Aristotle, Poetics, 1461b

ὅλως δὲ τὸ ἀδύνατον μὲν πρὸς τὴν ποίησιν ἢ πρὸς τὸ βέλτιον ἢ πρὸς τὴν δόξαν δεῖ ἀνάγειν. πρός τε γὰρ τὴν ποίησιν αἱρετώτερον πιθανὸν ἀδύνατον ἢ ἀπίθανον καὶ δυνατόν: . . . τοιούτους εἶναι οἷον Ζεῦξις ἔγραφεν, ἀλλὰ βέλτιον: τὸ γὰρ παράδειγμα δεῖ ὑπερέχειν.

In general any "impossibility" may be defended by reference to the poetic effect or to the ideal or to current opinion. For poetic effect a convincing impossibility is preferable to that which is unconvincing though possible. It may be impossible that there should be such people as Zeuxis used to paint, but it would be better if there were; for the type should improve on the actual. (Translation, W.H. Fyfe, 1932).

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D'une manière générale, il faut apprécier l'impossible relativement soit à la poésie, soit à la perfection plus grande, soit à l'opinion. Relativement à la poésie, une impossibilité convaincante vaut mieux qu'une possibilité qui ne convainc pas. Il est peut-être impossible qu'il existe des personnes telles que Zeuxis les peignait, mais cela aurait été mieux; car l'oeuvre doit dépasser le modèle. (traduction, A. Reinach, 1921 modifiée)

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Commentary

  1. Chapter 25 of The Poetics is very dense. In this chapter, Aristotle summarizes a lot of criticism ("problems") that he initially addresses in a larger work known as "The Homeric Problems." Chapter 25 is a kind of prologue to the Homeric problems, in which Aristotle points out some issues in the Homeric texts and proposes a solution for each one. The chapter also contains important ideas about the nature of poetry and mimetic art (see Halliwell, 1987, pp. 176-180).
  2. This specific passage deals with ideas already stated earlier in Poetics concerning the relationship between art and reality. Aristotle’s main idea is that poets and painters are not really subject to the rigorous standards of reality and virtue. To explain, poets and painters do not necessarily need to represent accurate pictures of reality but can instead picture reality as they imagine that it should be like (Halliwell, 1986, pp. 132-135; 1987, pp. 178-180; on the relationship between the artist and reality, see Gombrich, 2002, pp. 55-78). This idea goes against Plato's position on art i.e. the strict submission of the artist (painter, poet) to higher standards of truth and virtue (Halliwell, 1986, pp. 132-135; 1987, pp. 176-177; Panofsky, 1989, pp. 27-30). On Aristotle and the imagination, see Schofield, 1979.
  3. It is possible to read this passage in a way that supports idealization in work of art: the painter (or poet) enhances the beauty of his model by picking from what he sees the elements that he wants to convey (text 34). Therefore, the work that comes from such a process is really a kind of an improved version of reality (Rouveret, 2014, pp. 157-161; Halliwell, 1986, p. 135 n. 39; Panofsky, 1989, pp. 27-48), just as Zeuxis did with his painting of "Helene at her bath" (see 214, 215, 216). On painting as an improvement of reality, also see Xenophon, text 261). Aristotle establishes a comparison with Zeuxis because the latter was a famous portrait painter (see texts 225, 228, 229, 230, 231, 232, 234, 235, 236) and therefore he would have been widely known in his time.
  4. The same concepts about the relationship between art and reality are further discussed and developed later on (ex.: the concept of "phantasia"), especially among stoics philosophers (Seneca, Letters, 65, 16 ff) and orators of the Second Sophistic (for example Philostratus, see text 52).
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Bibliography

On Aristotle's Poetics, see text 133.

Further readings : Schofield, M.1979, "Aristotle on the Imagination" in Barnes, J., Schofield, M. & Sorabji, R. (eds), Articles on Aristotle. 4. Psychology and aesthetics, Duckworth, London, pp. 103-132;

Panofsky, E. 1989, Idea. Contribution à l'histoire du concept de l'ancienne théorie de l'art, traduit par H. Joly, 2d edn., Gallimard, Paris;

Gombrich, E.H. 2002, L'art et l'illusion. Psychologie de la représentation picturale, 6th. edn., Phaidon, Paris.

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