Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), the son of a physician, was the student of Plato from approximately 367 B.C.E. until his mentor's death in 348/347. After carrying on philosophical and scientific investigations elsewhere in the Greek world and serving as the tutor to Alexander the Great, he returned to Athens in 335 B.C.E. to found the Lyceum, a major philosophical center, which he used as his base for prolific investigations into many areas of philosophy. Much of Aristotle's published work, including all his carefully written and polished essays, has disappeared. The studies that have survived, including the Poetics, have come down to us in a fragmented form, which suggests that they may be lecture notes (of Aristotle himself or of a student attending his lectures), outlines for future works to be published, or summaries of already published works. There has long been speculation that the original Poetics comprised two books, our extant Poetics and a lost second book that supposedly dealt with comedy and/or katharsis. No firm evidence for the existence of this second book has been adduced, but Richard Janko has argued that evidence for its content can be recovered. Our knowledge of the text of the Poetics depends principally on a manuscript of the tenth or eleventh century and a second manuscript dating from the fourteenth century. These sources are supplemented by a thirteenth-century Latin translation of the text by William of Moerbeke, a tenth-century Arabic translation, and a fragment of an earlier Syriac translation.

On a number of subjects Aristotle developed positions that significantly differed from those of his teacher. We very clearly note this profound difference of opinion with Plato and, indeed, observe the overt correction of his erstwhile master in Aristotle's literary and aesthetic theories. As is well known, Plato's negative view of art stems from, first, his view that its essential character as mimesis forces upon it a profound ontological alienation from true reality and, second, his observation that artistic mimesis addresses itself essentially to the emotional, rather than the intellectual, aspect of the human psyche and thus dangerously subverts the character of both the individual and the state.

The principal source of our knowledge of Aristotle's aesthetic and literary theory is the Poetics, but important supplementary information is found in other treatises, chiefly the Rhetoric, the Politics, and the Nicomachean Ethics. As expressed in these works, Aristotelian aesthetics directly contradicts Plato's negative view of art by establishing a potent intellectual role for artistic mimesis. For Aristotle, mimesis describes a process involving the use by different art forms of different means of representation, different manners of communicating that representation to an audience, and different levels of moral and ethical behavior as objects of the artistic representation. Thus Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy and comedy essentially on the basis of the fact that the former represents "noble" or "morally good" agents, while the latter portrays "ignoble" or "morally defective" characters. All forms of mimesis, however, including tragedy and comedy, come into existence because of a fundamental intellectual impulse felt by all human beings. In the Metaphysics Aristotle describes this impulse as humanity's "desire to know," and in chapter 4 of the Poetics he identifies it with the essential pleasure we human beings find in all mimesis, the pleasure of "learning and inference." In chapter 14, moreover, Aristotle states that the tragic poet must provide pleasure from pity and fear through mimesis, thus alerting us again to the intellectual pleasure generated by tragic mimesis. In chapter 9 he asserts that poetry "is more philosophical and more significant than history" because its goal is the representation of that which is universal, while history has the expression of the particular as its object. In this emphasis on the intellectual and philosophical dimensions of mimesis, Aristotle directly contradicts Plato's derogation of art as an inferior appeal to human emotions.

Aristotle's main focus in the Poetics is on the genre of tragedy, but he also makes important comments on comedy and epic. His fundamental theoretical stipulations about the essential nature of mimesis must apply to all genres of literature (tragedy, comedy, epic, etc.) and all other forms of mimesis (music, dance, painting, sculpture, etc.). These basic stipulations are that mimesis is fundamental to our nature as human beings, that human beings are the most imitative of all creatures, that first learning experiences take place through mimesis, and that all human beings take pleasure in mimesis because all find "learning and inference" essentially pleasant. Since the focus of the Poetics is mainly on literary mimesis, it is necessary for us to concentrate on Aristotle's understanding of the way this aspect of mimetic activity leads to the intellectual pleasure he assigns to art.

Aristotle specifies that the function of literary mimesis is to represent a complete and unified action consisting of a beginning, middle, and end linked by necessary and probable causes. The magnitude of such a work is to be such as may easily be held in the memory and yet remain quite clear to an audience. If the beginning, middle, and end of an action are clearly and persuasively motivated, the conditions will be present for "learning and inference" to occur (ch. 4). What could interfere with the accomplishment of this goal are "simple" and "episodic" plots, the former occurring without reversal of fortune (peripeteia) and recognition of some unknown person or fact (anagnorisis) and the latter occurring when the sequence of episodes fails to obey the laws of necessity and probability. To serve the goal of persuasive lucidity, both reversal and recognition must arise naturally out of the structure of the plot because, as Aristotle says, "it makes a great difference if something happens because of something else or merely after it" (ch. 10).

According to Aristotle, the emotions represented and evoked in tragedy are pity and fear. He defines pity as the emotion we feel toward someone who has suffered undeserved misfortune, and fear as the emotion we feel when we realize that the one who suffers this misfortune is someone like ourselves. Now, pity and fear, when we experience them in actual life, are painful feelings, but when they occur in tragic mimesis they are integrated into a structure that has the production of intellectual pleasure as its goal. Aristotle connects the effective evocation of pity and fear to the nature of the hamartia, the tragic mistake or flaw, attributed to the protagonist.

Pity and fear arise only when someone who is very much like ourselves, that is, neither unqualifiedly virtuous nor deeply flawed, falls from happiness to misery because of a hamartia or even a great hamartia. Earlier disputes about the meaning of "hamartia" in this context in the Poetics have given way to an evolving interpretive consensus. It was not uncommon formerly to identify Aristotelian hamartia with a "moral flaw" and to attempt to find in the plot of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus justification for this view. Some critics in the past have identified Oedipus's hamartia as his violent anger. Thus Philip Whaley Harsh comments that "the pre-eminently good and just man does not fly into a fury when a carriage crowds him from the road, and he does not commit murder indiscriminately even when he is lashed by the driver" (48). Perceptive interpretations of that play (Sophocles himself provides an eloquent defense of Oedipus in the Oedipus at Colonus) and of the term "hamartia," however, offer a persuasive refutation of this view. Kurt von Fritz represents this line of thinking when he argues persuasively that no blame can attach to Oedipus for defending himself against an attack by a party of strangers in an isolated locale where no other protection was available. It now seems clear that since the protagonist of Aristotle's "best tragedy," the tragedy of pity and fear, must be a "good" (spoudaios) human being, the required hamartia must be some kind of intellectual mistake that cannot subvert the dignity of someone "like ourselves." D. W. Lucas defines it as "the blindness which is part of the human condition" (307), and P. van Braam describes it as "the insufficiency of the human mind to cope with the mysterious complex of the world" (271).

The key term, and the most controversial one, in Aristotle's theory of artistic mimesis is katharsis. The term has fascinated and troubled scholars at least since the sixteenth century, and the abundant interpretive literature on the concept continues to increase. Three major lines of interpretation emerge, representing the medical, moral, and cognitive views of katharsis.

The medical interpretation, deriving most influentially from the work of Jacob Bernays, bases itself on Aristotle's use of katharsis in the Politics (1341b36-1342a16) to describe a process through which music effects a medical cure by purging a pathological excess of emotion. Bernays assumed that precisely this type of therapeutic katharsis takes place in tragedy. According to this interpretation, the audience must be assumed to suffer from an excess of pity and fear, to seek a remedy for this excess through the homeopathic cure afforded by exposure to additional pity and fear in tragedy, and to experience pleasure because of the relief felt when the cure has been achieved. There are obvious difficulties with such an interpretation, which requires that artistic mimesis be identified with a therapeutic process. There is no evidence in the Poetics to support the view that the essential goal of mimesis is therapeutic; indeed, there is very strong evidence leading to a quite different conclusion.

The interpretation of katharsis as a form of moral purification is identified with the great German dramatist and critic G. E. Lessing, whose view, often combined with aspects of the purgation theory, has influenced a number of subsequent critics. This interpretation is based on a passage in the Nicomachean Ethics (1106b16-23) that asserts that our goal must be to experience emotions virtuously, that is, in accordance with the proper mean between excess and deficiency. The purgation theory views pity and fear as pathological states that must be removed, while the purification interpretation makes the experiencing of these emotions in the proper amount and way a sign of virtue. The idea of katharsis as purification in this moral sense, like purgation, has no supporting evidence in the text of the Poetics.

It is only when we turn to the cognitive interpretation of katharsis that we find explicit supporting evidence in the Poetics. This evidence has been most fully explored by Kurt von Fritz, Pedro Laín Entralgo, and Leon Golden. First, we recall the important passage in chapter 4 (1448b4-17), where Aristotle tells us that mimesis is by nature a part of human experience from childhood on, that it is the basis of our first learning experiences, and that all human beings derive pleasure from it. This pleasure does not derive from the nature of the object represented in the mimesis, for as Aristotle says, we take pleasure in imitated objects such as "despised wild animals and corpses," which would cause us pain if we saw them in reality. For Aristotle, the pleasure arising from mimesis is the pleasure of learning and inference, which "is not only most pleasant to philosophers" but pleasant to all others as well, though in a more limited way. Aristotle further supports the cognitive nature and goals of mimesis when he attributes to poetry in chapter 9 a philosophical dimension arising from its capacity to express universals rather than particulars. In chapter 14 (1453b8-14) he tells us that "it is necessary for the poet to provide pleasure from pity and fear through mimesis" and so once again calls attention to the cognitive function of mimesis, whose essential pleasure we know to be "learning and inference."

The theme of katharsis as a cognitive process is very much a product of twentieth-century thought about this concept. Translations denoting "purgation" and "purification" dominate the interpretations of katharsis from the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, which Ingram Bywater collected in an appendix to his important edition of the Poetics. Donald Keesey, in his 1979 survey of twentieth-century interpretations of katharsis, notes the appearance of various nuances of "clarification" in more recent analysis. Matthias Luserke, in his anthology of nineteenth- and twentieth-century documents relating to the interpretation of katharsis, includes two essays advocating the "clarification" theory of katharsis in a "pure" or modified form. The cognitive view of katharsis is now gaining momentum as an alternative to the traditional interpretations of "purgation" and "purification."

Gerald Else, although he never accepted an intellectual interpretation of katharsis, opened up the way for such an interpretation by his sharp attack on the purgation theory. He called attention to the fact that such a theory "presupposes that we come to the tragic drama (unconsciously, if you will) as patients to be cured, relieved, restored to psychic health. But there is not a word to support this in the Poetics, not a hint that the end of drama is to cure or alleviate pathological states" (440). Else, in his turn, defined katharsis as "the purification of the tragic act by the demonstration that its motive was not miaron [morally polluted]" (439). As a consequence of such a determination the audience is permitted to experience pity for the tragic hero. In spite of Else's reluctance to accept an interpretation of katharsis as "clarification," his view does require katharsis to be based on some form of cognitive process, since the judgment that an act was not morally polluted must begin with the intellectual analysis of the circumstances under which the act was performed.

The cognitive view of katharsis is supported both by the analysis of the internal argument of the Poetics and by arguments based on the way words are used in ancient and modern psychotherapy. Both Pedro Laín Entralgo, a historian of ancient medicine, and Bennett Simon, a practicing psychiatrist, offer us a persuasive insight into the way words in literary contexts affect an audience. Laín Entralgo notes that in the mind of the spectator at a tragedy there is a "deep demand for expression and clarification of the human destiny" (230), and he notes that any emotional and somatic pleasure felt in tragedy is a secondary resultant of a primary intellectual pleasure. In regard to such emotional and somatic pleasure he says, "Previous to it and determining its genesis were and had to be those [pleasures] pertaining to the good order of the soul, both of affective character (having to do with the thymos) and of intellective nature (concerning dianoia)" (236). Simon argues that tragedy should bring some altered and new sense of what one is and who he is in relation to those around him . . . the audience acquires a new sense of the possibilities in being human and in coming to terms with the forces that are more powerful than any one individual. In therapy we also expect an enlarged view of the possibilities that are open in relationships to the self and others. Thus good therapy and good theater have in common a set of inner processes. (144)

Simon, however, correctly understands, as the defenders of the purgation theory of katharsis do not, the essential difference between therapy and aesthetics. He notes that "theater is not, and was not for the Greeks, primarily intended to be therapy for especially disturbed or distressed people. It was expected to provide a certain form of pleasure, even in Greek culture, and was an integral part of the paideia (education in the broadest sense) of each Athenian" (144-45). It is only--and this is a matter of very great importance--the verbal triggering of intellectual and emotional responses that the two processes share in common.

Evidence for the interpretation of katharsis as "intellectual clarification" based on the internal argument of the Poetics has been presented by Leon Golden, Martha Nussbaum, and Christian Wagner, who have suggested ways of expanding or modifying this interpretation. Nussbaum argues for katharsis as "clarification," but a clarification that does not depend exclusively on the intellect but could be generated by emotion as well. Wagner maintains that the clarification involved in tragedy is limited to ethical issues.

While the principal subject of the Poetics is tragedy, important comments are also made in the work about comedy and, to a lesser extent, about epic. As mentioned above, there has long been speculation about the existence of a lost second book of the Poetics dealing with Aristotle's theory of comedy. In the absence of that book, if it ever existed, scholars have had recourse to two sources as a basis for establishing Aristotle's views about the nature of comedy. One of these is the Tractatus Coislinianus, a treatise contained in an early tenth-century manuscript whose value and authenticity have been subjected to strong scholarly disagreement. Bywater called it a "sorry fabrication" and cited Bernays's view of it as a travesty (xxii). Janko has defended its value as a source for Aristotelian comic theory. The other source is the Poetics itself and other indisputably genuine Aristotelian texts that provide us with enough reliable data to permit us to reconstruct most, if not all, of Aristotle's theory of comedy.

We must first recall that for Aristotle all forms of mimesis, including tragic and comic mimesis, have as their goal the evocation of intellectual pleasure. Thus, comic mimesis must meet all of the stringent requirements set forth for tragic mimesis in terms of the persuasive lucidity that is the necessary prerequisite for the climactic experience of "learning and inference" required of all mimesis. Tragedy, we have been told, aims at the katharsis of pity and fear and thus must represent the actions of "good" or "noble" (in a moral or ethical sense) human beings. Comedy, Aristotle tells us, represents the opposite kind of character, which we can designate as "base" or "ignoble." Moreover, comedy represents such characters, not in regard to every kind of vice, but in regard to the ridiculous, a subdivision of the general category of moral and physical deformity. For the ridiculous is some error and deformity which is not painful or destructive--the example which immediately comes to mind is the comic mask which is ugly and distorted but which does not cause pain. (Poetics ch. 5)


  We can learn a great deal about the nature of the "base" characters represented in comedy from the discussion of human vices and virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics. Thus, a great deal of what we must know about the means, objects, and manner of comic mimesis is provided to us by available, authentic Aristotelian texts. What these texts do not provide is a discussion of the emotions, analogous to pity and fear in tragedy, that are aroused in comedy.

What we do know with certainty is that the emotion or emotions aroused in comedy must be related to the representation of "base" human beings involved in action designated by Aristotle as "ridiculous" and thus must be opposed in some way to the emotions evoked by the "noble" characters represented in tragedy. On the basis of this authentically Aristotelian view of the nature of comedy and tragedy, we can at least speculate reasonably about the emotions evoked in comedy. Since for Aristotle tragedy and comedy are directly opposed to each other in terms of the character and action they represent, we may ask whether Aristotle anywhere designates the emotion that is opposed to pity and fear. Here we do have information that could help us in developing a hypothesis about comic emotion. In the Rhetoric Aristotle addresses the question of pity and its opposed emotional experience. He states there that the direct opposite of pity is what may be called "righteous indignation" (nemesan), which is a feeling of pain at undeserved good fortune in the same way that pity is a feeling of pain at undeserved misfortune. Edward M. Cope analyzes the concept of righteous indignation (expressed by the Greek terms nemesan and nemesis) as follows:

  According to Aristotle's definition of nemesis "a feeling of pain at undeserved good fortune" it represents the "righteous indignation" arising from a sense of the claims of justice and desert, which is aroused in us by the contemplation of success without merit, and a consequent pleasure in the punishment of one who is thus undeservedly prosperous. (2:108)
  We can say that both Old Comedy and New Comedy provide significant instances of "base" characters behaving in a ridiculous manner and achieving, at least temporarily, undeserved success. At the end of the comedy these characters regularly meet with deserved punishment. Thus the idea of righteous indignation alluded to in the Rhetoric as the opposite of pity does bear a clear relationship to the action of comedy. Calling attention to this suggestive idea, however, is probably as far as we should go in our speculation on Aristotle's view of the comic emotions.

In the final chapter of the Poetics Aristotle compares tragedy and epic, both of which represent "noble" characters. He notes that tragedy contains all of the elements in epic and additional ones unique to itself. The most important way, however, in which tragedy differs from, and is superior to, epic is in its much more compact structure. Aristotle sees the much greater length of epic, with its main plot and subplots, as an impediment to the lucid and persuasive unfolding of the poem's theme. He judges tragedy to be superior because its carefully orchestrated incidents, bound together from beginning to middle to end by psychological and aesthetic necessity and probability, achieve tragedy's mimetic goal more effectively than is possible for epic, with its looser and more cumbrous structure. Here again, at the end of the Poetics, Aristotle reveals the central role cognitive pleasure plays in his aesthetic theory.

Aristotle has exerted a large and enduring influence on literary criticism and aesthetic theory. New translations and new interpretations of his work in this area regularly appear. In part these new contributions continue interpretive disagreements that have existed for centuries, but recent scholarship has also been moving toward the resolution of some longstanding controversies and the deeper illumination of others. We can be certain that in changing aesthetic landscapes, where the expectations for criticism may undergo radical transformations, the voice of Aristotle will always be heard, asserting authoritatively that the critic's essential duty is to investigate the way the organic structure of a work of art leads us to a universalizing epiphany involving the highest human pleasure, the pleasure of learning and inference about significant human actions.

Leon Golden

  Notes and Bibliography
  See also Chicago Critics, Classical Theory and Criticism, Drama Theory, Medieval Theory and Criticism, and Renaissance Theory and Criticism.

Samuel Henry Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, with a Critical Text and Translation of the "Poetics" (1902); Ingram Bywater, Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (1909); Lane Cooper, An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy (1922), Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (1947); Edward M. Cope and John Edwin Sandys, The Rhetoric of Aristotle, with an adaptation of the "Poetics" and a Translation of the "Tractatus Coislinianus" (3 vols., 1877, reprint, 1988); Roselyne Dupont-Roc and Jean Lallot, Aristote: La Poétique (1980); Gerald Frank Else, Aristotle's "Poetics": The Argument (1957); Leon Golden and O. B. Hardison, Jr., Aristotle's Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature (1981); D. W. Lucas, Aristotle: "Poetics" (1968).

P. van Braam, "Aristotle's Use of Hamartia" Classical Quarterly 6 (1912); R. D. Dawe, "Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72 (1967); Gerald Frank Else, Plato and Aristotle on Poetry (1986); Kurt von Fritz, Antike und moderne Tragödie (1962); Leon Golden, "Aristotle on Comedy," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 42 (1984), "Catharsis," Transactions of the American Philological Association 93 (1962), "The Clarification Theory of Katharsis," Hermes 104 (1976), "Comic Pleasure," Hermes 115 (1987); Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle's "Poetics" (1986); Philip Whaley Harsh, "Hamartia Again," Transactions of the American Philological Association 76 (1945); Malcolm Heath, "Aristotelian Comedy," Classical Quarterly 39 (1989), The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (1987); Richard Janko, Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II (1984); Donald Keesey, "On Some Recent Interpretations of Catharsis," The Classical World 72 (1979); Pedro Laín Entralgo, The Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity (1970); Jonathan Lear, "Katharsis," Phronesis 33 (1988); Matthias Luserke, Die Aristotelische Katharsis (1991); Richard P. McKeon, "Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity," Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (ed. R. S. Crane, 1952); Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (1986); Bennett Simon, Mind and Madness in Ancient Greece (1978); Richard Sorabji, Necessity, Cause, and Blame: Perspectives on Aristotle's Theory (1980); Christian Wagner, "'Katharsis' in der aristotelischen Tragödiendefinition," Grazer Beitråge 11 (1984).

  Topics Index Cross-references for this Guide entry:
  classical literature and theory, hamartia, katharsis
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