Catharsis in Aristotle's definition of tragedy

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In Poetics ch. 6 Aristotle says that 'tragedy is 'an imitation (mimesis) of a serious and complete action of some magnitude ... By means of pity and fear it achieves the catharsis (κάθαρσις} of such emotions' (1449b22-28).

Aristotle's claim that tragic drama achieves the catharsis of such emotions as pity and fear has been interpreted in a number of different ways. However, whatever the differences between them, all the interpretations presuppose - quite rightly - first, that katharsis is somehow achieved, as Aristotle says, by means of the pity and fear which he believes we feel when we watch a tragedy; and, secondly, that katharsis is beneficial inasmuch as its effect on our emotions somehow improves our characters and makes it more likely that we will act well. Any more detailed account of katharsis must depend on the answers to two questions, which cannot be answered independently of one another:

  • What exactly is 'purified' in katharsis, and what are the 'impurities' from which it is purified? According to some interpretations it is the emotions of pity and fear that are 'purified', and the 'impurities' which katharsis removes are, e.g, the pain, emotional disturbance, and/or irrationality which can be features of these emotions in everyday life. According to other interpretations the emotions of pity and fear themselves are the 'impurities', and katharsis 'purifies' us by ridding us of these emotions, at least for a time.
  • How exactly is katharsis achieved? According to some interpretations, what is crucial for katharsis is 'aesthetic distance', i.e., our knowledge, when we feel pity and fear in the theatre, that what prompts these emotions are events in a drama, not events in 'real life' - this knowledge reduces the capacity of these emotions to agitate and disturb us and serves to 'purify' or 'refine' them by helping us to feel them in a 'better' way, e.g., less painfully or more reasonably. According to other interpretations, what is crucial for katharsis is the opportunity which tragic drama provides for feeling the extremes of pity and fear - this experience temporarily exhausts our capacity to feel these emotions, and hence rids us of them, at least for a time.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to decide between the various interpretations of Aristotle's claim about tragedy and katharsis, not least because in the Poetics as we have it very little is said about katharsis. It is possible that its nature was explained more fully in the lost second book of the Poetics, which dealt with comedy - Aristotle believed that comedy also serves to achieve a katharsis of the emotions, though presumably not the emotions of pity and fear.

However the claim is interpreted, it may seem to suggest that, in Aristotle's view, tragedy is valuable merely as a means to an end, i.e., the achievement of katharsis, and some have objected to the claim on these grounds - unfairly, since Aristotle elsewhere corrects the impression that the value of tragedy lies solely in its capacity to achieve katharsis by acknowledging that we enjoy the emotions we feel while watching tragic dramas (1453b11-14, 1462b13-14).

It also seems clear that Aristotle's claim about katharsis - again irrespective of the details of its interpretation - is intended as a reply to one of Plato's arguments for banning dramatic performances, whether of tragedy or comedy, from the ideal state outlined in his Republic. In Book X of the Republic (see especially 605c-606d) Plato argues that watching dramatic performances excites, and encourages us to give free rein to, our emotions, and so makes it more difficult for us to resist them when we ought to: <Dramatic performances> water <our emotions> when they ought to be left to wither, and make them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them (606d). Aristotle's claim about katharsis, however understood, holds that dramatic performances, so far from strengthening, can purify, refine, or purge our emotions, thereby improving our characters and making it more likely that we will act well.