is a Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...
word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein
, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos
, "pure or clean."
Catharsis is a term in dramatic art
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning "action" , which is derived from "to do","to act" . The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a...
that describes the "emotional cleansing" sometimes depicted in a play as occurring for one or more of its characters, as well as the same phenomenon as (an intended) part of the audience’s experience.
It describes an extreme change in emotion, occurring as the result of experiencing strong feelings (such as sorrow, fear, pity, or even laughter).
It has been described as a "purification" or a "purging" of such emotions.
More recently, such terms as restoration, renewal,
have been used when referencing the effect on members of the audience.
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...
was the first to use the term catharsis
with reference to the emotion
Emotion is a complex psychophysiological experience of an individual's state of mind as interacting with biochemical and environmental influences. In humans, emotion fundamentally involves "physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience." Emotion is associated with mood,...
s – in his work Poetics
In that context, it refers to a sensation or literary effect that, ideally, would either be experienced by the characters in a play, or be wrought upon the audience at the conclusion of a tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...
; namely, the release of pent-up emotion or energy.
In his works prior to Poetics,
Aristotle had used the term catharsis
purely in its medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the katamenia
—the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material).
Here, however, he employs it as a medical metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...
F. L. Lucas
Frank Laurence Lucas was an English classical scholar, literary critic, poet, novelist, playwright, political polemicist, and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge....
maintains, therefore, that purification
are not proper translations for catharsis
; that it should rather be rendered as purgation
"It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions."
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a German writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist, and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment era. His plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of German literature...
sidesteps the medical aspect of the issue and translates catharsis
as a purification, an experience that brings pity and fear into their proper balance: "In real life," he explained, "men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean."
Tragedy is then a corrective; through watching tragedy, the audience learns how to feel these emotions at proper levels.
Some modern interpreters of the work infer that catharsis is pleasurable, because audience members experience ekstasis
(Greek: – ecstasy) (literally: astonishment, meaning: trance
) or, in other words, "relief," ensuing from an awareness that, compared with what they have just seen portrayed, their own life is less tragic.
Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text. Whereas interpreting undoubtedly antedates writing, translation began only after the appearance of written literature; there exist partial translations of the Sumerian Epic of...
attempting to interpret Aristotle's meaning of the term should take into account that Poetics
is largely a response to Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...
's claim that poetry
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...
encourages people to be hysterical
Hysteria, in its colloquial use, describes unmanageable emotional excesses. People who are "hysterical" often lose self-control due to an overwhelming fear that may be caused by multiple events in one's past that involved some sort of severe conflict; the fear can be centered on a body part, or,...
Aristotle maintains that, on the contrary, the effect of poetry is to allow people to be less
controlled by emotion – not more so – by its providing a healthy outlet for their feelings.
In literary aesthetics, catharsis is developed by the conjunction of stereotyped characters and unique or surprising actions or events over time.
Throughout a play, we do not expect the nature of a character to change significantly; rather, preexisting elements are revealed in a relatively straightforward way, as the character faces these confrontations.
This is clearly evident in Oedipus Rex,
where King Oedipus is confronted with ever more outrageous actions, until the catharsis/emptying generated by the death of his mother-wife, and by his own act of self-blinding.
In contemporary aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste...
may also refer to any purging of emotion experienced by an audience, in relation to drama.
This exstasis (ekstasis – ἔκστασις – ecstasy) can be perceived in comedy, melodrama and most other dramatic forms.
There have been, for political or aesthetic reasons, deliberate attempts made to subvert the effect of catharsis in theatre.
For example, Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director.An influential theatre practitioner of the 20th century, Brecht made equally significant contributions to dramaturgy and theatrical production, the latter particularly through the seismic impact of the tours undertaken by the...
viewed catharsis as a pap (pablum) for the bourgeois theatre audience, and designed dramas which left significant emotions unresolved, intending to force social action upon the audience.
Brecht reasoned that the absence of a cathartic resolution would require the audience to take political action in the real world, in order to fill the emotional gap they had experienced vicariously.
This technique can be seen as early as his agit-prop play The Measures Taken
"Catharsis" before tragedy
Catharsis before the sixth-century rise of tragedy is, for the Western World
The Western world, also known as the West and the Occident , is a term referring to the countries of Western Europe , the countries of the Americas, as well all countries of Northern and Central Europe, Australia and New Zealand...
, essentially a historical footnote to the Aristotelian conception. The practice of purification
Ritual purification is a feature of many religions. The aim of these rituals is to remove specifically defined uncleanliness prior to a particular type of activity, and especially prior to the worship of a deity...
had not yet appeared in Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...
, as later Greek commentators noted: the Aithiopis
The Aethiopis or Aithiopis is a lost epic of ancient Greek literature. It was one of the Epic Cycle, that is, the "Trojan" cycle, which told the entire history of the Trojan War in epic verse. The story of the Aethiopis comes chronologically immediately after that of the Homeric Iliad, and is...
, an epic set in the Trojan War cycle, narrates the purification of Achilles
In Greek mythology, Achilles was a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer's Iliad.Plato named Achilles the handsomest of the heroes assembled against Troy....
after his murder of Thersites
In Greek mythology, Thersites was a soldier of the Greek army during the Trojan War. In the Iliad, he does not have a father's name, which may suggest that he should be viewed as a commoner rather than an aristocratic hero...
. Catharsis describes the result of measures taken to cleanse away blood-guilt—"blood is purified through blood" (Burkert 1992:56), a process in the development of Hellenic culture in which the oracle of Delphi
Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis.In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god...
took a prominent role. The classic example – Orestes
Orestes was the son of Agamemnon in Greek mythology; Orestes may also refer to:Drama*Orestes , by Euripides*Orestes, the character in Sophocles' tragedy Electra*Orestes, the character in Aeschylus' trilogy of tragedies, Oresteia...
– belongs to tragedy, but the procedure given by Aeschylus
Aeschylus was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived, the others being Sophocles and Euripides, and is often described as the father of tragedy. His name derives from the Greek word aiskhos , meaning "shame"...
is ancient: the blood of a sacrificed piglet is allowed to wash over the blood-polluted man, and running water washes away the blood. The identical ritual is represented, Burkert informs us (1992:57), on a krater
A krater was a large vase used to mix wine and water in Ancient Greece.-Form and function:...
found at Canicattini, wherein it is shown being employed to cure the daughters of Proetus
Proetus was a mythical king of Argos and Tiryns. His father Abas, son of the last surviving and died Danaid Hypermnestra, had ruled over Argos and married Ocalea. However, Proetus quarreled continually with his twin brother Acrisius, inventing shields or bucklers in the process...
from their madness, caused by some ritual transgression. To the question of whether the ritual obtains atonement for the subject, or just healing
Physiological healing is the restoration of damaged living tissue, organs and biological system to normal function. It is the process by which the cells in the body regenerate and repair to reduce the size of a damaged or necrotic area....
, Burkert answers: "To raise the question is to see the irrelevance of this distinction" (1992:57).
The term catharsis
has also been adopted by modern psychotherapy
Psychotherapy is a general term referring to any form of therapeutic interaction or treatment contracted between a trained professional and a client or patient; family, couple or group...
, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis, to describe the act of expressing, or more accurately, experiencing
the deep emotions often associated with events in the individual's past which had originally been repressed or ignored, and had never been adequately addressed or experienced. Modern psychological opinion is clear on the usefulness of physical non goal-fulfilling cathartic aggression in anger management. "Blowing off steam
Steam is the technical term for water vapor, the gaseous phase of water, which is formed when water boils. In common language it is often used to refer to the visible mist of water droplets formed as this water vapor condenses in the presence of cooler air...
" may reduce physiological stress in the short term, but this reduction may act as a reward mechanism, reinforcing the behavior and promoting future outbursts.
Catharsis is also an emotional release associated with talking about the underlying causes of a problem or seeing a dream.