Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 7(B): Beauty, Magnitude and Order

August 18th, 2013 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 7(B): Beauty, Magnitude and Order

Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any
whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement
of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends
on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot
be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen
in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of
vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once,
the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for
instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in
the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary,
and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the
plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily
embraced by the memory.

For beauty depends on magnitude and order. Three substantive concepts in one short sentence. I trust our Aristotelians will provide more background on each. Here is my quick take from what we’ve read thus far in “Poetics” including this excerpt:

Order: An “orderly arrangements of parts,” such as in a story [as noted last week] Beginning, Middle and End. Presumably not just those three aspects, but a balance between the three parts and the overall appearance or experience of the parts in combination as a coherent whole.

Magnitude: As I read the excerpt above, I was reminded of the Goldilocks fable, how the porridge of the Three Bears was too hot or too cold, their beds too big or too small, the little girl only finding satisfaction with something in the middle. Likewise per Aristotle, an object cannot be beautiful if it is too small — “for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time” — nor too big — “for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator”. It must have sufficient magnitude, a “certain length” at minimum, but one that can be “easily embraced by the memory” so not too large.

Beauty: Dredging into my brain cells housing knowledge implanted there in college, I seem to remember some talk about Aristotle equating Beauty with Truth. However I don’t think he’s using the term in that way here, rather in the context of discussing Tragedy and plays, Beauty is an aesthetic description of a process whereby an artist creates something. And I must say, the use of this concept in relation to writing truly appeals to me. No matter the scope of a creative breakthrough, from a big thing like a key understanding of a character to a small item such as the choice of a perfect descriptive word, I experience Beauty often as I write. Even the balance of black ink and white space on a screenplay page can be Beautiful to the eye. Indeed for all the hardships the creative life involves, the act of writing is fundamentally a beautiful thing, an expression of the Self, making Something from Nothing.

In fact, these three concepts — Beauty, Magnitude, Order — lead me to believe that Aristotle would find a screenplay as a narrative form to be quite pleasing. There is such an emphasis on structure in writing a script, so Order is a priority. The story has to be long enough to allow for a plot to play out and characters to go through their respective transformations, yet not overly long to dilute the power of the narrative, and that implies Magnitude. And like poetry, a screenplay can be a beautiful form to read, at least before it goes into the hands of those involved in the movie’s production.

Indeed if we were to mix up all three concepts, I think we could easily land on a word I mentioned above: Balance. So much of what we do in a screenplay is achieve to find balance — page count, scene length, subplots, dialogue compared to action, act length, exterior and interior scenes, day and night scenes, action and interaction scenes, themes and motifs, and so on.

So these concepts of Beauty, Magnitude and Order would seem to have great applicability for a contemporary screenwriter in plying his/her craft in the creation of a feature length screenplay.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 7(B) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

For the entire series, go here.

4 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 7(B): Beauty, Magnitude and Order

  1. Important to bear in mind that, having established in Chapter 6 the component parts of Tragedy (plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song, as a painter would list color, line, form, depth, etc.), here in Chapter 7 Aristotle’s focus is to examine the structure of the incidents in the plot, which he also said in Chapter 6 is the most important of all. In the first paragraph, discussed last week, he outlines beginning, middle and end, and dictates the necessity of incidents to proceed in cause and effect relationship to each other.

    In this paragraph, he is treating the striving for beauty as a given — everything we’re saying here is about manifesting beauty in the creation of Tragedy. He is then saying that in order to manifest beauty, the structure of the piece (an orderly arrangement of parts) is actually not enough. You must also have proper magnitude. A better translation of “beauty depends on magnitude and order” would be “beauty depends on magnitude in addition to order” (“order” being synonymous with “structure”).

    He then embarks on a rather strained analogy to minute and gargantuan animal organisms to illustrate his point that extreme or inappropriate size will undermine an object’s beauty. But I think what he’s really getting at is perception. Just as our visual capacity cannot fully focus on a very small animal organism (like a flea), nor take in the entirety of some kind of mythic miles-long serpent, so, too, our capacity for memory is limited when confronted with a drama that goes on for an inordinate length of time or that goes by so fast we can’t take it in.

    Obviously, the current popularity of serial television drama, delivered in multiple seasons spread out over several years, sometimes feeling like some kind of mythic miles-long serpent, puts this analogy in doubt. Come to think of it, Vine and Instagram videos, quickly disappearing like a flea, do the same. At least in matters of perception. As to whether serial TV or Vine videos are art, that’s another question . . .

    Nonetheless, there is a caution here worth heeding. Simply put, the length of a Tragedy needs to be in proportion to the subject matter, in the same way that some jokes are one-liners and others when drawn out to an extreme only get funnier and funnier (to use a strained analogy).

  2. The emphasis on beauty in this section reminded me of John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, that fiction must create a “vivid, continuous dream that engages us heart and soul. . .” (and that seems to address the idea of work needing a certain magnitude, as well). And what you said about balance reminded me of this fascinating post by Shaula Evans on “The Fractal Nature of Screenplays” http://theblackboard.blcklst.com/forums/topic/the-fractal-nature-of-screenplays/

    Also, a bit of a non sequitur, I guess, but when Aristotle speaks of organisms being too tiny or too vast to be beautiful, I couldn’t help but think, what a shame he didn’t have access to all of the instruments available to us, from microscopes to telescopes – if only he had been able to see what we can see now, perhaps he might have had some different ideas about the magnitude of beauty once the splendor of the universe opened itself up to him.

  3. pgronk says:

    >>>the current popularity of serial television drama…puts this analogy in doubt.

    True. Because we don’t have to take it all in one sitting on benches made of rock like they did in Aristotle’s day. We have so many more commodious venues. And we can record it and watch at our convenience, dole a one hour episode out in 10-15 minute increments, if we are so disposed.

    >>>I think we could easily land on a word I mentioned above: Balance..

    Balance and proportion were certainly central to Aristotle’s aesthetics and ethics. In Nicomachean Ethics, he formulated a definition of moral virtue as a ‘golden mean’ between too much goodness of character and action and too little.

    What, there can be too much of a good thing? Aristotle thought so in terms of virtue.

    Does his notion of balance apply to elements of drama? Can there be too much bang-and-boom in an action film? Too much emoting in a romantic film? Too much gore in a horror film? Too much eye-candy in a sci-fi or fantasy film?

    In any event, we will encounter Aristotle’s notion of balance again in his discussion of character and what constitutes the “flaw”.

  4. pgronk says:

    BTW:

    ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

    — Ode on a Grecian Urn (John Keats)

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