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Pragmatic Function of Drama

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definitionS of Pragmatic, Pragmatism, and the Pragmatic Theory of Drama in Plato and Aristotle.

A University of Lagos, M.A Seminar Work


Larayetan, Raphael Segun, (Mat. No.139013058)

COURSE: Theory of Drama

LECTURER: Dr. Patrick Oloko


This paper attempts an exploration of pragmatics, pragmatism and pragmatic theory as perceived by scholars from different intellectual tradition with focus on drama as a genre of literature. From the classic to the contemporary period, dramatic theorists and dramatists have been involved in the polemics on functions of drama, whether it is an instrument of communicating ideas or just a genre of literature that only entertains. Whether drama entertains or bears the ideological or moral burdens which the author through his art intends to pass to the readers, drama unequivocally has a function which, according to Philip Sidney, is to “teach and to delight”. With this in mind, it can be established that every piece of drama sets out to achieve a function though critics and dramatists have disagreed on what the ideal function of drama should be. It is this light that the current paper explores the pragmatic theory of drama in Plato and Aristotle, or, simply put; how Plato and Aristotle perceive the ideal function of drama.

Definition of Terms:

Pragmatism is a theory that emphasises the dual function of a work of art. It stipulates the heuristic function of literature, that which preaches that a piece of art should teach and delight; it must be didactic while providing a means to delight and entertain. This theory opposes the notion of “art for art sake”


Pragmatic and pragmatism are both etymologically derived via Latin and Greek meaning "fit for action", which comes from pragma, "deed, act", and prassō, "to pass over, to practise, to achieve"

Pragmatic, in words classification is an adjective; therefore, in the context of this paper, it is used as a quality or a feature in the description of drama as adjectives qualify nouns. Scholars often use pragmatic and pragmatism interchangeably to mean the same thing but they function in different capacities as a noun or an adjective since an adjective like pragmatic is equally an idea (a noun) like beauty which can function as an idea and a quality. Bearing this in mind will guide us to deeply appreciate the functions of drama according to these classic theorists, Plato and Aristotle.

According to M.H. Abrams, pragmatic literature (drama) views the work of art (drama in this context);

as something which is constructed in order to achieve certain effects on the audience (effects such as aesthetic pleasure, instruction, or kinds of emotion), and it tends to work according to its success in achieving the aim. This approach, which largely dominated literary discussion from the versified Art of Poetry by the Roman Horace (First Century BC) through the eighteenth century, has been revived in recent rhetorical criticism, which emphasizes the artistic strategies by which an author engages and influences the responses of readers to the matters represented in a literary work. The pragmatic approach has also been adopted by some structuralists who analyze a literary text as a systematic play of codes that produce the interpretative responses of a reader. (69)

In literature, pragmatic theory represents a part of performance according to Morris (1938:6). It simply means ‘the practical’. Winfried Fluck in his paper titled “Pragmatism and Aesthetic Experience” averred that “by representing reality in a fictional mode, the text restructures reality according to certain goals. This act is repeated by the recipient in the act of reception. In this reception, the recipient produces a second narrative that constitutes, in fact, a second text” (239).This means that pragmatism suggests that once there is a literary drama, an action is invoked from the audience. Drama thus instigates a response from the audience especially when such drama is geared towards assaulting the sensibilities or the value orientation of the audience, what Aristotle calls catharsis. Such influence of drama especially as it incites the audience is what Plato dislikes. Fluck calls the functionality of drama “self-fashioning” or “imaginary self-empowerment”. Philosophically and pragmatically speaking, we can ask, according to James (1977), what difference ought to be to find out after a play or what definite difference does a play make to you and me, at definite instants of our lives? (379) This can be linked to Horace assertion that the graver readers will not be pleased without moral matter while Johnson added that the end of literature is to instruct by pleasing and that it is the duty of the dramatist is to make a world a better place by affecting his audience through his play. Thus, the pragmatic theory is designed in such a way that drama must achieve foreknown ends. Thus, pragmatic or pragmatism is a theory that avers that drama must be functional, and should evoke a pleasurable responsiveness of the audience.

Furthermore, we can say that pragmatic and pragmatism entail practicality of drama geared towards a means-end relationship between drama and the audience to affect the value, orientation, morality and sensibility of the audience.

Pragmatic Theory in Plato

It is not true that Plato condemns literature or drama, rather, he abhors the negative function of drama which has the capacity to demean the personality of the gods and noble men, thereby inciting the audience against constituted authorities. We must bear in mind that Plato’s ideal Republic is a stratification conscious society where the gods and the noble men are on the high echelon, and the subjects or the peasants at extreme lower ends. These noble men are perceived as demi-gods with ‘blue blood’, and are void of weakness. Any attempt to demystify and expose them as mere mortals may bridge the gulf especially with the extreme lower ends who think that the noble men have divine mandate. Plato’s assumption of goodness affected his idea of drama. He counsels the rejection of drama because of drama’s ability to emotionally blackmail:

“then the imitative poet who aims at being popular is not by nature made, nor is his art intended, to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul; but he will prefer the passionate and fitful temper, which is easily limited …. And therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered state, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthen the feelings and impairs the reason … Poetry feeds and waters the passion instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. (Plato Book X)

Though Plato wrote his treatise in drama, he pragmatically rejected drama on two grounds: education and moral view point, he has objection being premised on drama’s inability to cultivate good habit among audience.

Pragmatic Theory in Aristotle

Aristotle does not agree with Plato that drama functions as self destruction by making people weaker and emotional or sentimental. For him, catharsis, the purgation of feeling is ennobling and humbles human being. He holds sway that the end of any work of art is to please; however, teaching may be given. He postulates that, pleasing is superior as all good literature gives pleasure, which is not divorced from moral lessons.

Plato says that art is bad because it does not inspire virtue, does not teach morality. But, is teaching the function of the art? Is it the aim of the artist? The function of art is to provide aesthetic delight, communicate experience, express emotions and represent life. It should never be confused with the function of ethics which is simply to teach morality. If an artist succeeds in pleasing us in aesthetic sense, he is a good artist. If he fails in doing so, he is a bad artist.

Similarly, Plato’s charge that needless lamentations and ecstasies at the imaginary events of sorrow and happiness encourage weaker part of soul and numbs faculty of reason is defended by Aristotle in his Theory of Catharsis.

The theory of Catharsis emerges as the function of tragedy. Pity and fear affect the proper purgation of catharsis and similar emotions. The theory of Catharsis consists, in the purgation or purification of the excessive emotions of pity and fear. When the audience witnesses the tragedy and suffering of the protagonist on the stage, the emotions and feelings of the audience is purged. The purgation of such emotions and feelings makes them relieved and they emerge better human beings than they were. In other words, even in negative emotional feeling, the audience still learn. Thus, Aristotle’s theory of Catharsis contains moral and ennobling function.

Plato’s Theory of Mimesis and Aristotle’s Defence In his theory of Mimesis, Plato says that all art is mimetic by nature; art is an imitation of life. He believes that ‘idea’ is the ultimate reality and art imitates idea, therefore it is imitation of reality. On the contrary, Aristotle advocates the mimetic nature of arts, and, in his view, the tool of enquiry of imitative art is neither philosophical nor moral. He examines a piece of art as art and not as a book of preaching or teaching.
The artist does not simply reflect the real in the manner of a mirror. Art cannot be slavish imitation of reality. Literature is not the exact reproduction of life in all its totality. It is the representation of selected events and characters necessary in a coherent action for the realization of the artist’s purpose. He even exalts, idealizes and imaginatively recreates a world which has its own meaning and beauty. These elements, present in art, are absent in the raw and rough real. While a poet creates something less than reality he at the same times creates something more as well. He puts an idea of the reality which he perceives in an object. This ‘more’, this intuition and perception, is the aim of the artist. Artistic creation cannot be fairly criticized on the ground that it is not the creation in concrete terms of things and beings. Thus considered, it does not take us away from the Truth but leads us to the essential reality of life.

Plato again says that art is bad because it does not inspire virtue. The function of art is to provide aesthetic delight, communicate experience, express emotions and represent life. It should never be confused with the function of ethics which is simply to teach morality. If an artist succeeds in pleasing us in the aesthetic sense, he is a good artist. If he fails in doing so, he is a bad artist. There is no other criterion to judge his worth.

R.A.Scott -James observes: Morality teaches. Art does not attempt to teach. It merely asserts it is thus or thus that life is perceived to be. That is my bit of reality, says the artist. Take it or leave it – draw any lessons you like from it – that is my account of things as they are – if it has any value to you as evidence of teaching, use it, but that is not my business: I have given you my rendering, my account, my vision, my dream, my illusion – call it what you will. If there is any lesson in it, it is yours to draw, not mine to preach.

Plato accesses art from educational, philosophical and ethical perspectives. He cares less in considering art in its own unique standpoint. He downplays the fact that, everything should be judged on its own merit or otherwise. However, Aristotle and some other scholars are of the strong opinion that, to narrow art down to strictly impartation of moral is a disservice to creativity.


While Plato thinks that a non moral and ethical teaching drama is incomplete and by extension, repugnant, Aristotle stresses that drama through aesthetics and catharsis can also affect men’s attitude. Plato believes only in the moral function of arts but Aristotle believes that art must fulfil its aesthetic demands and then, can be extended to make men better than they are. But first, art is art and is aesthetic conscious. Aristotle affirms that, aesthetic serves as arts primary function before any other value like moralistic, or didactic function are heaped on it.


Morris C. (1938) "Foundations of the Theory of Signs" in Morris (1971) Writings on the General Theory of Signs, Mouton. The Hague (1964) Signification and Significance, MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass.

Winfried Fluck. Pragmatism and Aesthetic Experience. Pragmatism and Literary Studies. Winfried Fluck et al (ed). London: Gunter Narr Verlag Tubingen. 1997. Print.

Abrams, M. H. and Harpham G.G.,. A Glossary

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