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19: Catharsis and the Classification of Therapies

PART II: Value of the Emotions Cognitive Therapy and the Role of Philosophy
19: Catharsis and the Classification of Therapies
Iamblichus brings us back not for the first time to Aristotle's best-known therapy the process of emotional catharsis. My suggestion in Chapter 5 was that Seneca's discussion of first movements incorporates an unnoticed reply. The theory of catharsis is normally taken as Aristotle's defence of the poets against Plato who regretfully banned them from the ideal society because they stir up emotions. Aristotle's point is that stirring up emotions in the theatre is a good thing because it provides catharsis of the emotions. All I shall attempt in this last chapter on the value and therapy of emotions is an account of what catharsis might relieve us of if as I believe it gives a form of relief and a sketch of the later history of the theory. This will lead in Olympiodorus to a general classification of therapeutic methods.

Therapy is not Aristotle's word but notoriously he uses a medical analogy in describing catharsis. The fullest surviving description of catharsis in his work comes in a discussion of the effects of music not drama in the Politics. The passage cross-refers to his discussion of poetry presumably to a passage now lost for a clearer account of what catharsis is. So the present account is meant to be relevant to tragic catharsis as well. It describes how those who experience ecstasy or pity or fear or other emotions can all alike secure the same result viz. catharsis as a result of ecstatic or cathartic melodies. Even though Aristotle is only drawing an analogy when he says it is as if (hōsper) people were getting healing and catharsis and that they get a sort of (tis) catharsis and lightening I do not think we can overlook Bernays's point1 that the reference to healing and being lightened shows the analogy is with medical purging by laxatives or emetics. It is not only the reference to medicine but also the reference to catharsis which is treated as an analogy (hōsper katharsis tis) and indeed early in the passage Aristotle takes the reference to catharsis as calling for explanation. So he does not suppose it to be already clear independently of the appeal to medicine. I take this to imply that catharsis in the case of ecstasy pity and fear like medical catharsis at least involves getting rid of something. And we can see from the passage that there is something to be got rid of for Aristotle is talking of a predisposition to emotion which needs correcting not only in the case of ecstatics but also in those disposed to pity and fear. I shall need to reply shortly to some of the objections that have been raised against this conclusion. But provided the analogy with medicine is not taken further than this (and sometimes it has been taken too far) many of the insights of the alternative interpretations can I think be accommodated. Before I come to objections I must do some other things and first of all must quote the Politics passage:

We accept the classification of melodies that some philosophers give who arrange them as ethical practical or ecstatic (enthousiastika) and who allocate the corresponding character of the modes to different places corresponding to each of these melodies. We also say that music should be used to procure not one benefit but several. It should be used both for education and for catharsis (what we mean by catharsis we shall say now without going into detail but more clearly later in the discussion of Poetry) and thirdly as a pastime to relax us (anesis) and give us rest from tension (tēs suntonias anapausis). For these reasons all the modes must clearly be used not all in the same way but the ethical ones for education and both practical and ecstatic ones for listening to others performing. For the emotion which occurs strongly (iskhurōs) in some souls exists in all but makes less difference to some people and more to others (hētton mallon) for example pity and fear and again ecstasy. For some people are possessed by this movement and when they use melodies which make the soul frenzied (exorgiazein) we see them restored (kathistasthai) by the sacred melodies as if (hōsper) they got healing and catharsis. This same thing then must happen also to those disposed to pity or to fear or to any emotions in general and to others in so far as (kath’ hoson) any such emotions fall to their lot. All must get a sort of (tis) catharsis and be lightened (kouphizesthai) together with pleasure. And similarly the cathartic melodies too give harmless joy to people.2
Before going further I want to consider what might be got rid of in the case of tragedy and comedy. Aristotle's discussion of comedy is lost although a bald summary from the sixth century AD has been identified and a hypothetical reconstruction attempted.3 I shall suggest that what comedy rids us of will be not just an excess of the desire to laugh but the excess of contempt which in his view lies behind that desire. As for tragedy I shall suggest that besides ridding us of any excess of pity and fear it also rids us of an excess of grief.
Aristotle on laughter and grief
If Aristotle defended laughter as having a cathartic effect his will have been a comparatively rare voice. Although some philosophers allowed laughter in connection with mockery the predominant attitude to laughter in much of ancient philosophy and still more in the Church Fathers was disapproval.
Aristotle connects wit with a sense of superiority. In the Poetics he describes comedy as imitating mistakes (hamartēma) and unseemliness (aiskhos) which is not painful or destructive.4 This is kinder than Plato's account of comedy in terms of the pleasure taken by jealousy (phthonos) in the self-delusions of others.5 Aristotle treats wit (eutrapelia) as a minor kind of virtue6 and defines it in the Rhetoric as an educated insolence (hubris)7 while insolence is described as being exercised simply for the pleasure of being superior (huperekhein).8 Thomas Hobbes translates the Rhetoric as saying that wit is contumely and himself defines laughter as ‘sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the inferiority of others or with our own formerly’.9 Aristotle's connection of wit with superiority had been further reinforced by Cicero's claim that laughter arises from our perception of unseemliness (turpitudo deformitas)10 and by Quintilian's describing laughter (risus) as not far from derision (derisus).11 This leaves little room for laughter at oneself which Quintilian confines to boors (6. 3. 82). Aristotle himself is recorded as having practised mockery and as having a mocking look (mōkia).12
I conjecture that what would have been reduced by comedy along with the urge to laugh if Aristotle intended the medical metaphor would be the tendency towards contempt. This can be taken as supporting the suggestion of D. W. Lucas that one of the emotions to be purged by comedy might be scorn.13 The connection Aristotle makes between laughter and contempt also provides some substance for the Islamic misunderstanding so beautifully described in Borges's short story according to which comedy is satire.14 It does nothing however for the companion misunderstanding according to which tragedy is eulogy.
Besides laughter I want to mention only grief. I suggest that Aristotle means to include grief among the emotions that benefit from catharsis when he talks of ‘such’ emotions in his definition of tragedy as:
accomplishing through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions (tōn toioutōn pathētnatōn).15
If under ‘such’ emotions he includes grief this would solve the puzzle why people should need their pity subjected to catharsis. Aristotle speaks in the passage quoted from the Politics of people predisposed to pity fear and other emotions. But whereas it is plausible that many people go around with too much fear it surely is not so common for people to go around with too much pity. A solution is suggested by a passage in Plato to which Aristotle is undoubtedly reacting. Before banning the poets from his ideal city Plato complains that they appeal to the wailing part of the soul (to pepeinēkos tou dakrusai te kai apodurasthai to thrēnōdes to eleinon). The important point is that pity and grief are combined in this single part of the soul and Plato thinks that this is what is insidious. Our reason relaxes its guard over the wailing part because there is no shame in enjoying contemplating another person's grief and praising and pitying him. The trouble Plato thinks is that this has consequences for our own grief because we cannot restrain this part of the soul in our own suffering if we have nourished it in that of others.16
Aristotle's theory of catharsis is of course a reply. Tragedy does good because it effects catharsis of such emotions. And which emotions? If he is to answer Plato he will need to combine grief with pity. The idea will be that we come into the theatre with too much grief not pity. But by arousing pity in the theatre we subject to catharsis not only the newly aroused pity but also the original grief with which Plato has bound pity so closely. This interpretation would put Aristotle in agreement with his contemporary the comic poet Timocles. For Timocles says that the role of tragedy is to show the suffering of others and so lighten (kouphizein) one's own burden. His idea is that by increasing pity tragedy reduces not some antecedent pity but antecedent grief.17
Objections to the purgative interpretation
This provides an answer to one of the objections to the claim that Aristotle intends catharsis as a medical metaphor.18 Catharsis works on everyone (pasi)19 but why should we suppose that everyone needs to be rid of an excess of emotion? This would be particularly implausible for pity and Aristotle claims no more than that some people are too disposed to pity. But it is not implausible at all but very true that many people are liable to too much fear and anxiety or to too much grief. Admittedly there will be one important exception since Aristotle's people of virtue will have the right emotional dispositions. But it would be irrelevant for Aristotle to consider this exceptional case if his aim is to answer Plato because his point will be that tragedy need not corrupt people as Plato alleged. It was the non-virtuous for whom this was posed as a danger by Plato and all Aristotle needs to say is that the non-virtuous stand on the contrary to benefit from tragedy in the way specified. This is not to exclude that the virtuous may benefit in other ways.
Another class of people who will not stand to benefit in the way specified are those who are deficient in pity fear and grief. But not only will this class be very small especially as those deficient in fear are likely to have occasions for grief; more importantly it is once again not a class recognized by Plato in the passages to which Aristotle is thought to be replying. Plato is concerned with the majority situation an over-propensity to emotion. And correspondingly Aristotle too makes no allowance for those deficient in emotion. He tells us in the Politics passage that pity fear and even ecstasy are found in all souls even if in some more weakly than in others.
It is sometimes said that Aristotle's medical analogy applies only to the extreme case of pathological ecstatics but I do not read the Politics passage that way. It says explicitly that the same happens to those disposed to pity or fear as to ecstatics it reiterates the medical analogy used for ecstatics by saying that the others too are lightened and it repeatedly makes the difference one of degree (iskhurōs hētton mall on kath’ hoson).
Two other significant objections to taking the analogy as medical deserve an answer. One is that the idea of using emotion to rid us of emotion would imply a homoeopathic cure and there is no evidence that Aristotle was aware of homoeopathic cures. But quite apart from Proclus’ doubts (below) about homoeopathy the illustration in Simplicius also to be discussed below of over-eating as an emetic should already have been familiar to Aristotle.
There is another important objection to taking the analogy as purgative and that is that emotions are cognitive. Indeed I have argued in Chapter 1 that even the element of distress or pleasure in emotion is cognitive for Aristotle. But in that case an excess of emotion is not at all like the excessive fluids to which doctors apply purges. But the answer is that Aristotle intends only the analogy that an excess of emotion is to be got rid of. Whether the theatre achieves this by cognitive or non-cognitive means he simply does not say. A cognitive mechanism would be the only plausible one but that could in its turn alter the physiological processes which in Chapter 1 we saw lie at the base of every emotion for Aristotle.20 When the medical analogy is taken in this way as just an analogy though not an empty one it may be that the insistence on it will no longer be seen as so objectionable.
Subsequent history
Aristotle's reply to Plato though elliptical in the surviving texts is a brilliant one and it is on the face of it surprising that it provoked comparatively little discussion until the Neoplatonists some 600 years later. Of course there was some discussion but how much depends on what we count as Aristotelian catharsis. There must be some restrictions or there would be too many examples of catharsis. For the arousing of emotion can lead to its reduction in many different ways. Pity for others can lead us to count our blessings or recognize that we are not alone in our predicament. These are offered as distinct therapies as Chapter 15 explained. If they were taken to involve catharsis whenever they reduce emotion by first arousing it catharsis would be ubiquitous and scholars have indeed located it in some of these contexts.21 But we need to insist on more connection with Aristotle's account than that.
Stoics and Epicureans
There is a fragmentary reference to Aristotle's theory of catharsis in a papyrus containing an Epicurean work by Philodemus.22 It is less clear that it was also discussed by the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon although that conjecture has been made on the basis of a passage in another papyrus text of Philodemus.23 My main point about the Stoics made in Chapter 5 was that their comparative silence about catharsis needs explaining given their strong belief in the undesirability of emotion and their interest in the role of the theatre. I found the explanation at least for later Stoicism in the view which Seneca puts that the theatre and the arts in general do not stir up emotions at all but only first movements.24 In that case the theatre cannot produce Aristotelian catharsis so Aristotle's theory needs no further discussion.
After the comparative silence of the Stoics it is the Neo-Pythagoreans and Platonists who revive interest in the subject. It has been pointed out that there is a clear reference to the medical purging of emotions—though through education not through the theatre—in a Neo–Pythagorean treatise a sort of Pilgrim's Progress of the first century BC or AD The Tablet of Cebes.25
Middle Platonism: Plutarch
The subject was taken up again among Platonists by the Middle Platonist Plutarch.26 He goes well beyond the contexts discussed by Aristotle and offers a compromise view finding the cathartic method more useful in some cases than in others. It may be true that the lover's passion is lightened (kouphismos) by serenading and garlanding the beloved's door and that the mourner's surrender to weeping can expel (sunexagein) much of the grief along with the tears. But anger is different and is ignited by action or words.27
Iamblichus’ advocacy of the cathartic method to reduce erotic feelings by a moderate exercise of eroticism has just been discussed in Chapter 18.28 We shall also see that he ascribes to Pythagoras a cathartic use of music. But he opposes Porphyry's assumption about how music works in cases of divine inspiration. The gods themselves are present because of the kinship (oikeiotēs) of certain melodies to them. We must not with Porphyry appeal to the data of natural science and human art.
It is not to be called a vomiting out (aperāsis) and purgation (apokatharsis) and medical treatment (iatreia) for the [inspiration] is not engendered in us by way of illness and excess and residues.29
Despite the disagreement concerning inspiration Iamblichus seems to accept Aristotle's view on the ability of tragedy and comedy to produce catharsis.
A later Neoplatonist disagrees about this for Proclus sees it as his duty in commenting on Plato's Republic to defend Plato's banning of the poets and he denies that tragedy and comedy could have the cathartic effect that Aristotle claimed. He denies the possibility of purgation (aphosiōsis) through tragedy and comedy on the grounds that the theatre stirs up emotions violently and not in the moderate way which Iamblichus agrees to be necessary for catharsis. Proclus also speaks as if purgation (kathareuein aphosiōsis) would need to act as an emetic. His complaint is that the emetic effect depends on restricted activity which bears little homoeopathic resemblance to what is being purged and cannot be achieved through the violent emotions aroused in the theatre:
The second question was the strangeness of [Plato's] expelling tragedy and comedy [from the ideal society] if these make it possible to satisfy the emotions moderately (emmetrōs) and having satisfied them to keep them amenable to education by having brought therapy to the affliction. This question provided both Aristotle and the champions of statements against Plato on behalf of this type of poetry with plenty of grounds for objection. We shall resolve it in some such way as the preceding. Everything that imitates all kinds of characters is totally alien to conducting young people to good character. Because of the imitation it easily infiltrates into the minds of the audience and because of the variety it becomes harmful to them since whatever kind of character is imitated someone who empathizes with the imitations must become like that. For good character is a single thing most similar to God himself to whom we say unitariness is particularly appropriate. So someone who is to become like such a being will need to shun the life that is opposed to singleness and be purged (kathareuein) of all variety. If so people who are young and because of their youth easily moulded must stay as far away as possible from everything that drags them down into this variety. So we shall clearly be very wary of both tragedy and comedy which imitate characters of all sorts and strike the audience with pleasure in case their drawing power drags what is easily led to feel sympathy and fills the children's lives with the evils that come from imitation engendering in their souls instead of a moderate purgation (metria aphosiōsis) in relation to emotions a wicked and indelible disposition that obliterates what is unitary and single and leaves a mark of the opposite kind derived from the love of the diverse things imitated. These kinds of poetry are particularly directed to that part of the soul which is most exposed to emotions. One kind incites (erethizein) the love of pleasure and leads to inappropriate laughter; the other exercises the love of woe and drags that part of the soul down to ignoble lamentations. Each nourishes our emotional part (to pathētikon) and all the more the more fully it performs its function.
We too shall say then that the statesman must devise certain emetics (aperaseis) for these emotions but not in such a way as to intensify our empathy towards them but on the contrary so as to bridle and restrain their movements harmoniously. We shall say that those kinds of poetry possess not only variety but also immoderation (to ametron) in the invocation of these emotions and so are far from being useful for purgation (aphosiōsis). For purgations depend not on excesses but on restricted activity which bears little resemblance to that which is being purged.30
Later still however in the sixth century the Neoplatonist Simplicius recognizes a useful role for catharsis. He too sees it as working like an emetic. The emetic interpretation in effect combines the two methods that Iamblichus had presented as alternatives aversion therapy and catharsis. Simplicius is explaining the problem of evil and he says that some people are allowed by God to indulge in pleasures until they reach satiety (koros) and vomit. This is said to be a kind of catharsis which heals them.
And that is why teachers also do well not to oppose the desires of children all the way but often to give in (endidonai) and sometimes to abet them since that kind of soul cannot entirely vomit out (exemesai) those emotions if it does not ever exercise (energein kata) them and get sated (koresthēi) by the exercise.…
Thus health and power harm wicked people still more and are bestowed in some cases by way of correction and in others by way of retribution in order that they may be sated (koresthentes) and worn (epitribē) by the emotions and may at last vomit the passion out (exemesai) becoming thereupon ready for correction and catharsis (katharsis).31
But the situation in the sixth century gets a twist because when Olympiodorus discusses this last kind of catharsis which gives in a little in the manner of doctors and allows people to act in accordance with emotion he associates it not with Aristotle but with Pythagoras. Pythagoras’ role must have been made more prominent by Iamblichus whose On the Pythagorean Life describes how Pythagoras calmed people's emotions with specially constructed music and calls this katharsis.32 Aristotle by contrast is coupled by Olympiodorus with the Stoics and both are associated with Hippocrates’ medical prescription to cure opposites by opposites. The example of Aristotle stopping anger through appetite and vice versa is presumably based on Aristotle's Rhetoric where he advises the orator that people in the opposite state (enantiōs) of pleasure cannot be angry. Similarly fear drives out pity and is often useful to the orator for producing the opposite of pity.33 The Poetics seems to be ignored for these purposes since this is not how Aristotle uses fear in that context. But Aristotle does advise in his Nicomachean Ethics that if you wish to correct an extreme in your character you may need to overshoot the mean-point and aim a little way towards the opposite extreme of character.34 Olympiodorus’ further example of casting down the over-satisfied with rebukes and rousing the downcast with encouragement is a method advocated for curing pride by the Aristotelian Aristo of Ceos.35 Hippocrates’ treatment by opposites was also known to the Christians in Evagrius’ circle as will be explained in Chapter 23. In contrast with the method of curing by opposites the method of curing pleasure by pleasure is contemptuously ascribed to the Cyrenaic Aristippus by Clement of Alexandria.36
Therapy by tasting opposites similars
Olympiodorus offers us a general classification of therapies including therapy by tasting by opposites and by similars and slots cathartic method into his classification:
Socrates’ admonition is like painless purges (katharsia) and drugs steeped in honey because he does not correct souls through opposites in the way Hippocrates gives orders to bodies saying that opposites cure opposites. Nor like Aristotle does he encourage us to stop anger through appetite and appetite through anger that is by means of opposites. Nor does he [proceed] through a taste of the emotions (pathē) and the so-called ‘fingertip’ like the Pythagoreans who say that no one could cure someone inflamed with pathē without giving in to them (endidonai) a little.… Socrates then does not correct souls by the methods of those mentioned but rather by means of similarity. If someone is amorous he says ‘Learn what the love of noble things is’ if someone is avaricious say ‘Learn what self-sufficiency is’ if someone loves pleasure ‘[Learn] what the true tranquillity is which the poet ascribes even to the gods when he says “gods who live at ease”.’37
Recognize that as was said at the outset there are three kinds of catharsis (katharsis) Pythagorean Socratic and Peripatetic or Stoic. The Stoic cures opposites through opposites leading appetite against anger and so weakening the anger or leading anger against appetite and so strengthening the appetite and leading it to be bolder like bent rods which people bend the opposite way if they want to straighten them so that the right tension will reappear as a result of the opposite twist.
The Pythagorean kind bids us give in (endidonai) a little to the pathē and taste them with a fingertip as it were. The doctors call this ‘diminution by means of a small quantity’. For they say that people inflamed with a pathos will not get clear of it until they exercise it (energein kata).…
But Socrates’ kind of catharsis leads people from similars to similars and if someone is avaricious says ‘Learn what true self-sufficiency is’ if a lover of pleasure ‘what divine tranquillity is’ and just all that was said before.38
There are five kinds of catharsis (katharsis) all five taught us by Plato in the present dialogue [Alcibiades I]. For you can be purged (katharthēnai) by escaping to sacred precincts or to teachers or by busying yourself with books. He taught us this kind when he said ‘Believe me my good man and the Delphic inscription “Know thyself”.’
The second is through criticism which he taught us when he resorted to attack exposing the man's judgement based on double ignorance and unmasking his life and [showing] what kinds of thing result from double ignorance.
The third kind is Pythagorean which is also fallible. It gives you a taste of emotions (pathē) just with the fingertip. Doctors use this kind when they employ the ‘worse in small quantity’. Plato taught us this here by saying ‘You have something suitable for governing the city something that naturally commands if you were willing to embellish it by education.’ For by these words we shall heighten his ambition.
The fourth kind is the Aristotelian which cures evil with evil and brings things into proportion by the conflict of opposites. And Plato taught this kind here by sometimes casting him down with rebukes and sometimes rousing him to the heights with encouragement and thus making him generate the definition of political science.
The fifth kind which is also the most efficacious is the Socratic which uses progress by means of similarity. And Plato uses this here when he says ‘Do you love power? Learn what real power is which cannot be taken away by a tyrant. Do you love pleasure? Learn what real tranquillity is which is found even among the gods.’39
Islamic philosophy
The idea of catharsis seems to have got lost in the medieval Islamic commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics. Avicenna's paraphrase of Aristotle's definition of tragedy omits the reference to catharsis altogether. Although a little later Avicenna reports Aristotle's view that tragedy solaces the afflicted and relieves the distressed he takes the purpose of tragedy for Aristotle to be the enhancement of kindliness and piety.40 Averroes’ commentary preserves the reference to catharsis in Aristotle's definition in so far as it says that tragedy moves to a moderate emotion by means of the pity and fear it generates. But nothing is made of the point.
So much for the value and therapy of the emotions in non-Christian contexts. I shall come to the Christians in later chapters. But first it is time to see how different views on the nature of emotional conflict bear on the structure of the mind.