Precursors to Criticism

The development of literary criticism as a formal practice has been influenced by a wide array of intellectual traditions and critical approaches that predate what we commonly recognize as the modern disciplines of literary theory and criticism. These precursors to contemporary criticism laid the groundwork for the diverse methodologies that scholars use today to analyze literature.

Here are some key intellectual movements and figures that have contributed to the evolution of literary criticism:

1. Classical Criticism
Aristotle's "Poetics" is one of the earliest and most influential works in the history of literary criticism. Written in the 4th century BCE, it analyzes the principles of dramatic theory, introducing concepts like mimesis (imitation), catharsis (emotional purification), and the elements of tragedy. Aristotle's work laid the foundation for both formalist and structural elements of narrative analysis.
Plato, Aristotle’s mentor, had contrasting views on the role and value of poetry and the arts in society, famously questioning their moral and philosophical utility in "The Republic". Despite his critical stance, Plato’s dialogues contributed significantly to discussions about the nature of art and representation.

2. Medieval and Renaissance Criticism
Medieval allegorical interpretation of texts, particularly the Bible, introduced methods of reading literature on multiple levels (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical). This approach influenced the interpretation of secular texts as well.
Renaissance humanism fostered a renewed interest in classical antiquity, emphasizing the study of ancient texts in their original languages and promoting a more secular and individualistic view of humanity. Critics like Erasmus and Sir Philip Sidney contributed to discussions on the moral and educational value of literature, with Sidney's "The Defence of Poesy" (1595) arguing for poetry's noble purpose.

3. Enlightenment Criticism
The Enlightenment brought about a focus on reason, individualism, and skepticism of traditional authorities. Critics like Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson in England contributed essays and prefaces that dealt with literary taste, standards of criticism, and the role of the poet. Johnson’s "Lives of the Poets" (1779-1781) combined biography with critical judgments, emphasizing the moral duty of the writer.
German Romanticism, with figures like Friedrich Schlegel and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, introduced the concept of the unity of art and the individual's emotional and imaginative response to literature. Their ideas would pave the way for the Romantic emphasis on the subjective experience of art.

4. 19th-Century Developments
Marxist theory, originating in the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, though not exclusively literary in its focus, provided tools for analyzing the social and economic contexts of literature, leading to the development of Marxist criticism.
The Aesthetic Movement and figures like Oscar Wilde argued for "art for art's sake," advocating the value of beauty and the aesthetic experience of art independent of moral or political implications. This movement would influence formalist and New Criticism approaches.

5. Early 20th-Century Criticism
Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory introduced concepts like the unconscious, repression, and the Oedipus complex, which would later be applied to literary analysis, influencing the development of psychoanalytic criticism.
I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot in England contributed to the foundation of New Criticism, emphasizing close reading and the autonomy of the text. Eliot’s essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) argued for the impersonality of art and the importance of historical context for understanding literature.

These precursors to modern literary criticism have each contributed to the rich tapestry of methods and theories that define the field today. Their ideas continue to inform and challenge contemporary literary theory, demonstrating the evolving nature of how we understand and interpret literature.

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