A thought on catharsis

Joe Sachs is the Official Aristotle Translator of Shimer College. I especially enjoy his rendering of the Poetics, which pushes back against traditional moralistic readings of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. One element of such a reading is the view that Aristotle sees tragedy as playing some kind of role in purging the viewer’s emotions, which is normally how catharsis is understood — undergoing emotions as a way of “crying it out” or something like that.

The word katharsis only occurs once, in the midst of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy around 1449b20: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action of serious stature and complete, having magnitude, in language made pleasing in distinct forms in its separate parts, imitating people acting and not using narration, accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing of these states of feeling.” Or in Greek: “ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας μέγεθος ἐχούσης, ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ χωρὶς ἑκάστῳ τῶν εἰδῶν ἐν τοῖς μορίοις, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι᾽ ἀπαγγελίας, δι᾽ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν.”

Sachs suitably leaves it ambiguous what kind of “cleansing” is at play here, and it strikes me that a more natural reading of the passage is that it is the states of feeling that are being purged, in themselves, not that the viewer is being purged of them. In tragedy, you experience pity and fear as such, in their pure state, purged of any merely idiosyncratic elements relating to your own experience. To play on a Kantian term, tragedy gives you access to non-pathological pathos. And this experience does not produce any moral or therapeutic result, but merely an “awe-striking impact.”

Tragedy doesn’t teach you morality, because its effect depends on you already knowing the moral norms. It doesn’t seek to make you a better person, because it depends on you being a middling sort of person. It just gives you an experience of awe-striking impact — which is to say, pleasure.

5 thoughts on “A thought on catharsis

  1. Right, tragedy doesn’t teach you morality, but I still think there is an ethical aspect to the non-pathological pathos. The response of this pleasure that comes from recognizing and coming to terms with incongruities (those illuminated by the recognition and reversal of fate) sharpen your own ethical perception. I don’t mean to make tragedy instrumental by saying that, but I think you might say that we are better for our engagement with tragic poetry. By better I don’t mean you are now being good when you weren’t being good, but rather that you are now seeing (in a phronetic sense) the world in a way that the impurity of those states of feeling did not allow you to see before.

  2. Thank you, Adam, for that post, and atrott01 for the friendly amendment. Being involved with theatre, in addition to dabbling with theory, I can attest that the simplistic definition of catharsis as “emotional purging” is by far the most common, at least in North America. But I have never trusted it – it always seemed too personalistic, smelling of the 60s and Human Potential. Now you have, in a wee blog post, provided me with a much richer and, to my philosophical layman’s understanding, much sounder interpretation. I will save this page and refer to it (especially as I’m about to start on an adaptation of BACCHAE).
    With appreciation,

  3. I certainly agree that we cannot impose an aesthetic of ‘docere et delectare’ upon Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy, but I am uncertain that ‘pleasure’ characterizes the catharsis of fear and pity. Whatever catharsis truly is, it seems that it cannot be less than that ‘experience’ not only or emptying (the ‘release’ or ‘surrender’ component), but also an opening up, which certainly can be related to phronesis, but not limited to it. The particular drama that tragedy is does not exclude its effects from other representations of the dramatic and tragic.

    Though tragedy is ‘high art,’ its release of fear and pity finds its way into other human projects and activities. One example might even be the Divine Liturgy or the Mass. There, the surrender is not merely of fear and pity, but any of their analogues of anxiety and sorrow. Congregants are ‘better’ because they ‘see’ better in light of the dramatic and tragic elements of the re-presentation of the Crucifixion. The leave the Mass ‘lighter’ with a practical wisdom and [en]lightenment, no longer burdened by what they have sacrificed, or surrendered, or released.

    Thank you Adam, for a provocative piece, and for the incisive comments you have provoked.

  4. I actually just wrote a Bachelor’s thesis on the Poetics. Mr. Sachs’ translation was enormously helpful. I think one of the possibilities that gets overlooked in thinking about katharsis is that the katharsis is part of the mythos, or plot, of the story. That is, in as much as according to Aristotle the end of the tragedy is to accomplish the katharsis of the pathematon, pathematon can be understood as referring to the pitiful and fearful occurrences that take place in and through the plot. The katharsis, too, is achieved by means of the properly-composed plot, which, if it abides by Aristotle’s description of the best plot, namely one in which the events follow upon one another according to the rules of likelihood or necessity, will lead to a lusis or resolution of the pitiful and fearful. This is a perspective that Nehamas suggests in his essay in Rorty and Nussbaum’s ‘Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics’; atrott01’s helpful addendum to your thought on catharsis is also substantiated by Nussbaum’s masterful treatment of this question in her ‘The Fragility of Goodness’.

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