CriticaLink | Aristotle: Poetics | Guide to Book XXVI

Tragedy and Epic
Aristotle concludes the Poetics by reflecting on the question "which is better, tragedy or epic?" It is important to understand the nature of this question within the context of Aristotle's concerns about the morality of art and about art's social function.

He first presents us with a possible answer: epic is a higher art form than tragedy, because epic does not rely on spectacle–visually appealing sets, dance, the antics of the actors–to convey its message to its audience. In a sense, this argument accuses tragedy of "dumbing-down" its message to reach a wider, "popular" audience.

Aristotle refutes this argument on several points. First, it does not really address the artistic work itself, but only the mode of its presentation, in this case spectacle. Second, this argument places too much emphasis on the quality of individual performances. Not all actors pander to the lowest common denominator. Moreover, as Aristotle argues in the conclusion of Book VI, tragedy can be read as a text and does not rely on performance to convey its message.

Tragedy, Aristotle now argues, is superior to epic. Tragedy contains all the elements of the epic, but manages to present its story in a much shorter span of time and with a greater degree of unity. The concentration of the tragic plot heightens its impact on the audience. Aristotle's emphasis on unity returns here in his conclusion: the best epics, the Illiad and the Odyssey, although composed of many episodes, tell essentially a single, coherent story.

Aristotle concludes by suggesting that different genres produce different kinds of pleasure. The pleasure of the epic lies in its episodic, diverting story, while the more intense–and "higher" in terms of social value–pleasure produced by the epic is catharsis, the mysterious "purging" of our emotions of pity and fear when we witness the unfolding of a tragedy.