2.9. The Effects of Tragic Action: Catharsis of Pity and Fear


Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. (Poetics  56, XIV.1)

Aristotle has defined tragedy as the representation of a complete serious action through artistic language and dramatic representation which by means of pity and fear will bring about the purgation of such emotions. The original Greek term for "purgation" is catharsis .  Catharsis is, then, a theory of the effects of literature on the receiver, in this case the audience of the tragedy. Nor the actual audience, which Aristotle seems to despise at times; rather an abstract audience. The theory of catharsis presupposes that there is an integral connection between some aspects of the structure of the work and the response of the audience. So we look at that response through the structure of the work.

            It is not a theory of the immediate pleasure to which Aristotle makes reference at times. It is a theory which tries to find which are the ultimate effects of literature, the better to assess its role.  But unfortunately Aristotle's account of catharsis is short and ambiguous.

            This notion of catharsis has been interpreted in wildly different ways. Some theories we might call the "vaccine" theories: pity and fear are raised up where they did not exist before, and are then released. This produces a kind of emotional education which will prevent them from overpowering the spectator in the circumstances of his real life.

             Other theories we might call the "security valve" theories: pity and fear which have been dangerously pent up or repressed in the mind of the audience are excited by  the means of pathetic and violent action, and are then released; this would seem to be closer to some related medical senses of the word catharsis.

             Still other interpretations, mainly neoclassical,  speak of an education of virtue, warning against pride through fear and teaching pity. This seems to be out of the question, since Aristotle speaks of both pity and fear as of passions which must be cast away.

             A further ambiguity is the precise nature of this being cast away, this purification. The word was used in religion as well as in medicine. Taking into account the general drift of Aristotelianism, it is more likely that Aristotle is referring to some kind of medical purification, to something that today we would call a psychological effect, rather than to a religious phenomenon.

              We might also relate the idea of catharsis to Aristotle's conception of art as imitiation. Just as the action on the stage is only the imitation of an action, the effects of pity and fear caused in the audience may be thought to be only the imitation of real emotions, which produce a sense of well-being as they are set against their real counterparts.

             Yet another theory[1] stands in opposition to all these previous ones.  According to this theory, the cathartic effect is not located in the audience, but inside the play.  Tragedy would require then scenes  representing pity and fear.  It is the hero who is purified through pity and fear when he realizes the failing that has brought about his downfall. But even this last theory recognizes that the audience is presented with a moral progress in the hero, a spectacle which cannot but be beneficial to the morals of the audience.  In fact, Aristotle seems to consider that the capacity to elicit pity and fear is an objective attribute of the poetic material as handled by the playwright: "fearful and pitiful events". The homoeopathic overtones of the theory of catharsis suggest that these fearful and pitiful events are so for both characters and audience: the emotions involved are both the means and the object of the experience.

            In any case, it is evident that Aristotle's theory is the very reverse of Plato's (there are, however, some suggestions of homoeopathic catharsis in the Laws, on the subject of Korybantic dancers). Plato saw in this kind of artistic imitations a kind of surrender to the passions. Both agree on the fact that tragedy excites the passions, but for Plato they remain so, while Aristotle insists that raising them is merely a means of casting them out.  There are also different interpretations of "casting out". Probably he means the restoration of these passions to their right proportions, to the desirable "mean" which is the basis of his discussion of human qualities in the  Ethics. Some theorists believe that this purification is carried out through a reciprocal effect of the two emotions, pity and fear.  Pity draws us nearer to the object we pity, while fear drives us away from it. Catharsis would be some kind of equilibrium, of seeing things in a reasonable way, once both emotions have staved each other off. If Aristotle did not mean that, at least he did relate in an organic way the two emotions, pity and fear, in the Ethics.

            These emotions had been identified as essentials of the tragic experience before Aristotle (catharsis, on the other hand, is uniquely Aristotelian). Common Greek attitudes of the time link pity to metabasis  or change of fortune.  Pity is felt, Aristotle argues, when the subject perceives an analogy between himself and the sufferer.  Pity for others derives from fear for oneself; pity and fear are essentially linked. This very definition exemplifies Aristotle's refusal to sever thought from emotions, in his ethics as well as in his poetics. Tragic fear differs from ordinary fear because it is focussed on the experience of others.  There may be a suggestion that it derives too from our own experience of fear, by analogy and reasoning.  

            Tragedy has positive ethical effects, but it is essential to recognize that this is not to be interpreted in a narrowly didactic sense.  The obvious effect of tragedy, the raising of emotions, is the very reverse of its actual effect, their being cast out. If tragedy teaches, Aristotle seems to say, it is only in a hidden and indirect way.  Poetry helps men to be rational, but it is not necessarily concerned with any more specific teaching.  Aristotle is in favour of the best form of catharsis, which is an indirect way of teaching, but he is against poetic justice (the deus ex machina ) which is an instance of carrying tragedy towards an end which is not its own, and trying to transform it into direct moralizing, without the essential requirements of pity and fear.

            It remains to determine which is the best way to arise the emotions of pity and fear. We have seen it must be through elements in the plot, and not through spectacle. But not everything may be included in the plot.  The monstruous, for instance, must be ruled out, as it will be in later classicist periods because of decorum. Aristotle's idea of decorum, however, is not the same: he is not concerned with indecency, but with generic propriety: "we must not demand of tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it" (Poetics  56, XIV.2).

            Tragedy then must involve some calamity which befalls people who are friends or next of kin and which is caused by one of them. Aristotle classifies tragic plots using two criteria:

  whether the calamitous act is carried out or not.

  whether the agent knows that it is a calamitous act, that is, whether the recognition precedes or follows the act.

So, we have four possibilities, and, as Aristotle himself says, "These are the only possible ways.  For the deed must either be done or not done‹and that wittingly or unwittingly" (Poetics  56, XIV.7):

  "to be about to act knowing the persons and then not to act, is the worst.  It is shocking without being tragic, for no disaster follows." 

  "The next and better way is that the deed should be perpetrated."

  "Still better, that it should be perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made afterwards."

  "The last case is the best, as when in the Cresphontes  Merope is about to to slay her son, but recognizing who he is, spares his life."  (Poetics  56, XIV.6-9)

Let us notice that Aristotle seeks a logical ground for his classifications, and that he wants to exhaust all the possibilities.

            Another similar attempt at classification is to be found in chapter 16. dealing with the different types of discovery, but we will not enter into it.





[1]          G. F.  Else, Aristotle's  Poetics: The Argument  (1957).