Critically examine the Aristotelian concept of catharsis.

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As mentioned in the previous post, Aristotle addresses the idea of catharsis in his text Poetics . Within the text, he describes catharsis as the purging of emotions, such as fear and pity. Typically, catharsis (at least according to Aristotle) is directly associated with the tragic hero. (On a side...

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As mentioned in the previous post, Aristotle addresses the idea of catharsis in his text Poetics. Within the text, he describes catharsis as the purging of emotions, such as fear and pity. Typically, catharsis (at least according to Aristotle) is directly associated with the tragic hero. (On a side note, Poetics also includes Aristotle's characterization of a tragic hero.)

Therefore, the purpose of catharsis for a reader or viewer of a tragic play is to allow the release of emotions prior to the completion of the play/tragedy. Another master of human nature, William Shakespeare, includes catharsis within most of his tragic plays. Shakespeare's Macbeth contains catharsis in act 5, scene 5. Macbeth has murdered numerous people, is getting ready to fight Duncan's sons in order to keep the throne, and has received news that his wife has committed suicide. Readers/viewers of the play, for all intents and purposes, should be feeling a wide variety of emotions. It is the famous soliloquy from this scene which provides catharsis.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It is in this soliloquy that Macbeth provides an alternative point-of-view, reminding those reading or viewing the play that, simply, it is just a play. Regardless of what has happened, regardless of how many murders have taken place, none of it is real. Therefore, catharsis, at this point, allows the readers and viewers to purge themselves of any emotions that may leave them feeling depressed or angry (to name a couple) at the end of the play.

Outside of literature, another example which may help to explain Aristotle's concept of catharsis could be a riding a rollercoaster. As one enters a car on the coaster, one may begin to feel anxiety or fear. As the ride begins its ascent, this anxiety or fear builds. Catharsis comes at two typical places, at this point. One cathartic moment comes as the ride crests the incline and riders descend. Vocally, this is heard in the screams of both excitement and fear. The second moment of catharsis may come as the ride ends. Here, riders are off the ride, and they have survived.

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This is a great question. Aristotle seems to have used the idea of catharsis in two ways. First, in his medical writing, he used the word in a bodily sense, when there is a discharge of fluids from the body, usually in reference to reproductive fluids.

More interestingly, Aristotle used this term in his Poetics. Within this context, he uses the concept of catharsis to refer to the release of pent up emotions. More specifically, he uses this in the genre of tragedy. Catharsis can happen to both the characters in a play as well as the audience. For example, in Sophocles great tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is blind as to his identity. When he finally realizes who he is and what he has done, and he accepts his fate, then there is an emotional purging - a catharsis. The same happens to the audience as their emotions build up as they come to confirm their worst feeling that Oedipus did indeed marry his mother and kill his father. The acceptance of Oedipus' fate is the moment of catharsis.

This is an important insight on many levels. First, it shows that in a literary work there is a climax and resolution. Second, it is also applicable to real life, because all people need some sort of emotional purging. In this way, Aristotle was an acute observer of human nature.

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