Aristotle at the Movies

by D.G. Boland ©1998

What might Aristotle have thought about the motion picture?

We know that motion was a subject of central interest to him. Indeed, perhaps no thinker has examined the fact of motion or movement with greater acuity than Aristotle. He made it the focus of his science of nature. He noted some fascinating facts about it, such as that, considered in itself, motion does not have a beginning or an end. The beginning or end of a thing’s movement or change has to be sought outside the fact of movement. The very idea of motion implies that something has moved before and will move afterwards and so on ad infinitum. (This is in fact how the mathematical physicist sees it). Perhaps this is what led Aristotle to think that the physical world, as a world characterised by motion, was eternal.

However, the physical aspect of pictures in motion is not the only aspect that would have interested him. There are other aspects more fascinating still. The principal aspect is of course not of the motion picture as a subject matter for his "Physics" but for his "Poietics". For the modern "film" is primarily a mode of drama or the representation of things of human interest by way of acting. It is related most directly to the ancient theatre of the Greeks.

It has extended the possibilities of the dramatic art, principally so far as the audience is concerned. For the audience does not need to be present at the "live" performance. Secondly, however, it has had an effect on the production itself but only in its more technical or material aspects, which Aristotle listed under Diction, Song and Spectacle. Thus the actors can re-do their lines until they are right; and the musical accompaniment can be imported from performances made elsewhere. But the greatest advantage is in the use of spectacle or scenery. By the illusionary power of the motion picture we can be made to think that we are in the very place depicted, whether it be on this earth or elsewhere.

But before we consider more closely the motion picture as it is a work of dramatic art we might look at the other aspect of it that pertains to something that Aristotle treated in his Psychology. For the motion picture is only technically possible by virtue of what seems to be an illusion, the movement of the pictures (frames) being taken by us for a movement of the images within the frames.

The images are all "still" within each frame. It is only by the rapid substitution of a series of slightly different images that we get the impression that it is the same image moving. But how does this occur? Surely, our senses faithfully represent things? If the motion is slowed down we are not "deceived". Why should the speed of the objects make any difference? We know of course how it happens, that it depends upon the momentary retention of the previous image whilst we are receiving the new one. Our attention therefore is directed to the movement of the slight differences and the similarities continuing seem to be the same object.

This, however, is exactly how Aristotle would have explained the phenomenon. For he extended his analysis of motion to the area of sense knowledge. And he was well aware that impressions and images received into our sense organs took time to disappear once the stimulus was removed. There are any number of simple experiments which demonstrate this, e.g. the stronger the source of light we look at the longer it takes for the impression to disappear after the source has been withdrawn. Moreover, he explained the images occurring in our imagination (an internal sense) as being the termini of movements caused in the external senses by the physical objects, and able to be retained there. The technical aspects of the motion picture would therefore not have been anything mysterious to him.

But what about the motion picture as a new form of "poietic" art? Is it an essentially new form? From what we have said above it may be already clear that it is not. It has enormous differences from, and even advantages over, other forms of dramatic productions. But is it therefore better? Not essentially; for the differences are in the "accidents" or the "bodily" supports of the art. These can indeed be made more perfect in themselves and thus can enhance a good production. But they cannot save a bad one.

What therefore belongs to the essence or "soul" of drama or poetry? According to Aristotle it is the creative representation of Action, Character and Thought. The same applies to "the movies". For Aristotle the principal element of the drama is the action or "plot", which he says is determined by the other two. They are therefore intimately linked.

We should not get the wrong idea of what he means by "plot". It is not a series of incidents artificially put together, or "constructed" in some ingenious or clever way, as a story in its own right, as it were. It is not designed merely to shock or amuse. It is something that tells us about (human) nature, that "teaches" us. But its mode is such that the lesson is pleasant and we can be almost unconscious of the "moral" of the story. The art does not necessarily deal (directly) with ethical (including political) issues. Aristotle himself distinguishes two types of tragedy, the ethical and the pathetical. And he sees the more direct object of the drama as a purgation of our "passions".

It is important, however, to see the "action" as something supremely human and the meaning of the play, at its deepest level, as therefore spiritual. This is not to say that the action has to be always "serious" - for not every dramatic presentation is a tragedy. But action has to be taken in this fully human sense and not confounded with the action of "action movies" - which are more concerned with what Aristotle would have classified under spectacle.

Though to be complete every drama needs to have the representation of action, character and thought, one or other of these can be given greater or less prominence. Someone, for instance, has noted that modern productions place more emphasis on character delineation than plot development. The interest of detective stories, too, rests almost exclusively in a process of inventive "deduction", the plot being history and the delineation of character almost of incidental interest only. Artists and playwrights are always looking for new ways to present things.

We are not talking here about non-dramatic "poietic". Aristotle noted that the same story might be treated by "acting it out" or by narration only. On this score, the relation between the modern movie and the modern novel is similar to the relation between the ancient theatre and the epic poem. They both tend too to draw the material for their stories from one another.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with producing something which is "light" in terms of intellectual or moral weight, as with using a thin plot as an excuse to provide a musical or other form of entertainment. The motion picture can also be used as a medium for the communication of all sorts of matters of human interest and amusement.

But in respect of the "movies’ which are a modern form of dramatic presentations, with which we are here principally concerned, it is possible, and it often happens, that the modern motion picture gets carried away with its command over the "trappings" of the representative art. One has the impression sometimes that everything else in the film is subordinated to the "special effects". Aristotle notes somewhere how poor performers attempt to conceal their lack of talent by exaggerated bodily movements.

One obvious benefit of the motion picture is the possibility of the works of our greatest dramatists, such as Shakespeare, being able to be appreciated by everyone. A danger, however, lies in this very power of the medium. For there are unfortunately those who will use it to make money even if it means the trivialisation of the subject matter, the debasement of culture and the degradation of the audience.

For people generally depend on their poets to uplift them, whether by tragedies or comedies. They therefore depend not only on the skill of their artists but also on their good will. Governments also have a part to play in protecting the culture and populace from charlatans. It is not evident that this is being done in respect of the "movies", or of the theatre for that matter. Ancient Rome had, of course, much the same problem. But its problem is not to be compared with ours, especially when you take into account the "movies" of television and video.


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 2.
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