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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 89

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 8 March 1768[89.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 First I must note that Diderot left his assertion without any proof.[89.2] He must have regarded it as a truth that no man could or would call into question, a truth whose reason was clear the moment one thought about it. And should he have found this reason in the real names of the tragic characters? Because these are called Achilles and Alexander and Cato and Augustus, and because Achilles, Alexander, Cato, and Augustus were real, individual persons, ought he to have deduced from this that everything the poet has them say and do in the tragedy must also only belong to these unique persons with these names, and no one else in the world? It almost seems so.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But Aristotle had already refuted this mistake two thousand years ago; and based on the opposition of both history and poetry to reality, he established the essential difference between the two genres, along with the greater benefit of the latter over the former. He did it, moreover, in such an illuminating manner that I need only quote his words to awaken no small amazement over how Diderot could fail to be of the same mind.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Aristotle says,[*][89.3] after he has established the essential characteristics of the poetic plot: “From this it is clearly evident that the function of the poet is not to relate what has happened, but rather to relate the essence of the event, and what was possible according to probability or necessity. For the history writer and the poet do not differentiate themselves through verse or prose, insofar as one could render the books of Herodotus in verse and they will become no less a history in metered writing than they were in unmetered writing.[89.4] Rather they differentiate themselves in the fact that the former relates what has happened, but the latter relates the essence of what has happened. For this reason, then, poetry is more philosophical and useful than history. Poetry engages the universal, and history the particular. The universal is how such or such a man would speak or act according to probability or necessity; this is what poetry tries to do by assigning names. The particular, on the other hand, is what Alcibiades did or suffered.[89.5] In comedy this has already demonstrated itself quite transparently, for when the plot is constructed according to probability, typical names are consequently assigned, unlike in the iambic poets, who stay with particular individuals. In tragedy, however, they keep to real names, because the possible is believable, and we will not believe that something is possible if it has never happened; conversely something that has happened must obviously be possible, because it would not have happened if it were not possible. And yet among the tragedies there are some that have only one or two well-known names, the rest being fictitious; and some have no known names at all, as in Agathon’s Flower.[89.6] For in this play the actions and names are equally fictitious, and yet it pleases no less for that.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 There are several things in this passage, which I have quoted according to my own translation and in which I have remained as close to the exact words as possible, that have either been misconstrued or completely misunderstood by the commentators I could consult. I have to take into consideration those that belong to the matter at hand here.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 It is incontrovertible that Aristotle simply did not differentiate between the characters in tragedy and comedy with regards to their universality. Both the one and the other, and even including characters in the epic, that is, all characters in poetic representation without any exception, ought to speak and act not the way only they could, but rather the way any essentially similar person would and must speak or act under the same circumstances. The sole reason why poetry is more philosophical and consequently more instructive than history rests on this καθόλον, on this universality.[89.7] And if it is true, as Diderot says, that the comic poet who gives his characters such singular physiognomies that no other individual in the world resembled them would send comedy back to its infancy and pervert it into satire;[89.8] then it is equally true that the tragic poet who only represents this or that particular person, only Caesar or Cato, with all the idiosyncrasies we know of them, and who fails to show how all these idiosyncrasies connect with the character type of Caesar and Cato, a character type that can be held in common with others – this, I say, would weaken tragedy and debase it to history.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But Aristotle also says that poetry aims at this universality of the characters with the names it assigns to them (οὗ στοχάζεται ἡ ποίησις ὀνόματα ἐπιτιθεμένη), which has demonstrated itself clearly and particularly in comedy.[89.9] And it is this which Aristotle’s commentators have contented themselves with repeating, but without elucidating in the least. However, several have expressed themselves on this in such a way that we can clearly see they must either have thought nothing of it at all, or something completely wrong. The question is: when poetry assigns names to its characters, how does it serve the universality of these characters? And how has this, its concern for the universality of characters, particularly in comedy, long been apparent?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Dacier translates the words “ἔστιν δὲ καθόλου μέν, τῷ ποίῳ τὰ ποῖα ἄττα συμβαίνει λέγειν ἢ πράττειν κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς ἢ τὸ ἀναγκαῖον, οὗ στοχάζεται ἡ ποίησις ὀνόματα ἐπιτιθεμένη” with: “[u]ne chose generale [sic], c’est ce que tout homme d’un tel ou d’un tel caractére, a dû dire, ou faire vraisemblablement ou nécessairement, ce qui est le but de la poësie, lors même, qu’elle impose les noms à ses personnages.[89.10] Herr Curtius translates them exactly the same way: “The universal is that which anyone, because of his specific character, says or does according to probability or necessity. This universality is the ultimate goal of poetry, even if it attributes specific names to the characters.”[89.11] These two are in agreement, as well, in their commentaries on these words: the one says exactly what the other does. Both explain what the universal is, and both say that this universality is the purpose of poetry; but neither says a word about how poetry serves this universality with respect to the assignation of names. Rather, through their “lors même” and “even if” the Frenchman and the German show clearly that they had nothing to say about it, indeed that they did not understand what Aristotle wanted to say.[89.12] For this “lors même,” this “even if,” means nothing more in their translations than “although,” and consequently they have Aristotle merely say that notwithstanding its attribution of names of individual persons to its characters, poetry nevertheless does not aim at the singularity of these persons but rather at their universality. Dacier’s words, which I will quote in the footnote, demonstrate this clearly.[†][89.13] Now it is true that the sense here is actually not false, but it also does not exhaust Aristotle’s meaning. It is not enough that poetry can aim at the universal notwithstanding the names taken from individual persons; Aristotle says that it aims at the universal with these names themselves: οὗ στοχάζεται.[89.14] I should certainly think that the two were not the same. If, however, they are not the same, then we necessarily light upon the question: how does poetry aspire to this? And the commentators give no answer to this question.


9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [*] Poetics, Ch. 9.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [†] “Aristote prévient ici une objection, qu’on pourvoit lui faire, sur la définition, qu’il vient de donner, d’une chose generale; car les ignorans n’auroient pas manqué de lui dire, qu’Homere, par exemple, n’a point en véuë d’écrire une action generale & universelle, mais une action particuliere, puisqu’il raconte ce qu’ont fait de certains hommes, comme Achille, Agamemnon, Ulysse, &c. & que par consequent, il n’y aucune difference entre Homere & un Historien, qui auroit écrit les actions d’Achille. Ce Philosophe va au devant de cette objection, en faisant voir que les Poëtes, c’est-à-dire, les Auteurs d’une Tragedie ou d’un Poëme Epique, lors même qu’ils imposent les noms à leurs personnages, ne pensent en aucune maniére à les faire parler véritablement, ce qu’ils seroient obligez de faire, s’ils écrivoient les actions particulieres & véritables d’un certain homme nommé Achille, ou Edipe, mais qu’ils se proposent de les faire parler & agir necessairement ou vraisemblablement; c’est-à-dire, de leur faire dire, & faire tout ce que des hommes de ce même caractére doivent faire & dire en cet état, ou par necessité, ou au moins selon les regles de la vraisemblance; ce qui prouve incontestablement que ce sont des actions generales & universelles.” Herr Curtius does not say anything different in his commentary, only he wants to show the universal and the particular through examples that do not exactly prove that he has gotten to the heart of the matter. For according to them, it would only be personified characters that the poet has speak and act, whereas it should in fact be characterized persons.

  • [89.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [89.2] Lessing continues his discussion, begun in [84], of Diderot’s dramatic theory. In the previous essay, Lessing critiques Diderot’s statement that tragic characters are individualized and comic characters are types. The assertion to which Lessing refers is Diderot’s statement that characters in the serious genre occupy a middle ground, that they will always be less individual than tragic characters, but may sometimes approach the universality of comic characters. For “serious genre,” see [86.3].
  • [89.3] Lessing provides, as he notes in the subsequent paragraph, his own “close to the exact words” translation of this passage from Poetics (Part IX). For an English translation directly from the Greek, see Butcher.
  • [89.4] Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 430/420 BCE): ancient Greek author who wrote an account of the Greco-Persian wars entitled The Histories (c. 425 BCE); considered the first historian of Western civilization.
  • [89.5] Alcibiades (c. 450 – 404 BCE): cunning, flamboyant, and unscrupulous ancient Athenian statesmen and military commander who changed sides several times during the course of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE).
  • [89.6] Agathon (c. 445–c. 400 BCE): Athenian tragic playwright, of whose work fewer than 40 lines have survived. No fragment of The Flower (dated between 416 and 406 BCE) is extant; the play’s Greek title is given variably as Anthos (flower) and Antheus (by those who believe that the title refers to a character’s name).
  • [89.7] καθόλον: kathólon (whole).
  • [89.8] See Diderot, Entretiens 191; Diderot, “Conversations” 50.
  • [89.9] οὗ στοχάζεται ἡ ποίησις ὀνόματα ἐπιτιθεμένη: “it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.” Tr. S. H. Butcher in Aristotle, Poetics (Part IX).
  • [89.10] “a general thing is that which every man of such and such a character has had to say or do, either probably or necessarily; this is the object of poetry, even when it imposes names on its characters.” See Aristotle and André Dacier, La poëtique d’Aristote [The Poetics of Aristotle] 126.
  • [89.11] Michael Conrad Curtius. Lessing has added the phrase “or necessity,” which Curtius’s translation does not contain; see Curtius, Aristoteles Dichtkunst [Aristotle’s Poetics] 19.
  • [89.12] lors même; “even when.”
  • [89.13] For the quotation in Lessing’s footnote, see André Dacier, “Remarques sur le Chapitre IX [“Notes on Chapter 9”] in La poëtique d’Aristote 132–3. For Curtius’s commentary, see “Anmerkungen zu Aristoteles Dichtkunst” [“Remarks on Aristotle’s Poetics”] 150–1.
  • [89.14] οὗ στοχάζεται: “at which [poetry] aims.”
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