‘designed to evoke from an audience powerful emotions such as pity, fear, and ridicule which override the rational control that defines the highest level of our humanity and lead us to wallow unacceptably in the overindulgence of emotion and passion’.
Catharsis is a term in dramatic art that describes the effect of tragedy (or comedy and quite possibly other artistic forms) principally on the audience (although some have speculated on characters in the drama as well). Nowhere does Aristotle explain the meaning of “catharsis” as he is using that term in the definition of tragedy in the Poetics (1449b21-28). G. F. Else argues that traditional, widely held interpretations of catharsis as “purification” or “purgation” have no basis in the text of the Poetics, but are derived from the use of catharsis in other Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian contexts. For this reason, a number of diverse interpretations of the meaning of this term have arisen. The term is often discussed along with Aristotle’s concept of anagnorisis.
D. W. Lucas, in an authoritative edition of the Poetics, comprehensively covers the various nuances inherent in the meaning of the term in an Appendix devoted to “Pity, Fear, and Katharsis”. Lucas recognizes the possibility of catharsis bearing some aspect of the meaning of “purification, purgation, and ‘intellectual clarification'” although his discussion of these terms is not always, or perhaps often, in the precise form with which other influential scholars have treated them. Lucas himself does not accept any one of these interpretations as his own but adopts a rather different one based on “the Greek doctrine of Humours” which has not received wide subsequent acceptance. Purgation and purification, used in previous centuries, as the common interpretations of catharsis are still in wide use today. More recently, in the twentieth century, the interpretation of catharsis as “intellectual clarification” has arisen as a rival to the older views in describing the effect of catharsis on members of the audience.
Purgation and purification
In his works prior to the Poetics, Aristotle had used the term catharsis purely in its medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the katamenia—the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material). Here, however, he employs it as a medical metaphor. F. L. Lucas maintains, therefore, that purification and cleansing are not proper translations for catharsis; that it should rather be rendered as purgation. “It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions.” Gerald F. Else made the following argument against the “purgation” theory: “It presupposes that we come to the tragic drama (unconsciously, if you will) as patients to be cured, relieved, restored to psychic health. But there is not a word to support this in the “Poetics”, not a hint that the end of drama is to cure or alleviate pathological states. On the contrary it is evident in every line of the work that Aristotle is presupposing “normal” auditors, normal states of mind and feeling, normal emotional and aesthetic experience.”
Lessing sidesteps the medical attribution. He translates catharsis as a purification, an experience that brings pity and fear into their proper balance: “In real life,” he explained, “men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean.” Tragedy is then a corrective; through watching tragedy, the audience learns how to feel these emotions at proper levels.
In the twentieth century a paradigm shift took place in the interpretation of catharsis with a number of scholars contributing to the argument in support of the intellectual clarification concept. The clarification theory of catharsis would be fully consistent, as other interpretations are not, with Aristotle’s argument in chapter 4 of the Poetics (1448b4-17) that the essential pleasure of mimesis is the intellectual pleasure of “learning and inference”.
It is generally understood that Aristotle’s theory of mimesis and catharsis are responses to Plato’s negative view of artistic mimesis on an audience. Plato argued that the most common forms of artistic mimesis were designed to evoke from an audience powerful emotions such as pity, fear, and ridicule which override the rational control that defines the highest level of our humanity and lead us to wallow unacceptably in the overindulgence of emotion and passion. Aristotle’s concept of catharsis, in all of the major senses attributed to it, contradicts Plato’s view by providing a mechanism that generates the rational control of irrational emotions. All of the commonly held interpretations of catharsis, purgation, purification, and clarification are considered by most scholars to represent a homeopathic process in which pity and fear accomplish the catharsis of emotions like themselves. For an alternate view of catharsis as an allopathic process in which pity and fear produce a catharsis of emotions unlike pity and fear, see E. Belfiore, “Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion.” Princeton, 1992, 260 ff.