In his Poetics, Aristotle examines what makes a story work.

The theme of Aristotle’s Poetics is not poetry as we now conceive of it, but the imitative arts. The first book treats especially of tragedy and epic poetry. Because the second book addressed comedy, it was less likely to be recopied in the monasteries and came to be lost. What remains, Book 1, is the oldest extant work of dramatic and literary theory, and could also have been entitled, What Makes a Story Work or, How to Write a Good Story

Fittingly or not, Aristotle approached poetry in the same scientific manner that he approached biology or physics, gathering, analyzing, and categorizing a ream of data. From this digested data, he attempted to abstract the deep psychological principles that underlie the best stories. Although he examined many plays, he kept on returning to the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, which he upheld as a paradigm of tragedy.

One might wonder why a great logician such as Aristotle turned his mind to the imitative arts. In Islamic scholarship, the Rhetoric and Poetics came to be appended to the compilation of Aristotle’s logical works, or Organon, and it is true that the three books lie on a spectrum: whereas the Organon is about uncovering the truth, the Rhetoric and Poetics are about instilling it in less philosophical types.

For all that, Aristotle does not look down on poetry, and, in fact, regards it more highly than history. Poetry, he says, ‘is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular…’

Although Aristotle himself is not nearly so prescriptive, the Poetics inspired the three classical unities of action, place, and time, according to which a tragedy should consist of a single action that unfolds in a single place over the course of a single day. These rules held sway from the sixteenth century for three centuries and were rigidly observed especially by French playwrights such as Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.

How to write the perfect story

1. Ultimately, a story should be about people. Aristotle makes the point that even for abstract forms of imitation such as dancing and flute-playing, the objects of imitation are men. In tragedy and epic poetry, people are represented as better than in real life, in comedy, as worse. The inferior characters of comedy should not be bad in the full sense but merely ridiculous.

2. The hero should be illustrious, and better than average without being virtuous. The hero should be neither extremely good nor extremely bad. But although not virtuous, he should be illustrious, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and their ilk. The hero should never be worse than the average person and is often significantly better.

3. The hero’s character should be consistent. Actions should succeed one another with necessity or probability to provide insight into general principles of conduct. Consistency of character ensures that the plot’s unravelling arises out of the plot itself and not from improbable actions or divine intervention. The poet should go so far as to put herself into the shoes of her characters, enact their actions, and feel their emotions. To be able to do this, the poet must have a special gift, or else a strain of madness. 

4. But there should also be room for surprise. Tragedy is most effective at arousing feelings of fear and pity if actions, although credible, come as something of a surprise. The outright fantastical ought to be avoided but might be justified if it makes the work more striking—in which case a probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.

5. The story should be plot-driven. Although a story should be about people, it is not character but actions that determine failure and success. Life consists in action, and the end of life is not a quality but a mode of action. This cryptic remark reflects Aristotle’s view that the end of life is happiness, and that happiness is not a state but an activity.

6. Plot should consist of three parts. The poet should outline the plot before filling its episodes. The outline of the Odyssey could fit into just three sentences. Plot should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since beauty depends on magnitude as well as order, each of these parts must be of a certain magnitude. Plot should be long enough for the main character to transition from fortune to misfortune or vice versa, but not so long as to lose the audience. Pity and fear should be inspired by the plot itself, not by mere spectacle. Actions that most inspire pity and fear are those that take place between intimates, rather than between strangers or enemies.

7. Plot should consist of a single narrative. Unity of action does not imply unity of the main character. For instance, the Odyssey does not include every adventure that Odysseus ever embarked upon, but only those that form part of a single, if broad, narrative. Plotting should be tight. If a thing’s presence or absence makes no difference, that thing is not an organic part of the whole and ought to be left out.

8. Ideally, reversal of fortune should coincide with recognition. The plot of a perfect tragedy is complex and imitates actions that inspire pity and fear. In a complex plot, transition occurs through reversal of fortune [peripeteia] or recognition [anagnorisis]. The best transition combines peripeteia and anagnorisis, as when Oedipus finds out who he is. A third plot element is the scene of suffering, which involves a destructive or painful action such as murder or mutilation.

9. Reversal of fortune should not be caused by vice, but by error or frailty. Peripeteia should not involve a good person passing from prosperity to adversity, since this inspires shock more than pity and fear. Nor should it involve a bad person passing from adversity to prosperity, since there is no tragedy in that. Nor again should it involve the downfall of an utter rogue, which although satisfying, does not inspire pity and fear, for pity is inspired by unmerited misfortune, and fear by the misfortune of one who is our similar. Instead, it should involve a person who is neither particularly good nor bad, and whose misfortune is brought about by some great error or frailty [hamartia].

10. Style is also important, although less so than character and plot. Style ought to be clear without being mean. Language can be elevated by the judicious use of strange words, compounded words, and, above all, metaphor. The poet should speak of herself as little as possible.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

The famous “Ladder of Love” is the crowning glory of Plato’s Symposium.

Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach

Plato’s Symposium is set in 416 BCE at a drinking party held by the playwright Agathon to celebrate his victory at the Lenaia festival. Most of the guests have a hangover from the previous night’s revels, and all agree to curtail the drinking in favour of conversation. Since the young Phaedrus has been lamenting that Eros (the god of love) is not sufficiently praised, the physician Eryximachus suggests that each person, from left to right starting with Phaedrus, make a speech in praise of Love.

The Ladder of Love

After Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and the host, Agathon, it is the turn of Socrates to speak. Socrates slips into elenchus mode and gets Agathon to agree that if love is not of nothing, then it must be of something, and if it is of something, then it must be of something that is desired, and therefore of something that is lacking.

Socrates then relates a conversation that he once had with a mysterious priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who, he says, taught him the art of love. This Diotima (the name means, “Honoured by the gods”) told him that the something that Love lacks and desires consists of beautiful and good things, and especially of wisdom, which is both extremely good and extremely beautiful.

If Love lacks and desires beautiful and good things, and if all the gods are good and beautiful, Love cannot, as most people think, be a god. In truth, Love is the child of Poverty and Resource, always in need but always inventive. He is not a god, but a great spirit who intermediates between gods and men. As such, he is neither mortal nor immortal, neither wise nor ignorant, but a lover of wisdom [philosophos].

No one who is wise wants to become ignorant, just as no one who is ignorant wants to become wise: “For herein lies the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself…” The aim of loving beautiful and good things is to possess them, because the possession of good and beautiful things is called happiness, and happiness is an end in itself.

Wild animals enter into a state of love because they seek to reproduce and make themselves immortal. People too seek to make themselves immortal, and are prepared to take great risks, even to die, to attain fame and honour. Some people are pregnant in body and beget children who will preserve their memory, but a few are pregnant in soul and instead beget wisdom and virtue. As their children are more beautiful and more immortal, people who are pregnant in soul have more to share with one another, and a stronger bond of friendship between them.

Who when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary human ones? Who would not emulate them in the creation of children such as theirs, which have preserved their memory and given them everlasting glory?

Diotima then told Socrates the proper way to learn to love beauty:

A youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body so that he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with every other beautiful body, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth begins to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul, regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. 

Having thus transcended the physical, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. 

Finally, on the highest rung of the ladder of love, he is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various apparitions. By exchanging the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue herself, he gains immortality and the love of the gods.

This is why love is so important, and why it deserves so much praise.

How the Ladder of Love changed love

Before Plato, and for a long time after, people did, of course, fall in love, but they did not believe that this love might in some sense save them, as we tend to today. When, in the Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, neither she nor he thought of their attraction as pure or noble or exalting. In the Odyssey, Penelope’s commitment to Odysseus is better understood in terms of dutiful love, or connubial fidelity, than modern, madcap romantic love. Other, less influential models of love in antiquity include the “perfect friendship” of Plato’s student Aristotle and the naturalism of the Roman poets Lucretius and Ovid.

On the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the Jewish and Christian models of love evolved alongside the Greco-Roman ones. In the Old Testament, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel stays his hand. The Sacrifice of Isaac highlights that, although love and morality are important principles, unquestioning obedience to God is more important still, for God is morality, and God is love.

The New Testament, in contrast to the Old, elevates love into the supreme virtue. More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption. One must even turn the other cheek to love one’s enemies. It is a far cry from the law of retaliation of the Old Testament: “…thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” 

Even so, the Bible, which is almost 800,000 words long, contains not a single modern love story. Its greatest human love stories are between two women and two men: Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan.

Jesus may have spoken Greek and might have come under the direct or indirect influence of Platonism. But even if he did not, the later Church sought to align Christian theology with classical philosophy—and Christian love, more properly called charity, and originally directed at God, began to blur with something much more individualistic. 

The blending of Christian love with Platonism prepared the ground for the troubadour tradition that began in 11th century Occitania (broadly, the southern half of France). A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed at a married or otherwise unattainable lady, often of a superior rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining to higher virtue. For the first time, love did not ultimately aim at, or depend on, God—and the Church duly condemned courtly love as a heresy. In a radical cultural reversal, the daughter of Eve turned from devilish temptress to sublime conduit of virtue, a goddess in the place of God.

The troubadour tradition, which had remained an elite and minority movement, died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348, but prepared the ground for the modern conception of romantic love.

Read my related articles, A Short History of Love and The Hidden Woman Behind Socrates.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (forthcoming).

How Socrates developed his famous method.

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia, by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1800).

In my last post I discussed the pros and cons of the Socratic method, or method of elenchus, which consists in questioning one or more people about a concept with the aim of exposing a contradiction in their initial assumptions and provoking a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly refined definition of the concept, and, in due course, to a shared recognition that it eludes our understanding—and hence that we know far less than we thought we did.

With our initial dogmatism transmuted into a state of puzzlement and suspended judgement, we are ready to become much more open and subtle thinkers—assuming, of course, that we have not first become angry and resentful. Despite this potential pitfall, the method of elenchus remains popular in education, especially at its acme, and has also been severally adapted for psychotherapy.

According to his student Plato, Socrates originated the method of elenchus after his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle of Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. Astonishingly, the oracle replied that there was no one wiser—leaving Socrates, who knew only that he knew nothing, perplexed.

To discover the meaning of the oracle, he questioned several supposedly wise people, and in each case concluded: “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” From then on, he dedicated himself to the service of the god of the oracle by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, “if he is not, showing him that he is not.” Plato paints the oracle story as the turning point of Socrates’ career: By validating his skeptical stance, it gave him the confidence, and the impetus, to develop his own, distinct method of doing philosophy.

Although Socrates may have perfected the method of elenchus, it is unlikely that he originated a mode of conversation that seems so naturally and fundamentally human. Diogenes Laertius, the ancient biographer of philosophers, claims that it was the sophist Protagoras who “first introduced the method of discussion which is called Socratic”. But in Plato’s Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, who was a generation older than Protagoras, himself uses the method of elenchus on Socrates to undermine Plato’s Theory of the Forms.

It remains that while other thinkers tried to make a show of their knowledge, Socrates tried to make a show of his and everyone else’s ignorance. In contrast to the pre-Socratics and especially to the sophists, he seldom claimed to have any positive knowledge; whenever he did, it was because he had learnt it from somebody else, or because he had been “divinely inspired”. In Plato’s Phaedrus, he compares himself to an empty jar, filled through the ears by the words of others.

In Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates says that he learnt the art of rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, “an excellent mistress… who has made so many good speakers [including] the best among the Hellenes—Pericles, the son of Xanthippus.” Socrates agrees to recite a funeral oration that Aspasia recently composed and taught to him. He tells Menexenus that he ought to remember the speech since, each time he forgot the words, Aspasia threatened to slap him! The speech that Socrates delivers resembles, and satirizes, the famous funeral oration delivered by Pericles and recorded by Thucydides. When Socrates is done reciting, Menexenus marvels that such a speech could have been written by a woman.

This is not the only occasion on which Socrates claims to have been schooled by a wise woman. In Plato’s Symposium, he relates a conversation that he once had with a mysterious priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who, he says, taught him the art of love. This is Plato’s famous “Ladder of Love,” by which aching lust can be sublimed into wisdom and virtue. The scholar Armand d’Angour, among others, has argued that Aspasia and Diotima are in fact one and the same person.

Aspasia immigrated from Miletus to Athens, where she lived as a metic (resident alien). After his amicable divorce from Deinomache, she became the concubine of Pericles, who, according to Plutarch, kissed her every morning upon leaving and every evening upon returning. Owing to Aspasia’s influence, real or imagined, on the person and politics of Pericles, the comedians of the day branded her a prostitute, and in the Acharnians Aristophanes even blames her for starting the Peloponnesian War. If Aspasia did indeed teach Socrates the art of love, Plato would have wanted to hide her identity, and what better disguise than that of a chaste priestess?

Besides Plato and Xenophon, at least another nine of Socrates’ followers wrote Socratic dialogues. Among these dialogues, we know that there are, or were, at least two Aspasias, one by Aeschines and another by Antisthenes. In the Aspasia of Aeschines, Socrates advises the millionaire Callias to send his son Hipponicus to Aspasia for instruction. Socrates presses his recommendation upon the unimpressed Callias by citing Aspasia’s credentials in rhetoric and marriage guidance—credentials that are confirmed in Plato (rhetoric) and Xenophon (marriage guidance).

In a fragment of the Aspasia by Aeschines preserved in Cicero, Aspasia demonstrates to a husband and wife that neither will be happy with the other so long as they are desirous of an ideal spouse. Therefore, if they are to be happy together, husband and wife alike must endeavour to be or become the best possible spouse.

“Tell me, I beg of you, O you wife of Xenophon, if your neighbour has better gold than you have, whether you prefer her gold or your own?” “Hers,” says she. “Suppose she has dresses and other ornaments suited to women, of more value than those which you have, should you prefer your own or hers?” “Hers, to be sure,” answered she. “Come, then,” says Aspasia, “suppose she has a better husband than you have, should you then prefer your own husband or hers?” On this the woman blushed.

But Aspasia began a discourse with Xenophon himself. “I ask you, O Xenophon,” says she, “if your neighbour has a better horse than yours is, whether you would prefer your own horse or his?” “His,” says he. “Suppose he has a better farm than you have, which farm, I should like to know, would you prefer to possess?” “Beyond all doubt,” says he, “that which is the best.” “Suppose he has a better wife than you have, would you prefer his wife?” And on this Xenophon himself was silent.

Then spake Aspasia: “Since each of you avoids answering me that question alone which was the only one which I wished to have answered, I will tell you what each of you are thinking of; for both you, O woman, wish to have the best husband, and you, O Xenophon, most exceedingly desire to have the most excellent wife. Wherefore, unless you both so contrive matters that there shall not be on the whole earth a more excellent man or a more admirable woman, then in truth you will at all times desire above all things that which you think to be the best thing in the world, namely, that you, O Xenophon, may be the husband of the best possible wife; and you, O woman, that you may be married to the most excellent husband possible.”

What is so striking about this dialogue is that Aspasia uses the very same methods as Socrates, namely, elenchus and argument by analogy, to arrive at the very same conclusion as Diotima, namely, that love’s highest purpose is to serve as a vehicle of virtue.

What if Aspasia had taught Socrates his method as well as the art of love?

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (forthcoming).