Aristotle and Sidney–Parallels and Jumping-Off Points

In Sidney’s “The Defence of Poesy,” his central focus is in addressing the relationship and conflicts between the philosopher, the historian, and the poet. Much of Sidney’s argument to this point not only subscribes to the Aristotelian view that poetry highlights universal truths, but treats much of Aristotle’s assertions themselves as truth, and uses them as a given jumping off point for Sidney’s own argument, particularly in his discussion of imitation and history. Sidney even begins one quotation: “Truly, Aristotle himself…”, as if accepting his word as this divine set of universal truth.

In the discussion of Poesy vs. History, Sidney declares that historians’ often obsessive focus on facts is detrimental to its form, instead arguing that poetry is far more reliable as moral instruction because of its emphasis on rational principles. Not only does this assume Aristotle’s assertion that “superiority” is a question of morals—like Aristotle, Sidney also maintains that the poet is superior in his (or her, though the possibility of her is a point ignored by both) ability to portray both moral guidance and instruction. Aristotle preaches a similar hierarchy, with similar reasoning, by placing the historiographer behind both the poet and the philosopher. He asserts that “it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened but what may happen – according to the laws of probability or necessity.” Therefore, poetry has the ability and duty to express the universal rather than the situational, placing it over history in importance. Sidney extends this superiority by calling to question the historiographer’s desire to resemble the work of the poets, saying that “even historiographers…have been glad to borrow both fashion (form) and perchance weight of the poets.” (5)

Imitation’s ability to produce both pleasure and learning, according to Poetics, can also be seen as the basis for Sidney’s reference to poetry’s ability to “teach and delight” (10). In this way, Sidney’s theory of poetry is indirectly connected to the general Aristotelian idea of poetry as imitation. Aristotle’s argument however, I found to be more heavily based on educating a virtuous society, the central question of poetics beings: “How do I make people more virtuous with this book?” Sidney’s more masterfully evades the question of morals, instead remaining firmly based in the book’s title “The Defense of Poesy”, and its original title “An Apology for Poetry”, at times even relying on mimesis to continually defend poetry, saying: “there is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object” (8). His reliance on Aristotle to make his argument was something that I saw as flawing Sidney’s argument, being perfectly encapsulated by a line on page 19: “Thus far Aristotle: which reason of his, as all his, is most full of reason.” In this sort of discussion, to accept completely another philosopher’s reason is to limit your argument to that person’s own reasonable limitations.

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