Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Clasical Wisdom
Surely, we are all familiar with the term “catharsis.” A significant number of us have probably used it from time to time to describe an experience, such as when we leave a movie saying “That was cathartic!”
Yet, how many of us know what it really means, who came up with it, and, most importantly, why? It is quite possible that no one does, but let’s not take this pessimistic approach, and let’s try and see what we do know.
This peculiar term is what Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, discussed in his Poetics, revolves around. What is strange about it, though, is the fact that it appears only once in the entire treatise, yet is at the core of the definition of tragedy!
“The tragedy is, therefore, the imitation of a serious and completed action of a certain size, with the speech which is refined and specific for every kind in certain parts, with characters that act, rather than talk; and with the evocation of pity and fear, it achieves the catharsis of such affects.” Poetics, Part VI

You can read Aristotle’s Poetics yourself here!

Due to the scarce information on catharsis that Aristotle provides us with here, to better understand the concept we’ll need to form conclusions based on what we have from other sources. This includes the general attitude towards poetry in Athens, Plato’s condemnation of it, and the mention of catharsis in some other of Aristotle’s works.
Since it would take too long to deal with all of this in such a short space, I will focus on a sort of silent correspondence between Aristotle and Plato on this topic. Not everyone will agree with this approach, but I find it crucial in revealing the true nature of Aristotle’s notion of catharsis.
Poetry had an important place in the life of an average Athenian citizen. From childhood onwards it was an integral part of Greek education, starting with Homer’s works being read, remembered, and recited. Along with teaching children practical skills such as reading and writing, it also aimed at instilling moral and religious values.
The importance of it did not stop with children’s education. Poetry was considered to serve an important role as a kind of moral guidance for Greek adults as well.
Aristotles school

Aristotle’s School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg

Today it is widely accepted that the aim of performing tragedy in ancient Athens was not just a mere aesthetic pleasure, but that tragedies had some kind of political and social function as well. This is due to the fact the plots of tragedies’ often questioned democracy, foreign policy, and other important aspects of Greek society. Also, the mythical stories used in tragedies involved universal subjects and common problems in human lives.
This brings us to Plato and his objections to poetry. Though he had quite a number of them, the most relevant for our purposes here is his attitude towards the emotions.
According to Plato, the soul consists of three parts: reason (λογιστικόν), will (θυμοειδές), and lust (ἐπιθυμητικόν). For him, the good life in an ideal society would mean total domination of reason over the emotional parts of the soul. There are three main emotions in the center of his attention and those are pity, fear, and pleasure.
In Aristotle’s Poetics, we can find an answer to every single one of Plato’s objections, each of which he diplomatically agreed with to a certain extent. The case is the same when it comes to emotions. He agrees that poetry evokes emotions, that it offers pleasure, and, most importantly, that the evocation of emotions through poetry has an influence on the spectator’s personality and their emotional behavior.
Plato and Aristotle

Fig. 7 Wallerant Vaillant, after Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, 1658–77, mezzotint Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1910-6901 (artwork in the public domain)

What Aristotle disagrees with, however, is Plato’s assumption that poetry presents a potential danger of evoking an excess of emotions in reality. With the concept of catharsis, Aristotle wanted to prove that emotions are not bad per se and that poetry has a very important place in human lives.
This brings us closer to the conclusion that Aristotle’s notion of catharsis was actually a response to Plato’s critique of poetry as interfering with our rationality. The most direct proof is the fact that, in his definition, Aristotle included precisely the emotions that Plato accused tragedies of evoking!
It is not typical of Aristotle to not provide a further explanation of a term that he places such an importance on. However, we should bear in mind that this treatise belongs to the final phase of his work, which means that he probably assumed that readers of his treatise on poetry had knowledge about his philosophy developed in some of his previous works.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle shows that adhering to the golden mean with regard to one’s emotions (such as pity and fear) can result in pleasure which, in turn, can result in perfecting the moral side of one’s character.
Aristotle's disciples

Aristotle and his disciples – Alexander, Demetrius, Theophrastus, and Strato, in an 1888 fresco in the portico of the National University of Athens

Last, but not least, Aristotle contemplates the role of catharsis in relation to music in the eighth book of his Politics. In this book, he points out that music has a mimetic character (that is, it represents or imitates the real world) and, as such, has an ethical influence on the soul. Music can also affect our emotions and cause pleasure. Thus, music as an imitation (μίμησις) can affect our emotions, which is very important for us as human beings because learning to govern our emotions is necessary for perfecting our character
“Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change.” ~ Politics, Book VIII.5
As with poetry and music, so with tragedy. The emotions evoked through these mediums are not something to be dominated by reason, but something to be disciplined or regulated. They do not interfere with our rationality, but can help us perfect it.
We see then that, unlike Plato, who casts a distrusting eye towards the emotions or passions in general, Aristotle believes they are not evils in and of themselves. It is not the feeling of anger, fear, or pity itself that is bad, but the extent to which we allow them to take control of us. And it is only through having these emotions evoked that we can achieve the catharsis, or purification of them.
Taking such a stance against Plato allows Aristotle to have a much more appreciative view of poetry, music, and tragedy, and the important role they have in our lives. The emotions evoked through such mediums need not bring the rational soul to ruin, but can help make us become more virtuous and well-rounded individuals.