History and fiction

Reason has a quote from Burns’ book on Rand, about her aesthetics-

According to Rand, Aristotle believed that ‘history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.’ However, as two scholars sympathetic to Rand conclude, this attribution ‘misquotes Aristotle and misrepresents his intent.’ … It appears that Rand drew this concept not from Aristotle, but from Albert Jay Nock. In Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943), 191, Nock writes, ‘History, Aristotle says, represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.’ In her copy of the book, Rand marked this passage with six vertical lines.

This, whether Rand read many philosophers in the original, has been the subject of much debate. It has been said, for instance, with respect to Kant. Similar questions have been raised in the past about Karl Popper w.r.t. Hegel. I think that its not a big deal as long as the philosopher has not been “misrepresented.” And I don’t think Rand does that.

From a comment I made some months back-

About the real world, I don’t know if you have read Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto, but if you haven’t you might want to do that. Rand is a disciple of Aristotle when it comes to metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics. Doesn’t mean she borrowed everything wholesale, only that she built upon Aristotle’s works and ideas. In his Poetics, Aristotle writes-

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is – for example – what Alcibiades did or suffered.

Rand says-

The most important principle of esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.”

She called her aesthetics “romantic realism.” The “real” exists, but the people who inhabit the “real” are not your average beggars, alcoholics, rapists, murderers, thieves etc but good people, virtuous people, man as man “ought” to be. And the story is mainly about them.

The same passage from another translation of the Poetics, this one from “The Works of Aristotle”-

From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i. e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse—you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do—which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters; by a singular statement, one as to what, say, Alcibiades did or had done to him.

I don’t think anyone reading this passage will say that Rand, or Nock for that matter, has misrepresented Aristotle. Its as clear as daylight that she hasn’t.

Update: The two sympathetic Rand scholars. This is their book. I read about them and their book (and even an article of theirs in JARS) some months back, here. Their point is that Aristotle doesn’t imply “ought to be” in the passage I have quoted above. It is my position that probability reduces to might, and necessity to ought.

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  • K. M.  On November 1, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    You mean that the ‘ought’ is not a moral ought but a logical ought?
    Makes sense that way too, but I never thought that was how Rand intended it. Do you have any particular passage that supports your interpretation?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On November 2, 2009 at 2:44 am

      In the extract (from chapter 9 of the Poetics) Aristotle is concerned with “what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do.” A virtuous man will not act like Mr. Hyde. If he does, the “why” has to have some logic behind it. Later on in the same chapter, he writes-

      Of simple Plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a Plot episodic when there is neither probability nor necessity in the sequence of its episodes. Actions of this sort bad poets construct through their own fault, and good ones on account of the players. His work being for public performance, a good poet often stretches out a Plot beyond its capabilities, and is thus obliged to twist the sequence of incident.

      The necessity, therefore, is logical in nature; either the nature of the people in question, or the plot itself.

      Also note what he says in chapter 10-

      Plots are either simple or complex, since the actions they represent are naturally of this twofold description. The action, proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when the change in the hero’s fortunes takes place without Peripety or Discovery; and complex, when it involves one or the other, or both. These should each of them arise out of the structure of the Plot itself, so as to be the consequence, necessary or probable, of the antecedents. There is a great difference between a thing happening propter hoc and post hoc.

      Now Rand and her statement. I believe she uses the same statement in two different senses. She uses it in the logical sense when it is part of the starting paragraph of the chapter “Basic Principles of Literature” from her manifesto wherein she discusses “the four essential attributes of a novel,” the theme, plot characterization and style. While she does write against naturalism and also touches topics like man’s nature and actions, her main concern here is how these fit together to form a good novel, not selling romanticism or romantic realism in particular. Here’s what she writes about the plot-

      A plot is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.

      The word “purposeful” in this definition has two applications: it applies to the author and to the characters of the novel. It demands that the author devise a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story—a sequence in which nothing is irrelevant, arbitrary or accidental, so that the logic of the events inevitably leads to a final resolution.

      I could quote a few more paragraphs where she writes about purpose, consistency and so on, but the only conclusion I can reach w.r.t. this chapter is that its about the structure of the novel, not morality, metaphysics or value judgments. She never uses “ought to be” again in the entire chapter. (She does use “as he is” in the context of realism on one occasion.) Keeping this in mind, I would say that the “ought” in her statement is a logical one.

      Now, the moral sense. In “The Goal of My Writing,” she says-

      There is a passage in The Fountainhead that deals with this issue: the passage in which Howard Roark explains to Steven Mallory why he chose him to do a statue for the Stoddard Temple…


      “Your figures are not what men are, but what men could be—and should be.”

      This line will make it clear whose great philosophical principle I had accepted and was following and had been groping for, long before I heard the name “Aristotle.” It was Aristotle who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history because, history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them “as they might be and ought to be.

      Note the “things only as they are” in the above paragraph. The statement is Nock’s formulation, but with her own emphasis.

      Nock’s Memoirs… came out in ’43 and so did The Fountainhead. She wrote “goal…” in ’63 and “basic principles…” in ’68. What I think has happened in this case is, she transvalued the two phrases (might and ought) so that they meant what she wanted them to mean. That’s why the emphasis. She might have genuinely believed that Aristotle did say the words which Nock put into his mouth (Nock is not off the mark, really). But if she did believe that Aristotle said it the way she thought of it (and expressed the thought in The Fountainhead before she even read it?), she should have hinted at that in “basic principles…” Which she doesn’t. Its a mystery.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On November 2, 2009 at 9:43 pm

      Burns is relying on Torres’ and Kamhi’s book “What Art Is,” particularly this section-

      Rand’s debt to Aristotle is evident in the following remarks, with which she chose (however regrettably, as we shall see) to preface her analysis of the nature of literature:

      The must important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.”

      This purported citation of Aristotle has long served as an esthetic rallying cry among Objectivists, frequently repeated by Rand and others as a justification for morally idealized fiction. Unfortunately, she misquotes Aristotle and misrepresents his intent. In Chapter 9 of the Poetics, he states:

      The distinction between historian and poet . . . consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars [i.e., particulars]. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do.

      Neither in this passage nor anywhere else does Aristotle state or imply that all poetry (or even all worthwhile poetry) presents life as it ought to be. Indeed, in Chapter 25 of the Poetics, he makes clear his view that poetry which presents life as it “ought to be” is but one of three possible types. By suggesting that Aristotle was advocating idealization in literature, Rand is arguing for the sort of fiction she wrote and most valued; she is not stating a proposition true of all fiction. Nor is her stress in the opening paragraph of “Basic Principles of Literature,” on things “as they ought to be,” reflected in the body of the essay. Instead, she presents a largely straightforward account of the four “essential attributes” of fiction—style, theme, plot, and characterization—without regard to idealized content.

      I don’t know if they have written about the statement appearing in “Goal…” with slightly (the addition of “only”) different wording and emphasis.

      • K. M.  On November 3, 2009 at 1:07 am

        Given all this, I am inclined to agree with your interpretation. It would be interesting to know what Aristotle wrote about “romantic realism”.

        I have read The Romantic Manifesto once, but have not taken the time to think deeply about aesthetics. And I have read almost no Aristotle. So thanks for all the information. You are quite a scholar!

        • Aristotle The Geek  On November 3, 2009 at 11:01 pm

          I couldn’t follow up on this last night, but…I ran a search for “might be and ought to be” and its variations in Google Books and one of the results was this essay. Boeckmann writes-

          In her 1945 letter “To the Readers of The Fountainhead,” Ayn Rand writes:

          I decided to be a writer at the age of nine—it was a specific, conscious decision—I remember the day and the hour. I did not start by trying to describe the folks next door—but by inventing people who did things the folks next door would never do. I could summon no interest or enthusiasm for “people as they are”—when I had in my mind a blinding picture of people as they could be…

          This attitude has never changed. But I went for years thinking that it was a strictly personal attitude towards fiction writing, never to be discussed and of no interest to anyone but me. Later I discovered I had accepted as the rule of my life work a principle stated by Aristotle. Aristotle said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them “as they might be and ought to be.” If you wish a key to the literary method of The Fountainhead, this is it.

          The historian, writes Aristotle in the Poetics, “speaks of events which have occurred,” the poet (fiction writer) “of the sort of events which could occur.”

          In going from “could occur” to “might be and ought to be,” did Ayn Rand misquote Aristotle? Perhaps in the most literalistic sense. But she is exactly right on the implications of Aristotle’s “could occur”—and of his central argument in the Poetics.

          The footnote to “literalistic” goes like this-

          And even this is not clear. Robert Mayhew comments that the “could occur” is “a translation of an genoito, a potential optative. The potential optative expresses possibility, but may also carry a normative flavor. As Herbert Smyth writes: ‘The potential optative with an states a future possibility, propriety, or likelihood, as an opinion of the speaker; and may be translated by may, might, can (especially with a negative), must, would, should… (Greek Grammar […]). This combination of possibility and propriety is no doubt what [is aimed for] in translating the Greek ‘might be and ought to be.'”


          Mayhew notes that Ayn Rand probably borrowed her English version of Aristotle’s phrase from Albert Jay Nock’s The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. But her familiarity with and admiration for the Poetics was certainly not limited to what she might have gotten from Nock. In a 1960s lecture on “The Esthetics of Literature” she said that “the only work of major value” in the field of esthetics “is Aristotle’s.”

          Completing the circle, it is this essay which Burns offers as an alternative explanation in the footnote that Reason cites, and its this essay which is the source for her Nock comment.

          It seems that Nock has translated this phrase from the original Greek himself (p. 191 of his book) and Rand used this to reinforce her view of literature. Nock too does something similar-

          At all events Septimus and The Beloved Vagabond took me back as promptly as when I first read them, years ago, to Aristotle’s profound analysis of the difference between history and fiction; and I thought at once how admirably, how delightfully, Locke’s work exemplified Aristotle’s critical dictum on the true and proper nature of fiction. History, Aristotle says, represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be; and therefore of the two, he adds, “fiction is the more philosophical and the more highly serious.”

          My impression is that Septimus and The Beloved Vagabond come up to Aristotle’s specifications beyond cavil or question. There is not an implausible character in them, or an implausible situation; they all “might be,” might easily be. Moreover, I believe the normal ordinary run of opinion, uninfluenced by any hard-and-fast literary formula, would agree that they “ought to be.” Locke takes title as an artist, I think, not only by presenting his characters and situations as they might be and ought to be, but also by doing it without communicating to the reader any sense of strain or affectation. The reader assents to them at once; and this assent completes the establishment of Locke’s work as a work of art. I repeat that I am speaking of his earlier work. Here and there Clementina stirs a sense of strain, and what I have read of those which follow,—true, I have read but two,—pretty well keep that sense alive throughout.

          For many years, indeed ever since first I had mulled over Aristotle as a student in college, I had been in the habit of applying his dry analytical remark as a test of whatever creative literature came before me. Nothing in my experience or observation during the ‘twenties weakened my faith in that procedure, but on the contrary everything tended to confirm it. This test enabled me to put my finger firmly on the reason for my disinclination towards most of the fiction current at the time…These are not works of fiction, but of history; and if I wanted history I preferred getting it from historians. There was a wealth of sound criticism in the French musician’s remark on Honegger’s imitation of the sounds of a locomotive; he said that if he wanted to listen to a locomotive he went down to the railway-station. The vigorous young American publicists who are constructing novels around the various social and political phenomena of the moment aim only at presenting things as they are. Their work, as far as I have seen it, is not fiction, it is history. It may be sound history or bad history, inaccurate history, but in either case it is history. It has neither the philosophical character nor the high seriousness which distinguish true fiction, and it lacks them because it presents things only as they are, and not as they might be and ought to be.

          So Aristotle’s remark has stood always as my first canon of criticism applicable to creative writing. For me, it determines in every case the answer to the question whether this-or-that work is or is not true fiction, and if it is or is not, why.

          Its possible that she read the Poetics later on (she purchased a tome on Aristotle which contains the complete text of the Bywater translation) and later on distinguished between the two senses.

          What’s interesting is how a single sentence can have so much hidden behind it.

          # “It would be interesting to know what Aristotle wrote about ‘romantic realism.'”
          I have read it once, and I haven’t yet managed to put it all together. (Aesthetics is interesting, but not as interesting as politics.) But as far as I can tell, he never wrote about ‘romantic realism,’ the marriage of idealism and realism. That is a Randian conception.

          • K. M.  On November 5, 2009 at 1:14 am

            From what you have presented, it does seem to me that saying that Aristotle intended ‘ought’ to mean ‘moral ought’ is stretching it.
            Nock and Rand (inconsistently as noted) most probably projected their own preferences on Aristotle or at best used some subtext in Aristotle’s writings not explicitly present.

            “he never wrote about ‘romantic realism,’”
            From Burns’ book
            Indeed, in Chapter 25 of the Poetics, he makes clear his view that poetry which presents life as it “ought to be” is but one of three possible types.
            That was what I was referring to. What does Aristotle write about the “ought to be” kind of poetry?

            • Aristotle The Geek  On November 5, 2009 at 4:07 am

              This sentence from chapter 25 is what Burns is referring to-

              The poet being an imitator just like the painter or other maker of likenesses, he must necessarily in all instances represent things in one or other of three aspects, either as they were or are, or as they are said or thought to be or to have been, or as they ought to be.

              Finding support for romanticism in the Poetics is a difficult task.

              In chapter 2, he writes-

              The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad—the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are.

              In chapter 4 where he discusses the origins of poetry he notes that tragedies (what later became tragedies) were written by “grave” poets who depicted noble actions of noble “personages.”

              In chapter 13-

              We assume that, for the finest form of Tragedy, the Plot must be not simple but complex; and further, that it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity, since that is the distinctive function of this kind of imitation. It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided, (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or piteous, but simply odious to us. The second is the most untragic that can be; it has no one of the requisites of Tragedy; it does not appeal either to the human feeling in us, or to our pity, or to our fears. Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e. g. Oedipus, Thyestes, and the men of note of similar families. The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not (as some tell us) a double issue; the change in the hero’s fortunes must be not from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part; the man himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that.

              The closest one comes to it, I think, is in chapter 15-

              In the Characters there are four points to aim at. First and foremost, that they shall be good. There will be an element of character in the play, if (as has been observed) what a personage says or does reveals a certain moral purpose; and a good element of character, if the purpose so revealed is good. Such goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in a woman or a slave, though the one is perhaps an inferior, and the other a wholly worthless being. The second point is to make them appropriate. The Character before us may be, say, manly; but it is not appropriate in a female Character to be manly, or clever. The third is to make them like the reality, which is not the same as their being good and appropriate, in our sense of the term. The fourth is to make them consistent and the same throughout; even if inconsistency be part of the man before one for imitation as presenting that form of character, he should still be consistently inconsistent. utterly unlike the later Iphigenia.


              The right thing, however, is in the Characters just as in the incidents of the play to endeavour always after the necessary or the probable; so that whenever such-and-such a personage says or does such-and-such a thing, it shall be the necessary or probable outcome of his character; and whenever this incident follows on that, it shall be either the necessary or the probable consequence of it.


              As Tragedy is an imitation of personages better than the ordinary man, we in our way should follow the example of good portrait-painters, who reproduce the distinctive features of a man, and at the same time, without losing the likeness, make him handsomer than he is. The poet in like manner, in portraying men quick or slow to anger, or with similar infirmities of character, must know how to represent them as such, and at the same time as good men, as Agathon and Homer have represented Achilles.

              In a section dealing with criticisms (in chapter 25), he writes-

              If the poet’s description be criticized as not true to fact, one may urge perhaps that the object ought to be as described—an answer like that of Sophocles, who said that he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides as they were. If the description, however, be neither true nor of the thing as it ought to be, the answer must be then, that it is in accordance with opinion. The tales about Gods, for instance, may be as wrong as Xenophanes thinks, neither true nor the better thing to say; but they are certainly in accordance with opinion. Of other statements in poetry one may perhaps say, not that they are better than the truth, but that the fact was so at the time; e. g. the description of the arms: ‘their spears stood upright, butt-end upon the ground’; for that was the usual way of fixing them then, as it is still with the Illyrians. As for the question whether something said or done in a poem is morally right or not, in dealing with that one should consider not only the intrinsic quality of the actual word or deed, but also the person who says or does it, the person to whom he says or does it, the time, the means, and the motive of the agent whether he does it to attain a greater good, or to avoid a greater evil.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s