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How Soap Operas Borrow from Aristotle

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Unbelievable plot twists have become a defining feature of soap operas. Whether a character shows up alive after being presumed dead, reveals the existence of a secret (and often evil) twin, or suffers from a surprising bout of amnesia, curveballs have become a standard narrative in daytime dramas.

Soaps still bring in millions of viewers, even though many people consider them to be an inferior form of entertainment. But ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that plot twists do more than simply shock the audience and advance the plot; they're actually the mark of a superior, complex piece of entertainment. We can see striking similarities between today’s soaps—with their melodramatic plot twists and stunning moments of revelation—and classic Greek tragedies.

In Poetics (335 BCE), Aristotle explains the basics of drama, touching on such topics as tragedy, comedy, plot, characters, rhythm, and narrative. Arguing that a tragedy’s most important element is its plot, he makes a distinction between simple plots and complex ones. Because complex plots contain peripeteia (a sudden reversal of fortune) and/or anagnorisis (the realization of reason behind that reversal), they are better and more advanced than simple plots.

Aristotle defines peripeteia as "a change by which the action veers round to its opposite." While peripeteia (a.k.a. a plot twist) is an unexpected or sudden reversal in a situation, anagnorisis is the moment of recognition when a character discovers a new, essential piece of information and changes from a state of ignorance to knowledge. So in a soap opera, an example of peripeteia would be a character turning out to have a secret, evil twin. And that character discovering that he or she has a heretofore secret, malicious twin would be anagnorisis.

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But all plot twists are neither equally valid nor the mark of a fine drama. According to Aristotle, peripeteia and anagnorisis "should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action." In other words, plots that contain a plot twist are only strong and satisfying if the plot twist makes sense in the greater context of the story. 

"Within the action there must be nothing irrational," Aristotle writes in Poetics. So he might view the plot twists in some soap operas as forced, ridiculous, and worlds apart from the twist in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, which he cites as the perfect example of peripeteia coinciding with anagnorisis. As Oedipus discovers the true identity of his father and mother/wife, Sophocles masterfully uses both peripeteia and anagnorisis to shock the audience, make them feel pity and fear, and tie up loose plot ends.

Aristotle’s influence on literary and dramatic theory extends much further than soap operas. Our literature, plays, TV shows, and films all have Aristotelian roots, and even movies such as Star Wars and The Sixth Sense make particularly memorable use of peripeteia and anagnorisis.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Søren Kierkegaard
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on May 5, 1813, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was a tall-haired theologian who brought about a sea change in Christian thought by challenging state religion and breaking with philosophical traditions that sought to prove the existence of God using logic.

He was also an enigmatic figure whose writing confounded even the wisest minds of the time (and ever since then). Raised in a household that valued intellectual life, Kierkegaard was no stranger to thoroughly and exhaustively challenging thoughts and positions. His contributions to philosophy are immense, even though he never seemed to fully agree with himself. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Søren Kierkegaard.

1. A BROKEN ENGAGEMENT AFFECTED HIS WRITING.

At 27 years old, Søren Kierkegaard was engaged to Regine Olsen, but he wrote in his journal almost immediately afterward that it was a mistake; a year later, he called it off. Some surmised that he didn’t want to share his despair and melancholic personality with anyone. It’s also possible that he decided to avoid marriage because it didn’t allow for the intensity of the philosophical project he wanted to undertake. It’s not clear exactly why he called it off, but it shook him to his soul, and he alluded to her and pled with her in his earliest writings to understand why he’d ended the relationship. The disengagement was also the launching point of a three-year period in which he published seven books.

2. HE WILLED HIS BELONGINGS TO HIS EX-FIANCÉE.

Kierkegaard saw a marriage proposal as contractually the same as a marriage, so when he died, he bequeathed his books to Olsen even though she’d married someone else years before. She did not accept the possessions.

3. HE WROTE UNDER PSEUDONYMS IN ORDER TO DISAGREE WITH HIMSELF.

A hallmark of Kierkegaard’s style of intellectual interrogation was writing under different names in order to fully examine, or sometimes contradict, the claims he made. The practice was used regularly in the late 18th and 19th centuries, with The Federalist Papers being a prime example. Kierkegaard used his own name on religious tracts that didn’t gain as much attention as his philosophical work, but the pseudonymous viewpoints still helped solidify his goal of displaying truth as subjective. All of this, according to Kierkegaard, was in service of asking the main question: how does one become a Christian?

4. HE SURVIVED COMPLETELY OFF AN INHERITANCE.

Kierkegaard’s father Michael retired at the age of 40 after great success as a wool merchant. Not only did he gift young Søren with an upbringing surrounded by thinkers and cultural figures, he left him 30,000 rixdalers, which was enough for Kierkegaard to live off of (and self-publish) for the rest of his life.

5. HE ASKED TO BE MOCKED BY A SATIRICAL DANISH PAPER.

Danish philosopher Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), the founder of existentialism.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1845, Peter Ludvig Møller, a writer an editor for the satirical rag The Corsair, published a piece which criticized Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way, and Kierkegaard’s response lit a fuse on a minor feud that had a profound impact on the philosopher. In The Activity of a Traveling Esthetician and Dialetical Result of a Literary Police Action, the theologian scoffed at the paper and dared them to make fun of him. So, they did. For months they ridiculed the way he looked, talked, and acted, and the barrage of public insults humiliated Kierkegaard, but he would write later that it left him isolated in the only way that leads one to truly discover Christianity. Still, it’s not smart to attack people who buy ink by the barrel.

6. HE WAS BIG ON INDIVIDUALITY. 

G.W.F. Hegel was a dominant philosophical voice of the 19th century, espousing that reality consisted solely of what was rational. Kierkegaard’s entire philosophical program was aimed at countering Hegelian thought, opening his magnum opus Either/Or by asking, “Are passions, then, the pagans of the soul? Reason alone baptized?”

Kierkegaard also wrote against the church (specifically the Church of Denmark) as a group construct that he viewed as promoting a herd mentality that actively kept people from becoming true Christians. As if the title weren’t enough: in The Crowd is Untruth, he wrote that the formation of a crowd is to place another layer of abstraction between the individual and their personal truth. The height of all his writings extolling the virtue of individuality is probably the Knight of Faith, as seen in Fear and Trembling, who has such faith in himself and God that he can operate separately from the world.

7. HE BELIEVED FAITH IN GOD REQUIRED DOUBT.

Where Hegel sought to bring everything in the universe under the umbrella of reason, Kierkegaard approached religious faith as a paradoxical act of believing something outside the boundaries of reason. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard described a “qualitative leap” made by faith that recognizes there can be no sufficient amount of evidence of God’s existence that could justify the kind of total commitment that religion demands. He further concluded that faith had no substance without doubt, writing in his journal, “Doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.”

8. HE WAS THE FATHER OF EXISTENTIALISM.

A portrait of Søren Kierkegaard
By The Royal Library, Denmark - Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Existentialist philosophy’s core concern is the nature of man. In embracing his emotional anguish, recognizing humanity as a passionate animal, and celebrating freedom and the individual, Kierkegaard gave birth to a movement that sought authenticity in thought by reconciling abstract reason to personal experience. Subjective truth lies at the heart of existentialism, and Kierkegaard’s work went on to influence Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidigger, Jean-Pau Sartre, and others.

9. HE STAYED CLOSE TO HOME.

By all accounts, Kierkegaard only left Copenhagen five times: four to go to Berlin, and once to go to Sweden. He spent his spare time attending the theater or talking to strangers on the street during walks. Even during The Corsair debacle, when he became the butt of Copenhagen’s jokes, he refused to leave town, visiting cafes and taking walks as he normally would have.

10. HE DIED YOUNG AFTER A SPINAL PROBLEM.

It’s a good thing Kierkegaard was so prolific, because he died in 1855, at the age of 42. He had developed a spinal disease (perhaps the long-gestating result of a childhood fall) and collapsed in the street. He died about a month later in Frederiks Hospital, leaving behind a dizzying array of philosophical ideas that wouldn’t make their full impact known until his writings were translated in the early and mid-20th century.

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10 Facts About Karl Marx
Lucy Quintanilla
Lucy Quintanilla

German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) didn't invent communism, but he spent most of his life popularizing the socialist mantra, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Marx envisioned that the last phase of capitalism would be an inevitable workers’ revolt as the working class (or proletariat) would seize the means of production from the elites (or bourgeoisie) and share them in a new, classless society marked by economic equity. Here are 10 facts about Marx's life and work.

1. HIS BAPTISM AT AGE 6 WAS MOST LIKELY FOR POLITICAL REASONS.

Marx’s paternal ancestors had served as rabbis in Trier, Prussia (now in eastern Germany) since 1723, and his mother’s father was a rabbi. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the French administration left Prussia and the new government began enforcing a law barring Jews from serving in professions or public office. Marx’s father Heinrich, a successful lawyer, converted to Lutheranism in 1816, most likely in response to the law. Marx and his siblings were all baptized in 1824.

2. HIS HIGH SCHOOL WAS RAIDED BY AUTHORITIES.

Heinrich, who was deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, taught Marx at home until 1830. Marx then attended the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium. The headmaster, Johann Hugo Wyttenbach, frequently hired liberal teachers who advocated reason and the freedom of speech. The police suspected the school of protecting revolutionaries, and even went so far as to raid the school in 1832 during Marx's matriculation.

3. HIS "WEAK CHEST" HELPED HIM AVOID MILITARY SERVICE.

Marx evaded military conscription thanks to his "weak chest," a vague diagnosis which was certainly exacerbated by his late-night partying, bad diet, drinking, and chain-smoking. His father even told him how best to avoid the draft, writing to Marx, “If you can, arrange to be given good certificates by competent and well-known physicians there, and you can do it with good conscience … but to be consistent with your conscience, do not smoke too much.”

4. A DUEL AND JAIL TIME CHARACTERIZED HIS COLLEGE EXPERIENCE.

Marx attended the University of Bonn beginning in 1835, but most of his time seems to have been spent being drunk and disorderly. He joined a radical political group called the Poets’ Club and was co-president of the Trier Tavern Club, a drinking society that antagonized the more aristocratic organizations on campus. His involvement in the latter got him tossed in jail for 24 hours. He also ran afoul of the Borussia Korps, a militant group that forced college students to swear fealty to Prussian leadership. Marx carried a gun to defend himself (which got him into more trouble with the police) and once accepted a duel with a Borussia Korps member which resulted in Marx being cut over his left eye. After a year in Bonn, he transferred to the more rigorous atmosphere of the University of Berlin.

5. HE HAD A CONTROVERSIAL MARRIAGE TO A CHILDHOOD FRIEND.

A couple of years before Marx was born, his father had befriended Ludwig von Westphalen, a Prussian aristocrat with some liberal leanings. His daughter Jenny von Westphalen met Marx when she was 5 years old and he was 1. When she was 22, Jenny and Marx became engaged—she canceled a previous engagement to a young member of the aristocracy—even though they weren’t from the same social class, and men marrying older women was frowned upon at the time in Prussia.

6. MARX DIDN’T ATTEND HIS FATHER’S FUNERAL.

Marx’s wild college years drove a wedge between him and his family—an indication of his intellectual rebellion from their bourgeois complacency. Marx refused to visit them once he began attending the University of Berlin. His father was dismayed at his son’s recklessness and wrote, a year before he died, that Marx should try to establish his social respectability by writing an ode heaping praise upon Prussia and its rulers. It should "afford the opportunity of allotting a role to the genius of the monarchy ... If executed in a patriotic and German spirit with depth of feeling, such an ode would itself be sufficient to lay the foundation for a reputation." But Marx had no desire to capitulate. When Heinrich Marx died of tuberculosis in May 1838, Karl did not make the journey home from Berlin.

7. HE RELIED ON ENGELS FOR MONEY.

Marx lived in Paris—a hotbed of political thought in the mid-19th century—for only two years, but it was during that time that he met Friedrich Engels at the Café de la Régence and launched one of the most important philosophical friendships in modern times. Engels shaped Marx’s view on the proletariat with his real-world experience as an owner of his family's textile mill. They also collaborated on several essays (including The Communist Manifesto) and Engels fronted the money to publish Das Kapital. What’s more, Engels regularly gave the struggling Marx money for his family to live on (capitalism was not kind to the philosopher). The well-off industrialist reaped the rewards of his workers’ production while aiding Marx in championing a system that would overthrow his own power.

8. HE KEPT GETTING BANNED FROM COUNTRIES.

Orders that Marx should leave a country within 24 hours crop up regularly in his biography. He started the trend in Prussia in 1843 when Tsar Nicholas I asked the government to ban Marx’s newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, which caused Marx to become co-editor of a radical left newspaper in Paris and head to France. In 1845, the French government shut down his new periodical, Vorwarts!, and expelled Marx. He then went to Belgium, but authorities arrested him in 1848 on allegations that he’d spent a third of his inheritance on arming workers, and he fled back to France (then under a new government) before going back to Prussia to launch the doomed Neue Rheinische Zeitung. The government suppressed the paper and ordered Marx to leave Prussia in May 1849, but when he fled for France, the Parisian government also sent him packing, so he sought refuge in London with his wife, who was expecting their fourth child. He built a life in England, but died a stateless person.

9. HE WAS PLAGUED BY POOR HEALTH.

He referred to his health problems as “the wretchedness of existence.” According to biographer Werner Blumenberg, Marx suffered from headaches, eye inflammation, joint pain, insomnia, liver and gallbladder problems, and depressive symptoms. The pain was most likely exacerbated by Marx's bad habits: working late nights, eating liver-taxing food, and smoking and drinking excessively. Yet Marx kept up the pace of his work even after developing boils in 1863 that were so painful he couldn’t sit down. New research suggests some of Marx’s problems may have stemmed from a chronic, painful skin disease called hidradenitis suppurativa that can also cause depressed self-image and foul moods. And let's not forget the “weak chest” that kept him from serving in the military at 18, which may have been caused by pleurisy, an inflammatory condition of the lungs and thorax. It was that disease that ultimately killed him at age 64.

10. HIS LOVE POEMS AND NOVELS WERE UNPUBLISHED DURING HIS LIFETIME.

Beyond his political philosophy and economic projects, Marx also penned several love poems to Jenny, a play set in a mountain town in Italy, and a satirical novel called Scorpion and Felix. None of his fiction saw the light of day during his lifetime, and Scorpion and Felix has only survived in fragments, but all of his work was published posthumously in the 50-volume set of Marx and Engels's Collected Works.

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