Aristotle’s Concept of Catharsis | Purgation of Pity and Fear

Aristotle’s Concept of Catharsis Purgation of Pity and Fear

The word “catharsis” has been used in Aristotle’s “Poetics” but he forgot to define its concept. He left its definition to critics and students of literature. However, no clear definition of “catharsis” is available. It has much importance in every language. There is no word in English literature, which has been debated so much as the word “Catharsis” has been debated and translated. Commonly, it has been defined as a process of releasing and thereby providing relief from strong or repressed emotions. Some other meanings which come to mind after reading Aristotle’s poetics are:

  • Purgation,
  • Purification,
  • Cleansing,
  • Release,
  • Relief,
  • Emotional release,
  • Freeing,
  • Deliverance,
  • Exorcism,
  • Abreaction,
  • Depuration,
  • Lustration.
Aristotle’s Concept of Catharsis | Purgation of Pity and Fear

Catharsis in real meaning explains the importance of tragedy. In Aristotle’s eyes, tragedy is the purgation of emotions such as pity and fear that defines the concept of catharsis. The whole “Poetics” of Aristotle emphasizes the catharsis of pity and fear. Thus, the word became a matter of controversy among critics. Aristotle defines tragedy and says that when the protagonist, who is a mixture of good and bad qualities, suffers and falls from prosperity to adversity, it causes the catharsis of pity and fear. Thus, the word “Catharsis” is not a simple noun instead it is a symbol of emotions. Every critic defines this word as per his knowledge and experience. It is impossible to extract the exact concept of catharsis only from Aristotle’s “Poetics”, therefore we have to rely upon the suggestions, provided by critics. We have to consider the arguments of every critic and then draw a conclusion that who has best defined it.

Catharsis means purification and refinement. We find peace because of the harmonization we face after the outlet of emotions. It purifies our hearts. We feel the same after watching every tragedy whether it is “Othello”, “Hamlet” or any other from the past like “Oedipus Rex”. A tragedy always purifies our soul with a touch of refinement. It can also be referred to as a homoeopathic treatment as defined by Milton. He, in his preface to “Samson Agonistes”, writes:-

“Tragedy has been ever held the gravest, moralist and most profitable of all other poems; therefore said by Aristotle to be of power, by raising pity and fear, or terror to purge the mind of those and such-like passions; that is, to temper or reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated. Not is Nature herself wanting in her own effects to make good Aristotle’s assertion, for so, in physic, things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humours”.

Milton – Explaining Aristotle’s concept of catharsis

Purgation and purification best describe catharsis. Undoubtedly, Aristotle lays great importance on pity and fear and when spectators witness the pain of the hero they feel pity for him. In a tragedy, the reader/spectator puts himself in the place of the tragic hero and thinks about what he could do if he were the hero. Every person feels the same as felt by a tragic hero. Feelings and emotions are there in everyone. These are natural and everyone possesses them. What makes difference is their suppression. Some can suppress them easily whereas others cannot. Ultimately feelings of pity and fear arise and the same increase with every hardship faced by the tragic hero.

A tragedy, in true words, is the purgation of these feelings and emotions. Catharsis thus is synonymous with relief that is observed by every person after the purgation of feelings. We know that feelings, no matter what their type is, create disturbance until they are released. A true tragedy first provokes these feelings and then gives relief from them. Hence, catharsis has also been defined as the purgation of feelings that arise while observing a tragedy.

After seeing the sufferings of the hero, it is certain that feelings of pity and fear arouse and the spectator refuses to take such steps, which causes suffering. If we see the word catharsis in this context then it reveals that Catharsis is merely used for the purpose of teaching. Of course, the spectator learns something from tragedy and every tragedy has a subject, which indeed has a moral lesson. Perhaps Aristotle uses this word for the purpose of teaching. It is necessary to remember that Aristotle emphasizes too much on the main character and says that he must be the combination of good and bad qualities. If the character is a mixture of good and bad, the spectator, after witnessing suffering does not dare to take such steps but if he is too good, it will be unjustified for a good man to suffer and instead of learning he will show his sympathy. If he is totally a bad person, then his sufferings are good because he deserves it. It is clear that Aristotle kept morality on his mind while defining tragedy. So, the word catharsis may be used for morality and for teaching purposes in “Poetics”.

The crux of the above discussion is that catharsis has different meanings in every language. The controversy is still unresolved. It would be easier if Aristotle had defined this word but he could not do so. Perhaps, he could not realize the importance of this word. Aristotle emphasized the catharsis of pity and fear. Critics defined catharsis as emotional fortitude, physiological balance, a process of emotional outlet, purgation, purification and homoeopathic treatment. Every mind has its own interpretation so far as the meaning of this word is concerned. It has been defined more than any other word in English literature yet ironically it is undefined. As discussed earlier, it is not simply a word but a name for emotions, thus, it is difficult to define. The conclusion can be drawn that the words, purgation purification and refinement best describe the meaning of catharsis.

Related Questions:

  • Write a note on Aristotle’s concept of Catharsis.