February 26th, 2004


"what might be and ought to be"

In her Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand twice "quotes" Aristotle:

"The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater importance than history, because 'history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.'" (Opening sentence of Basic Principles of Literature)

"It was Aristotle who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them as 'they might be and ought to be.'" (Goal of My Writing)

As has been pointed out by the authors of What Art Is, Rand doesn't actually get this quotation right. The part that is wrong, as a quotation, is the "ought to be".

One older translation has Aristotle put it like this:

"The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular."

(Aristotle is using "poetry" in an older sense that included all imaginative writing.)

The authors of What Art Is declare that "Neither in this passage nor anywhere else does Aristotle state or imply that all poetry (or even all worthwhile poetry) presents life as it *ought to be*."

But Aristotle DID know about idealization in literature, and he DID present it as rationally justifiable in the face of naturalist criticism:

"Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact, the poet may perhaps reply, 'But the objects are as they ought to be'; just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be; Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met."

To sum, Aristotle did say fiction was more important than history because it showed what might be. And he did say that showing objects as they ought to be was a legitimate approach in art.

My surmise is that Rand ran the 2 things together in her memory to produce the mis-quotation.

The other possibility, is that somewhere in her Aristotle education she ran into a summary of his position that ran the 2 items together.

Anyway, this shows the danger of her habit of not looking up exact quotations. But she was in a hurry I suppose.

Rhyme of the day:

Is what might be.
But history
Is just the buzz
About what was.
That's what Aristotle wrote.
But careful, now - that's not a quote!

(By the way, my Aristotle quotations are from the Butcher translation of the Poetics, available at the following great site: http://www.non-contradiction.com )