In medias res

Meir Sternberg (1992) counts Aristotle as taking the earliest and least explicit, but possibly the least unreasonable, anti-chronological position on narrative. This is due to his subordination of events to effects. Aristotle’s Poetics views the arrangement of events in functional terms, as a means to an end, or, more properly, in teleological terms: poetic ends determine or explain means, so as to inform their form. This teleo-logic runs all the way through from Aristotle’s universals of art to his plot rules and variables, silently incorporating temporal (dis)order.

Thus, at the most general level of teleology, the definition of art as mimesis finds its rationale for Aristotle in the universal pleasure felt in things imitated. As Aristotle’s argument descends from art through literary narrative or fiction to tragedy, it progressively refers specific forms and options of mimesis to their specific informing pleasurable effects, kinds of structure to kinds of pleasure, such as unity, surprise, catharsis.

Two of those steps, which concern the relation between chronology and teleology, bear further examination. The first lies within the arrangement of the “whole” (holos); and the second lies within the disarrangements open to “plot” (mythos).

The analysis of action outlined in the Poetics, starts by deriving the need for events to form a “whole”, which is marked by its beginning-to-middle-to-end (chrono-)logical concatenation, from the law of poetic unity. The whole will then cohere as a necessary or probable sequence between well-defined poles of human fortune and experience.

Aristotle’s “wholeness” opposes poetic structure to the mere alignment of events in history writing (chronicle, biography), with its allegedly misguided equivalents in history-like epic, because they abandon the chrono-logic of action for the chronology of an era, a life, or some other time-span covered in serial fashion to yield a “sum” or “total” of episodes.

For Aristotle, then, the opposition of integrative “whole” to additive “sum” in event linkage is all the more principled and value-laden because it ranges from the shape of chronology (tight versus loose) to its intelligibility (universal versus particular), from formal and perceptual aesthetics to ontological sense and coherence.

The next step advances from “whole” toward “plot,” no longer uniform but multiform in sequence and, ideally, even disordered for a time out of wholeness, again on poetic grounds.

Chrono-logic bends, temporarily at least, in response to a stronger, more determinate teleo-logic. Since tragedy and high epic aim for pity and fear, such effects are best produced when the events come on the reader/audience by surprise. Given this demand for surprise, the “whole” action needs to be “complicated”, i.e. in effect dechronologised, into “plot”, by way of discovery and/or reversal (Sternberg, 1992: 476).

The “complex” plot outranks the “simple” plot for Aristotle not because it breaks or deforms the natural temporality that the other preserves, but because its broken temporality best serves, indeed maximizes, the effect common to both types as tragic plots: catharsis.

Like the fiat of chrono-logising the action, the recommended dechrono-logising of the actual dramatic or epic presentation serves a purpose beyond itself: the teleology remains in control across forms and levels of sequence.

To become viable, indeed a virtue or a clear gain, disordering in these mimetic genres must involve the twisting of the “whole” into complex “plot” movement in the service of determinate and determinative tragic ends: catharsis, above all.

While the Aristotelian argument for the complex plot may well be found wanting, its logic may not. The positive thrust of this (teleo)logic culminates in the recommendation of deformed-and-reformed sequence for intensity. Given the first premise, all the rest follows by a long chain of reasoning from desired poetic end to necessary or contributory means: from pity and fear to surprise effect; from there to discovery (anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia); and from there to the twisting or “complication” of the chrono-logical “whole” (holos) into (de-chrono-logised) optimal “plot” (mythos).

Thus, as Meir Sternberg (1992: 479) explains the matter, the key antithesis for Aristotle’s conception of narrative is that between the chrono-logical “whole” (holos) and the optimal “plot” (mythos), the former twisted or “complicated” into the latter to form a complex plot, which is Aristotle’s preference because it better delivers, through plot surprise, the required effect upon the audience, ultimately catharsis.

Sternberg (1992: 481) notes that it is Aristotelian wholes that “begin at the beginning,” not plots. Plots may begin anywhere. Indeed, plots should preferably begin at a point later than the chronological beginning. This assists in developing both complexity and compactness. Furthermore, Sternberg continues, Horace’s in medias res originally urges the epic poet to select a coherent action, for example, that of The Iliad, from a loose extra-literary chronicle, for example, the Trojan War. The Horatian advice, then, bears on the ordering of the whole into unity, not on its disordering into late-before-early plot. It therefore derives, rather than diverges, from Aristotle.


Sternberg, M. (1992). Telling in time (II): chronology, teleology, narrativity. Poetics Today, 13 (3), 463–541. Available from [Accessed 24 June 2016].

edited 24 June, 2016 by Allan Parsons

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