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On Aristotle

Sunday, April 30, 2023
I had a philosophy teacher in high school teach us about Aristotle’s Three Unities: of Time, Place and Action. I do not know, nor really wish to know, whether Aristotle really came up with these Unities or if they were instead this teacher’s own theory. In learning about the Unities, we were never provided with a primary source (unless you consider Mr. Poglinco to be the originator of the theory, in which case his scrawled notes on the blackboard were primary). In fact, we never read any Aristotle in the whole course. We never got any secondary sources discussing the Unities either, although we did read a fair number of academic papers analyzing whatever book or play we were reading. Any one of these could have focused on or at least mentioned offhandedly Aristotle’s Three Unities, provided, of course, that it was Aristotle who came up with the Unities and not Mr. Poglinco.
I could, obviously, open a new tab and immediately verify what I learned in high school about Aristotle’s Three Unities. But it’s been seven years since I took Philosophy and Literature with Mr. Poglinco. I’ve spent seven years thinking about the Unities. They’ve informed the way that I read and watch TV and movies. Some of the stories I’ve written on this blog make a conscious effort to follow them. I’ve told other people about them. (No one, by the way, has ever said, “Oh yeah, I remember learning about that too,” or “Ah, yes, Aristotle’s Three Unities. I was just reading about them.”) What would it mean for my life, these past seven years, if Mr. Poglinco had lied to us? Probably nothing. The Three Unities, as we learned them, constitute, I think, a pretty good framework for analyzing a story. Whether it was Aristotle or my pony-tailed English teacher or some third party who deceived him (Mr. P) or whom Mr. P creatively recast as Aristotle is really beside the point. The theory should stand on it’s own.
But consider: why do I now agonize over whether or not to open a new tab and search the whole of the Internet for information about Aristotle’s Three Unities? There’s probably a Wikipedia page on it and probably a lengthy entry in Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Yet, why, in seven years, have I never seen or heard a single reference to the theory?) But if I did seek out these sources, what would it say about me? About my ability to trust people, to trust myself and to trust my own ability to tell if English teachers are just making stuff up? What would it say about the American education system if I felt compelled to fact check everything my teachers told me? If I can’t trust Mr. P, then who can I trust? Who else lied to me?
By now, you might be curious about what Aristotle’s Three Unities are. I doubt you have heard of them before unless I told you or you also had Mr. Poglinco for Philosophy and Literature. As I’ve said, I’ve never encountered any reference to the theory’s existence outside of that second floor classroom. If you have heard of them from some other source, I don’t necessarily want you to write to me excitedly about how Mr. Poglinco was an honest man and that Aristotle did think those things about plays and that the American public education system isn’t entirely worthless. I know these things or at least I think I do. No matter what, I don’t want to need you to confirm them in order to know them.
But it’s more likely that you’ve never heard of Aristotle’s Three Unities. And maybe you reflexively opened a new tab and googled the term as soon as you read the first sentence. Maybe you shouted across the room at your digital spyware, “Alexa! What’s the Aristotle Three Unities?” Maybe it actually understood you and now you know more about it than I do (or rather about about it, as in whether the theory exists, not necessarily its contents). If you have done this, I am somewhat inclined to think somewhat less of you. Can you not resist your curiosity? Must you peek? Moreover, don’t you trust me? Trust me, I will tell you what Aristotle’s Three Unities are (at least according to Mr. Poglinco (and my (fallible) memory)).
To wit, they are: Unity of Place, meaning that the events of the story occur in a single location; Unity of Time, meaning that the events in the story progress continuously in time without jumps forward or flashbacks; and Unity of Action, with Action being used here in the theatrical sense as in the protagonist’s desire and the Unity thereof meaning that the protagonist wants one and only one thing throughout the story, which desire drives the plot, and that the story has no significant subplots.* These Three Unities were viewed by Aristotle as essential elements of any good play.* For example, Aristotle would vomit over the subplots, flashbacks, temporal trickery and scene changes of any Christopher Nolan movie.*
Again, I don’t really want you to reach out to tell me, “Yes, that’s exactly what it says online,” or, “Huh, you’re kind of close, but no one has ever used ‘Action’ in that way ever before,” or whatever. I am actively not seeking confirmation of my knowledge. I’m just thinking out loud into the infinite void of the Internet.

Discussion Questions for Your Reading Group

What is “knowledge”? For instance, does the author “know” what Aristotle’s Three Unities are? Does anyone?
Is the Internet good or bad? For instance, is it bad because it has created in the author a crushing doubt of everything he ever learned outside of it and also a ravenous desire to look everything up? Or is it essentially good or at least neutral and the author an absolute fool for not using it in this particular instance?
To what extent does this blog post follow each of Aristotle’s Three Unities?
* allegedly