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Wounded HeroesVulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy$

Marina Berzins McCoy

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199672783

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199672783.001.0001

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Tragedy, Katharsis, and Community in Aristotle’s Poetics

Tragedy, Katharsis, and Community in Aristotle’s Poetics

(p.168) (p.169) 7 Tragedy, Katharsis, and Community in Aristotle’s Poetics
Wounded Heroes

Marina Berzins McCoy

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter turns to Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy and narrative in the Poetics. It examines how the public, performed aspect of tragedy and witnessing tragedy as a political community are significant for the body politic. One political function of tragedy is to enable a community to become more responsive to the vulnerable in their own midst. This chapter also provides an interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of katharsis that argues for catharsis as a form of ‘rebalancing’, not only of an individual soul, but also of the community at large. Stepping beyond Aristotle himself, the chapter argues that tragedy can enlarge a community’s vision of its own identity and the realities of its own citizens, including vulnerable citizens. Tragedy and other forms of narrative thus possess not only an aesthetic but also a political and philosophical function.

Keywords:   aristotle, catharsis, katharsis, purgation, poetics, tragedy, narrative, pity, fear, reversal, imagination, practical reasoning, greek medicine, health, polis, theatre, performance, character, community

In these past chapters, I have developed a concept of vulnerability and its importance to community. I have also argued that myth and narrative play an important role in allowing both individuals and a community to be responsive to vulnerability. To this point, my focus on narrative has been through how specific works of Homer, Sophocles, or Plato explore vulnerability, and how their narratives are important to achieving this end. Achilles, Philoctetes, Alcibiades, Oedipus, and others all struggle with both real and symbolic wounds and come to terms with such wounds, at least in part, through narrative. The authors themselves are also engaged in storytelling in ways that assist their own audiences in coming to terms with vulnerability. For example, Socrates’ narration of the myth of judgement in the Gorgias is as much of value for the audience of the Platonic dialogue in their own grappling with questions of justice and the wounds suffered through injustice, as it is for Callicles. Aristotle adds further to this picture in his account of friendship and its vulnerabilities, as those who lose friendships to vice must themselves find ways to assimilate the loss through a kind of revised narrative about the friendship and its meaning.

Aristotle’s Poetics further contributes to a deeper understanding of how narrative can assist in the proper response of the human person to vulnerability. In this chapter, I focus specifically on the question of the value of performed tragedy for the community of those who witness its performance, as a way of deepening this question about how and why narrative is helpful for responding to vulnerability. Not only the Poetics, but also the De Anima and the Rhetoric, make helpful contributions in understanding how narrative can help both (p.170) individuals and the larger political community to be responsive to vulnerability. I first argue that the performance of tragedy has not only a personal, but also a political function in assisting a community to respond to the vulnerable in its midst. I then develop ways in which Aristotle’s psychology is helpful for understanding how audiences might become more responsive to vulnerability through the witnessing of tragic performance. Last, I examine the concept of κάθαρσις‎. Κάθαρσις‎ need not be understood as the mere purgation of pity and fear, for Aristotle makes clear that both of those emotions have positive value. Instead, I argue that κάθαρσις‎ ought to be understood as a kind of ‘rebalancing’ of the individual and also the community. Careful reading of Aristotelian texts on κάθαρσις‎ suggests that he does not simply intend the mere purgation of feeling, but rather a deeper sense of rebalancing of the soul, as found in Greek medicinal theory. Tragedy can also assist the community in being more responsive to the vulnerable by enlarging its vision of ‘what is’; tragedy enlarges the community’s political reality and helps to reshape its responsiveness to suffering in its own midst. Two different strands of tragedy thus emerge as forces that attend to human vulnerability: the κάθαρσις‎ of tragedy as a rebalancing of the community, and an accompanying epistemological reorientation of the community’s self-understanding to include those who have previously been excluded from the field of vision.


In Chapter 1, I argued that Homer’s narrative accounts of human mortality frame the lives of its characters in such a way that human life is given narrative shape and meaning precisely because of the finality of death. Only a temporal end provides for the possibility of a teleological account of life, since the end of a story significantly shapes its interpretation and meaning. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle takes up a similar puzzle about human happiness, namely, whether it is possible to call a person’s life happy until that life has come to an end. Those whose lives end as did Priam’s, with ruin of family and kingdom, cannot be said to be happy overall, despite genuine moments of well-being in their lives, and their unfortunate ends make their lives unhappy. Good or bad fortune can increase or (p.171) decrease a person’s blessedness (N. Ethics 1100b), but such events cannot be anticipated. Yet, it would seem strange to say that a man could only be happy after his death. Aristotle addresses this problem by suggesting that εὐδαιμονία‎ does not depend upon such fortune; but the result is that one can possess εὐδαιμονία‎ and yet still suffer. Thus, Aristotle remarks: ‘And yet, even here what is fine shines through, whenever someone bears many severe misfortunes with good temper, not because he feels no distress, but because he is noble and magnanimous’ (N. Ethics 1100b).1

Εὐδαιμονία‎ is stable because character is stable, so that even a person who suffers greatly can be said to be ‘happy’, insofar as he will bear his suffering well. Suffering will not be decisive for his overall possession of happiness, though it will bring moments of pain (N. Ethics 1100b–1101a). In other words, the virtuous person who suffers well will himself incorporate his suffering into the larger picture of his life. He is not brought down by any one misfortune, because as a virtuous person he can better bear that misfortune than he would have otherwise. Character traits such as courage, temperance, generosity, and even wit can make such circumstances easier to bear, and since there is pleasure in their very exercise, the virtuous man can continue to experience some pleasure simply through being who he is. But for Aristotle, narrative can also play a role in bearing misfortune, especially through the witnessing of performed tragedy. Tragedy must contain πάθος‎, according to Aristotle: painful events that are beyond repair, or at least that leave a deep and unalterable change (1452b).

While contemporary students of Greek drama are often readers of texts, dramas were experienced as performances. Tragedy’s location in the Dionysian theatre below the Acropolis placed it at the centre of Athenian life, not far from the ἀγορά‎ and the discourses of the council (βουλή‎), as well as commercial and religious activity.2 As performative pieces, these works were not essentially verbal, but active. Even the most sophisticated verbal content in ancient drama was enacted such that the deliberative speech and practical embodiment of those (p.172) articulated ideas were not separable.3 Tragedy as performance expresses the link between the rational, imaginative, and active elements of human nature through unifying them before an audience that understands the performance to be a deliberate act of communication to them, in a specific and ritualized context.4 Tragedy was not performed for only one individual, much less for the reader of a text, but rather for a community in an overtly political context. The Dionysian festival was political in many of its non-dramatic events: for example, the presence of generals, the public display of tributes from other cities, awards given to those who had served the state, and the procession of orphans of war educated at state expense, all indicate the centrality of politics to the festival.5

The festival was also understood to be religious, in ways that overtly united the political and the sacramental. Martin writes of the procession of phalluses during the festival: ‘In a typically Athenian melding, this too was political: in the fifth century BCE, each colony of the expanding empire sent a phallus for the procession. The announcement of honours to citizens and foreigners, the recognition of children of fallen warriors, the parading of subject states’ monetary contributions—all made the festival into civic theatre, a spectacle of optimism and celebration counter-balanced by the darker tragedies on view.’6 Even within the performance of a particular tragedy, an audience may have experienced the enactment of specific religious rituals. Sourvinou-Inwood, for example, has suggested that the ritualized elements of the end of the Eumenides were experienced as the performance of religious ritual in the present, and not only as a story at a distance.7 While during the ordinary course of the year, the wooden statue representing Dionysius was kept safely outside the city’s limits, during the Dionysia it was processed to the Theatre of Dionysius. The religious devotion to Dionysius granted the audience the possibility of exploring elements of human experience, both personal and political, that at other times might be outside the normal (p.173) boundaries of propriety. In comedy, politicians were mocked, and political questions such as the justice of the enslavement of other Greeks undertaken. In addition, the emotional experiences of laughing, weeping, or even being shocked by dramatic events took place in a context that was socially and divinely sanctioned. Thus, while the sort of analysis that we have undertaken in the previous chapters is a valuable practice for us as contemporary commentators, the classical Athenian’s experience of tragedy would have been more immediate, visceral, and closely connected to religious, social, and overtly political considerations.

According to Aristotle, tragedy’s aim is to arouse pity (ἔλεος‎) and fear (φόβος‎) (1452b). It is thus a form of λόγος‎ overtly concerned with the arousal of feeling in the audience. Pity and fear are made possible through μίμησις‎, imitation of ‘what is’; members of an audience can experience such powerful emotions only because the play imitates what is ‘possible’. Aristotle somewhat cryptically states that one of the features of a good character in tragedy is ‘likeness’ (1454a). While he does not specify what he has in mind, I suggest that Aristotle may refer in part to a likeness between the character and the audience, sufficient for the audience to have the proper experience of the drama. In other words, tragic heroes are those for whom we can feel pity or fear, because we know that, to some extent or another, we are like them.

Aristotle’s thoughts in the Rhetoric further illuminate the idea of ‘likeness’ of the tragic hero in the Poetics. There, we find insights into the psychology of exactly how λόγος‎ can produce fear and pity in an audience. The Poetics states that recognition and reversal together cause the audience to experience fear or pity, in the case of tragedy, and which one is experienced is likely to depend on whether the audience member can imagine herself to experience the same kind of reversal. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle defines fear as a pain or disturbance due to a mental picture of some destructive or painful evil in the future (1382b). We are much more likely to see a particular event as fearful under certain conditions: if the outcome is imminent, i.e. sooner, rather than later; when those who can cause the harm are more powerful than we are; when we have already experienced a particular type of harm; and in the case of events that we cannot easily control. However, if these experiences are thought of as more likely to happen to others than to ourselves, then we might experience pity instead of fear (1382b). So, whether we feel fear or pity if we see a man (p.174) such as Oedipus move from honour to exile in an unexpected reversal of fortune will depend very much on our own experiences of being vulnerable. For example, if an audience member has personally felt the threat of exile and is reminded that he could experience it again, he might be more likely to feel fearful; if he finds it quite difficult or impossible to believe that this sort of an event could occur to him, he might instead feel pity for the character.

Of course, both emotions might coexist in a single individual: I could simultaneously pity another for his suffering and also fear for myself. Still, the close connection between the two senses of φόβος‎ as a ‘flight’ and as ‘fear’ reveal something significant about how fear affects us. In an experience of fear for myself, my focus is on escaping or eluding the fearful object, or even a suffering person who reminds me of my own fears. Pity might draw me nearer to suffering, or at least minimize my desire to flee from it, out of a sense of connection to the other’s need. In either case, Aristotle’s suggestion is that the sorts of emotions that predominate in us depend very much on our sensibility of our own vulnerability to harm, and our experiential sense of closeness to or distance from those who suffer harm.

Aristotle’s pairing of pity and fear in both the Rhetoric and the Poetics is significant. Their connection in the Rhetoric suggests that in Aristotle’s view of tragedy, the two experiences are closely related for an audience and may coexist together, yet are important to keep conceptually distinct for the sake of differentiating between subtleties within a larger audience’s experiences. If our own present belief as to the likelihood of experiencing harm informs whether we experience fear or pity, then it is likely that with any given audience, different individual members may experience a greater predominance of fear or pity. For example, a young male citizen who has little first-hand experience in war may be more likely to experience pity in response to the pleadings of the mothers in Euripides’ Suppliants, especially if he identifies with Theseus’ on-stage verbalization of such pity. However, a woman or foreign metic who has a different set of experiences concerning the treatment of non-citizens might have a response closer to fear, if he or she can identify closely enough with the powerlessness of the women. She may recollect prior experiences that indicate to her reliance upon others for the safe return of bodies after battle and proper treatment of the dead abroad; or her prior experience might intensify her pity in such a way that it becomes close to the experience of sympathy. While the question as to whether (p.175) women, slaves, or children were present at the festival is a quite controversial one, there is some evidence that the festival was inclusive.8 At minimum, it was not restricted to male citizens. Resident metics who lacked citizenship, and foreigners to Athens, were certainly present among those in the audience. One fourth-century comedy title, ‘Women Celebrating the Dionysia’, implies some female participation in the Dionysian festival. Plato’s Symposium suggests an audience size of as many as 30,000 individuals, though later analyses have suggested that the theatre held only 14,000 to 17,000.9 Any audience of such a size and variety is likely to have a wide range of backgrounds, and of emotional experiences of the play. As will become clearer below, this diversity of feelings is key for producing a diversity of opinions in discussions of a play, and so also for assisting in the development of rational deliberation of social and political matters. Indeed, the possibility of a rebalancing of the πόλις‎ to accommodate points of view that have not been previously accommodated depends upon the ability of tragedy to introduce and to bring to awareness such standpoints to a range of members in its audience.

Aristotle asserts that tragedy, by its nature, requires the presence of πάθος‎, that is, the undergoing of suffering of significant magnitude and lasting effect. Among the central features of audience experience, then, is to confront vulnerability in the characters and events being performed before them.10 Such vulnerability may include larger, abstract truths about mortality or sudden reversals of fortune that lead an individual to think of himself and his own vulnerability to suffering. A variety of particular feelings arise in relation to such suffering aside from fear and pity, however. Careful analysis of these accompanying feelings helps to illuminate how tragedy functions to elicit the deepening of care and concern for the vulnerable.

(p.176) Ironically, since imitation is pleasurable not only to perform, but also to witness, even seeing a terrible scene of suffering in a play has a kind of pleasantness to it. A tragedy’s ‘scene of suffering’—‘a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like’ (Poetics, 1452b)—is pleasant to behold, Aristotle states, even as it makes us feel some unpleasant emotions at the same time.11 (Thus, today we may experience the appeal of a movie that scares us, or makes us cry.) Since suffering is unpleasant to experience and to witness in others, in ordinary life humans tend to avoid its presence. Others have suggested that a person may even rationalize its existence in order to exclude it from one’s field of vision. For example, Rousseau remarks on the human ability to reason ourselves away from natural sympathy:

Nothing but such general evils as threaten the whole community can disturb the tranquil sleep of the philosopher, or tear him from his bed. A murder may with impunity be committed under his window; he has only to put his hands to his ears and argue a little with himself, to prevent nature, which is shocked within him, from identifying itself with the unfortunate sufferer.12

Tragedy draws upon the pleasure of imitation in drawing us closer to, rather than further away from, suffering. In order to produce such pleasure, however, tragedy must strike a balance between sufficient likeness of its characters to us, and a certain degree of distance from our current circumstances. Tragedy must mediate our experience of suffering sufficiently to make its experience pleasurable. At some level, the audience must always remain aware of the artifice of the play. Such distance is necessary for a tragedy to have success; at least, known instances of tragedies that directly referred to recent events seem to have been poorly received by Athenian audiences. For example, in 493/2 BCE Phrynichus was fined 1,000 drachmas for his Capture of Miletus, due to its directness about the difficult title event only two years before.13 Direct discussion of recent political events or social upheaval risks alienating one’s audience, who may find the emotions aroused to be overwhelming or may find their intellectual (p.177) and moral commitments too deeply rooted to be comfortably affected.

Tragedy must also strike a balance in presenting a hero who is neither too good nor too deeply flawed. Aristotle’s claim that reversal ought to arise neither from a man’s villainy nor from a man of complete and perfect virtue is sensible, for most persons are unlikely to identify with either extreme. Regardless of the accuracy of our self-assessments, none of us imagines ourselves to be either complete villains or paradigms of perfection. However, an audience member can easily imagine himself to be ‘good, but not perfect’, and so identify with the downfall of another person who is like us, or a little better or worse than us in particular respects. Thus, Oedipus as king may strike us as both cleverer than us in solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and yet maddeningly blind in his inability to see his own role in his downfall.

The enactment of episodes of suffering is itself a way in which an audience can identify with vulnerability, for Aristotle sees the imagination as a faculty that exists for the purpose of helping us to flourish through assisting our practical reasoning. The imagination suggests different possibilities to us from our present circumstances and suggests alternatives to practical reasoning.14 Below, I will offer a more detailed textual analysis of the role of the imagination, but for the moment, an intuitive example of the relation between imagination and practical reasoning may suffice. If we witness a scene of suffering that is seemingly unavoidable, such a scene triggers our own natural disposition to escape suffering and to find ways to act, so that we might be happy again. When a character on stage is deprived of such means, and an audience is made to imagine that he cannot and will not possess such means to escape, then we even more strongly identify with the character’s suffering by virtue of being practical reasoners, like him. Our own practical reasoning is, in a sense, frustrated. Were his suffering real, our own sympathetic response might be intolerable; we might just not want to see it any more. But resting assured that such a scene is ‘only’ imaginary also allows an audience member to engage more deeply with such suffering, precisely because the scene is not real.

(p.178) Tragedy thus brings together our desire for happiness as imaginative, practical reasoners and an imagined reality in which another’s existence is denied the same kind of happiness that all human beings desire. We thus are made more deeply aware of our own frailty and the possibility that the happiness that we desire, imagine, and act to attain might not always be achieved. Further, through seeing this limit exhibited by another whose circumstances draw upon our own feelings and imagination, there is also political value in each person becoming more aware of the vulnerability of others.

Effective plays often feature characters who are sufficiently unlike many audience members, such that they enact συμπάθεια‎ in its most literal sense, that is, a shared πάθος‎ with someone whose actual condition is distinct from my own. As discussed in an earlier chapter, συμπάθεια‎ can only take place when the ‘other’ with whom I share feeling is not in an identical situation to my own (the latter being commiseration). Yet, he must be sufficiently similar to me that I could see myself in his position. For example, an audience member who feels distress at Oedipus’ self-blinding partly shares in that character’s suffering, though not in a way that is identical to the physical pain or the intensity of the emotional suffering of the character. He may dread blindness or self-harm, even if he does not see himself as one who could pollute through incest or parricide. Even here, Sophocles may connect a spectator to Oedipus in ways that are unexpected. Consider an audience member of Oedipus Rex who strongly identifies with Oedipus’ own sense that he ‘could not’ be a person who would murder his father or commit incest, and yet knows the myth’s truth that Oedipus is indeed such a man. That spectator will probably experience some cognitive dissonance between his identification with Oedipus’s denial, and the knowledge that Oedipus is the offender. It is precisely in the dissonance between these two sets of feelings and thoughts, i.e. both through identification with the character and separation from him, that a movement toward greater sympathy, even for the polluter, can take place. Someone who experiences such dissonance may ask herself, for example, if Oedipus thought he could not be one who unknowingly creates pollution, how can I be certain that I could not also do so?

Significantly, this πάθος‎ for suffering is a shared πάθος‎ with others, and in two directions: what I will call the ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ dimensions. First, when an audience member shares at least partly in the feelings of a character (as when Neoptolemus takes pity on (p.179) Philoctetes), we find a ‘vertical’ connection between character and audience, one that is asymmetrical. (A spectator feels along with a character but not vice versa.) Second, there is an additional set of shared feelings between audience members who are simultaneously experiencing the performance of a tragedy together. Witnessing a play as part of a community includes this ‘horizontal’ dimension of συμπάθεια‎ across social and political boundaries that otherwise exist in the community. Shared feelings and experiences, brought on through the experience of strong feeling in response to art, serve as unifiers of the community. At times, the connections between lived experience and tragic events might be striking. Knox notes that in the light of the fragility of the political situation at the time of the performance of Oedipus Rex, and its recent experience of the plague, ‘The audience which watched Oedipus in the theater of Dionysus was watching itself.’15 Such shared feelings may unite and more closely connect those within the community who are reminded of shared experiences in times of suffering, such as war or plague.

Tragedy also may include a wide range of characters that expand the sense of who constitutes the community, through its own inclusion of slaves, women, children, foreigners, and those defeated in war among its characters. As Hall has argued, members of groups that were excluded from overt political participation on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or status were included among the voices of characters in tragedy.16 Croally suggests that tragedy then serves the function of questioning the ideology of the society, where ideology is understood to mean ‘the authorized self-definition of the dominant group, that is, the citizen body.’17 Watching Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play that raises serious questions about the legitimacy of enslavement, would be a particularly intense experience if a slave were watching the tragedy along with his master. In such cases, spectators may not only be engaged with their own responses to the staged events, but also with how others in the community are responding to them. A spectator’s συμπάθεια‎, in such cases, would be not only for the enslaved women on stage, but also even for his own (p.180) slave. Even if slaves were not present in the audience, the articulations and thoughts and feelings on stage may sympathetically expand a citizen’s understanding of his slave’s own experience.

We see then the possibility of theatrical experience as a way of mediating social and political relationships through its production of συμπάθεια‎ and dissonance, especially to the extent that Athenian theatre was a gathering of many in the larger community, across social differences. Spectators may also wonder about differences in others’ responses to a tragedy. For example, if a spectator finds herself unexpectedly feeling anger along with Medea against Jason, despite her horrific crimes, she may wonder whether others similarly experience such sympathy for Medea. Or she may feel incapable of such sympathy, and wonder at its existence in others. If we bring together both these directions of συμπάθεια‎—between character and spectator, and across audience members—we find that the dissonances between audience members, as much as the shared feelings, are necessary to encourage moral and political questioning.18 For, on an Aristotelian account, moral feeling, imagination, and practical reasoning are intimately linked. Tragedy draws upon reason as well as feeling, and these two faculties are integrated through the exercise of the imagination.

In his Poetics, Aristotle offers the insight that ποίησις‎ is more philosophical than history, for the poet can deal with the general and the necessary, while the historical concerns the particular and contingent (Poetics 1451b). That is, the historian is bound by the facts of the matter; if a particular historical figure was motivated to begin or end a war for a particular reason, the historian must be accountable to that fact. Ποίησις‎, however, has fewer limits. The poet can invent a character, his motivations, and the events that surround him, in order to point to whatever more general and universal claim he wishes to make, and show what is ‘possible’ and ‘necessary’ (1451b). Aristotle does not seem to have in mind realistic plots. Nowhere does he criticize a play for being too fantastical in its machinations of plot (for example, asking whether Philoctetes could survive on an abandoned island for ten years, whether Herakles could appear from heaven, or whether the curse on the house of Thebes could take just (p.181) as it did). Rather, when Aristotle discusses the ‘necessity’ of tragedy, he focuses on the actions of the character with respect to his or her tragic choices. The poet can express ‘what such and such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do’ (1451b).

For example, although Oedipus Rex has an improbable element, the logic of its characters and their actions remains intact; the lack of logic is ‘outside of the tragedy’ (1454b). Tragic characters must be good; fitting to the types of persons they are; ‘like the reality’; and consistent (1454a). Although Aristotle is often said to prioritize action (πρᾶξις‎) over character, and so to be less ‘psychological’ than many more recent playwrights,19 he does state the importance of a proper approach to character in tragedy. The play must have an internal logic to its action, and that logic is character driven. The characters must choose and act in ways that seem naturally to arise from who they are, both in general (male, female, noble, or slave) and in particular ways: for example, Antigone in her passionate devotion to family, Oedipus in the wisdom he accords himself, and so on.

Tragedy engages our ethical judgement about more universal questions, since an audience member must consider whether the suffering of its characters is justly deserved or not, often in the light of circumstances in which the character is subject to significant and conflicting pressures. For example, Antigone’s and Creon’s conflicts between family and πόλις‎, or Orestes’ conflicting obligations to his dead father, mother, and the gods, engage our own questions about vulnerability to suffering in the light of conflicting sets of moral and religious obligations. A character such as Orestes who takes up the decision to enact revenge may stand in contrast with the lived experiences of the fifth-century Athenian world, which would require the law, and not vengeance, as a proper response. However, as Cairns has argued, such a narrative still provides ample room for exploring whether Athens’s own system of justice adequately addresses the difficulty of normal human feelings of desire for revenge after harm.20 Or one may wonder how to respond adequately to the experiences of others whose families have been victimized in the context of a system that removes a degree of subjective preference from the enactment of justice.

(p.182) The invented narratives of tragedy may also sharpen insights into issues of more immediate and specific political relevance. Bowie has suggested strong parallels between the question of Philoctetes’ return in the Philoctetes and the question as to the justice of Alcibiades’ return to Athens shortly before the 409 BCE production. He connects Alcibiades’ desecration of the hermai and the question as to whether he could safely return to Athens to Philoctetes’ exclusion from the political community as a result of his own desecration of sacred ground.21 In response, Debnar importantly notes that there is not a single one-to-one analogy between the characters of the Philoctetes and political figures. Odysseus also shares certain traits with Alcibiades, as much as does Philoctetes—such as the desire to use language for the sake of power.22 Nonetheless, the play’s deep engagement with issues surrounding the justice of rhetorical manoeuvring, the return of men who have desecrated sacred territory, and the proper response, are all significant to the community’s coming to be more capable of debating the justice of Alcibiades’ participation in the community, or the future treatment of like cases. Or, to return to the example of the Suppliants, Bowie has argued that the refusal of the Thebans to return the bodies of the dead would have recollected the bitter defeat against the Boetians at the Battle of Delium only a couple of years before the play was produced.23 Were the viewing of tragedy to be followed by discussion of its content among those who had viewed it, such an experience provides the groundwork for additional broadening of understanding human experience through engagements with others about the topic of the tragedy. Tragic theatre thus can become a part of the process of learning how to debate and act in a democracy, through the debates that can arise from viewing and responding to drama as a community.24

(p.183) Tragedy gives licence to a community to explore difficult issues in a mediated way through moving its audience back and forth between experiences of closeness to and distance from the experiences of the characters and events of the tragedy. Sourvinou-Inwood has identified those devices that bring the world of the play closer to that of classical Athens as ‘zooming devices’ and those that separate the two worlds as ‘distancing devices’.25 For example, in the Antigone, Creon’s assertion to Haemon that his son has a duty to obey his father strongly echoes the ephebic oath that all youth swore at the age of 18, to obey the laws of the state and be pious.26 Such verbal echoes suddenly move the social and political field of the play significantly closer to the audience. Fantastical elements, such as the machinations involved in Oedipus’ birth, abandonment, adoptions, and subsequent move to Thebes that lead to his incest, distance the audience from the play.

Such distancing is necessary for the fullness of an audience’s engagement with a tragedy. First, the audience depends upon the idea that the scene before him or her is a performance if he or she is to engage more deeply with the difficult emotional upheaval of witnessing suffering. Paradoxically, knowing that the actor playing Oedipus on stage is not blind at his own hand, but rather wears a mask that signifies his blindness, allows the spectator to look more closely. The distance afforded to the spectator by the knowledge that the play is ‘only a play’ provides the space for entering into the experience and remaining with it. Aulus Gellius tells the story about Polus’ use of his own son’s ashes in a play as a prop in a fourth-century tragedy.27 His objection that it was not truly a performance, but actual grief, is not simply that of a critic evaluating good or bad acting. Rather, he implies that the actor has violated audience expectations about artifice. The boundaries provided by the play’s removal from the reality (p.184) of the actors’ lives and even the audience’s particular experiences provide a safe space for the encounter of difficult issues. At minimum, the audience need not worry about the actor behind the mask, for his wearing of the mask makes clear at every moment that this is a performance for him. Spectators can more fully spectate, that is, observe, free of the obligation to act in response to another’s sorrow. The freedom from action is also a way of deepening his or her focus in observing, imagining, feeling, and thinking about the play.

The vulnerability of specific groups within one’s own πόλις‎ may be among such sensitive issues that require this mixture of involvement and detachment in order to more fully ‘see’. Athens, more than any other city-state, prided itself on its democratic procedures, breadth of culture, courage, and fortitude, as the tradition of funeral orations makes clear. The acknowledgement of social or political shortcomings is more difficult; Socrates attributes his being put to death in part to the anger of those who had been subject to his questions and shown up in their ignorance (Apology 23c–24a). Tragedy gives voice to those who are otherwise voiceless, for example, women and slaves, although it often does so while also reinforcing at least some of the authoritative structures that women, slaves, or metics found objectionable.28 Nonetheless, many tragedies seek seriously to articulate the concerns of those who would be considered ‘outsiders’ to Athenian citizenship, those whom Zeitlin calls ‘marginal figures’.29 Tragedy includes among its characters women, foreigners, slaves, bastards, metics, children, and others who lack citizenship. These characters are marginal, insofar as they are not understood by their own culture to exist at the centre of human community, especially in the exercise of its political power. Zeitlin argues that marginal figures serve the purpose of the Other by which the Self is defined, as those at the centre of social and political power come to understand themselves better (p.185) through understanding those who are at the margins of their society. Such self-knowledge and self-definition occurs in complex ways. Boundaries may be crossed between Self and Other. As Ebbott later phrases it, ‘The Self is explored through the Other, but is not subsumed by the Other.’30

In the chapters above, we find a number of marginal figures. Some, like Antigone or Ismene, are excluded from political power through lacking the status of being a male citizen. However, many marginal figures are not women, children, or slaves, and yet they occupy a marginal space. In nearly all of the examples provided in the previous chapters in this book, men who might otherwise be at the centre of social power experience living at the margins. Philoctetes is literally a liminal figure that is excluded from society, yet uses fire, a bow, and eventually λόγος‎ to maintain a connection to the community even in his isolation. Neoptolemus develops his sense of Self as a noble (γενναῖος‎) person in part through his encounter with this Other, and through fear of becoming an Other himself if he does not obey Odysseus. The character of Philoctetes is one of a noble-born male citizen. As such, his presence as a marginal figure in the context of the play connects marginalization to those who normally possess power and a degree of security in their power. Similarly, Oedipus’ fall from kingship to being the ‘polluted one’ moves him from the centre, even the pinnacle of the centre, to the margins. Even Socrates’ myth of judgement implicitly takes the figure of Callicles and suggests that the power he seeks as a politician will be lost with the final judgement of his soul. Alcibiades breaks into the party of the Symposium and its order and reveals how he is at once in love with and disturbed by Socrates and his effect on his soul. Alcibiades is at the height of his own power, but shown to be brought down by his inability to live virtuously.

In each of these examples, tragedy or dialogue suggests that the Self is the Other, or potentially so. That is, these examples take persons who one would normally expect to be at the centre of society and expose them to circumstances (sometimes of their own choosing, but often not) that result in their becoming the Other. Through juxtaposing the experience of being Self and Other in a single character, tragedy invites its audience members to consider the same juxtaposition in themselves. (p.186) Free male citizens are asked to experience a degree of dissonance in themselves, insofar as they can identify with an individual who moves from the centre to the margins of society. Such an experience may make possible the recognition that those who are at the margins of real Athenian society are also Selves, and not only Others against which to develop one’s own concerns. In other words, tragedy breaks apart the categories that normally separate Self and Other, those at the centre and those at the margins, and suggests that those who are at the centre of society have significantly more in common with those at its outskirts than they may have thought.

Of course, tragedy does not force an audience member to undergo such an intellectual transformation; neither does philosophical dialogue. However, both create the space for the creation of dissonance, pity, fear, and sympathy, which may lead to such intellectual considerations. Indeed, in tragedy, we find a strong link between the affective and the intellectual. Imagination is the key to linking these two dimensions of human experiences, for through its exercise, affect and practical reasoning are united.


Aristotle’s account of the imagination and its link to judgement makes clear the importance of proper emotional responses in making good rational judgements. Nussbaum has helpfully argued that Aristotle’s accounts of imagination (φαντασία‎) and its relation to practical judgement (φρόνησις‎) and action in the De Anima Book III can help us better to understand his account of tragedy in the Poetics.31 In De Anima, Aristotle distinguishes between different faculties of the soul. The human being is both like and unlike animals. He shares with the animals the capacity for nutritive growth; locomotion; sensory perception; and a discriminating power that allows him to distinguish between sensory objects. At the same time, human beings are distinctive in their possession of speculative and practical thought—although Aristotle also says that a small amount of the animal world also possesses practical thought (427b). We also possess a (p.187) faculty of imagination, which depends on the possession of sensory faculties, but which is neither reducible to those faculties nor to discursive thought.

According to Aristotle, φαντασία‎ is not a separate faculty, but rather an activity that relies upon several faculties.32 Φαντασία‎ is closely related to sense perception. If one thinks of an apple and the apple is not present, one experiences sensation in the absence of the object; for example, ‘seeing’ red or imagining its crunch. The senses are ‘sensing’ in the absence of the object. The imagination presents the object to the subject as a φάντασμα‎, an image that in the absence of the object becomes an interpreter of a prior sense experience. To this extent, the imagination is also a rational and thinking faculty, in a way. As Brann describes φάντασμα‎, the image is not simply given by the imagination, but rather is a ‘result that it achieves’.33 In other words, Aristotle’s understanding of the imagination is an active faculty, one that participates in the production of our understanding of whatever is imagined. The imagination is not merely a passive faculty that re-presents a prior experience. Neither does it simply invent and give shape to a world that lacks its own structure. Instead, φαντασία‎ is a rational faculty that is somewhere between the intellectual and the sensory.

Christopher Long notes the sense in which activity of its root, φαντάζεσθαι‎, must still be heard in ‘φαντασία‎’. As he articulates it, ‘the term itself comes to designate a power of the soul that occupies a kind of middle space—between expression and articulation, meaning and intention, and at a yet deeper level, between perceiving and thinking, object and subject, body and mind’.34 When tragedy (or philosophical dialogue, for that matter) invokes the imagination, it simultaneously draws upon our past, lived sensory experience and our rational capacity. Drama makes new connections between old experiences and our current reality, and opens up a new space in which the rational as well as sensory faculties of the person can be engaged. The φαντασία‎ engaged by tragedy literally creates a new internal world in which not only sense experience, but also human rationality, can work on new material. Drama’s engagement of our (p.188) imagination draws upon deeper recesses of our own experience and lived reality than can abstract argumentation alone.

Aristotle takes pains to emphasize that the imagination is dependent on animal sensory experience, and is a faculty shared with other creatures. According to De Anima III. 9, the imagination is an aspect of the animal soul that is necessary for animal motion. Aristotle’s argument is that while animals are self-moving, we still must account for what within the animal ‘makes’ it move. Appetite and imagination, insofar as they lead to action, are inseparable. If I have an appetite for something, like a fresh apple to eat, already there is an end in mind. Aristotle says, ‘appetite is in every form of it relative to an end: for that which is the object of appetite is the stimulant of mind practical; and that which is last in the process of thinking is the beginning of the action’ (De Anima III. 10).35 In other words, one cannot say that an appetite is an appetite until it is an appetite for something. A general grumbling in one’s stomach is not an appetite; a desire to eat an apple is. But this end, the apple, for it to be the ‘stimulant of practical mind’ and lead to action, must be imagined if it is to lead to action. One must think of an apple, imagine it, as that which might satisfy my hunger, at least in a general way. Conversely, Aristotle says, ‘So, too, when imagination originates movement, it necessarily involves appetite’ (433a). That is, if one is moved to do something by way of my imagination, there must be a desire that she wishes or hopes to fulfil. One might imagine something that one is not especially moved to seek to avoid; upon imagining a cloudy day upon reading the morning news, a person might do nothing about it. But where action is involved, animal appetite and imagination are closely linked.

For Aristotle, two kinds of imagination exist: perceptive and deliberative; while the latter belongs only to calculative animals, and the perceptive to any of those that possess senses, even worms and the like that have simple senses, deliberative imagination is also ‘animal’, by which Aristotle means that it exists as an outgrowth of the animated soul that seeks to achieve practical and moral ends. The presence of calculation is a difference as to the sorts of means that are used in considering ends and whether or how to pursue them, but both perceptive and deliberative imagination concern the well-being (p.189) of an animal, and are conducive to its end. Aristotle is insistent that nothing in nature exists in vain, and so all natural faculties of an animal exist (ultimately) for the sake of the animal’s flourishing as the kind of being that it is. Imagination, too, is part of the natural well-being of living beings that possess it, and helps us to fulfil our needs.

Building upon this Aristotelian background, MacInytre in his Dependent Rational Animals argues that practical rationality is closely linked to our animal nature.36 While the tendency of much contemporary moral philosophy is to understand the human being in terms of autonomy, or self-rule, MacIntyre suggests that our reasoning as practical reasoners is linked to practical reasoning that is partly shared even with animals. Even those elements of human practical reasoning that exceed animal reasoning are grounded in preconditions for reasoning that are essentially animal. In other words, there is a whole range of conditions that make reasoning possible, and the extent to which different creatures satisfy these conditions exists across a graded spectrum across the animal world. Insofar as we are rational and social animals, we have social obligations to one another, based on our own need for care to become who we are, and our possibility of imagining ourselves into situations where we might need more care. That is, MacIntyre suggests that the vulnerability of the sick, disabled, child, or elderly, is not detachable from our moral status as practical reasoners or caregivers, but instead intricately intertwined with our humanity as such.

If we then return to the Poetics with this purpose in mind, we can see the mimetic arts function in part by drawing upon our animal natures as beings that by nature need others. Ποίησις‎ (broadly understood) is based on human need and lack. We imagine because we are the kinds of creatures that find ourselves in need of something, and when we have need, or even want, of something, we tend to imagine the object that we suppose might fulfil our desires. This is a kind of explanation for the claim earlier discussed in Plato’s Symposium, namely, Diotima’s suggestion that human creativity and giving birth takes place at the last stages on the ladder of love, when we are yet incomplete, but moving toward completeness. Aristotle also gives an account of creativity as activity that is born out of our being the kinds of creatures that lack.

(p.190) Given the significance of imagination for action, it is not surprising that Aristotle locates the plot as more significant than character in tragedy: ‘For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality’ (Poetics 1450a). If imagination is a key part of human action, then action on stage is one means by which we can effectively enter into the world of others. That is, since the chain of causation according to the account outlined above is the possession of an appetite, its fulfilment in imagination, and possibly also deliberation about how to achieve such ends and then action, then each of these points in drama becomes an entryway into the experiences of those different from us. We may not share their identical appetites, but can easily imagine our way into different courses of action that stem from the possession of such appetites, and so retrospectively understand why various sorts of people choose particular actions—even those that lead to suffering.

Human beings can imagine their way into others’ realities, and so also gain a kind of understanding of their actions, appetites, and practical reasoning through imagination. Thus, in watching the Antigone, an audience member will do much more than note, intellectually, that Antigone is caught between a civic and a religious duty. She can understand Antigone’s action of burying her brother and defying Creon because she can imagine the heroine’s thoughts, feelings, appetites, and the origins of her movement in the play. Reading Hegel or Nussbaum’s writings about Antigone and the philosophical conflict between civic and familial duty is an entirely different experience from watching Antigone and Creon argue on stage. The latter involves the engagement of one’s emotions and even body, as well as one’s intellectual faculties, for the exercise of imagination unites these faculties in us.

Of course, Aristotle carefully sets opinion apart from the imagination in De Anima: ‘For imagining lies within our own power whenever we wish (e.g. we can call up a picture, as in the practice of mnemonics by the use of mental images), but in forming opinions we are not free: we cannot escape the alternative of falsehood or truth’ (427b). Unlike in opinion, where we must choose to assent to or to dissent to a judgement (e.g. ‘Alcibiades ought not have been asked to return to Athens’), in imagination, the mind can reign more freely. Imagination is neither subject to the limitations of sense perception nor to the limits of opinion: since in imagination the subject is not (p.191) bound to the world as he has thus far known it, his capacity to think of things other than how they have been up until now significantly expands his vision of himself, other human beings, and the community. Tragedy draws upon both our sensory and our deliberative faculties, and so can move us in a way that is more in tune with the ‘whole’ of the human being than either abstract argumentation, or simple and direct encounters with the ordinary world, can.

Indeed, the imagination expands our sense of ontology, or ‘what is’. In the Aristotelian view, we are the kinds of creatures that come to understand the world primarily (though not exclusively) through λόγοι‎. Our understanding of being is always mediated through the words that we use to describe, categorize, and make sense of things. Yet, Aristotle offers a concept of language in which things themselves reveal a λόγος‎ to us. It is not simply the case that we use λόγοι‎ of our own invention to make sense of an otherwise unorganized or chaotic world. Nor do we superimpose our order on a different order. Instead, the structures of things themselves possess a λόγος‎ that allows things to reveal themselves to us and to be articulated in language. As Long phrases it, ‘For Aristotle, each attempt to articulate something of the truth of things is already involved with the expression of the things encountered.’37 Long’s focus is on the whole of nature, including the non-human world; not only λόγος‎-centred creatures, but all of being, shows and expresses itself to us, and in response, human beings seek to articulate its nature. However, the created world of the stage and its invented stories, performed with the use of σκηνή‎ and mask, also seeks to reveal and to articulate the nature of political realities that have not yet been realized. The enactment of what is ‘possible’, but which only exists in its particularity on the stage, also reveals the truth of realities.

Human beings are the sorts of creatures that come to know truth through λόγοι‎, and live in a world in which realities reveal themselves through λόγοι‎. However, the extent to which such things can and do reveal the whole of truth to us depends very much upon our experience and openness as enquirers. Drama, although a created and imagined world, can speak the truth to us precisely because it literally enlarges the realm of being. That is, the actions and λόγοι‎ of tragedy do not merely invent new concepts, or create new characters that exist (p.192) solely in a separable realm, apart from the ‘real’ social and political world. Instead, its λόγοι‎ and events reveal the nature of things, human things, through expanding the realm of what is ‘possible’. To put it in the strongest terms, the world of the Dionysian theatre expands the being of the political world itself. New realities about Self and Other emerge, and these realities possess a political and social reality for the community that potentially changes its sense of its own identity. Such a reality, however, like ordinary reality, must still be interpreted. In order to be successful, a performance must resonate with some truth that is still seeking to be revealed; that is, a play that does not reveal anew something that ‘is’ will fail to have power over us. Additionally, an audience must interpret the actions, characters, and events of the theatrical world if that world is to emerge as an active part of the social and political world when the performance is left behind.

A tragedy that can articulate in word or in performance more generally a truth that we have so far not yet recognized, gives shape to the truth, because what it performs or asserts in some sense already existed. Thus, a character like Philoctetes has power over us because at some level, we are already familiar with the vulnerability of the marginalized and excluded, and already struggle with the question of who is inside or outside the realm of the social group that matters. Narrative reality is part and parcel of the social and political reality, because human beings are logo-centric and imaginative creatures that seek out ‘the possible’ by nature. But what constitutes a possibility that can move and affect us, even transform us, depends already upon our existent human reality. There is thus a productive tension between theatre and πόλις‎, and between performance and λόγος‎. These polarities are brought together in the exercise of the imagination.


Finally, we come to the difficult question of κάθαρσις‎, better equipped to describe its nature after examining the political nature of performance for the Attic world, and Aristotle’s understanding of the imagination and its relation to λόγος‎. Κάθαρσις‎ often has been interpreted as the experience of an individual in which an excess of fear or pity builds up and must be released; at its most literal level the term means a ‘purgation’ or ‘cleansing’. In κάθαρσις‎, feelings are in (p.193) some way purified or purged. However, Aristotle’s ambiguous use of the term in the Poetics suggests at least three questions. First, are feelings of pity and fear purged and removed, or are they purified? Second, for what purpose ought such feelings undergo κάθαρσις‎? Third, how does the performative nature of tragedy inform what might be intended by the idea of κάθαρσις‎?

While the concept remains controversial, a number of commentators favour a decidedly ethical approach as the aim of this release of feeling. Janko, for example, understands κάθαρσις‎ as a form of ‘moral purification’, in which the emotions are aroused in such a way that after they subside again, they are ‘retrained’ to be less volatile.38 Such retraining results in the person’s character being closer to the mean that constitutes virtue. By exercising fear and pity harmlessly, the individual is better prepared to return to living his ordinary life, as such emotions are less apt to control him. Janko’s theory relies upon a particular understanding of medical κάθαρσις‎ as ‘homeopathic’, in which a little experience of a problematic emotion allows one to release it so that the power of the emotion over the individual is lessened.

The difficulty with Janko’s theory is that it does not fully take into account the positive value of experiencing pity and fear, not only in the mediated world of the theatre, but also in ordinary life. Although such emotions can be problematic in certain circumstances, Aristotle also takes seriously their value for living well. To return to Book II of Aristotle’s Rhetoric for a moment, we find there that Aristotle does not only offer a psychology of how pity takes place, but in doing so, also connects its presence to justice and to friendship. A person feels pity if he feels pain at the sight of an evil that may befall either oneself, or a friend, when it is ‘undeserved’ (1385b). Among those more likely to feel pity are individuals with education and long experience of the world, as well as those who have living parents, children, or wives (1385b). Moreover, only those who believe in the goodness of at least some other people are capable of pity (1385b–1386a). This passage makes clear that pity is not a negative emotion (although it is painful). Indeed, its presence in those who are experienced, educated, and who believe in the possibility of undeserved suffering suggests that there is (p.194) a connection for Aristotle between pity and justice. Since only those who believe that another’s suffering is undeserved feel pity, then Aristotle implies that its presence in one who correctly understands and can identify justice is proper and good, when he is confronted with injustice. Similarly, the increased sensitivity of those who feel pity in cases where their close family members are alive suggests that φιλία‎ and pity are also interrelated.

While Aristotle does not spell out the nature of this relationship in the Rhetoric, the Nicomachean Ethics might illuminate their relation. In friendship, a friend has genuine concern for the good of the other, even for the good of the other as ‘another self’, in the case of friendships of virtue (N. Ethics 1166a). So, too, do parents feel for their children as though the children are somewhat an extension of themselves, for their being comes from themselves (1161b), although they also take greater pleasure in loving their children than in being loved (1159a). Pity reflects the reality of a self that is deeply connected enough to others to feel the other’s suffering as if it is their own, though at least sometimes in diminished intensity. Fear, too, is an appropriate response to certain threats, and indeed courage is not the absence of fear in every circumstance. Brave persons will not only fear those dangers that are frightening for anyone sensible, but ‘even the sorts of things that are not irresistible’ (1115b). However, ‘he will stand firm against them, in the right way, as prescribed by reason, for the sake of what is fine, since this is the end aimed at by virtue’ (1115b). Indeed, part of what constitutes the courageous person’s ability to respond rationally and properly to danger is a proper kind of fear. Those who completely lack an appropriate emotional response of fear to genuine danger are not virtuous. They are so rare, because they are so far from the ordinary experience of being human, that Aristotle says, ‘He would be some sort of madman, or incapable of feeling distress, if he feared nothing, neither earthquake nor waves, as they say about the Celts’ (1115b). While his characterizations of Celtic people are rather fanciful, Aristotle’s point is that total fearlessness is barbaric. To be human means to possess the proper amount of fear and pity, for both are necessary for proper care of the self and beloved others.

If pity and fear are important emotions in the life of virtue, then their simple purgation would be an insufficient motivation for experiencing tragedy; even if human beings are more prone to excess than deficiency in the case of fear, it is not at all clear that this is so in the (p.195) case of pity. Indeed, their expulsion per se is not the aim of living well, but rather their proper incorporation into a life lived in just relationship with others.39 In the key passage in the Poetics, Aristotle’s phrase reads as follows: ‘δι᾽ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν‎’ (Poetics 1449b). In the light of Aristotle’s other remarks on the value of pity, fear, and related emotions, I suggest that we take Aristotle to mean by these lines ‘through pity and fear it purifies emotions of this type’. That is, an interpretation that reads Aristotle as saying that the witnessing of tragedy removes what is problematic about emotions, rather than removing them altogether, is more consistent with his other remarks on the value of both fear and pity. The question then remains as to the nature and the purpose of such purification.

I suggest that we examine κάθαρσις‎ as a kind of ‘purification’ that removes impurities in the emotions of a community for the sake of a more balanced community that possesses greater self-knowledge and can accommodate ideas previously excluded or marginalized from its self-understanding. My argument proceeds in two fundamental steps. First, in Aristotle’s use of the term κάθαρσις‎ in the Politics, I argue that κάθαρσις‎ exists not as an end in itself, but as a means to restore balance and harmony to the whole of a musical piece. Such a reading of κάθαρσις‎ as a rebalancing is also consistent with the purpose of purgation and purification in Greek medicinal practice. Second, I argue that the purificatory activity of κάθαρσις‎ in tragedy exists so that the members of a community may stand with a more balanced understanding of their own community and the appropriate way to feel and to understand its members. While much of the discussion of κάθαρσις‎ focuses on how individuals’ emotions are affected, the performative nature of tragedy in the context of a political-religious festival ought to lead us to consider the effects of κάθαρσις‎ on the community as a whole. Just as the κάθαρσις‎ of medicine restores a wholeness and balance in the body, and the κάθαρσις‎ of music is a purification of the entire melody, the κάθαρσις‎ of tragedy restores a kind of balance in the community. The balance is not simply one of being purged of the ‘wrong’ feelings, where fear and pity are in need of expulsion, but also of having the proper ‘right’ thoughts and feelings about the reality of one’s (p.196) fellow human beings. Κάθαρσις‎ enlarges our field of vision by forcing us to encounter and to process imaginatively and discursively our feelings of fear and pity. Through the processing of these feelings in both affective and rationally discursive ways, the spectator’s ethical disposition toward his fellow citizens is brought back into a proper balance. Such balancing includes a greater sense of pity and care for one’s fellow citizens.

As argued above in the chapter on the Gorgias, medicine and philosophy alike shared a strong ethical commitment to the well-being of soul and body. Contemporary models of medicine that see κάθαρσις‎ as ‘merely’ purgation of feeling distract from the ancient concept of medical as linked to the ethical, in its seeking of restoration of health to the soul as well as body.40 Health on the ancient Hippocratic model is not the absence of a negative presence to the soul, but rather its restoration to a proper and proportional state of health. Purgation did not exist as a treatment that merely removed what was negative from the body, but rather, as a treatment that in removing the negative, thereby restored a positive balance natural to the body and its component humours.

Aristotle’s Politics also uses κάθαρσις‎ as an image of the effect of experiencing pity and fear in the context of music, in which the aim here, too, is the development of a more balanced state of soul:

[F]or some persons are very liable to this form of emotion, and under the influence of sacred music we see these people, when they use tunes that violently arouse the soul, being thrown into a state as if they had received medicinal treatment and taken a purge; the same experience then must come also to the compassionate and the timid and the other emotional people generally in such degree as befalls each individual of these classes, and all must undergo a purgation (κάθαρσις‎) and a pleasant feeling of relief; and similarly also the purgative melodies afford harmless delight to people. (Politics 1342a)

This passage has led some commentators to believe that the sole purpose of κάθαρσις‎ is the relief from strong feelings, because of Aristotle’s reference to pleasure and relief in conjunction with κ (p.197) άθαρσις‎. However, as Golden argues, here Aristotle is not making a more general claim about κάθαρσις‎, but rather uses the imagery of a purge, of medical κάθαρσις‎, in the larger context of comparing different types of musical melodies and their effects on shaping the soul.41 Some melodies, he says, are cathartic, while others are educative. Some calm, some delight, and others throw people into a terrible frenzy. The larger point of this passage is to argue that, given the tremendous power of music on the human soul, the right kind of music must be used for the right educative purpose, keeping in mind the temperament and character (as well as age) of those who listen to music. Aristotle offers his remarks about κάθαρσις‎ here as part of a theory about musical education.42 In making our interpretation of his meaning here, this larger theoretical aim of education must be kept in mind. Aristotle’s understanding of music in this context is for the soul who listens to it to become virtuous. This aim is achieved through balancing a soul that is out of balance, compensating for its deficiencies through giving it whatever reshaping or reformulation it needs. In this context, neither purification nor purgation completely captures the larger sense of reshaping as the goal of musical education. Rather, the κάθαρσις‎ of certain elements is one tool that allows one to achieve such a balancing.

Halliwell helpfully relates Aristotle’s comment in the Politics about the shaping of the soul’s ἔθος‎ by music to mean that music literally moulds character (Politics 1340a–1342a).43 Musical κάθαρσις‎ produces a kind of alleviation of pain and increase of pleasure, but not simply through a mechanistic release valve of some kind. Instead, κάθαρσις‎ effects a change in the soul through affecting its very ἔθος‎, its disposition or character. Purgation, or the removal of a difficult element, is only one metaphor found in Aristotle’s general examination of the proper use of music. An increase in spiritedness at times of war for the timid or calming of excessive enthusiasm might be more appropriate for other souls. The educative theories of Damon and similar ideas found in Book III of Plato’s Republic support the prevalence of such a view of μουσική‎ in classical Athens (Republic (p.198) 398–403). However, μουσική‎ does more than cause a corresponding ἔθος‎ in the soul. In fact, careful attention to the extended passage in the Politics also reveals a strong connection between imitation and sympathy. Μίμησις‎ also produces συμπάθεια‎:

And moreover everybody when listening to imitations (μιμήσεον‎) is thrown into a corresponding state of feeling (συμπαθεῖς‎), even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves. And since it is the case that music is one of the things that give pleasure, and that virtue has to do with feeling delight and love and hatred rightly, there is obviously nothing that it is more needful to learn and become habituated to than to judge correctly and to delight in virtuous characters and noble actions. (Politics 8.1340a)

By συμπάθεια‎ here, Aristotle does not seem to have in mind specifically compassion for the suffering, but rather experiencing feelings that correspond strongly to whatever is being imitated. Nonetheless, the passage is a rich one for deepening our understanding of sympathy in audience experience of tragedy, for it states that sympathy is one natural outcome of being affected by imitations, whether these imitations are strictly musical or not.

Aristotle’s careful specification is that it is not only melody and rhythm, but the whole of the μίμησις‎ taken in that causes the sympathetic effect. That is, Aristotle avoids a reductive explanation of the causal links between music and sympathy. Music does not simply shape the soul the way that sound waves affect the eardrum, i.e. mechanistically. Instead, imitation itself affects the soul because ‘pieces of music contain in themselves imitations of character’ (Politics 1340a). Music imitates life, and in turn the living are sympathetically affected by the music they hear; they become more like what they hear, which is itself (in some undefined way) already like the characters of people.

A similar point might be made even more strongly about μίμησις‎ of character: tragic figures who overly imitate various types of human beings produce a sympathetic response in those who listen to and watch them; this is possible only because there is a fit between the mimetic reality and the reality being imitated (our earlier point about ‘likeness’ above). Indeed, the interlinking of music, dance, and rhythm in ancient tragedy would only heighten the effect of such mimetic power. Κάθαρσις‎, then, shapes the soul not through providing a release valve, but instead through a kind of rebalancing of the (p.199) soul so that the tragic viewer leaves the theatre with his soul having been reshaped through μίμησις‎.

Golden connects the Eleatic Stranger’s use of κάθαρσις‎ in relation to the art of making distinctions in Plato’s Sophist (230d–231a). There, the Stranger compares the removal of ignorance through cross-examination to the purification or κάθαρσις‎ of the soul.44 Golden argues that insofar as the goal of μίμησις‎ is intellectual pleasure (Poetics 1448b), the κάθαρσις‎ achieved through μίμησις‎ is a kind of intellectual clarification. However, Golden limits the effects of κάθαρσις‎ to the intellect since the μίμησις‎ that causes it is ‘the word, spoken or read’.45 As I have argued, however, the audience experience of tragedy is primarily through being spectators at a performance, and so the cathartic effect of imitation is not solely verbal. Instead, the mimetic effect arises from the actions, words, musical expression, iconic masks, scenery, and other dimensions of performance that resonate with expressions, thoughts, ideas, actions, and surroundings of the ordinary world. Indeed, the whole of the tragic performance imitates the non-verbal along with the verbal—for example, using colour, sound, and gesture—to reveal something about the being of the world outside of the theatre. The verbal and logical is central to our experience of tragedy, to be sure, but so too is the sensory and non-verbal, in the theatre’s drawing upon the imagination’s occupation of a space between the purely intellectual and sensorial dimensions of experience.46 Μίμησις‎ cathartically reshapes and purifies the soul through its making use of the imagination’s largesse, so to speak. Theatrical performances mimetically embody multiple layers of human experience, in their attention to multiple dimensions of soul. Κάθαρσις‎, then, is the reshaping of the soul through its mimesis effecting sympathetic responses in its audience. In this sense, the theatrical world imitates the real world, but also the (p.200) ‘real’ social world of the audience, and in its sympathetic responsiveness to the mimetic, is itself transformed and enlarged through its encounter with the dramatic.

Κάθαρσις‎, in this enlarged sense, as the soul’s rebalancing, might be extended to being understood as the experience of the πόλις‎.47 While Aristotle himself focuses on the κάθαρσις‎ of individuals, we might reasonably extend his analysis from the rebalancing of an individual to the rebalancing of the larger community. Given the overtly political nature of the Dionysian festival and the conversations that surely must have ensued after the performances had ended, the community itself might also undergo a kind of rebalancing and readjustment in its response to witnessing a performed tragedy. Timocles’ fourth-century comedy Women Celebrating the Dionysia is revealing of the consolation and education that tragedy can provide. As Halliwell demonstrates, Timocles’ speaker notes two elements to audience experiences of tragedy: a ψυχαγωγία‎ or soul-leading that is pleasurable while in the theatre; and the person who is now ‘educated’ (παιδέυθεις‎) as he leaves the theatre. Timocles identifies the benefit of tragedy as learning that one’s own sorrows are bearable, in the light of even greater suffering.48 More narrowly, such ‘education’ could simply mean understanding that one’s own daily sufferings are less significant than the possible scale of human suffering, through contrast of oneself to the tragic hero. However, Timocles’ sense of education might also involve the ψυχαγωγία‎ of leading an audience member to place in perspective her own suffering in comparison to others in real, immediate community, through application of the play’s insight to her own political situation. When Timocles speaks of the audience’s engagement in the ‘suffering (πάθει‎) of others’ (6), the immediate ‘other’ may be the tragic hero, but in later consideration the ‘other’ may grow to include the real sufferings of those in one’s own city, or even other cities. The ψυχαγωγία‎ of tragedy restores balance through restoring proper perspective on one’s own suffering vis-à-vis the reality of others’ lives. Such restoration of perspective on one’s own life not only leads to greater contentment (p.201) for oneself, but also potentially greater concern for others. This, too, is a form of κάθαρσις‎, as an audience member is led away from the excesses of his self-absorption in his own narrower experiences of suffering or sorrow to be more engaged in those of others.

Finally, I want to suggest that tragedy can lead souls through enlarging a community’s vision of its own reality. Here, I am stepping beyond Aristotle himself, but in a way that I hope is in keeping with the spirit of Aristotle’s approach to tragedy. Tragedy asks members of the community—especially its most powerful members—to encounter the reality of suffering that they might otherwise avoid, despite its presence in the community. For example, Oedipus at Colonus envisions the possibility that the ‘polluted one’ might be understood not simply as the source of a city’s illness, but rather as its protection. A Philoctetes who was excluded on the grounds of good piety emerges as central to the community’s success. Analogues may also be found in the contemporary city. To avoid the truth of one’s own community, the suffering in its midst, and the causes of such suffering is not merely to avoid controversial political opinions. To avoid truths about ‘what is’, including ‘what is’ in one’s πόλις‎, is also to avoid one’s own humanity. While Aristotle himself seems not to have extended his analysis of tragedy this far, such a view is not distant from an Aristotelian conception of ethics and epistemology. For Aristotle, not to see what the world seeks to reveal to us is to avoid an ethical responsibility we have both as knowers and as social beings for whom political relationships are forms of φιλία‎. Avoiding the reality of suffering is both a violation of the moral order and the epistemological order. In Aristotle’s well-known words, ‘All human beings by nature desire to know’ (Metaphysics 980a), and to know is a key part of how we express and embody that nature. Not all of what needs to be known and understood, however, is pleasant. Indeed, an Aristotelian conception of εὐδαιμονία‎, happiness, requires a proper responsiveness to what is ‘unhappy’ at the moment. The courageous man does not avoid fearful or dangerous situations, but rather responds to them properly, in the right manner at the right time. Friendship requires vulnerability to one’s closest friends, even at the risk of great loss. A virtuous man grieves appropriately for those he has lost, rather than not grieving at all.

The community, too, has an obligation to understand the truth of its own vulnerabilities, suffering, even flaws. Any self-understanding of a community that can see only its strengths is unbalanced. (p.202) Consider some of the well-known adulatory remarks Pericles delivered in his funeral oration, as reported by Thucydides:

We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger.49

Pericles’ speech at the time provided an important balance to the losses of war. As their leader, he reminds them that grief and hardship are not the whole of the city. To see only loss in the community is to take an unbalanced view of its own reality. Pericles seeks to reveal the things themselves to the Athenians, that is, to remind them of the realities that they may not currently be able to access, through λόγοι‎ that can again reveal what is good in the community to those who suffer.

But to take such comments as the final word on Athens would also be a misunderstanding of the truth of the πόλις‎. Tragedy provides a counterbalance to the community that praises itself too highly, or believes in the totality of its own virtue to the exclusion of suffering, conflicting obligations, marginalization, powerlessness, and like themes of tragedy. In a sense, then, tragedy can ‘purge’ a city of its excesses, through serving as a reminder of what is. Such purgation or rebalancing should not be understood to be ‘merely’ psychological, for the psychological and logical, the mental and the ontological, are closely linked for Aristotle. Tragedy, if engaged with responsively, can restore epistemological honesty to the community while (p.203) simultaneously expanding its self-understanding to include greater wholeness, greater inclusion of what is already in its midst. Tragedy and philosophy, too, achieve this through a kind of transcendence of one’s current circumstance, not as an escape, but rather so that we might return again to community ever more engaged with the truth of our own community, better prepared to be responsive to it.


(1) All translations of the Nicomachean Ethics in this chapter are from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett, 1985).

(2) Neal Croally, ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’, in J. Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 60–1. Croally observes that the very language of placing events es meson, or ‘at the centre’, is significant for its links to the democratic.

(3) Richard Martin, ‘Ancient Theatre and Performance Culture’, in Maryanne McDonald and Michael Walton (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 36.

(4) Martin, ‘Ancient Theatre’, 38.

(5) Croally, ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’, 62.

(6) Martin, ‘Ancient Theatre’, 49.

(7) Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Tragedy and Anthropology’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 297–8.

(8) For details in the controversy, see Croally, ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’, 62–3; E. Csapo and W. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 286–93; and Jeffrey Henderson, ‘Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 121 (1991), 133–47.

(9) A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 236; Croally, ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’, 62–3.

(10) See Ruth Scodel, ‘Sophoclean Tragedy’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 233–49. Scodel notes that Sophocles, in particular among the tragedians, communicates the importance of compassion for those who suffer.

(11) Translations of the Poetics are from Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S. H. Bucher (London: MacMillan, 1895), accessed online at the MIT Internet Classics Archive 〈http://www.classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html〉, 2010–11.

(12) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett, 1992), 49.

(13) Herodotus 6. 21. See Croally, ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’, 67.

(14) See Christopher Long, Aristotle on the Nature of Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 86–96.

(15) Bernard Knox, Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and his Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 77.

(16) Edith Hall, Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 123.

(17) Croally, ‘Tragedy’s Teaching’, 67.

(18) On this point, see also A. M. Bowie, ‘Pity, Fear and Citizenship: The Politics of Aristotle’s Poetics’, in Derek Barker (ed.), Tragedy and Citizenship: Conflict, Reconciliation, and Democracy from Haemon to Hegel (New York: SUNY Press, 2008), 56–9.

(19) See, for example, Martin, ‘Ancient Theatre’, 36–54.

(20) Douglas Cairns, ‘Values’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 305–20.

(21) A. M. Bowie, ‘Tragic Filters for History: Euripides’ Supplices and Sophocles’ Philoctetes’, in B. R. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 56–8.

(22) See Paula Debnar, ‘Fifth Century Athenian History and Tragedy’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 18–20. Bowie himself also makes the connection between Odysseus and Alcibiades. See Bowie, ‘Tragic Filters for History’, 58–9.

(23) Bowie, ‘Tragic Filters for History’, 45–56.

(24) Paul Cartledge, ‘Deep Plays: Theatre as Process in Athenian Civic Life’, in P. E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 3–35.

(25) Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Tragedy and Anthropology’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 297–8. See also C. Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Assumptions and the Creation of Meaning: Reading Sophocles’ Antigone’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 109 (1989), 134–48.

(26) Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Assumptions’, 144.

(27) See Attic Nights 6. 5–7. 8, trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb, 1927) and Ismene Lada-Richards, ‘Greek Tragedy and Western Perceptions of Acting’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 400. As Lada-Richards explains, contemporary actors, especially method actors, might have a quite different view of how characters are mediated through the ‘self’ that each actor brings to bear on a role.

(28) For example, Antigone’s rebellion against male structures of power is also done for the sake of her brother, for whom she is willing to sacrifice her own life so that she might join him in the same grave.

(29) See F. I. Zeitlin, Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) and Mary Ebbott, ‘Marginal Figures’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 366–76. For reflections on the role of women’s voices in tragedy, see especially H. P. Foley, ‘The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama’, in H. P. Foley (ed.), Reflections of Women in Antiquity (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1981), 127–68; and B. Seidensticker, ‘Women on the Tragic Stage’, in B. Goff (ed.), History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1995), 151–73.

(30) Ebbott, ‘Marginal Figures’, 366.

(31) Nussbaum, Fragility, 264–89.

(32) Eva Brann, The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), 40.

(33) Brann, The World of the Imagination, 43.

(34) Long, Nature of Truth, 83.

(35) The J. A. Smith translation is used throughout this chapter: Aristotle, De Anima, trans. J. A. Smith, in Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941).

(36) Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 2001).

(37) Long, Nature of Truth, 55. Of course, defending such a view is well beyond the scope of this paper, but Long offers a thorough argument.

(38) Aristotle, Poetics I with the Tractatus Coislinianus, a Hypothetical Reconstruction of Poetics II, the Fragments of On Poets, Book I, translated with an introduction by Richard Janko (Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett, 1987), ix–xxiv.

(39) Bowie, ‘Pity, Fear, and Citizenship’, 51–5 also shows the importance of pity and fear for ethical deliberation, as well as the significance of identification with the suffering hero in tragedy.

(40) Jacob Bernays is usually credited as being among the first of contemporary commentators to identify κάθαρσις‎ with medical purgation, in his Grundzüge der verlorenen Abhandlung des Aristoteles uver Wirkung der Tragödie. His work on καθάρσις‎ is available in Andrew Laird (ed.), Ancient Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(41) Leon Golden, Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 8–12.

(42) Golden, Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis, 8–12.

(43) Stephen Halliwell, ‘Learning from Suffering: Ancient Responses to Tragedy’, in Gregory (ed.), Companion to Greek Tragedy, 404–5.

(44) Golden, Mimesis, 22–3.

(45) Golden, Mimesis, 26.

(46) Golden agrees with Nussbaum and Salkever that the affective as much as the rational is part of audience experience of tragic reality, but argues that the audience’s grappling with the justice or injustice of suffering takes place at a purely rational level, as one ‘weighs the evidence’ (p. 33). However, as I have argued here, the point is that rationality itself is strongly informed by affective experience; the movement from imagination to practical reason does not leave behind the sensory, but rather the experiential and affective inform how practical reasoning takes place. For more on the relation between cognition and emotion, see W. W. Fortenbraugh, Aristotle on Emotion (New York: Duckworth, 1975), 12–22.

(47) One of the few commentators to look at the political place of tragedy in Aristotle’s psychology is Bowie, ‘Pity, Fear, and Citizenship’. Bowie focuses on the role of practical wisdom and deliberation, whereas my own attention here is on imagination and sympathy.

(48) Halliwell, ‘Learning from Suffering’, 394–6.

(49) Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War (London: Penguin, 1972), translated by Warner, Book 2, 34–46.