In a classical Greek context, celestial beings and powers would have been lowered onto the stage by a crane. That’s the “machine” in deus ex machina.
Aristotle’s objection to this springs from his own peculiar ideas about art — ideas that we hold dear without realizing it. Aristotle calls the deus ex machina both “unnecessary and implausible,” which is true, but that means necessity and plausibility are two attributes of fine literature. It is not unfair to ask why Aristotle demands that.
Aristotle objects because he defines all art as one of three things: a reflection of things as they are said or thought to be, things as they are or were, and things as they ought to be. To Aristotle, a painter, writer, musician, or poet acts just like a mirror or a colored pane of glass. Our eyes never stare into an indescribable or impossible landscape, but into the rearranged or faithfully recreated face of our own world, so art never transcends reality — it can only repeat it.
Aristotle’s philosophy of realism influences his argument somewhat. In Politics, he writes, “Nature is not [sparing], like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every instrument is best when intended for one [use.]” He seeks paragons. Many stories don’t stop at describing the way the world is, but comment on the way the world ought to change in response. Stories do not need a single purpose.
Argument for Theft
Nevertheless, Aristotle makes a good argument about how our stories depend on the world we inhabit. We have no frame of reference outside the way we say or think about things, the way things are, or the way things should be. The human imagination is a broad frontier, but it has limits. Even Alice in Wonderland’s absurd logic uses wordplay, sayings, and symbols like clocks and hares to communicate its imagery.
If you accept that basic premise, however, then writing becomes nothing but a copy after all, and that challenges the idea that we can ever own anything we make. A plagiarised novel becomes just a copy of a copy or yet another mirror held up to ourselves. You can’t license a book or poem anymore than you can license birdsong or dinner parties.
The Greek Chorus
Of course, Aristotle didn’t form his ideas in a vacuum. Ancient Greeks consumed stories in a way that made his conclusions self-evident and practically common sense. For instance, Greeks always recycled their characters and plots. They made changes, sure, but they rarely created stories out of whole cloth. Greek storytellers re-told, and they even relied on the audience’s familiarity with the general beats of a myth. Medea, Heracles, and Oedipus existed before Medea, Amphitryon, or Oedipus Rex.
This explains, at least in part, the Greek chorus, which is such an alienating element of Greek tragedy for modern readers. The original audience already knew the broad strokes and would instead wonder about relevance, about why the playwright was dredging up old news. Why talk about Heracles here and now? The lesson was always anchored in the present, and the Greek chorus supplied commentary that silhouetted the message.