It’s All Greek to Me: What Aristotle and Plato Have to Do with Storytelling

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Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.

Note: This post is for a course in Communication Studies.

Over 2000 years later, the works of Plato and Aristotle still have relevance for narrative study, including our reaction to and understanding of stories told to children.

Plato: Narrative and Morality

Plato was a Greek philosopher who founded the Academy in Athens, considered to be the first institution of higher learning in the Western World.  One of the concepts he explores in the Republic (c. 380 BCE), is the relationship between narrative and morality.  Two key terms from this exploration which are relevant for the study of narrative are mimesis and diegesis. As Rosemary Huisman notes in Chapter 2 of Narrative and Media (2005), these terms appear in the Republic when Socrates describes two ways of representing speech: the poet is the speaker (diegesis) or the poet tries to give the illusion that another is speaking (mimesis) (18). Essentially, Plato argues that poetry deals with illusion and is thereby inferior to the truth inherent in philosophical narrative. While Plato’s ideal republic has not been realized in the sense that poetry (storytelling rooted in the mimetic tradition) still thrives today, literature for children in the Western world is very much concerned with the development and education of young people. Plato’s concept of mimesis has also been further developed by theorists over time and has become another tool to assist with narrative analysis.

Aristotle: Narrative Theory

In his book, Poetics (c. 335 BCE), Aristotle—who was Plato’s student—provides the first Western theory about narrative, suggesting that all poetry includes the following elements:

  • An exposition that sets the scene for action and introduces the characters;
  • The development of a plot;
  • A complication that presents a problem for the characters to resolve;
  • The heightened suspense of a climax, or turning point; and
  • A resolution that represents the natural conclusion of the plot

Although Aristotle’s theory is specific to the epic, dramatic, and lyric poetry of his time, the concept of narrative as a series of causally-related events or episodes dominates Western storytelling today across a variety of media and technology, including storytelling designed for children.

Storytelling for Children

A post by Jarry Lee on BuzzFeed Books titled, “16 Hilarious One-Star Reviews of Children’s Books” (2014) demonstrates, albeit in a comic manner, the idea that readers generally expect stories to demonstrate Aristotelian cause-and-effect relationships, even if the book is Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss:

In addition, they didn’t actually hop on pop until about two-thirds of the way through the book, and when they did, the author never explains why it was happening, or even bother with any of the implications of the characters’ actions. This event seemed to be no more meaningful to the story than any other line or phrase in the book. The book could have just as easily been called ‘Pat sat on a bat’.

In “Beyond the Grammar of Story, or How Can Children’s Literature Criticism Benefit from Narrative Theory?” (2003), Maria Nikolajeva notes that most children’s books follow the rule first established by Aristotle that “a story must have a beginning, middle, and end” and the plots of these books are therefore built along the scheme of “exposition-complication-climax-solution” (6). Nevertheless, not all storytelling for children today follows this rule. The poems in Denis Lee’s Alligator Pie, for example, are typically characterized as nonsense verse and do not have a clear series of causally-related events within individual poems or throughout the collection. Here, the emphasis is on rhythm and rhyme to tickle the imaginations of young readers or listeners. Aristotle’s theory, then, and subsequent theories rooted in this tradition, serve only as a starting point for a structural analysis of the narrative.

Plato’s concepts of diegesis and mimesis may also serve as tools for narrative analysis, particularly when considered as precursors to narratology and its exploration of narration and focalization. Diegesis and mimesis align with what Nikolajeva calls a question of conventional research—“Who is telling the story?”—while narratology examines “how the narrative is manipulated through an interaction of the author’s, the narrator’s, the character’s, and reader’s point of view” (10). Moreover, narratology requires that we differentiate “who speaks (the narrator), who sees (the focalizing character, focalizer), and who is seen (the focalized character, focalize)” (10). These concepts go beyond Plato’s original dichotomy of the poet as speaker and the poet giving the illusion that another is speaking, and yet it is clear that Plato’s work forms one of the foundations of narrative theory today. In addition, Plato’s concern with the morality of narrative has direct relevance to the educational aspect of storytelling for children. Although the overt moralizing built into earlier storytelling such as books for children produced in the Victorian period (e.g., Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, 1863) has evolved into more subtle and psychological treatments in modern literature (e.g., Lois Lowry’s The Giver, 1993), storytelling for children is nevertheless rooted in a concern for the intellectual, moral, and in some cases spiritual, development of young people.

References

Fulton, Helen, Rosemary Huisman, Juliet Murphet, and Ann Dunn. Narrative and Media, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2005. E-book.

Nikolajeva, Maria. “Beyond the Grammar of Story, or How Can children’s Literature Criticism Benefit from Narrative Theory?” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 28.1 (2003): 5–16.

 

 

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