Aristotle Concept of Catharsis in Poetics

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Introduction: Catharsis is a Controversial Term

      The term Catharsis' is used only once in the course of Aristotle's Poetics in the fourth chapter. Yet there is hardly any other single term which has given rise to so many different interpretations and controversies. The difficulty arises out of the fact that Aristotle does not define or explain the term. Perhaps, he did so in the second book of the Poetics, which is lost. The term has been explained by critics in the light of its use in Aristotle's other works, such as his Polities and Ethics. It has also been noted that the term Catharsis' has three meanings it could mean "purgation" or "purification", or clarification". Critics have interpreted Aristotle's views in the light of each of these meanings and it has not done much to ease the difficulty. Only one thing has been agreed upon - that tragedy should arouse pity and feat. But there is the difference of opinion as to how the arousal of these emotions leads to tragic pleasure.

The Place of Catharsis in the Definition of Tragedy

      The term 'Catharsis' occurs in Aristotle's definition of tragedy: Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of a narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis, or purgation, of these emotions.

      We see that the term is also linked with the concept of pity and fear. It is, therefore, necessary to consider the meanings of pity and fear as connected with tragedy.

The Place of Pity and Fear in Catharsis

      The terms, 'pity' and fear are closely connected in Aristotelian theory. There are different types of fear. Fear can be centered on an individual, in the form of some vague feeling of insecurity and anxiety. It could possibly derive from a feeling for others, even for society or the state. Fear could be the outcome of facing some inexplicable event, or some disastrous and awful incident. Fear may also arise out of feelings of guilt, or rather a recognition of this guilt in ourselves, when we see it portrayed in someone else. It is apparent that tragedy can easily encompass all these forms of fear, either singley or collectively.

      Pity, we are told by Aristotle, is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves (i.e., by the misfortune of one like ourselves). In the Rhetoric, fear is defined as a kind of pain or disturbance due to a mental picture of some destructive or painful evil in the future". The impending evil in this case must be near at hand, not distant. Anything that causes fear in us if it happens to us, causes pity in us if it happens to others. Pity is a "sort of pain at an evident evil of a destructive or painful kind in the case of somebody who does not deserve it, the evil being one which we might expect to happen to ourselves or to some of our friends, and this at a time when it is near at hand."

      Pity and fear are related emotions. Pity turns to fear when the object is closely related to us that the suffering seems to be our own, and we pity others in circumstances in which we should fear for ourselves. Pity is derived from the feeling that similar suffering might befall us. It is because of this that the tragic character should be like ourselves and at the same time slightly idealized. In such a case, we feel pity for the suffering of the innately good person, while having a sympathetic fear for one who is so like ourselves. Aristotle everywhere says that pity and fear are the characteristic and necessary tragic emotions.

      The essential tragic effect depends on maintaining the intimate alliance between pity and fear. According to Aristotle, pity alone should be not be evoked by tragedy, as many moderns have held; not pity or fear, for which Corneille argued; not pity and admiration, which is the modification under which the Aristotelian phrase finds currency in the Elizabethan writers. The requirement of Aristotle is a combination of pity and fear, as Butcher says.

      The tragic fear is impersonal in the artistic sense. It is not really the crushing apprehension' of personal disaster. In reading or seeing a tragedy, one does not really fear that one would be placed in similar circumstances, or be overtaken by the same calamities that overtake the tragic hero. But there is a feeling of horror or of vague foreboding, as Butcher observes. The tension and excited expectation with which we wait for the catastrophe derives from our sympathy with the hero, with whom we tend to identify ourselves. Butcher says in this context: "We are thrilled with awe at the greatness of the issues thus unfolded, and with the moral inevitableness of the result. In this sense of awe, the emotions of fear and pity are blended."

      Having dealt with the emotions of pity and fear, let us now go on to the concept of the catharsis of such emotions. Various interpretations have been offered regarding the term.

Catharsis' Taken as a Medical Term: Purgation Theories

      The term Catharsis' has been interpreted in medical terms, meaning purgation. In medical terms (especially in the older sense), purgation meant the partial removal of excess "senses of humor". The health of the body depended on a true balance of the humor. Thus purgation of the emotions of pity and fear does not mean the removal of these emotions, but that the passions or emotions are reduced to a healthy, balanced proportion. Catharsis in this sense, denotes a pathological effect on the soul comparable to the effect of medicine on the body.

      1. Like Curing the Like: Some critics who favor the medical sense of the term catharsis, explain the process in the light of "homeopathic" treatment, in which a little substance of something cures the body of a excess of the same thing. It is a case of the like curing the like'. A passage in the Politics of Aristotle bears this out, where the effects of music on some morbid states of mind is talked about. The emotions should not be repressed; they must be allowed an outlet, so that the mental equilibrium is maintained. In the Poetics, Aristotle refers to the curing of religious frenzy. According to Plato, a crying child is rocked to sleep by singing a song. The outward restlessness (induced by the rocking) allays or cures the inward restlessness, and brings about calm.

      In his Preface to Samson Agonistes, Milton expresses a similar View, that the effect of tragedy is to "temper and reduce... (Pity and fear and such emotions) to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated". Pity and fear are artificially produced in tragedy, and it expels the excess of these emotions lying latent in us. Bernays, and before him Twining, put forward the pathological theory of the effect of tragedy. The stage, according to them, provided a harmless and pleasurable outlet for instincts which demand satisfaction, and which can be indulged here more fearlessly than in real life. In the pleasurable calm which follows when the passion is spent, an emotional cure has been wrought. Freud's theory of psychological cure of neurosis is similar to this, when he says that a neurotic can be cured by being made to recall painful childhood experiences

      2. Unlike Curing the Unlike. In the neoclassical period, the medical interpretation of the term took on an "allopathic" light. Catharsis was seen to be in the nature of the unlike curing the unlike. The arousing of pity and fear, the more tender emotions, brought about a purgation or evacuation of other emotions like anger and pride. The sight of the incidents aroused pity and fear and the spectator is purged of those emotions which caused the incidents of suffering in the tragedy. If the suffering in the play was caused by anger or pride, the spectator was cured of these emotions.

      Dryden in his preface to Troilus and Cressida, says that it is not "the abasement of pity and fear, but of such aggressive and evil emotions as pride and anger through the feeding and watering of the soft-hearted emotions.

Psychological Interpretation of 'Catharsis'

      Some critics have tried to give a psychological explanation to the term 'Catharsis. Herbert Read considers it in the light of a safety valve. Tragedy gives a free outlet to the emotions of pity and fear. The result is a feeling of emotional relief. This, one notes, is quite closely related to the purgation theory.

      A. A. Richard puts forward as ingenious theory. He says that the emotion of pity is an impulse to advance, while fear is an impulse to withdraw. In tragedy, both these impulses are blended, harmonized into balance. Emotional excess is thus brought to a balance. However, the theory holds good only for the emotion of pity and fear, and it restricts the range of tragic emotions to these.

Ethical Interpretation of 'Catharsis'

      The ethical interpretation of 'Catharsis' regards the tragic process as an illustration of the soul, a lighting up which results in a more philosophical attitude to life and suffering. The spectator sees the largeness of the disasters presented onstage and realizes that his personal emotions are insignificant besides such a catastrophe. It brings him to a balanced view of things. Man sees himself in proportion to the large design of the universe. In the words of John Gassner, "only enlightenment, a clear comprehension of what was involved in the struggle, an understanding of cause and effect, a judgment on what we have witnessed", can bring about a state of mental peace and balance, and result in complete aesthetic gratification.

      Another set of critics said that the effect of tragedy was to harden or temper the emotions. Just as soldiers become hardened against death after seeing it so many times on the battlefield, so too, constant contact with tragedy on stage hardens men against pity and fear in real life. This is, undoubtedly, a bit far-fetched, if not totally absurd.

The Purification Theory of Catharsis

      One meaning of Catharsis is purification. Some critics have interpreted the term in the light of this meaning. These critics reject the interpretation of Catharsis in the lights of medical terminology. Humphry House, for instance, says that Aristotle's concept of Catharsis was not as a medical term. He interprets the word to mean a kind of "moral conditioning", which the spectator undergoes. He comments that purgation means 'cleansing', This cleansing may be a quantitative evacuation or qualitative change in the body, in the restoration of the proper equilibrium. In this context, he says: "A tragedy arouses pity and fear from potentiality to activity through worthy and adequate stimuli; to control them by directing them to the right objects in the right way; and exercises them, within the limits of the play, as the emotions of the good man would be exercised. When they subside to potentiality again after the play is over, it is a more "trained" potentiality than before... Our responses are brought nearer to those of the good and wise man." Catharsis results in emotional health. Catharsis is thus a moral conditioning. It is a purification of the excess and defect in our emotions, so that emotional equilibrium can be restored. According to House, Aristotle's whole doctrine only makes sense if we realize that the proper development and balance of the emotions depend upon the habitual direction of them towards worthy objects.

      Butcher, too, agrees with the purification theory. He observes that Catharsis involves "not only the idea of emotional relief, but the further idea of purifying the emotions to be relieved." He says, further, that, the poets found out how "the transport of human pity and human fear might, under the excitation of art, be dissolved in joy, and the pain escape in the purified tide of human sympathy." Tragic experience, onstage, purifies the feeling of pity and fear of its morbid content.

The Clarification Theory of 'Catharsis'

      There are some critics who show that the implications of Catharsis are to be found in the Poetics itself without any need to refer to the Politics or the Ethics. Writing of the imitative arts, Aristotle points out that the pleasure in the imitative arts is connected with learning Pleasure does not come from joy alone; even pictures of dead bodies can give pleasure if well executed. This shows that pleasure is linked with learning; that pleasure is there in anything fitted to instruct. It is paradox that even the ugly and the repellent can and do give pleasure. A similar paradox lies there in tragedy. The tragic incidents are painful. They might present horrible situations of a man blinding himself, or a woman killing her husband, or a mother killing her child. Such events would horrify us and repel us in real life; yet, in tragedy, they afford us a special pleasure. It is a pleasure peculiar to tragedy.

      Aristotle himself tells us that tragedy has its own kind of pleasure, and that we must seek from it this pleasure "the pleasure proper to it." And Catharsis involves such a pleasure. The function of tragedy is to provide the pleasure peculiar to it. This pleasure involves the presentation of events which arouse pity and fear. According to this theory, Catharsis becomes an indication of the function of tragedy, and not of its emotional effects on the audience. Catharsis is related to incidents of the tragedy, not to the emotions of pity and fear evoked in the audience.

Catharsis involves a Process of Learning

      Tragic pleasure rises from the fact that imitation produces that sort of pleasure which comes from learning. This learning comes from our discovery of a certain relationship between the particular events presented in the imitation and certain universal elements embodied in it. As has already been remarked, the poet selects and orders his material according to the laws of probability and necessity. He presents what might be", more than "what is". This is what makes a poet more philosophical than a historian, for he makes the particular into the general; he deals with the universal, The events are presented as free of all accidentals, transients, and chances, which might obscure their true significance. Tragedy brings a better understanding; it brings the spectator "face to face with the universal law."

      The tragic poet selects incidents embodying pity and fear and then "presents them in such a way as to bring out the probable or necessary principles that unite them in a single action and determine their relation to this action as it proceeds from its beginning to its end. When the spectator has witnessed a tragedy of this type, he will have learned something; the incidents will be clarified in the sense that their relation, in terms of universal, will have become manifest and the act of learning, says Aristotle, will be enjoyable.

      In the light of this theory, Catharsis refers to the incidents of the tragedy rather than to the psychology of the audience. Catharsis is not purgation of emotions, nor is it a purification of emotions. It refers to the way in which the poet has a presented his incidents of pity and fear, to rise from the particular to the universal. Catharsis is not the catharsis of the audience but of pity and fears themselves. Indeed, Aristotle does not refer to the audience in the definition of tragedy. It becomes inevitable that he is talking of the work of tragedy itself. He is talking of the suitable embodiment of pity and fear. In this sense Catharsis means simply "the ideal state", but with reference to the tragedy, and not with reference to the emotional state of the audience. Pity and fear take on the ideal form in course of the composition of tragedy. Of tragedy, Aristotle says: "We must not demand of tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents." Thus the pleasure peculiar to tragedy comes from pity and fear. Imitated in a work of art these two emotions, which may not be pleasant in real life, afford pleasure. And the problem of any writer is to suitably formulate the pleasure peculiar to each genre of poetry.

      There is in this theory, a clarification involved. There is a clarification of the essential and universal significance of the incidents presented in the tragedy. It leads to an understanding of the universal law governing the universe, and produces the pleasure peculiar to tragedy. Catharsis takes on an intellectual tone, rather than a medical or religious tone.

The Relative Merits and Demerits of the Theories

      The purgation theory and the purification theory of Catharsis have obvious limitations. They cannot explain the whole process involved in Catharsis. A fundamental drawback of these theories is that these theories are concerned with the effect of tragedy on the audience, i.e., with the psychology of the audience. Both views concentrate not on what tragedy says or what tragedy is, but what tragedy may do to us; they lie rather in the field of experimental. Psychology than in that of literary criticism. They treat "pity and fear" as references to something in the audience rather than to something (scenes and elements) in the play. In actuality, Aristotle was writing a treatise on the art of poetry and was concerned more with technique of writing poetry than with audience psychology. As theories of psychology, the two theories are not bad in themselves, but it is doubtful if it explains the term as Aristotle intended it to mean.

      Modern critics advocate the clarification theory. This theory refers to the incidents of tragedy rather than to the reaction of the audience. It is more concerned with what tragedy is i.e., with the nature of tragedy. According to this theory, purgation or purification is only incidental to the pleasure of tragedy. But comprehension of the relation of the particular to the universal as embodied in tragedy, brings about a peculiar pleasure. It is an intellectual pleasure which lies in realizing the relationship between the hamartia of the hero and the suffering which results, the relationship between character and destiny. There is design incorporated into the tragedy. The alleviation' of pity and fear is a 'by-product' of the learning process, not the chief object of tragedy.

Catharsis is in Any Case A Metaphor

      The term "Catharsis" occurs once in the Poetics. Unfortunately, Aristotle has left it unexplained, with the result that it has evoked numerous interpretations, some of them mutually contradictory. The most popular theories consider the term as purification" or "purgation". If taken in the sense of "purification", which alludes to religious rites, it means that the tragedy serves to "purify" the human mind through moral instruction. In the sense of purgation", a term related with medicine, a healthy and balanced emotional state is achieved through purging the mind of excess of pity and fear. Both these meanings however, .lead to unsatisfactory explanations. The term Catharsis" has a third meaning, namely, clarification'. Critics who have put forward the clarification theory have offered the most suitable and acceptable explanation so far.


      Aristotle is a great critic, and what he said centuries ago will continue to influence thinking as it has done all this time. It is unfortunate that he has not explained some of the terms which seem so very significant to his central thesis. The term Catharsis,' for instance, has been interpreted so variously that it is difficult to come to an agreement as to what Aristotle really meant. Of the theories advanced to explain Catharsis, the clarification theory appears to be the most acceptable, perhaps, for it tends to relate Catharsis to the work rather than to the psychology of the audience. And, after all, Aristotle was writing on the art of poetry, not about the effect of poetry. All the same, the last word on Catharsis has not yet been said.


1. Discuss critically Aristotle's conception of tragic Catharsis.
2. Examine Aristotle's views on the functional and emotional effects of Tragedy.
3. What, according to Aristotle, is the proper pleasure of tragedy? How does tragedy achieve its ends?
4. Discuss: "Aristotle's statement about the end of Tragedy Purgation or Catharsis has been so endlessly misunderstood, So uncritically assumed to be true.
5. What different theories have been advanced to explain Aristotle's conception of tragic Catharsis. Which of them do you consider to be the most suitable and why?
6. Examine critically (a) the purgation theory, (b) the purification theory, and (c) the clarification theory of tragic Catharsis.

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