Aristotle's Theory of Catharsis

A Note

by Chanchal Chauhan


Aristotle's 'catharsis' has been interpreted by critics generally as a 'metaphor', but there has been a controversy about its meaning. Some critics have interpreted it as a 'medical metaphor' and translated it as 'purgation' and others used it as a 'religious metaphor' and translated it as 'purification'. The term, 'catharsis' in the Poetics appeared in the definition of tragedy.  He first used this term in his Politics in which he referred to this term in relation to music. He assured his pupils that he would explain the term when he would deal with various functions of poetry. Aristotle says this in his book, Politics

We use this term without explanation for the present; when we come to speak of poetry, we shall give a clearer account of it.

Humphry House remarks on this promise that ‘the trouble is that, when he does come to speak of poetry, he does not make this promise good.’

 Ingram Bywater, a well-known translator of Aristotle’s Poetics further created a complication by his translation of the whole definition of tragedy in such a way that it reinforces the interpretation of the term as medical metaphor that had already gained ground in English readership since Weil's use of it in 1847 and Bernays's in 1857. Humphry House gives an account of this line of thinking that was borrowed from Italian renaissance scholars and even Milton in 17th century knew about it. He gives a hint in the Preface to his play, Samson Agonistes. Humphry House has rightly remarked on this view:

In simpler and more popular works than Butcher's or Bywater's editions, there occur phrases that imply a tacit acceptance of the medical origin of the term.                    

F. L. Lucas mocked at the term remarking that it was a medical metaphor and Aristotle used it as a laxative to treat the audience of some indigestion. He commented, ‘The theatre is not a hospital’.

Most of the critics including Humphry House focused on the impact of tragedy on the audience and thought of catharsis related to the 'health' of viewers of tragedy. G. F. Else, a modern critic, for the first time, challenged this understanding and focused only on the component parts of tragedy, particularly on 'tragic action' (‘pathe’) and interpreted the term as ‘purification of such pathe'  meaning thereby the purification of tragic action that involved the murder of some blood relation. Aristotle himself had elaborated the ideal tragic deed as one involving a blood relation and had given examples (even one from Medea of Euripides).  In Greek society this type of murder was considered the most heinous one and it was the belief that miasma was caused by such a murder which needed catharsis or 'purification'. Oedipus's tragic deed results in the breaking out of plague, a kind of miasma that required 'catharsis' or purification. So the imitation of this tragic act created fear, the fear of miasma. G. F. Else has convincingly interpreted this term in a new way. It is neither a medical metaphor nor a religious one; it is the part of imitation of the ideal tragic act that involved all the social beliefs of the classical age.  Those beliefs were reinforced by Laws (Plato) and classical literature of that time.