Catharsis (from Greek κάθαρσις, katharsis, meaning "purification" or "cleansing" or "clarification") refers to the purification and purgation of emotions—particularly pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. It is a metaphor originally used by
Catharsis is a term in
D. W. Lucas, in an authoritative edition of the Poetics, comprehensively covers the various nuances inherent in the meaning of the term in an Appendix devoted to "Pity, Fear, and Katharsis". Lucas recognizes the possibility of catharsis bearing some aspect of the meaning of "purification, purgation, and 'intellectual clarification'" although his discussion of these terms is not always, or perhaps often, in the precise form with which other influential scholars have treated them. Lucas himself does not accept any one of these interpretations as his own but adopts a rather different one based on "the Greek doctrine of Humours" which has not received wide subsequent acceptance. Purgation and purification, used in previous centuries, as the common interpretations of catharsis are still in wide use today. More recently, in the twentieth century, the interpretation of catharsis as "intellectual clarification" has arisen as a rival to the older views in describing the effect of catharsis on members of the audience.
In his works prior to the Poetics, Aristotle had used the term catharsis purely in its literal medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the katamenia—the
It 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. On the contrary it is evident in every line of the work that Aristotle is presupposing "normal" auditors, normal states of mind and feeling, normal emotional and aesthetic experience.
In the twentieth century a paradigm shift took place in the interpretation of catharsis with a number of scholars contributing to the argument in support of the intellectual clarification concept. The clarification theory of catharsis would be fully consistent, as other interpretations are not, with Aristotle's argument in chapter 4 of the Poetics (1448b4-17) that the essential pleasure of
It is generally understood that Aristotle's theory of mimesis and catharsis are responses to
The following analysis by
...what fascinates us is the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives a series of actions which lead to his own ruin. Oedipus might have left the plague to take its course; but pity for the sufferings of his people compelled him to consult Delphi. When Apollo's word came back, he might still have left the murder of Laius uninvestigated; but piety and justice required him to act. He need not have forced the truth from the reluctant Theban herdsman; but because he cannot rest content with a lie, he must tear away the last veil from the illusion in which he has lived so long. Teiresias, Jocasta, the herdsman, each in turn tries to stop him, but in vain; he must read the last riddle, the riddle of his own life. The immediate cause of Oedipus' ruin is not "fate or "the gods"—no oracle said that he must discover the truth—and still less does it lie in his own weakness; what causes his ruin is his own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to the truth.
There have been, for political or aesthetic reasons, deliberate attempts made to subvert the effect of catharsis in theatre.