If we come to understand the Aristotelian concept of pleasure as an activity as opposed to a process, and the distinction between essential and accidental pleasures, we can better understand the source of Aristotles tragic pleasure and how it relates to mimesis and catharsis. I will argue that Aristotle, based on his ethical writings, would not have believed that catharsis is pleasurable. If catharsis is not the pleasure of tragedy, there must be some other pleasure associated with tragic works. This pleasure is the pleasure of experiencing mimetic representations and is the essential pleasure of tragedy.
If we come to understand tragic pleasure in this way, we can allow for a definition of catharsis that does not hold the sole responsibility of creating the pleasure of tragic works. In this way we are able to give catharsis its proper designation as an accidental pleasure while still admitting to an essential pleasure of tragedy: the pleasure of mimesis. Aristotle writes the Poetics as an investigation into representational art and, more specifically, as an investigation into the art form of tragedy.
While Aristotle goes into great detail regarding the technical aspects of creating and appreciating a work of tragedy, he is somewhat lacking in his descriptions of how tragedy is enjoyed by an audience. He writes that experiencing a tragedy is pleasurable and that this pleasure is of a certain kind, saying: we must not demand of tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. 1 However, he does not illuminate the reader as to what type of pleasure is proper to tragedy, the source of this pleasure, or how it is created. I will argue that Aristotle speaks of this
tragic pleasure in two ways; as the pleasure of mimesis, and as the pleasure of catharsis. In order to understand how Aristotle views these two concepts as pleasurable, an investigation into Aristotles conception of 1 Poetics 1453b 10-14 1 pleasure, as found in his ethical writings, will also be required. If we come to understand the Aristotelian concept of pleasure as an activity as opposed to a process, and the distinction between essential and accidental pleasures, we can better understand the source of Aristotles tragic pleasure and how it relates to mimesis and catharsis.
In regards to catharsis, there has been a great deal of speculation and disagreement surrounding this concept. We will be approaching catharsis in a way that is based on the sparse passages in Poetics and Politics in which its nature is specifically discussed. This means that catharsis will be approached strictly as a purging of negative emotions. While this view has been largely criticized, it is supported by Aristotles writings. Through the subsequent discussion of catharsis and its relationship to pleasure, I will defend the notion that catharsis is best explained as a purging of negative emotions.
This concept is vital to the further investigation into the source of Aristotles tragic pleasure, how it relates to mimesis and catharsis, and the relationship, if any, between mimesis and catharsis. Aristotle on Pleasure Nicomachean Ethics allows for the greatest insight into Aristotles conception of pleasure. Book Ten begins with a definition of pleasure as an activity and not a process. Aristotle writes, They hold that what is good is complete, whereas processes and becomings are incomplete; and they try to show that pleasure is a process and a becoming.
It would seem, however, that they are wrong, and pleasure is not even a process. 2 In Metaphysics Aristotle explains the distinction between an activity and a process. He writes that each process is for the sake of an end3 while an activity will be an end in 2 3 Nicomachean Ethics 1173a 29-33 Metaphysics 1048b 19 2 and of itself. He uses the examples of losing weight as opposed to seeing to show this difference. Aristotle writes that when one is in the process of losing weight, there is a specific end to which the process strives towards, this end is having lost weight.
In the action of losing weight, the end is not present. The end of having lost weight will only occur after the process of losing weight has been completed. The same is not true of seeing. When we see something, the end is having seen it. This end is present in the action of seeing. When we say that we see something, we can also say that we have seen it. The end is in the action itself, and the action is its own end. In this way seeing is an activity and not a process. Aristotle writes that a process will have some type of duration between the time that it is begun and the time that it is completed.
When someone attempts to lose weight, there is a certain duration of time between beginning the process of losing weight and the end of the process, having lost weight. By contrast, an activity is complete at all times. Nicomachean Ethics says that an activity has no need for anything else to complete its form by coming to be at another time. 4 As we have said, the activity of seeing requires no duration of time for its completion. When we see something, there is no process that leads up to us having seen it. We simply see it.
Aristotle views pleasure in the same way. There is no duration of time in which an experience of pleasure is incomplete. Experiencing pleasure is an activity because it is completed by virtue of its having taken place. Aristotle specifically compares the activity of pleasure to the activity of seeing in Book Ten of Nicomachean Ethics. Seeing seems to be complete at anytime, since it has no need for anything else to complete its form by coming to be at a later time. And pleasure is also like this, since it 4 Nicomachean Ethics 1174a 15-17 3
is some sort of whole, and no pleasure is to be found at any time that will have its form completed by coming to be for a longer time. Hence pleasure is not a process either. 5 We can see from this passage that Aristotle believes that something which is pleasurable will be pleasurable in and of itself. It will have no end which needs to be brought to completion. Pleasure will be complete at anytime it is experienced. Having made the distinction between an activity and a process, we can move on to Aristotles definition of pleasure as being of two separate types.
Aristotle divides pleasure into pleasures which are essential and pleasures which are only accidental. Aristotle views pleasures which occur accidentally as those which restore us to our natural state. 6 However, Aristotle views these restorations as processes as opposed to activities. He writes that these pleasures are remedies of what is lacking7 If accidental pleasures are restorative and remedies for a lacking, then clearly they have some goal which they strive toward. The goal of this type of process would be the restoration of our natural state.
In the case of hunger, if one eats then one feels a pleasure taken in the restoration of ones natural state of fullness and the remedy for the lacking of hunger. But this restoration is a process. When we begin eating, we do so to return ourselves to our natural state of fullness. If we continue to eat, at some later point our hunger will dissipate as we complete the restoration to fullness. Eating is a process because it is begun at some point when we begin eating, and it is completed at a later time when our hunger is assuaged.
As we have said, processes cannot be pleasurable because a pleasure has no end other than itself and has no duration of time from its beginning to its completion. A restoration or a remedy has a goal other than itself (its completion) and 5 1174a 15-20 1152b 34-35 7 1154b 1 6 4 this goal will take a duration of time to complete. Therefore, accidental pleasures are not actually pleasurable and the pleasure taken in eating must come from a source other than the restoration of the natural state of fullness. Aristotle addresses why accidental pleasures are often mistaken to be pleasurable.
He writes that accidental pleasures are pleasant coincidentally because they occur at the same time as some other essential pleasure. Essential pleasures are those which will be pleasurable in our natural, healthy state. 8 These pleasures occur when our nature lacks nothing. 9 When experiencing an essential pleasure, there is no deficient condition or depleted state in our being. When we mistake an accidental pleasure for an essential pleasure, we wrongly associate the pleasure with the restoration of a depleted or deficient condition.
What actually occurs is an essential pleasure of some other healthy state that occurs at the same time as the accidental pleasure. Aristotle describes this as follows, By coincidentally pleasant things I mean pleasant things that are curative; for the process of being cured coincides with some action on the part of us that remains healthy, and hence undergoing a cure seems to be pleasant. Things are pleasant by nature, however, when they produce action of a healthy nature. 10 We can understand in this passage that Aristotle describes accidental pleasures as coincidentally pleasant and essential pleasures as being pleasant by nature.
The accidental pleasure is only felt as pleasurable because it occurs coincidentally with the essential pleasure. It is very easy to mistake an accidental pleasure for something that is essentially pleasant. If we, again, look toward the example of eating a meal, we can see how this occurs. When we are eating, we are hungry. Aristotle would consider hunger to be a depleted state. When we eat we are being restored to our natural state of fullness. We 8 1154b 17 1153a 1-2 10 1154b 16-21 9 5 erroneously associate the pleasure of eating with the restoration of our natural state of fullness.
This feeling of pleasure is actually associated with an essential pleasure and will only coincide with the restoration of a depleted state. Therefore, an essential pleasure of eating must also exist. Aristotle would view the proper functioning of our digestive organs to be the essential pleasure of eating. In other words, restoring the depleted state of hunger is accidentally pleasant because it coincides with the essential pleasure of the proper functioning of our digestive organs. Restorations are only pleasurable because, although part of the body is in a depleted condition, another healthy part of the body is functioning correctly.
The essential pleasures are derived from the part of the body which is functioning correctly. Catharsis Aristotle writes that, when experiencing a work of tragedy, we should not demand of it any and every type of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. 11 Now that we have an understanding of pleasure as an activity and not a process, as well as an understanding of the distinction between essential and accidental pleasures, we are better able to examine tragedy and find the source of Aristotles tragic pleasure.
Most commonly, catharsis has been pointed to as the source of pleasure found in works of tragedy. Regretfully, catharsis is the least addressed, and therefore least understood, component of Aristotles theory of tragedy. As I have stated previously, we will be approaching catharsis as a purging of negative emotions, as this is the definition of catharsis which is supported by Aristotles sparse writings on the subject. In approaching catharsis in this way, we will be able to gather a better understanding of how it relates to 11.
Poetics 1453b 10-12 6 pleasure, as well as being able to counter some of the recent writing on the subject of catharsis by Jonathan Lear and Martha Nussbaum. As we have said, Aristotle only briefly touches on the concept of catharsis in both the Politics and the Poetics. In the Politics, Aristotle writes that men who are possessed by strong feelings will be restored as if by cure or catharsis after listening to sacred songs which dispel the frenzy of their souls.
12 He goes on to say that anyone who is possessed by strong feelings such as pity and fear can experience these songs and will undergo a catharsis of sorts and [be] pleasantly relieved. 13 We can infer from these passages that Aristotle views catharsis as a purging of the emotions. This inference is further supported in Book Six of the Poetics when Aristotle writes that tragedy imitates pity and fear, thereby it can accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. 14 Again we see that catharsis is a function of tragedy and this function is a purging of the emotions through the experience of their imitation.
Jonathan Lear, in his essay Katharsis, cautions us against an interpretation of catharsis as purgation. He writes that the concept of purging has its origins in ancient medicine where a substance was introduced into the body so that, when it is expelled, the noxious substance afflicting the body comes out with it. While he admits that the practice of purging was known in Aristotles time, he argues that there is no evidence that Aristotle himself was familiar with it. 15 However, the passages from Aristotle quoted above seem to argue against Lears claim.
Aristotle specifically discusses how a person is afflicted with a strong, pent-up emotion which is purged from the body through the 12 Politics 1342a 8-10 1342a 15-16 14 Poetics 1449b 25-30 15 Lear, Jonathan Katharsis p. 2 13 7 introduction of either sacred music or imitations of pity and fear. It is not clear how Aristotle would be able to make these claims if he was not previously aware of the medical practice of purging. It is also worth noting that Aristotles main writings were in the field of biology and his father was the court physician to the King of Macedonia.
His own descriptions of catharsis and purging so closely resemble the descriptions of medical purging that to claim he was not aware of this practice seems impossible. In recent years a different reading of catharsis has come into popular usage. This reading, supported by Martha Nussbaum, claims that catharsis should be viewed as an education of the emotions and emotional responses as opposed to a purging of the emotions. Aristotle wrote that catharsis comes about through the imitation of pity and fear.
Nussbaum argues that catharsis should be viewed as education of the emotions, saying Through their pity and fear, indeed in those responses, spectators attain a deeper understanding of the world in which they must live. 16 Nussbaum views catharsis as a way in which spectators attain a deeper understanding of the emotions and the ways that these emotions illuminate the world we live in. The claim that Aristotle would view catharsis and education as the same process is not supported in any of his writings on catharsis.
Furthermore, investigation into Aristotles writings supports the claim that he believed that education and catharsis are two separate concepts. In his discussion of music in Politics, Aristotle writes that music can be used for education or for catharsis. We accept, as some philosophic thinkers posit, the classification of songs into those which express character, those which stir action, and those which inspire enthusiasm, and the nature of each of the modes as being appropriate to one of these¦ and we maintain that music should be used to benefit not only one but many of our activities.
It may be 16 Nussbaum, Martha Tragedy and Self-sufficiency p. 27 8 used for education, for the sake of catharsis¦ and for the sake of passing the time, as in relief or relaxation. 17 Aristotle goes on to say that certain types of musical modes will be most effective in education, while different modes will be most effective in producing catharsis in the audience. If education and catharsis were synonymous, then he would not need to make the distinction between different modes of music that are effective for each.
Clearly Aristotle sees education and catharsis as distinct, different concepts. Catharsis and Pleasure If we accept Aristotles definition of catharsis as a purging of emotions and agree that he would not have believed that catharsis was a form of education, we can now turn our attention to how catharsis is pleasurable. It is my assertion that catharsis is pleasant accidentally, that is, catharsis functions as a curative activity which restores one from a deficient condition. As we have said, Aristotle views catharsis as an action which restores one from a deficient state.
He writes that those who are possessed by religious frenzy can listen to sacred songs and be restored as if by cure or catharsis18, and that people who are affected by pity and fear can undergo a catharsis and [be] pleasantly relieved. 19 If catharsis is based on relieving one from a condition such as religious frenzy or an abundance of negative emotions, such as pity and fear, then it is clear that catharsis will not function if one is in their natural state. Aristotle defines ones natural state as being healthy or having no depleted or deficient condition.
20 Based on his descriptions of when catharsis takes place, we can say that Aristotle would not believe 17 Politics 1341b32-42 Politics 1342a 10 19 1342a 15-16 20 Nicomachean Ethics 1154b 17-20 18 9 that catharsis could occur while one is in ones natural state. The process of catharsis requires a condition where one needs to be cured or relieved of some negative emotion. Our investigation into pleasure in Nicomachean Ethics has shown that Aristotle views pleasures that occur in our natural state as essential pleasures and not accidental pleasures.
Pleasures that do not involve pains, however, do not admit of excess. These are among the things that are pleasant by nature and not accidentally. 21 Things that are pleasant by nature are things which are pleasant essentially. In contrast, things which are accidentally pleasant are things which involve a restoration or cure and these perceived pleasures are only pleasant in that they coincide with an essential pleasure. Aristotle describes accidental pleasures as follows, By things pleasant accidentally I mean those that are curative.
22 This description of accidental pleasures seems to agree with the way in which Aristotle describes catharsis. He describes catharsis as relieving a person of certain emotions and restoring one to ones natural state from a state of religious frenzy. We must admit that our natural healthy state would contain no pent up negative emotions or religious frenzy; therefore catharsis would not affect someone who is in their natural healthy state. If catharsis cannot occur in ones natural state, then it cannot be essentially pleasurable.
Based on the fact that catharsis works to restore one to ones natural state, we must admit that Aristotle would have believed that catharsis is only pleasurable accidentally and its pleasure is actually derived from some other, essential pleasure. The Essential Pleasure of Tragedy 21 22 1154b 16-17 1154b 17-18 10 If catharsis is only accidentally pleasurable, we need to find the pleasure of tragedy which is separate from catharsis and essentially pleasurable.
When we again turn to Aristotles writings on the subject of tragedy and pleasure, we find several instances where he discusses the pleasure of tragedy independent of catharsis. While the concept of catharsis is only briefly touched on in Poetics, Aristotle speaks quite regularly of pleasure in response to works of tragedy, saying; The instinct of imitation is implanted in men from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.
23 Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring pity and fear. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident. 24 It is accounted the best because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is guided in what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however, thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure.
25 And again; The pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents. 26 It would seem that if Aristotle believed that the pleasure of tragedy is always associated with catharsis and accidental pleasures, then catharsis would be connected with these statements on tragic pleasure. In fact it is never brought up at all. As I have said, catharsis is never mentioned by Aristotle in Poetics regarding the pleasure of tragedy.
Aristotle does, however, mention one function of tragedy in connection with tragic pleasure; the pleasure of the recognition and understanding of mimesis. If we return to the passage in Poetics at 1448b 5-10, it is clear that Aristotle 23 Poetics 1448b 5-10 1452a 1-10 25 1453a 35-37 26 1453b 11-15 24 11 views imitation as central to human existence and to our definition of humans as the most imitative of living creatures27 What accompanies this claim is the claim that the pleasure derived from imitation is universal to all humans.
It would seem that Aristotle views the appreciation of imitations to be a universal pleasure of humanity. Aristotle views works of art as works of imitation (or mimesis) and it is through this mimesis that we take pleasure in works of art. He supports this claim in Book 11 of Rhetoric, saying: Since learning and wondering are pleasant, it follows that such things as acts of imitation must be pleasant- for instance, painting, sculpture, poetry- and every product of skillful imitation.
28 Aristotle makes the connection between imitation, learning, and pleasure and writes that imitations will produce a type of learning and that this learning will be pleasurable. It is important to understand what type of learning Aristotle discusses when dealing with these passages. The type of learning that is connected to mimesis is not of the same kind as Nussbaum discusses in regards to catharsis. The type of learning that Aristotle connects to mimesis is not educational in that it can be applied to our lives and be beneficial.
The type of learning that is connected to mimesis is the recognition of what the mimetic image represents. Halliwell correctly points out that this recognition is not simply the understanding that a character represented is actually the representation of a real person, but that this recognition is the recognition of certain universal types of characters and actions.
It is the recognition that the tragic plot represents something that could be possible in reality. 29 Halliwell describes this recognition as a type of metaphor; 27 1448b 8 Rhetoric 1371b 4-7 29 Halliwell, Stephen The Aesthetics of Mimesis 28 12 in recognizing that a mimesis is a representation of something else, we are able to say that this is that as in the case of metaphors.
While it is true that this could be a simple case of some character representing an actual person, as the character in Aristophanes Clouds represents Socrates, Aristotle would not see this as the most fulfilling way that a mimesis can be recognized and understood. When he addresses the importance of plot and action over characters by saying that tragedy is the imitation of an action30, Aristotle lends support to the claim that imitations of universals are preferable to imitations of particulars.
While it is not entirely clear why this type of mimesis is preferable to Aristotle, it could be that imitations of universals allow for the cognitive faculties of the mind to exercise themselves more freely. In the instances where an imitation is merely the imitation of a specific person, as soon as we recognize this imitation the cognitive functions of the mind cease the activity since the recognition has been made. In the instances where the imitation is of some universal, the cognitive faculties are free to continue to interpret and understand this universal concept even after the initial recognition has been made.
Aristotle writes that 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. 31 The imitation of action and of life is the imitation of universals that spectators can recognize and understand. However, this action must be of a certain type in order to cause the type of pleasure that is specific to tragedy. Aristotle writes that tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring pity and fear.
32 This is connected to tragic pleasure when Aristotle discusses the type of pleasure that is associated with tragedy, he writes that the 30 Poetics 1449b 38 1450a 16-19 32 1452a 3 31 13 pleasure which the poet should afford [tragedy] is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation. 33 In other words, the pleasure of works of art is in the recognition and understanding of what the mimesis represents. In works of tragedy this pleasure will be the recognition and understanding that what is represented is the imitation of actions inspiring pity and fear.
While Aristotle clearly believes that the recognition and understanding of mimesis causes pleasure, the question still remains regarding the nature of this pleasure. We must still prove that the recognition and understanding of mimesis is an essential pleasure and not only accidentally pleasant. The fact that Aristotle does not mention any type of curative or restorative quality of the pleasure of mimesis certainly supports the claim that he would view it as an essential pleasure.
Nowhere is it mentioned that the pleasure of mimesis is predicated on a depleted or deficient condition in the spectator. Aristotle also describes certain plots of tragedy which do not achieve tragic pleasure because they cater to the weaknesses of the audience through the use of the spectacle, which he sees as inferior to a well written plot. He writes that poets who appeal to their audiences in this way are accounted the best because of the weakness of the spectator¦ The pleasure, however, thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure.
34 It would seem that Aristotle requires tragedy to appeal to an audience who is without weakness, and that an audience who finds the appropriate pleasure in tragedy will do so in their healthy, natural state. If there is a weakness in the spectator, then the cognitive faculties will not be functioning properly to create the recognition and understanding of the mimesis. Through the use of the spectacle, a poet can create pleasure for the audience, but Aristotle does not see this 33 34 1453b 12-14 1453b 30-40 14 as the true tragic pleasure because the cognitive faculties are not used in their natural healthy state.
As we have said, pleasures which occur in our natural state are essential pleasures because they are not based on the restoring of a deficient condition35, and it would seem that Aristotle requires one to be in a natural, healthy state in order to properly experience the pleasure of tragedy. Aristotle also discusses the pleasure of mimesis as being universal. 36 That is to say, everyone will find mimesis pleasurable. As Jonathan Lear has pointed out, everyone in this sense must also include the virtuous man who is in no deficient condition.
37 If a pleasure is to be universal, it must occur in those who are in their natural states. Again, this means that the pleasure of mimesis is an essential pleasure because it does not cure or restore a depleted, deficient condition and instead occurs in us in our natural state. Just as the essential pleasure of eating is not hunger, but the proper functioning of the digestive organs; the pleasure of tragedy is not catharsis, but the proper functioning of our mental faculties in the recognition and understanding of mimetic representations The Relationship between Mimesis and Catharsis.
The recognition and understanding of the mimesis in tragic works is its essential pleasure and the pleasure of catharsis is only accidentally pleasurable. We must now turn our attention to the relationship between mimesis and catharsis in order to understand if there is a causal relationship between the essential pleasure of mimesis and the accidental pleasure of catharsis. Aristotle says in Book Six of Poetics: Tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in 35 Nicomachean Ethics 1154b 17-20.
Poetics 1448b 6-9 37 Lear, Jonathan Katharsis, p. 5 36 15 separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. 38 This passage indicates that Aristotle does see a causal connection between mimesis and catharsis. It is only through the proper understanding and recognition of the mimesis of pity and fear that these emotions can be purged through catharsis.
If we lack the understanding of the mimesis of pity and fear, and therefore lack the essential pleasure of tragedy, we could not recognize the imitation of the emotions of which our catharsis would be dependant. We could make the same connection when dealing with Aristotles writings in Book Eight of Politics. Here Aristotle writes that someone who is in a religious frenzy will be restored by cure or catharsis after listening to sacred songs.
39 The cathartic benefits of sacred songs would not occur if the one listening lacked the understanding and recognition of these songs as the mimesis of something sacred. To once again return to the analogy between the pleasure of tragedy and the pleasure of eating; if we lacked the proper functioning of our mental faculties we would not understand the mimesis and therefore could not experience the catharsis, just as if we lacked the proper functioning of our digestive organs we could not experience the accidental pleasure of the restoration from hunger to a state of fullness.
We have stated that the essential pleasure of tragedy occurs while one is in ones natural state which has no deficiency; while, on the other hand, the accidental pleasure of catharsis is dependant on such a deficiency. If one pleasure requires a natural healthy state and the other requires a state of deficiency, it is not immediately clear how both could occur in the same person at the same time. If the essential pleasure of mimesis is causally connected with the accidental pleasure of catharsis, it would seem that a person 38 39 Poetics 1449b 25-32.
Politics 1342a 9 16 would have to be in a natural, healthy state and a deficient state at the same time. While this appears to be contradictory, it is supported by Aristotles writings. In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle, in speaking of accidental pleasures, writes that the remedy [of accidental pleasures] is effected while the part that remains healthy is doing something else. 40 In the case of the pleasure of tragedy, if one experiences catharsis then there is some part of the mind which is affected by a deficient quality in the emotions.
While it is clear that Aristotle views these emotions as having a deficient quality, it is not clear why he views them in this way. One could speculate that they are deficient because they are a removal from the tranquility which would be our natural emotional state. This seems to be supported when Aristotle speaks of sacred songs which will cure religious frenzy. This frenzy could be seen as a deficient condition because it removes us from tranquility.