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ARISTOTELIAN CONCEPT OF CATHARSIS

Abstract:-

Aristotle is the first scientific critic and his literary critic and his literary criticism is
largely embodied in the poetics, which must have been penned by him after he settled as a
teacher in Athens. However, Aristotle, disciple of Plato was a Greek philosopher during the
classical period. The poetics is of his a fragmentary and an incomplete work of literary criticism.
It is a short treatise of twenty-six chapters and forty-five pages, which exhaustive and
comprehensive, nor yet a coherent treatment of the subject with which it deals. This present
paper, my primary concern evaluate in Aristotelian concept of ‘Catharsis’, discussed in ‘The
Poetics’. To clarify my discussion I would like to draw your attention to the character of
Shakespeare’s plays ‘Macbeth’ in King Duncan and to the character of Romeo and Juliet.

Keywords :- Aristotle, Purgation, Pity and Fear, Purification, Clarification.

Introduction :-
The present paper aims at investigating in Aristotle’s controversial treatment of the
notion of tragic ‘Catharsis’ in ‘The Poetics’. The term Catharsis is used only once in the course
of Aristotle’s poetics in the fourth chapter. The term Catharsis is an emotional discharge through
which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal, or achieve a state of liberation from
anxiety and stress. Catharsis is a Greek word meaning ‘Cleansing’. In literature, it is used for the
cleansing of emotions of the characters. It can also be only other radical change that leads to
emotional rejuvenation of a person. Originally the term was used as a metaphor in ‘The Poetics’
by Aristotle, to explain the impact of tragedy on the audiences. Aristotle believed that Catharsis
was the ultimate end of a tragic artistic work, and that marked its quality. Catharsis occurs in
Aristotle’s definition of tragedy : “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete,
and of a certain magnitude; … through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] effecting the proper
purgation [catharsis] of these emotions” (c. 350 BCE, Book 6.2).
Catharsis has also three meaning; it means “Purgation”, or “Purification”, or “Clarification”.
Pity as told by Aristotle is occasional by undeserved misfortune and fear by that of one like
ourselves; both are related emotions. Aristotle says that pity and fear are the characteristics of
tragic emotions. Catharsis on the other hand interpreted in medical terms which meaning
“purgative”. This medical term purgation meant the partial removal of excess “humours”.
Catharsis in the sense denotes a pathological effect on the soul comparable to the effect of
medicine in the body.

William Shakespeare wrote two famous examples of catharsis. One of these catharsis examples
is his tragic drama Macbeth. The audience and readers of Macbeth usually pity the tragic central
figure of the play because he was blinded by his destructive preoccupation with ambition.

In Act 1, he is made the thane of Cawdor by King Duncan, which makes him a prodigy, well-
regarded for his valor and talent. However, the era of his doom starts when he, like most people,
gets carried away by ambition, and the supernatural world as well. Subsequently, he loses his
wife, his veracity, and eventually his life. The temptation of ambition robs him of the essence of
his existence as a human being, and leaves behind nothing but discontent and a worthless life. In
Act V, Macbeth gathers this idea in his soliloquy. He says, while speaking of his life:
“… a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo commits suicide by drinking the poison that he erroneously thinks
Juliet had tasted too. The audience usually finds themselves crying at this particular moment for
several reasons. Primarily because losing a loved one is a feeling that all of us have experienced.
Watching or reading such a scene triggers the memories of someone we have lost (either by
death or by mere separation), and because we are able to relate to it, we suddenly release the
emotions that we have been repressing.
“Here’s to my love! [Drinks] O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I
die.[Falls]”
The terms, ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ are closely connected in Aristotelian theory. There are different types
of fear. Fear can be centred 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. 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 idealised. 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 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 “humours”. The
health of the body depended on a true balance of the humours. 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.

Milton in his Preface to Samson Agonistes expresses a similar view that the effect of tragedy is
to temper and reduce. In the neo-classical period, the medical interpretation of term took on an
“allopathic” light. Catharsis was seen to be in nature of the unlike curing the unlike. 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.”(138).

F. L. Lucas rejects the idea that Katharsis is a medical metaphor, and says that: “The theatre is
not a hospital.” Both Lucas and Herbert Reed regard it as a kind of safety valve. Pity and fear are
aroused, we give free play to these emotions which is followed by emotional relief. I. A.
Richards’ approach to the process is also psychological. Fear is the impulse to withdraw and pity
is the impulse to approach. Both these impulses are harmonized and blended in tragedy and this
balance brings relief and repose. The ethical interpretation is that the tragic process is a kind of
lustration of the soul, an inner illumination resulting in a more balanced attitude to life and its
suffering. Thus John Gassner says that a clear understanding of what was involved in the
struggle, of cause and effect, a judgment on what we have witnessed, can result in a state of
mental equilibrium and rest, and can ensure complete aesthetic pleasure. Tragedy makes us
realize that divine law operates in the universe, shaping everything for the best.

On the other hand Humphrey House says that Aristotle‟s concept of catharsis was not in medical
term, but he says that it is a kind of “moral conditioning” which the spectator undergoes. He
comments that catharsis means „cleansing.‟ It is a purification of the excess and defect in our
emotions, so that emotional equilibrium can be restored. Butcher too agrees with purification
theory.

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. As we can see Humphry House, for instance, says that Aristotle’s concept of
Catharsis was not as a medical term. 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.” Butcher, too, agrees with the purification theory. He observes that
Catharisis 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.”
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. 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. Cathasis 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. 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.

Some 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
realising the relationship between the hamartia of the hero and the suffering which results, the
relationship between character and destiny.

To conclude, Aristotle's conception of Catharsis is mainly intellectual. It is neither didactic nor


theoretical, though it may have a residual theological element. Aristotle's Catharsis is not a moral
doctrine requiring the tragic poet to show that bad men come to bad ends, nor a kind of
theological relief arising from discovery that God’s laws operate invisibly to make all things
work out for the best.
Works Cited :-

1. Bywater. “Aristotle on the Art of Poetry”, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1909.

2. House, Humphrey. “Aristotle’s Poetics”, London, 1956.

3. Ahenkora,Kwaku. "The Tragic Hero of the Classical Period", English Language and

Literature Studies; Vol. 2, No. 3; 2012: Web. 20 August 2012 .

4. Golden, L.: 1962, _Catharsis_, TAPA 93: 51–60.