Art Purges the Emotions
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 9 - Aesthetics
Aristotle, from The Poetics of Aristotle
Kem Stone - 19 July 2008
The question of what function art serves is an interesting one, and the decision on the part of the editors to include
a text by Aristotle to present the concept of catharsis is understandable.  However, this text is not an argument to
support the proposition that catharsis—the purgation of emotions of fear and pity as evoked through tragedy—is
the function of art.  This is a presupposition that merely supports the primary purpose of the text, which is an
assertion of certain “objective” standards and principles by which tragedy can be judged.  If the author of this text
was not Aristotle, I have no doubt that it would have been thrown in the trash-bin of history to be remembered
and studied by no one.  This text is nothing more than one man’s opinion as to what constitutes a good play, but
because this particular man happens to be the most influential philosopher in western history, his subjective
opinions are often regarded as objective facts.  One can argue that the opinions Aristotle lays out in this particular
text are actually an empirically-derived aesthetic theory, but I believe it is nothing more than an expression of
taste.  As such I find it an almost totally worthless endeavour to write an exposition, but having resolved not to
skip any of the texts in this anthology, I will do so anyway.

Aristotle defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in
language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the
play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”
(573).  In classic Aristotelian fashion, he goes on to divide and classify six different aspects of a tragedy as though
these six things were dreamt up by the gods themselves: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Song.  
Naturally, there is a hierarchy of importance, with Plot taking the primary role as the end and chief thing of all.  
Should one argue that Character is actually more important, Aristotle points out as though it were self-evident that
a set of speeches expressive of character can not produce the tragic effect as well as a plot with artistically
constructed incidents.  Further evidence lies in the fact that novices in the art must master diction and precision of
portraiture before they can construct a plot, at least in Aristotle’s day.  Finally, he analogises plot and character to
form and colour, writing that the most beautiful colours laid confusedly upon a canvas will not give as much
pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.  These may be good points, and I may even agree that Plot is more
important than Character, but like everything else in this text it all rests on a matter of taste.  The remainder of
Aristotle’s hierarchy is just as arbitrary as the top.  Character is second, as it reveals moral purpose which is
essential but not central to a play.  Thought comes third, as this is the faculty of saying what is possible and
pertinent in given circumstances.  Fourth is Diction, which is simply the expression of meaning in words.  Fifth and
chief among the embellishments is Song, and finally Spectacle comes last because it is the least artistic and least
connected with the art of poetry.

Having established that Plot is the most important element of a tragedy, Aristotle writes extensively on what
constitutes a good plot.  First of all, it must be complete in itself and of an adequate magnitude.  Aristotle
analogises a play to an organism.  No small organism can be thought beautiful because the view of the object is
confused and seen in an almost imperceptible moment in time.  On the other hand, one will be unable to see the
beauty in an organism a thousand miles long because one cannot take it in all at once.  “As, therefore, in the case
of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily
embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by
the memory” (575).  The proper magnitude is comprised within such limits that the sequence of events will admit
of change from bad fortune to good or vice versa.  The plot must also be a unity, which does not necessarily
consist in the unity of the hero.  As Aristotle points out, the actual life of a man consists of many various incidents
that cannot be reduced to a unity.  Homer understood this when in composing the Odyssey he did not include all
of the adventures of his hero but centred the action around one event.

Aristotle further embellishes his point about unity by drawing a distinction between poetic and historic truth.  It is
not the function of the poet, he writes, to relate what
has happened but what may happen.  “Poetry, therefore, is
a more philosophical and a higher thing than history for poetry tends to express the universal, history the
particular.  By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the
law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the
personages” (576).  Aristotle allows for tragedians to keep to real names because although the actual persons
may not have said or done exactly what the poet writes, as long as it is possible it is credible.  Also, although a
poet may take a historical subject there is no reason that events which actually occurred should not conform to the
law of the probable and possible.  That a plot must conform to this “law of the probable and possible” is taken for
granted, as is Aristotle’s assertion that the tragic effect is best produced when although the events clearly follow as
cause and effect, they still manage to take us by surprise.

It is as though Aristotle is writing to aspiring dramatists for the sole purpose of letting them know what kind of play
he wants them to write.  He even goes so far as to pinpoint which kind of
plot is the best.  The change of fortune
of the hero, he writes, must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity because
this merely shocks us rather than inspiring us to fear or pity.  A bad man passing from adversity to prosperity is
even worse, as this neither satisfies the moral sense nor inspires pity or fear, and of all possible plots this is the
most alien to the spirit of tragedy.  Conversely, a plot depicting the downfall of a major villain, while it may satisfy
the moral sense, also does not move fear or pity.  “There remains then, the character between these two
extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or
depravity, but by some error or frailty.  He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage
like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families” (577).

Aristotle asserts that such a plot is superior to that which seeks to satisfy the wishes of the audience by delivering
poetic justice.  While the spectacle of a just man rewarded and a villain punished does provide the audience with
pleasure, it is not the true tragic pleasure.  Furthermore, although fear and pity may be aroused by other means, it
is best that they do so purely from the inner structure of the piece rather than through spectacular means.  The plot
ought to be constructed so as to inspire pity through the mere telling of the tale without any of the added flare of
the stage performance.   Those who employ spectacular means to accomplish what should be done by the plot
itself, Aristotle insists, are strangers to the purpose of tragedy.

After describing to the world in explicit detail exactly what the best possible kind of plot should be, Aristotle
moves on to describe the best kind of hero, listing four basic things to be aimed at.  “First, and most important, it
must be good.  Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of
character: the character will be good if the purpose is good.  This rule is relative to each class.  Even a woman
may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite
worthless” (578).  Allow me to digress for one moment to level an objection against Aristotle that goes beyond
the scope of this particular text.

There are those who say we ought to forgive the ancient philosophers their prejudices because, after all, they lived
during a time in which it was taken for granted that women and slaves were inferior beings.  I, for one, feel
perfectly entitled to condemn Aristotle for his flagrant male chauvinism and endorsement of slavery.  Anyone as
intelligent as Aristotle clearly was—the fact that he was taken so seriously by every subsequent generation of
Greeks is evidence that he was the smartest person alive in his day and age—ought to be able to recognise that no
man is inherently superior to any other man and that the female sex is of just as much value as the male.  To those
who would tell me that
my opinions on this matter are just as much an expression of the prevailing moral
sentiments of
my time, I insist that any morality based on a foundation of justice must recognise the equality of the
races and sexes.  This is not based on prejudice but on a very simple logical argument: 1- No person chooses
their race or sex.  2- It is unjust to reward or punish individuals for something they have not chosen.  3- It is
therefore unjust to treat men better than women or Greeks better than non-Greeks.  Anyone with as much of a
natural flare for logic and reason as Aristotle ought to have recognised this and risen
above the prevailing
sentiments of the intellectually inferior masses.  He could have been a serious moral reformer—if the Greeks were
going to take anybody’s opinion seriously it would have been his—but instead he ignored Premise 2 and
throughout his entire career consistently upheld and even argued in support of the prevailing ethical prejudices of
his time.

After making it clear to history that anyone writing a play in which a woman or a slave might be the hero would
just be wasting everyone’s time, Aristotle continues to state his preferences as though they were timeless and
infallible principles.  “The second thing to aim at is propriety.  There is a type of manly valour; but valour in a
woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate.  Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct
thing from goodness and propriety, as here described.  The fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of
the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent” (578).  Aristotle’s
final prescription regarding character is no less arbitrary than the rest of his assertions (though I happen to agree
with this one more strongly than any other): that the
Deus ex Machina ought to be avoided.  By this he means
anything irrational or fantastic, anything that violates the law of the possible or probable, must be restricted to
events external to the drama.  The gods can do things for fantastic reasons, but the actions of a character within
the play must be believable.  A character who has served his purpose within the greater scope of the plot, for
instance, must leave for a reason that is believable and true to his character.  If the character is a soldier, he may
go off to battle, but to remove him by whisking him away in Apollo’s chariot would violate this principle.  Aristotle
says that the writer of Tragedy should follow the example of good portrait-painters: “They, while reproducing the
distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful” (579).

As much as I agree with this and many—if not most—of Aristotle’s opinions concerning tragedy, I do not believe
they rise above the level of mere opinion.  It may be the case that Aristotle had a knack for recognising what
aspects of a drama he liked and disliked, and for laying these preferences out in a logical, almost scientific manner,
yet this does not mean his preferences are based purely on logic or derived purely through scientific examination.  
They are merely preferences that most humans tend to share because most humans are constituted in the same
way.  Yet no human being, neither I nor Aristotle nor Homer nor Sophocles nor Shakespeare can possibly be
regarded as an ultimate authority on the matter of what constitutes good drama.  A drama can violate any one or
even
all of the principles that Aristotle here lays out and still provide its audience with a profound and worthwhile
experience.

This is because the function of art is not nearly as narrow as Aristotle presents it.  The function of art is to evoke;
not necessarily to evoke pity or fear.  As long as the play evokes
something it has served its purpose.  Who is
Aristotle to say that the evocation of pity and fear is inherently more valuable than the evocation of anger, joy,
laughter, or sorrow?  Perhaps the plot in a play is secondary to the characters; who is to say that the emotional
connection of the audience to the characters is less valuable than the reaction of the audience to the events of the
plot?  Perhaps the change in fortune in a play is that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity; who is to
say that no valuable insights can be evoked in the audience by a plot of this sort?  Perhaps the hero of a play is an
“unscrupulously clever” woman; who is to say that a story revolving around such a character is not worth seeing?  
This text is nothing more than one man writing about what he wants to see when he goes to the theatre.  He just
happens to be a man of such flagrant self-importance that he often mistakes his opinions for logical maxims and his
prejudices for scientific truths.  The fact that students in the dramatic arts continue to study his ideas thousands of
years later is, in my admittedly biased opinion, less a vindication of Aristotle than a testament to the gross
overindulgence that Western Civilization has paid to his opinions.