Aristotle’s Conception of Tragic Catharsis in Poetics

Aristotle Conception of Tragic Catharsis in Poetics

The concept of “Catharsis” is mentioned only once in Aristotle’s Poetics, specifically in the fourth chapter. However, this single mention has sparked numerous interpretations and controversies. Aristotle does not provide an explicit definition or explanation of the term within the Poetics itself. It is possible that he addressed this in the second book of the Poetics, which unfortunately has been lost over time. Critics have attempted to shed light on the meaning of “Catharsis” by examining its usage in Aristotle’s other works, such as Politics and Ethics. It has been observed that the term can be interpreted in three ways: as “purgation” or “purification,” or as “clarification.” Consequently, diverse explanations have arisen based on how the term is employed in these other works. While there is a consensus that tragedy should evoke feelings of pity and fear, there exists disagreement regarding how these emotions ultimately lead to the experience of “tragic pleasure.”

The Term ‘Catharsis’ Occurs in Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy

In Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, catharsis is the effect of tragedy that purges or purifies these emotions through pity and fear. Here is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy:

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of a narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis, or purgation, of these emotions.” (Aristotle –Poetics)

We see that the term is also linked with the concept of pity and fear. It is, therefore, necessary to consider the meanings of pity and fear as connected with tragedy.

The Place of Pity and Fear in Catharsis

Pity and fear, which are closely linked according to Aristotelian theory, are emotions that can be directed towards ourselves, others, or society. Pity emerges from undeserved misfortune, while fear is triggered by similar misfortunes. Tragedy invokes these emotions by presenting characters who resemble the audience, evoking pity for their suffering and fear for their circumstances. The fundamental effect of tragedy relies on maintaining the intimate connection between pity and fear.

Tragic fear is not a personal sense of impending disaster but rather a feeling of horror or anticipation. The interpretations of catharsis vary from medical theories of purging to psychological explanations of emotional relief and the clarification of understanding. The purgation theory suggests that tragedy cleanses and restores emotional balance, while the clarification theory emphasizes the link between pleasure and learning. Grasping Aristotle’s concept of tragic catharsis is crucial for analyzing and appreciating the power of tragedy as an art form.

Difference between Pity and Fear

The distinction between pity and fear can be understood as follows: Fear, according to the Rhetoric, refers to a form of distress or unease stemming from a mental image of an impending harmful or painful misfortune. This anticipated evil must be in close proximity rather than distant. Anything that instills fear within us if it were to happen to us also evokes pity if it were to happen to others. Pity, on the other hand, involves experiencing a type of distress in response to an evident and undeserved suffering, which is of a destructive or painful nature. It is an evil that we might expect to occur to ourselves or our acquaintances, and it occurs when it is imminent.

Relation between Pity and Fear

Pity and fear are interconnected emotions. When the object of pity is closely related to us, their suffering feels like our own, and we find ourselves pitying others in situations that would normally instill fear within us. Pity arises from the belief that we too could experience similar suffering. It is for this reason that a tragic character should resemble us, yet also possess some idealized qualities. In such cases, we feel pity for the suffering of inherently good individuals, while experiencing a sympathetic fear for those who are like us. Aristotle consistently emphasizes that pity and fear are the essential and indispensable emotions in tragedy.

The profound impact of tragedy relies on maintaining the close relationship between pity and fear. According to Aristotle, tragedy should not solely evoke pity, as some modern thinkers have suggested. It should not aim for either pity or fear, as argued by Corneille, nor should it seek pity and admiration, a concept popular among Elizabethan writers that resembles Aristotle’s idea in a modified manner. Aristotle’s requirement is a fusion of both pity and fear, as expressed by Butcher.

Catharsis Taken as a Medical Term: Purgation Theories

The term ‘Catharsis’ is interpreted in medical terms as purgation. Purgation, in the medical sense, refers to the partial removal of excess “humours” for a balanced state of health. Catharsis, in this context, signifies a pathological effect on the soul similar to the effect of medicine on the body.

Psychological Interpretation of ‘Catharsis’

Some critics offer a psychological explanation for Catharsis. Herbert Read sees it as a safety valve, where tragedy allows for the release of emotions like pity and fear, resulting in emotional relief. A.A. Richard suggests that tragedy combines the impulses of advancement (pity) and withdrawal (fear) to bring emotional excess into balance.

Ethical Interpretation of ‘Catharsis’

The ethical interpretation sees Catharsis as an illumination of the soul, leading to a more philosophical attitude towards life and suffering. Tragedy presents monumental disasters that help viewers realize the insignificance of their personal emotions compared to such catastrophes. This perspective brings about a balanced view and a sense of mental peace, leading to complete aesthetic gratification.

The Purification Theory of ‘Catharsis’

Some critics interpret Catharsis as a form of purification. Humphry House suggests that Catharsis involves moral conditioning, directing and controlling emotions towards worthy objects to restore emotional equilibrium. The excess and defects in emotions are purified through Catharsis, resulting in emotional health and bringing responses closer to those of a good and wise person.

The Clarification Theory of ‘Catharsis’

This theory finds implications of Catharsis within Aristotle’s Poetics itself. Pleasure in the imitative arts, including tragedy, is connected to learning and instruction, even if the subject matter is unpleasant or repulsive. Tragedy offers a peculiar pleasure that arises from the presentation of events that evoke pity and fear, unique to the genre.

The Relative Merits and Demerits of the Theories

The purgation theory and purification theory of Catharsis are criticized for their limitations in fully explaining the process. These theories focus on the psychological effect of tragedy on the audience rather than the content of the play itself. They treat “pity and fear” as emotions experienced by the audience rather than elements within the play. Aristotle, the originator of these theories, was more concerned with the technique of writing poetry rather than audience psychology. In contrast, modern critics support the clarification theory, which emphasizes the incidents and nature of tragedy. According to this theory, the purgation or purification experienced by the audience is incidental to the pleasure derived from tragedy. The intellectual pleasure arises from understanding the relationship between the hero’s flaws, resulting suffering, and the broader concepts of character and destiny. Tragedy is designed to incorporate this relationship, and the alleviation of pity and fear is seen as a by-product of the learning process rather than its primary objective.


Aristotle, a notable critic, has had a long-lasting impact on thinking, and his ideas continue to influence us today. However, it is unfortunate that he did not fully explain certain terms that are crucial to his central thesis. One such term is ‘Catharsis,’ which has been interpreted in various ways, making it difficult to reach a consensus on its true meaning according to Aristotle. Among the theories proposed to explain Catharsis, the clarification theory seems to be the most acceptable. This theory connects Catharsis to the work of art itself rather than focusing solely on the audience’s psychology. It is important to remember that Aristotle’s writings were about the art of poetry and not solely about its effects. Nevertheless, there is still more to be explored and understood about Catharsis, and the final verdict on the matter has yet to be determined.