Durant 1926: Psychology and the Nature of Art (Aristotle)

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 6 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


VI. Psychology and the Nature of Art 

Aristotle’s psychology is marred with similar obscurity and vacillation. There are many interesting passages: the power of habit is emphasized, and is for the first time called “second nature”; and the laws of association, though not developed, find here a definite formulation. But both the crucial problems of philosophical psychology—the freedom of the will and the immortality of the soul—are left in haze and doubt. Aristotle talks at times like a determinist— “We cannot directly will to be different from what we are”; but he goes on to argue, against determinism, that we can choose what we shall be, by choosing now the environment that shall mould us; so we are free in the sense that we mould our own characters by our choice of friends, books, occupations, and amusements. He does not anticipate the determinist’s ready reply that these formative choices are themselves determined by our antecedent character, and this at last by unchosen heredity and early environment. He presses the point that our persistent use of praise and blame presupposes moral responsibility and free will; it does not occur to him that the determinist might reach from the same premisses a precisely opposite conclusion—that praise and blame are given that they may be part of the factors determining subsequent action. 

In my opinion, we are what we are, and we can improve ourselves through our own efforts. Improvement consists of being increasingly consistent and harmonious.

Aristotle’s theory of the soul begins with an interesting definition. The soul is the entire vital principle of any organism, the sum of its powers and processes. In plants the soul is merely a nutritive and reproductive power; in animals it is also a sensitive and locomotor power; in man it is as well the power of reason and thought. The soul, as the sum of the powers of the body, cannot exist without it; the two are as form and wax, separable only in thought, but in reality one organic whole; the soul is not put into the body like the quick-silver inserted by Daedalus into the images of Venus to make “stand-ups” of them. A personal and particular soul can exist only in its own body. Nevertheless the soul is not material, as Democritus would have it; nor does it all die. Part of the rational power of the human soul is passive: it is bound up with memory, and dies with the body that bore the memory; but the “active reason,” the pure power of thought, is independent of memory and is untouched with decay. The active reason is the universal as distinguished from the individual element in man; what survives is not the personality, with its transitory affections and desires, but mind in its most abstract and impersonal form. In short, Aristotle destroys the soul in order to give it immortality; the immortal soul is “pure thought,” undefiled with reality, just as Aristotle’s God is pure activity, undefiled with action. Let him who can, be comforted with this theology. One wonders sometimes whether this metaphysical eating of one’s cake and keeping it is not Aristotle’s subtle way of saving himself from anti-Macedonian hemlock? 

Aristotle’s description of soul is brilliant. There is a personal soul but that “soul” is not immortal; it dies with the body.

In a safer field of psychology he writes more originally and to the point, and almost creates the study of esthetics, the theory of beauty and art. Artistic creation, says Aristotle, springs from the formative impulse and the craving for emotional expression. Essentially the form of art is an imitation of reality; it holds the mirror up to nature. There is in man a pleasure in imitation, apparently missing in lower animals. Yet the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance; for this, and not the external mannerism and detail, is their reality. There may be more human verity in the sternly classic moderation of the Oedipus Rex than in all the realistic tears of the Trojan Women. 

In my opinion, at the very depth of artistic creation is the impulse to understand (intellect) and express (feelings) itself.

The noblest art appeals to the intellect as well as to the feelings (as a symphony appeals to us not only by its. harmonies and sequences but by its structure and development); and this intellectual pleasure is the highest form of joy to which a man can rise. Hence a work of art should aim at form, and above all at unity, which is the backbone of structure and the focus of form. A drama, e. g., should have unity of action: there should be no confusing sub-plots, nor any digressive episodes.* But above all, the function of art is catharsis, purification: emotions accumulated in us under the pressure of social restraints, and liable to sudden issue in unsocial and destructive action, are touched off and sluiced away in the harmless form of theatrical excitement; so tragedy, “through pity and fear, effects the proper purgation of these emotions.” Aristotle misses certain features of tragedy (e. g., the conflict of principles and personalities); but in this theory of catharsis he has made a suggestion endlessly fertile in the understanding of the almost mystic power of art. It is an illuminating instance of his ability to enter every field of speculation, and to adorn whatever he touches. 

*[Aristotle gives only one sentence to unity of time; and does not mention unity of place; so that the “three unities” commonly foisted upon him are later inventions.]

The work of art is pleasing when it is continuous, consistent and harmonious in its form. It brings to fore the anomalies of life that have been suppressed and need resolution.


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