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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary of the History of Ideas
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The greek word for purgation, cleansing, and puri-
fication is a word that has become part of the learned
vocabulary of scholars. It is derived from katharein,
a Greek word meaning “to cleanse.” It has come down
to contemporary discourse by way of religious, medi-
cal, and learned traditions.

In religious history cathartic rules and behavior are
recorded in different cultural environments. In order
to escape from unclean influences man had to purify
himself and also objects around him. Uncleanliness
originated from actions that were not permitted. To
disturb a taboo made a man “unclean.” Purification
is an action to remove uncleanliness resulting from a
violation of the taboo. The cleaning can be performed
by means of water, blood, change of garment, wine,
fire, or sacrifice. In the Old Testament catharsis was
accomplished by means of washing and bathing. Un-
cleanliness was believed to exist in menstruation and
leprosy. The purification was performed in the Temple.
In the New Testament purification was performed by
means of baptism.

In the Greek tradition cathartic actions are noted
in the Homeric poetry, in poems by Hesiod, and later
on in the mystery cults at Delphi and Eleusis. The
cathartic actions were performed in disciplines or rit-
uals, aimed at a spiritual and moral cleansing of sins.

Closely related to religious purification is the medi-
cal concept of catharsis or purgation. Religious and
moral sins were associated with disease. Purification
and purgation were means of getting rid of disease and
plague. A plague was considered a retribution due to
individual or collective behavior that was in violation
of the laws of God or Nature. This is seen in Sopho-
cles' Oedipus Rex, for Oedipus has broken a taboo
against incest, and a plague punishes Thebes. When
Oedipus is also punished, the plague is removed, and
Thebes is cleansed.

In the medical practice of Hippocrates and his
school, and later in the Asclepian therapy, there are
studies of the cathartic processes of diarrhoea, vomit-
ing, and menstruation. It is difficult to trace a precise
borderline between religious purification and medical
purging. Catharsis can be considered to be mainly the
removal of uncleanliness in order to establish a healthy
harmony and correct relationship between men and
the gods.

In the philosophical theories of literature, the con-
cept of catharsis plays a central role, for example, in
the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Obviously, Aris-
totle's famous definition of tragedy in the sixth chapter
of the Poetics, and particularly the final ambiguous
words about pity, fear, and catharsis, have influenced
posterity in a number of more or less probable inter-

Aristotle mentions catharsis at the end of his Politics
in connection with music, and this important text can
be used in order to understand his controversial defini-


tion of tragedy in the Poetics. Aristotle explains the
catharsis of music in this way:

We say, however, that music is to be studied for the sake
of many benefits and not of one only. It is to be studied
with a view to education, with a view to a purge [cathar-
sis]—we use this term without explanation for the present;
when we come to speak of poetry, we shall give a clearer
account of it—and thirdly with a view to the right use of
leisure and for relaxation and rest after exertion. It is clear,
then, that we must use all the scales, but not all in the
same way. For educational purposes we must use those that
best express character, but we may use melodies of action
and enthusiastic melodies for concerts where other people
perform. For every feeling that affects some souls violently
affects all souls more or less; the difference is only one of
degree. Take pity and fear, for example, or again enthusiasm.
Some people are liable to become possessed by the latter
emotion, but we see that, when they have made use of the
melodies which fill the soul with orgiastic feeling, they are
brought back by these sacred melodies to a normal condition
as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge
[catharsis]. Those who are subject to the emotions of pity
and fear and the feelings generally will necessarily be
affected in the same way; and so will other men in exact
proportion to their susceptibility to such emotions. All expe-
rience a certain purge [catharsis] and pleasant relief. In the
same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men

(Politics VIII:7; 1341b 35-1342a 8, trans. J. Burnet).

As is well known, Aristotle did not explain what he
meant by “catharsis” when he came to speak of poetry
in the Poetics. He mentions catharsis twice. One in-
stance is not very elucidating. He refers to Orestes in
connection with the purification ritual, but he does not
at all explain what is meant by catharsis in connection
with the arts. The other instance is the end of the
definition of catharsis in the sixth chapter. To support
the interpretation of this instance, there is a discussion
of catharsis in the Politics. But it is of little help, since
Aristotle admits that he has to explain the term more

In his definition of tragedy Aristotle says:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, com-
plete, and of a certain magnitude, in language embellished
with each kind of artistic ornament (rhythm, harmony, and
song) being found in separate parts of the play, in form
of action, not of narrative

(Poetics VI, 2).

Immediately after these words follows the final quali-
fication of a tragedy—that there is pity and fear and
a catharsis in a tragedy.

The translation of these last words is difficult not
because we do not know the meaning of pity and fear
and catharsis but because we do not know how they
are related to each other. The final words of the defini-
tion are ambiguous. This ambiguity has created one
of the most important bodies of exegetical literature.
From the point of view of quantity it can be compared
with biblical exegeses. Philologists have tried to find
a reasonable meaning of the words, but there is no
agreement at all. The meaning of catharsis has been
elucidated by means of comparisons with the religious
uses of the word, by comparative research in other
cultures, by the study of medical uses of the word, or
by conjectures trying to prove that there is a real
meaning of catharsis that is moral, or psychothera-
peutical, or aesthetic. In a situation of this kind the
scholar is not too easily convinced of one final inter-
pretation. He has to exert a kind of skeptical epokhe
in order to find a balance of probabilities.

The first step in understanding Aristotelian catharsis
is to discuss the connection between pity and fear and
catharsis. First of all, it is evident that “pity” according
to Aristotle is not “pity” in the sense of our ordinary
usage. By “pity” we mean a sympathetic and humane
consideration, a state of mind that is commendable,
but Aristotle meant by “pity” a state of mind that is
occasioned by undeserved misfortune. It is evident that
Aristotle did not consider it a desirable state of mind,
but a disturbance of the mind. Aristotle seems to think
that pity has a connection with fear, but if the fear
is too great pity cannot exist. Those who are in panic
are incapable of pity because they are preoccupied
with their own emotions and cannot recognize other
persons' emotions. So “pity” is a state of mind affected
by other persons' distress. Pity is mentioned often by
Aristotle in connection with fear. Pity and fear seem
to be a specific complex reaction—understanding
another person's distress and then projecting the possi-
bility of this distress happening to us.

In order to understand Aristotle, the translators have
proposed that pity or fear (or just one of them) existed
in connection with catharsis. Another proposal has
been that Aristotle meant that pity and fear and other
similar emotions accompany catharsis. But presumably
Aristotle intended to say that catharsis is to be found
in connection with the complex reaction of pity and

It is important to stress this last point because one
line of interpretation of catharsis has exaggerated the
moral significance of the word “pity.” This misin-
terpretation has its source in the change of language
due to the Christian vocabulary. In his Confessions,
Saint Augustine sketched an explanation of the paradox
of tragedy—the paradox that we enjoy the expression
of painful passions in a tragedy—by referring to the
pleasure of sharing a sympathetic pity. This explana-
tion was re-echoed by many thinkers in the eighteenth
century: Adam Smith, Lord Kames (Henry Home),
Bishop Hurd, Edmund Burke, Alexander Gerard, Hugh
Blair, and George Campbell. It was an attractive inter-


pretation because of the close relationship between
artistic achievement and Christian ethics. David Hume
opposed this interpretation; that we enjoy exerting
sympathetic pity. If this were the case, he said, a
hospital would be preferable to a ball. It is not only
a bad solution of a topical problem in aesthetics, but
it is also misinterpreting Aristotle's word. The cause
of this misinterpretation is the change in meaning of
the basic vocabulary.

What role does catharsis play in relation to pity and
fear? Aristotle gives many possibilities of inter-
pretation. The mind can be clear of harmful emotions
such as pity and fear, according to one possibility.
Another possibility is that the mind is purified by means
of pity and fear. A third possibility is that the harmful
elements of pity and fear are removed and a valuable
calm will pervade the mind. Violent passions can sub-
side into steady calmness. It is difficult to get a final
understanding here because of the risks we take in
forcing our psychological distinctions on Aristotle's

These preliminary remarks will be more meaningful
when we have discussed the problem of locating the
texts in which catharsis is found. If we follow the
discussion of catharsis in connection with music in
Aristotle's Politics, it seems as if catharsis is located
in the mind of the person who listens to music, not
in the music itself. It has been thought that catharsis
in connection with tragedy is experienced by the audi-
ence. However, in 1957 Gerald F. Else introduced a
learned and elaborated interpretation of Aristotle's text
saying that catharsis is to be found in the actions of
the drama, and in the plot. This means that pity and
fear and catharsis are to be found in the tragedy and
not in the audience. This interpretation has stimulated
much current discussion. There has been a great
amount of controversy in the literature on Aristotelian
catharsis since Else's view appeared. The main objec-
tion to Else's view, however, is that the text of the
Politics does not support such an interpretation. It does
not seem probable that Aristotle has one meaning of
catharsis in his Politics and another in his Poetics.

This controversy can be clarified if we consider that
catharsis was to occur in connection with the perform-
ance of a tragedy. It seems as if Aristotle saw tragedy
as a communication to the audience from a creative
artist (writer or actor) by means of a stage production.
In the passage from the Politics quoted above, Aristotle
has the same idea of artistic suggestion as in the seven-
teenth chapter of the Poetics. We can support this
doctrine of suggestion or communication from actor
to audience if we refer to the doctrine of inspiration
in Plato's Ion. Inspiration creates the same kind of
emotion in the poet, in the actor, and in the audience.
This is a predominant opinion in antiquity: “Similia
similibus.... ” Distress in the Homeric hero produces
distress in the rhapsodist, Ion, and may produce the
same distress in the audience. If we accept this premiss,
then the problem of where pity and fear and catharsis
are to be found can more easily be solved.

Pity and fear and catharsis are to be found in the
actions and plot of the tragedy; and, by means of the
stage performance, the actor and the audience are links
in the chain of emotional communication. The same
state of mind is communicated through these links. If
so, there is no necessary contradiction between Else's
interpretation and the conventional interpretation. If
we take away the tendency to regard the two views
as excluding each other, they can work together inside
the accepted frame of interpretation. If catharsis is in
the plot of tragedy, it is in the actor and in the audience
as well.

The main discussion of the meaning of catharsis is,
however, the most crucial part of the group of issues
connected with Aristotle's definition of tragedy. Did
Aristotle follow the religious or the medical use of
catharsis when he related it to tragedy? In the Politics
Aristotle associates religious music with medical ther-
apy. However, the catharsis of tragedy is not neces-
sarily to be understood as religious or medical catharsis.
In the Poetics we have no supporting passage for either
interpretation. It seems possible that Aristotle used the
term in a metaphorical way. But how are we supposed
to understand the metaphor? In chapter seventeen of
the Poetics Aristotle refers to religious purification in
Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris. But this is not sufficient
to maintain that Aristotle meant that the catharsis of
a tragedy is simply a religious purification. The discus-
sion of his theory in antiquity does not lend support
to this purely religious interpretation.

The French critic, Charles de Saint-Denis de Saint-
Évremond wrote in his De la tragédie ancienne et
(1672) “Aristotle was sensible enough... in
establishing a certain purgation which no one hitherto
has understood, and which in my opinion he himself
never fully comprehended.” This is an exaggeration.
If Aristotle used the word catharsis, he gave the word
a specific meaning in the context; but it is difficult for
us to understand him because of the change of cultures
and because of the fact that many of Aristotle's writings
are lost or damaged. The Poetics is a fragmentary book.
There has been discussion as to whether it was written
in his early or in his later career. It is possible that
the text is not a fragment of a book that Aristotle
intended to publish, but a work that he had in progress
under revision, and that was used as notes for teaching.

It has been maintained that catharsis is a religious
purification of the mind. We have to take into account


that Greek drama was a religious or ritual drama.
Aeschylus, incidentally, was born in Eleusis, the place
of the mysteries. To be initiated in Greek mysteries
was to pass through different kinds of purifications. To
enter a Temple, a man had to be cleansed by means
of water. The tragic hero in the drama was the scape-
goat who took upon himself sins and pestilence in order
to restore divine harmony in society. In fact, he was
responsible for the weather, wind, and a good harvest
in an agricultural society. The religious ritual resembles
tragedy. Although Aristotle lived in the century after
the culmination of Attic tragedy, it is probable that
his interpretation of tragedy was not, in fact, com-
pletely secularized.

Another interpretation of catharsis is based on the
medical meaning of purgation. It has been maintained
that Aristotelian catharsis presupposes the Hippocratic
doctrine of the four “humors.” The balance of the body
and the mind had to be maintained by purging the
evil humors. Melancholy was derived from the black
bile, and the musical arts were used for purging such
a disturbance of the mind and body. John Milton inter-
preted catharsis in this way in his preface to Samson
(1671). Tragedy has the power, according to
Milton, “by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge
the mind of those and such like passions, that is, to
temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind
of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions
well imitated.” Milton adds this interpretation: “Nor
is Nature wanting in her own effects to make good
this assertion; for so in physic, things of melancholic
hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour
against sour, salt to remove salt humours.” In fact, John
Milton applies the old medical principle, Similia simi-
libus curantur
(“similars cure the similar”). You will
cure a disease by giving the same kind of disease. The
pain of the hero of the tragedy will cure and purge
you from pain. Measure for measure.

Is this a correct interpretation of Aristotle's use of
catharsis? Earlier than Milton, Antonio Minturno had
made a similar interpretation in 1564 in his L'Arte
and later on, Thomas Twining in 1789 and H.
Weil in 1847 made similar medical interpretations of
catharsis. But these were the interpretations of a
learned minority. Since Jakob Bernays contributed new
arguments to the medical interpretation in 1857, it has
met with increasing interest among scholars. According
to this interpretation, tragedy gives the public a thera-
peutic stimulation of the passions and will lead the
audience to an emotional crisis. Afterwards relief and
calm pleasure are experienced. Aristotle's words in the
Politics support such an interpretation. This therapy
is mainly a mental one, but it acts in a manner that
is analogous to bodily purgation.

However, since the Renaissance, the moral or ethical
interpretation of catharsis has dominated, and has for
support Aristotle's use of “pity” in connection with
catharsis, but we have seen that this support is illusory.
There are, of course, moral qualities in both religious
purification and in mental and bodily therapy. It is
good to live in peace with the gods, to be in good
health, to enjoy mental harmony. To separate individ-
ual morality from religion and health is difficult, and
for Aristotle it must have been more so than for us.

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics does give, however,
support to a specific ethical interpretation of catharsis.
In the opening books we read that virtue and character
are connected with pleasure and pain, and pleasure
and pain are the result of successful or thwarted activi-
ties. Activities are, in Aristotle's teleological philoso-
phy, movements toward a desired end. Thus nothing
is more important in the education of character than
training to rejoice and to feel pain in the right way,
to do the right things at the right times, and to the
right extent. It is not reasonable or right to be afraid
of nothing, or to be angry at nothing. There are things
the wise man should fear and at which he should be
angry. There are, according to Aristotle, reasonable

In the Nicomachean Ethics he says furthermore:

If it is thus, then that every art does its work well—by
looking to the intermediate and judging its work by this
standard (so that we often say of good works of art it is
not possible either to take away or to add anything, im-
plying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works
of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we
say, look to this in their work), and if, further, virtue is
more exact and better than any art, as nature also is, then
virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.
I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with
passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect,
and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence
and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure
and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and
in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times,
with reference to the right objects, towards right people,
with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both
intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue

(Book II, Ch. 6, trans. W. D. Ross).

The moral or ethical interpretation of catharsis ap-
plies these words to the understanding of the final
qualifications of a tragedy according to Aristotle's
definition. Catharsis will produce a reasonable moder-
ating of the passions, the just mean, or the relieving
balance. This is what a qualified tragedy is able to
produce in the wise man, a kind of harmony after an
excess of emotions. Reason and wisdom are thus con-
nected with the passions.


This interpretation has a long tradition. Corneille,
Racine, and Lessing formulated different solutions, but
they agreed that the catharsis made the experience of
tragedy a moral one, and made the public morally
wiser. With the support of the Nicomachean Ethics,
we dare say that there is an ethical or moral element
in catharsis, a kind of passionate experience when
dominated by moderation and by a kind of insight and

A psychological interpretation of catharsis is difficult
to maintain in isolation, but all the interpretations of
catharsis have to provide psychological observations
concerning the mixture of pain and pleasure, and con-
cerning the change from intense passionate response
to an experience of relief and calmness. In the eigh-
teenth century the paradox of tragedy, formulated by
David Hume in his essay “Of Tragedy,” in his Four
(1757), was a discussion of this effect of
tragedy. Tragedy arouses painful and violent passions,
but the artistic character of the tragedy causes the
experience to induce a calm and pleasant state of mind.

This kind of interpretation has reached a new posi-
tion through later psychology. Arthur Schopenhauer,
Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud have shown
how pleasure and pain are connected with each
other—in the way Plato and René Dubos have pointed
out—and that men do not act to sacrifice pleasure
according to the pleasure principle of hedonism. In
fact, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud insist that
men desire to take risks, to be shocked, to suffer pain,
not in order to obtain pleasure subsequently. Of course,
the actual uses of tragedies—writing of new tragedies
and stage directing and interpreting old tragedies—
have been biased by this change of psychology.

Of special interest is the connection between Aris-
totelian catharsis and Freudian psychoanalysis. In fact,
in the 1890's Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer initiated
their therapeutical methods and designated them the
“Cathartic therapy.” Jakob Bernays, in Bonn, who
formulated a modern medical interpretation of Aris-
totelian catharsis, was the uncle of Sigmund Freud's
wife, and Freud was well aware of the medical inter-
pretation of catharsis.

Psychological interpretations are too subtle to be
used in reconstructing the original meaning of Aris-
totelian catharsis, and they are too vague to explain
how tragedies are experienced. There are different
ways of experiencing a tragedy, and these different
experiences do not admit the assumption of one normal
way of doing so. The ways of experiencing a drama
have changed from antiquity to our time. It is too risky
to impose the practice of psychoanalysis on the inter-
pretation of Aristotelian catharsis.

Another interpretation of Aristotelian catharsis is the
aesthetic one. David Hume came close to such an
interpretation in his essay on tragedy, and so also did
Gerald Else. Hume maintains that the true pleasure
given by a tragedy flows from its perfection of form.

These different interpretations of Aristotelian ca-
tharsis must be combined with the analyses of pity and
fear. Many possibilities will appear by means of such
a combination. In the fourteenth chapter of the Poetics
Aristotle said that we must not demand of tragedy any
and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is
proper to it. The proper pleasure of tragedy may be
a cathartic reaction from pity and fear and provide
a kind of intellectual harmony. Another alternative is
that the reaction may be changed so that it is not a
reaction away from a dominating pain, but towards
a culminating pleasure.

Another possibility occurs when catharsis provides
relief from disturbances such as pity and fear. Catharsis
can be explained, again, to the extent that pity and
fear are not totally withdrawn from the mind, but will
still be in the mind, though changed. Another type of
explanation is, finally, that pity and fear will be the
means to relieve the soul from other emotions, and this
relief is the catharsis.

The combination of different passions with the
different explanations of catharsis shows many refined
shades of psychological analyses. These different inter-
pretations have isolated and clarified parts of Aristotle's
doctrine. However, no one single interpretation is
clearly better or more probable than another.

The reason is that we cannot find sufficient evidence
for distinguishing a religious, a medical or therapeutic,
a moral or ethical, a psychological or psychiatric, or
an aesthetic interpretation in isolation from one an-
other. The proper pleasure or purpose of tragedy is
vague because of the absence of definite explanations
by Aristotle. Perhaps he took his words as sufficiently
good explanations, or perhaps his explanations have
been lost.

Our modern distinctions impose definite borderlines
where there were no borderlines in Aristotle's time.
We should not only read Aristotle's texts and interpret
them by means of supporting texts from antiquity, but
we should also reconstruct Aristotle's own cultural
situation and be aware of the difficulty of using our
cultural distinctions in interpreting those texts.

Plato's writings provide a background to the Aris-
totelian use of catharsis. In Phaedo and in Phaedrus
Plato connects virtue and mystery and uses the word
“catharsis” for purification in this connection. Em-
pedocles and his pupils distinguished the madness aris-
ing ex purgamento animae from the madness due to
bodily ailments, according to E. R. Dodds. In his study
The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), Dodds has


stressed the connection between purification, purga-
tion, and religious mysteries. The Dionysiac ritual was
essentially cathartic. Dancing mania and other mani-
festations of collective hysteria were relieved by a
ritual outlet. Music was considered good for states of
anxiety, according to Plato and Theophrastus. Democ-
ritus denied that a great poem could be written sine
Poetry, music, and dance were strictly con-
nected with each other as ritual means to purification
and purgation. The Pythagoreans used music to induce
harmony of the soul. For them music was a medicine.
Hippocratic medical practice provides a background
connecting ritual catharsis and therapeutical catharsis
with the arts. It is difficult to distinguish between
religion and medicine in this tradition, both close to
the practice of the arts.

We also need to examine the Asclepian tradition,
a medical and religious practice that was close to
Aristotle's time and to his own situation. Aristotle's
father was the Asclepian physician Nicomachus. We
also know that Aristotle admired Sophocles' Oedipus
and Sophocles was the first Asclepian priest in
Athens. Sophocles dedicated an altar to Asclepius and
wrote an Asclepian Hymn. In the therapeutic methods
and case studies of the Asclepian center in Epidaurus
we find the use of drama and music, and there was
a practice of psychiatric as well as of chirurgical char-
acter. Shock treatment and athletics were important
in the therapy. Catharsis was a key word in this med-
icine and religion—but we cannot say whether the
catharsis was a purification or a purging. At times the
moral interpretation applies, at other times the psy-
chological, and very often the religious as well as the

It seems as if we cannot give an exact interpretation
of the ten words at the end of Aristotle's definition
of tragedy. Gerald Else has declared: “The controversy
over catharsis has revolved—for some years 'spun'
would be a better term—on its own axis for so long,
and with so little determinate result, that one some-
times wonders if it should not be declared officially
closed or debarred” (p. 225).

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff said in his
work on the Greek tragedy that catharsis is one of the
words over which rivers of ink have run and, never-
theless, there is no agreement on its interpretation. He
observes that the word was not very much discussed
in antiquity. In connection with Aristotle's writings,
Proclus and Iamblichus mention catharsis but do not
give an elucidation. Purification is a key word in the
Christian religion, and when interest in Aristotle's
Poetics was reviewed during the Renaissance, the in-
terpretation of catharsis was affected by the religious
use of “catharsis.” The word was interpreted and re
interpreted, perhaps fruitlessly, but these discussions
for more than four hundred years have been a stimula-
tion to psychology, aesthetics, and dramaturgy.

The links connecting drama, religious ritual, and
medical therapy are manifest in this discussion. In
Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire we find catharsis pre-
sented in a farcical situation: Clysterium donare, Postea
seignare, Ensuita purgare
(“With a clyster deterge,
then let the blood spurge, and finally purge”).

From the discussions of scholars the word “catharsis”
has come into the common vocabulary. Enjoying a
tragedy we refer to our experience as a catharsis. We
think that we know what we mean. But we may not
know exactly the meaning of this positive qualification.
Jakob Bernays said that the word is a pompous expres-
sion that the educated person has at hand but that no
thinking person will know precisely what it means. Else
says: “We have grown used to feeling—again vaguely—
that serious literature is hardly respectable unless it
performs some 'catharsis.' 'Catharsis' has come, for
reasons that are not entirely clear, to be one of the
biggest of the 'big' ideas in the field of aesthetics and
criticism, the Mt. Everest or Kilimanjaro that looms
on all literary horizons” (Else, p. 443).

The importance of the word and the importance of
the efforts of the scholars stand in contrast to the
difficulties in coming to a precise interpretation of the
Aristotelian use of the word. It is still more ironic that
M. D. Petrusevski in Skoplje, Yugoslavia, has given
good reasons for the opinion that Aristotle never used
the word “catharsis” in the definition of tragedy in the
Poetics. This is one of the boldest conjectures of our
time and it has been overlooked in contemporary liter-
ature. His study was published in Ziva Antika, Vol. 2
(Skoplje, 1954), with a detailed summary in French.
The thesis is that the terminal words in the definition
are not pathematon katharsin (“catharsis of feeling”)
but pragmaton systasin (“action brought together”).
The argument for the thesis is rather detailed. First
of all, there are different readings of the manuscripts.
Instead of pathematon there is an alternative reading
of mathematon which is nonsensical. Secondly, there
is the ambiguous wording in the definition of tragedy
which is against Aristotle's rules of definition. Thirdly,
there is a switch from objective to subjective qualifica-
tions, which is also against Aristotle's rules of definition.
Fourthly, there is a commentary in the Poetics on the
different parts of the definition, but catharsis is not

Professor Petrusevski has identified these words as
pragmaton systasin, and the meaning is then that the
tragedy has pity and fear in the actions that are brought
together. These words are commented on by Aristotle
in the later chapters of the Poetics. The explanation


of a misreading is that Aristotle's writings were dam-
aged and then edited by copyists who made the emen-
dation because they had read in the Politics that Aris-
totle intended to explain catharsis in the Poetics. But
in the definition he did not use the word “catharsis.”
In fact, there is, according to Professor Petrusevski,
not a tragical catharsis, only a musical catharsis. In
the Poetics Aristotle discussed the music of a tragedy,
but these parts are lost. Presumably catharsis was
discussed in this missing passage of the Poetics.

This is a bold and valiant conjecture. It assumes,
however, that Aristotle could not fail to follow his own
rules of definition. The conventional reading of the
terminal words of the definition of tragedy forces us
to give three different meanings of “pathemation”—an
objective genitive, a separative genitive, a subjective
genitive. It seems improbable that Aristotle was so
clumsy a writer. This clumsiness is most likely to be
due to a copyist. The misreading existed when Iam-
blichus and Proclus were reading Aristotle's text in late

If Professor Petrusevski is right, the discussion of the
meaning of catharsis seems to imply that an immense
and erudite controversy was created by a mistake of
a copyist. The serious discussion of tragedy is thus
changed into a learned absurdity. Although this article
has made serious efforts to contribute new inter-
pretations to Aristotle's use of catharsis, the author is
inclined to believe in Professor Petrusevski's con-
jecture. But it may be that his suggested change of
the text will not be accepted very soon by other
scholars. It is almost too elegant and too reasonable
to be accepted at once.


The exposition of the meaning of catharsis is concentrated
on Aristotelian catharsis and its different interpretations.
A more detailed argument is to be found in Teddy Brunius,
Inspiration and Katharsis (Uppsala, 1966), together with
references to the literature. The interpretation of M. D.
Petrusevski is in Ziva Antika, Antiquité Vivante, 4, 2
(Skoplje, Yugoslavia, 1954). A detailed summary is given in
French. Petrusevski's arguments are partly derived from
Heinrich Otte, Kennt Aristoteles die sogenannte tragische
(Berlin, 1912). The latest text of the Poetics of
Aristotle is edited by Rudolf Kassel (Oxford, 1965). For the
Nicomachean Ethics, see the Oxford translation by W. D.
Ross (Oxford, 1925), Vol. 9. A good bibliography and com-
mentary is given in D. W. Lucas, Aristotle's Poetics. Intro-
duction, Commentary and Appendixes
(Oxford, 1968). The
interpretation of Gerald F. Else is to be found in his Aris-
totle's Poetics: The Argument
(Cambridge, Mass., 1957). The
relation between Platonic and Aristotelian catharsis is dis-
cussed in G. Finsler, Platon und die aristotelische Poetik
(Berlin, 1900). Cathartic traditions are described and dis
cussed in Louis Moulinier, Le Pur et l'impur dans la pensée
des Grecs
(Paris, 1952). Theodore Waechter discussed early
cathartic ritual in Religionsgeschichtliche Versuchen und
(1910), Vol. X. Asclepian therapy is found in
Rudolf Herzog, Die Wunderheilungen von Epidauros, Philo-
Supplementband 22 (Leipzig, 1931), and by Emma
and Ludwig Edelstein in Asclepius, Vols 1 and 2 (Baltimore,
1945). Important contributions to the interpretation of
Aristotelian catharsis have been made by E. P. Papanoutsos,
La Catharsis des Passions d'après Aristote (Athens, 1953),
by Wolfgang Schadewaldt, Hellas und Hesperien (Zürich
and Stuttgart, 1960), pp. 346-88, and H. D. F. Kitto,
“Catharsis,” in The Classical Tradition, Studies in Honor of
Harry Caplan,
ed. L. Wallach (Ithaca, 1966), pp. 133-47.
The connection between psychoanalysis and Aristotelian
catharsis is discussed by Eva Berczeller in “The Aesthetic
Feeling and Aristotle's Catharsis Theory,” The Journal of
65 (1967), 261-71.


[See also Harmony or Rapture in Music; Health and Dis-
Pythagorean...; Religion, Ritual in.]