &c. Those idle and infirm Men, who are not able to bear the Yoak of Religion, and have need of a grosser sort of Instruction, which falls under the Senses, can never have more profitable amusements; 'twere to be wish'd, that they would renounce all other Pleasures, and love this only. If any shall now condemn Tragedy, he must also condemn the use of Fables, which the most Holy Men have employ'd, and God himself has vouchsaf't to make use of: For Tragedy is only a Fable, and was invented as a Fable, to form the Manners, by Instructions, disguis'd under the Allegory of an Action. He must also condemn History; for History is much less Grave and Moral than Fable, insomuch as 'tis particular, when a Fable is more general, and universal, and by consequence more profitable.

We may say too, that the only Aim of true Politicks, is to procure to the People Virtue, Peace and Pleasure, this Design cannot be contrary to Religion, because we chuse none of those Pleasures which destroy Virtue, or Peace. Tragedy is far from it, and endeavours only their preservation; for 'tis the only Pleasure, which disposes Men to endure their Passions, to a perfect Mediocrity, which contributes more to the maintaining of Peace, and acquisition of Virtue, than any thing else; I also believe that from this Truth, we might draw a sure Rule to judge of those Pleasures which might be permitted, and those which ought to be forbidden.

You may say, Tragedy is dangerous, by reason of the abuses which creep into it. Every Thing is dangerous, and may be condemn'd at this rate, for there is nothing so excellent where Abuses may not be committed, and of which a bad, or good use may not be made. We must remember this Truth, that all Arts and Sciences, by the Ignorance and Corruption of Men, ordinarily produce false Arts, and false Sciences; but these false Arts and false Sciences, are more opposite to what they Counterfeit than any thing besides; for there is nothing more opposite to what is good, than what is bad in the same Kind. If that which is false, engages us to condemn what is true, it has gain'd its point, that's what it would have, and having thus Triumph'd over Truth, soon puts its self into its place, than which nothing can be more Pernicious.

Since Tragedy has no defect, but what is external, it follows from thence, that 'tis good in its self, and consequently profitable; this cannot be contested, and those who condemn it, condemn, not only the most noble Diversion, but the most capable to raise the Courage, and form the Genius, and the only one, which can refine the Passions, and touch the most vicious and obdurate Souls. I could give many examples; but shall content my self with relating the Story of Alexander of[20] Pherea: This barbarous Man, having order'd the Hecuba of Euripides to be Acted before him, found himself so affected, that he went out before the end of the first Act, saying, That he was asham'd to be seen to weep, at the Misfortunes of Hecuba and Polyxena, when he daily imbrud his Hands in the Blood of his Citizens; he was affraid that his Heart should be truly mollify'd, that the Spirit of Tyranny would now leave the possession of his Breast, and that he should come a private person out of that Theatre into which he enter'd Master. The Actor who so sensibly touch'd him, difficultly escaped with his Life, but was secur'd by some remains of that pity, which was the cause of his Crime.

A very grave Historian, makes reflection much to this purpose, and which seems to me no indifferent one in Politicks; in speaking of the People of Arcadia, he says, That their Humanity, sweetness of Temper, respect for Religion, in a word, the Purity of their Manners, and all their Virtues proceeded chiefly from the Love they had to Musick, which by its Melody, corrected those ill Impressions, a thick and unwholesome Air, joyn'd to a hard, and laborious way of living, made on their Bodies and Minds. He says on the contrary, That the Cynethians fell into all sorts of Crimes and Impieties, because they despised the wise Institutions of their Ancestors; and neglected this Art, which was so much the more necessary for them, as they liv'd in the coldest and worst place of Arcadia: There was scarcely any City in Greece, where wickedness was so great and frequent as here. If Polybius speaks thus of Musick, and accuses Ephorus, for having spoken a thing unworthy of himself, when he said, That 'twas invented to deceive Mankind: what ought we then to say of Tragedy, of which Musick is only a small part; and which is as much above it, as a Word is above an inarticulate Sound, which signifies nothing.

This is what, according to my Opinion, may be truly said of Tragedy, and the Mean we ought to keep. But to the end this may be justly said, the Parts must conform themselves entirely to the Rules of Ancient Tragedy, that is to say, which endeavours rather to Instruct than Please, and regard the Agreeable, as a means only to make the Profitable more taking; they must paint the Disorders of the Passions, and the inevitable Mischiefs which arise from thence. 'Twas for this the Greek Tragedians were so much Honour'd in their own Age, and esteemed in those which follow'd. Their Theatre was a School, where Virtue was generally better Taught, than in the Schools of their Philosophers, and at this very Day, the reading their Pieces will Inspire an Hatred to Vice, and a Love to Virtue. To Imitate them profitably, we should re-establish the Chorus, which establishing the veri-Similitude of the Tragedy, gives an Opportunity to set forth to the People, those particular Sentiments, you would inspire them with, and to let them know, what is Vicious or Laudable, in the Characters which are Introduc'd. Mr. Racine saw the necessity of this, and cannot be sufficiently praised, for having brought it, into his two last Pieces, which have happily reconcil'd Tragedy to its greatest Enemies. Those who have seen the effects of these Chorus's, cannot but be sensible of their Advantage, and by Consequence, must Consent to what I say in my Remarks. After Examples, and Authorities of this Nature, I have no Reason to fear my Arguments. But enough of this Matter, tis time to come to what respects my self, and to give some Account of this Work.

Free Learning Resources