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The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s "Poetics"

Of all the writings on theory and aesthetics—ancient, medieval, or modern—the most important is indisputably Aristotle’s Poetics, the first philosophical treatise to propound a theory of literature. In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that he will speak of comedy—but there is no further mention of comedy. Aristotle writes also that he will address catharsis and an analysis of what is funny. But he does not actually address any of those ideas. The surviving Poetics is incomplete.

Until today. Here, Walter Watson offers a new interpretation of the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics. Based on Richard Janko’s philological reconstruction of the epitome, a summary first recovered in 1839 and hotly contested thereafter, Watson mounts a compelling philosophical argument that places the statements of this summary of the Aristotelian text in their true context. Watson renders lucid and complete explanations of Aristotle’s ideas about catharsis, comedy, and a summary account of the different types of poetry, ideas that influenced not only Cicero’s theory of the ridiculous, but also Freud’s theory of jokes, humor, and the comic.

Finally, more than two millennia after it was first written, and after five hundred years of scrutiny, Aristotle’s Poetics is more complete than ever before. Here, at last, Aristotle’s lost second book is found again.

320 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Ancient Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: History and Classic Works


"Walter Watson brings a deep perspective steeped in Aristotle’s entire philosophy to the study of Aristotle’s view of comedy and laughter. He repeatedly shows new ways in which the much contested TractatusCoislinianus fits in with, and completes, Aristotle’s wider thought about literature, catharsis, and causation in general. Just as Herculaneum papyri are bringing us more knowledge of Aristotle’s dialogue On Poets, so this analysis makes the outlines of his Poetics II clearer than before.”

Richard Janko, University of Michigan

“Here, Walter Watson makes the strongest possible claim, asserting that the TractatusCoislinianus is a true and reliable summary of the lost second book of the Poetics. Readers will be especially grateful for his illuminating notes on such central—and vexed—issues in Poetics I as catharsis and the ends of tragedy; and Watson uses Poetics II to shine a welcome light on final cause, spectacle, didacticism, and the different senses of poetry. Even if readers find something here and there to disbelieve, they are unlikely to find anything anywhere in this book that they do not admire.”

James E. Ford, emeritus, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

“[The Lost Second Book] serves as a reliable guide to readers unfamiliar with Aristotle's thought. . . . This book should appeal to Aristotle scholars and to those interested in aesthetics more generally. Recommended.”


“[A]nyone interested in the first great work of literary theory will find The Lost Second Book of Aristotle's Poetics accessible as well as valuable. Even anti-Aristotelians will appreciate the book, if only in finding new sources of thought in their disagreements.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Table of Contents


 1. The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics
 2. Aims of the Present Book
 3. Method to Be Followed
 4. Prospective Readers 

Part I. Groundwork
Chapter 1. Aristotle’s Arts and Sciences 
 1. The Organon 
 2. Preface to the Theoretical Sciences 
 3. Mathematics 
 4. The Physical Sciences 
 5. The Biological Sciences 
 6. First Philosophy 
 7. The Order of the Arts and Sciences 
 8. The Practical Sciences 
 9. The Productive Sciences: Poetics 
 10. Rhetoric 
 11. Scientific Rationality as a Guiding Idea 
Chapter 2. Causes 

Part II. The Symbolon Argument
Chapter 3. Causes in the Poetics 
Chapter 4. Poetic Imitation 
 1. The Analysis of Poetic Imitation 
 2. The Scope of Poetic Imitation 
 3. The Evolution of Poetic Imitation 
Chapter 5. Expectations of Poetics II 
Chapter 6. The Epitome of Poetics II 
Chapter 7. Comparison of the Epitome with Our Expectations 

Part III. The Kinds of Poetry
Chapter 8. Imitative Poetry 
 1. The Autonomy of Imitative Poetry 
 2. The Autonomy of Aristotelian Disciplines 
3. Autonomy of Art in the Aristotelian Tradition 
Chapter 9. Historical, Educational, and Imitative Poetry 
Chapter 10. Historical Poetry 
 1. Historical Poetry 
 2. Historical Poetry and History 
 3. Historical Poetry and Imitative Poetry 
 4. Historical Poetry and Rhetoric 
Chapter 11. Educational Poetry 
 1. Poetry and Philosophy 
 2. Poetry and Education 
Chapter 12. Transition to the Specific Ends of Imitative Poetry 

Part IV. The End of Tragedy
Chapter 13. The End of Tragedy as Catharsis 
Chapter 14. The Fearful Emotions 
Chapter 15. The Removal of Emotions by Emotions 
Chapter 16. The Aim of Tragedy: Symmetry 
Chapter 17. The Mother of Tragedy: Pain 
Chapter 18. Poetry and the Practical Sciences 
 1. Poetic and Therapeutic Catharsis 
 2. Is Catharsis in the Poem or the Audience?  
 3. Is Catharsis Educative?  
 4. The Practical Ends of Poetry 

Part V. Comedy
Chapter 19. The Definition of Comedy 
Chapter 20. The Mother of Comedy: Laughter 
Chapter 21. The Laughable 
 1. The Definition of the Laughable 
 2. Accounts of the Laughable 
 3. The Causes of the Laughable 
 4. Laughter from the Diction 
 5. Laughter from the Incidents 
 6. Cicero’s Account of Laughter 
 7. The Science of the Laughable 
Chapter 22. The Embodiment of the Laughable in Comedy 
 1. The Matter and Parts of Comedy 
 2. Old, New, and Middle Comedy 

Appendix: The Order and Provenance of the Aristotelian Corpus 
Works Cited 

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