Aristotle's theory of Catharsis in Poetics (Critical Theory)

Aristotle's Theory of Catharsis 

What is Catharsis?

Catharsis is a metaphor used by Aristotle in the poetics to describe the effects of a true tragedy on the spectators. According to Aristotle the purpose of tragedy is to arouse Fear and Pity and the catharsis of these emotions.
Aristotle's theory of Catharsis in Poetics, Critical Theory
source : google
Born 384 BC, Greece
Died 382 BC, Greece
Profession Philosopher, First scientist
Founded Lyceum
Nationality Greek
Education Platonic Academy
Influences Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Epicurus etc.
Students Alexander, Theophrastus
Influenced Kant, Descartes, Aquinas, Rousseau etc.
Works Nicomachean ethics, poetics, politics, metaphysics

Table of Contents:-

1) What is Catharsis.
          3.1.1 Medical Interpretation,
          3.1 2 Psychological Interpretation,
          3.1.3 Ethical Interpretation,

Origin of the Term 'Catharsis' :-

The first recorded mention of the term catharsis took place in Aristotle's poetics. It derived its meaning from the Greek term Katharsis which means purgation, purification or cleansing.  The exact meaning of the term has been a subject of critical debate throughout the centuries as Aristotle never specified the meaning. However, the agreed general interpretation is as follows: 

The Purpose and Meaning of Catharsis:-

"through experiencing fear vicariously in a controlled situation, the spectator's own anxieties are directed outward and through sympathetic identification with the tragic protagonist, his insight and outlook are enlarged."

Aristotle's Theory of Catharsis :-

The theory of catharsis is one of the most significant theories  established/introduced by Aristotle. According to him the function of tragedy is to produce certain kind of catharsis. As per him, viewing tragic plays give people emotional catharsis from feeling of fear and pity and beneficial to both the individual and society. Thus, tragedy has a healthful and humanising effect on the spectator or the reader.

Various critics like Corneille, Racine, Lessing, Goethe, Bernays and H. Well have propounded their own interpretations of the term. According to Bernays the main purpose of tragedy is the excitement of the emotions of pity and fear. 

According to Aristotle there are two kinds of emotions found in every human being -pity and fear. After the excitement of these emotions there comes the stage of pleasurable relief. He held that it is not desirable to kill or starve the emotional part of soul; indulgence of the feelings serves to maintain the balance of our nature.

Based on the three different meanings of the word Catharsis i.e.'purgation', 'purification' and 'clarification' three alternative theories of interpretation have evolved.

1) Purgation Theory :-

Under the Purgation Theory three different interpretations have developed:-

A) Medical Interpretation:-

Bernays maintains that catharsis is a medical metaphor.  Purgation denotes the same pathological effect on the soul as the effect of a medicine on the body. It is like a self-employed therapy, cleansing emotion by the mean of an emotion. Lucas and L. A. Richards disprove the medical interpretation of catharsis.

B) Psychological Interpretation :-

This interpretation holds fear as the primary emotion from which pity derives its meaning. This fear is based on the self regarding instinct. It arouses from the feeling that similar suffering may occur to ourselves as well.

C) Ethical Interpretation :-

It accepts that the Divine laws work to make this universe a better place for living. It is like a self realisation or inner illumination that results in a more balanced way of life.

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2) Purification Theory :-

According to Humphrey House, Catharsis is an educative and controlling power. As the name suggests,  purification theory describes catharsis as purifying the emotions of their excess, defects and flaws. Therefore, it is sort of a moral conditioning.

3) Clarification Theory :-

Purgation theory and purification theory, since occupied with the psychology of the audience, do not take all aspects into account. Rather than psychological effects, Aristotle was more concerned with the technique of tragedy. Hence, Clarification Theory is more relevant.

Although tragic events/incidents/occurence are miserable and painful/sorrowful but when presented in a form of tragic play, they produce pleasure and appreciation. This is a typical pleasure peculiar to the tragedy. When we read or watch Shakespeare's tragic plays such as Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth or Othello etc. we encounter the murders and unusual deaths, still we appreciate it and get aesthetic pleasure. This is a tragic paradox. Thus, Tragedy presents intrinsic and universal truth and catharsis is more concerned with the function of a tragedy and not the emotional effect that it has on the audience.

Thus, Aristotle's concept of catharsis is not a moral doctrine, it stands purely intellectual. Neither it requires the poet to show that bad people come to a bad end nor it commands him to establish that God's laws employs things to work out for the best.

More in Critical Theory :-

  1. Aristotle's theory of imitation.
  2. Concept of Rasa in Natyashastra.
  3. Sources of Sublimity by Cassius Longinus.
  4. Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy.

Frequently Asked Questions:-

1) What is Aristotle's theory of Catharsis?

Answer- In simple words, Aristotle propounded the theory of Catharsis to describe the effects of a tragedy on the spectators and readers. As per Aristotle, a tragic play  arouses the emotions of pity and fear in spectators, thereby, already preparing them for they encounter such a situation in the real world. This is the Catharsis of these emotions. It is Aristotle's theory of Catharsis.

2) What is theory of Catharsis?

Answer- Same as earlier.

3) Where does Aristotle talk about Catharsis?

Answer-  The most famous work of Aristotle is Poetics. In this book, Aristotle has dealt with many topics and propounded many theories. Theory of Catharsis is one of the concept that Aristotle has discussed in his Poetics.

4) What are the three modes of imitation in Aristotle's Theory?

Answer- The three modes of imitation as discussed by Aristotle in his Poetics are as follows:
1) Tragedy,  2) Comedy, and 3) Epic Poetry.

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Click here for comments
January 28, 2022 at 9:20 AM ×

this topic is very difficult......

Audio UPSC
January 28, 2022 at 9:56 PM ×

Yeah but with a proper multiple readings of this article you can understand it well.


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