Classical Inquiries | Homo ludens in the world of ancient Greek verbal art

Mosaic showing theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy, from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome, 2nd century CE. [image by antmoose, CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Mosaic showing theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy, from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome, 2nd century CE. [image by antmoose, CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
In his recent Classical Inquiries posting, Gregory Nagy argues that “the capacity of ancient Greek poetry to imitate, in a playful way, language in all its forms, both artful and artless” is what ultimately shaped all verbal arts, including the art of prose. Nagy’s point of departure is Aristotle’s treatise, Poetics (1448b4–24).

§6. So, according to Aristotle, the two aitiai or ‘causes’ that will lead gradually to the evolution of poetry are:

{1} the inborn human capacity for {1a} mīmēsis ‘imitation’ and for {1b} the pleasure that we get from the kind of mathēsis ‘learning’ we experience by way of thinking about mīmēsis


{2} the inborn human capacity for {2a} melody [that is, harmoniā in the sense of ‘tuning’] and for {2b} rhythm.

§7. Here I bypass the second of these two causes as I have interpreted it, concentrating instead on Aristotle’s first cause, to which he refers as mīmēsis in the primary sense of imitation. What is inborn in humans, Aristotle is saying, is not only the capacity for imitation itself but also the capacity for getting pleasure from experiencing an imitation. Further, he says that imitation is a most basic form of learning, from infancy onward. Even further, he links the pleasure we get from seeing an imitation with the pleasure we get from learning. I repeat my translation of the relevant wording:

And the cause [aition] for this too [= for the pleasure we get from seeing a mīmēsis] is the fact that the experience of learning [manthanein] is the most pleasurable thing […] for all […] humans.

from Aristotle Poetics 1448b12–15

§8. Just as the verb mīmeîsthai and the nouns mīmēsis and mīmēma express the inborn human capacity ofimitating, which is playfully experimental and stems from our very first learning experiences already from childhood onward, as Aristotle notes clearly, so also the verb manthanein and the noun mathēsis express the inborn capacity of learning by inference. Aristotle uses here the verb sullogizesthai to express the mental process of inferring, and to learn by inference is to think. So, Aristotle’s formulation merges the human capacity to imitate experimentally—and playfully—with the human capacity to think. In terms of my argumentation, then, Aristotle’s formulation merges Homo ludens with Homo sapiens in the world of poetry. And this formulation, again in terms of my overall argumentation, applies also to the world of verbal art in general, including the art of prose.[Read full text]

Further on, Gregory Nagy continues his argumentation with an in-depth analysis about Aristotle’s understanding of mīmēsis and how this understanding impacts the understanding of “seriousness and non-seriousness in the evolution of poetry,” based on Aristotle’s Poetics 1448b24–34.

§16. In this remarkable formulation, we see Aristotle explaining the media of tragedy and comedy as they existed in his own era by building an evolutionary model. Or, to say it in linguistic terms, he builds a diachronic model. That is, Aristotle traces diachronically the forms of these media of tragedy and comedy back to a prototypical phase when poetry was split into praise for and by those who are noble, which must be taken seriously, and into invective for and by those who are base, which must not be taken seriously. Then, tracing this prototypical phase forward in time, Aristotle posits an intermediate phase where praise evolves into the poetry of epic, as exemplified by the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, while invective evolves into the poetry of playful ridicule, as exemplified by a comic poem called the Margites, attributed to Homer. In what immediately follows this formulation, Aristotle argues that the poetry of epic evolved further into tragedy while the poetry of playful ridicule evolved further into comedy (Poetics 1448b34–1449a6).

§17. Aristotle’s modeling of a split between the seriousness of noble poetry in representing what is noble and the non-seriousness of base poetry in representing what is base would have been unnecessary, I argue, if he had thought of mīmēsis primarily as re-enactment, which is a matter of ritual, instead of representation, which can be devoid of ritual. In terms of my argument, mīmēsis as re-enactment in drama is serious in the sense that the act of acting in drama is by origin a matter of ritual—and ritual is a sacred activity that connects humans with superhuman sacred forces like heroes and gods—but such re-enactment in drama is at the same time also playful in the sense that ritual itself is simultaneously playful as well as serious in its sacredness. And, because ritual is playful, it can include laughter. We can see this inclusion in the form of drama as it survived into the classical era of Athenian State Theater, dated to the fifth century BCE and beyond, where we find that the seriousness of this drama as ritual can include the laughter of comedy even if it excludes laughter in tragedy. Heroes and gods can be laughable in the dramas of comedy in the classical era of the fifth century BCE and beyond, as are the hero Herakles and the god Dionysus in the Frogs of Aristophanes, even while these same heroes and gods are not to be laughed at in the corresponding dramas of tragedy, as the hero Herakles and the god Dionysus are represented respectively in the Herakles and the Bacchic Women of Euripides.[Read full text]

 Professor Nagy explains not only  “the basic function of mīmēsis in drama,” but also the basic form of such mīmēsis which is both serious and playful, and is framed in the iambic trimeter.”

§25. The evolution of one single meter, the iambic trimeter, as the medium for representing speech was made possible by the fact that this aspect of drama became dissociated from the choral aspects that remained organically linked with singing and dancing; the only other meter that came even close to representing speech in drama was the trochaic tetrameter catalectic, but even this meter was eventually eliminated as a rival of iambic trimeter in representing speech as opposed to choral singing. As Aristotle himself observes, even the troachaic tetrameter catalectic was too close to danceable rhythms by comparison with iambic trimeter, which was the most realistic representation of lexis or ‘speech’ as opposed to choral song (Poetics 1449a22–24,Rhetoric 3.1404a31–33). And the fact remains that, by the time of Aristotle, the meter known as the iambic trimeter was differentiated from all other meters as the premier medium for representing the speaking parts of drama.

§26. Here I bypass Aristotle’s idea of a prototypical split between serious and non-serious forms of poetry and adopt instead an alternative idea—that the original function of the iambic trimeter was undifferentiated, and that the form of this meter had always been a medium that was suitable for composing serious as well as playful poetry.