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Pity, Fear, and Catharsis in Aristotle's Poetics

Author(s): Charles B. Daniels and Sam Scully

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Nos, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Jun., 1992), pp. 204-217
Published by: Wiley-Blackwell
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Pity, Fear, and Catharsisin Aristotle'sPoetics
Universityof Victoria

1. Introduction
In defining dramatic tragedy Aristotle appeals in part to the psychological
notions of pity, fear, and catharsis.The question to be addressedin this paperis
whether in Aristotle's analysis the productionof pity, fear, and a catharsis of
these emotions in audiences-readers, auditors, or viewers-is essential to
works of dramatic tragedy, or at least good works of dramatic tragedy. We
follow Else 1956, 1986 in hold thatit is not.
Topics concerning pity, fear, and especially catharsis are some of the most
frequentlydiscussed in the literatureon Aristotle's analysis of tragedy.But very
rarely in this literatureis it stated in so many words that the above question is
the one under discussion. Fortenbaugh 1975 and Randall 1960 definitely do
come down on the opposite side, interpretingAristotle as holding that the pro-
duction of these psychological effects by a dramatic work is essential to its
being at least a good tragedy. Many many commentators,among them Brunius
1966, Butcher 1895 (Ch. VI, especially p. 244), Fergusson 1961 (pp. 34-36),
Halliwell 1986, 1987 (especially p. 91), and Ross 1953 (pp. 287-289), while not
explicitly saying so, give a strong impression that they too subscribe to this
view. After all, for Aristotle the aim of dramatictragedy is to effect a catharsis
of the emotions of pity and fear; hence it seems naturalto conclude that the
degree to which this is accomplished is the measure of the quality of a work.
Unfortunately,it is almost never crystal clear that this is indeed the topic under
discussion, rather than some other involving pity, fear, and catharsis-for
example, what feelings of pity, fear, and catharsis are, or what elements in
tragedies produce them. Of course, tragedies do attract and move audiences.
They do have psychological effects. Audience reactions to plays are taken as
evidence of their quality. But whethertheaterworks have to have such effects to
be tragedies,or good ones, is a differentissue. Nonetheless it is our impression,

NOUS 26:2 (1992) 204-217


and Else's 1986 (p. 159) as well, that most interpretationsof Aristotle hold him
to require that some kind of pity, fear, and catharsisbe producedin audiences.
Owing to the fact that most of these interpretationsdo not address themselves
explicitly to the question we propose to answer in this paper,there is some risk
of errorin taking most Aristotle commentatorsto be putting forwardthe posi-
tion we oppose. But the overall impression is so strong that we have no hesita-
tion in calling this view the "common"interpretation.
As an analysis of tragedythe common interpretationis unsatisfactory.It is no
secret that people's emotional reactions to the events they witness or hear of
depend upon the emotional states they are in at the time. If Aristotle really did
believe certainemotional responses in audiences to be necessary for tragedy,or
for good tragedy, he would have devoted at least some pages to the need for
preparingpeople so that exposure to dramatictragedy would actually work to
arouse the correct emotions. This Aristotle does not do. Instead, his primary
concern seems to be to describe what is and is not, and what should and should
not be, containedwithinworks of dramatictragedy.This in itself should give rise
to suspicionsthatthe common interpretationis flawed.
A second difficulty is epistemological: We can often tell a thing to have
certainfeatures merely by inspecting it. For example, we can tell that a man is
doubledover merely by inspectinghim. For otherkinds of features,however, we
must go beyond a mere inspectionof the thing possessing them to ascertainthat
it does possess them. No mere inspectionof a man will reveal whetheror not he
is an uncle.
Now on the common interpretationof Aristotle, we cannot tell a text or per-
formanceto be a tragedy,or a good tragedy,just by inspectingit. No, if we take
Aristotle seriously and wish to be scrupulousin our judgmentsconcerningdra-
matic works, in additionto inspectingthe work's text, story, or performance,we
must also undertakea psychological study of the members of its audience to
assure ourselves that the pity, fear, and catharsis have indeed been produced
before we may really be secure in judging it to be a tragedy,or a good one. This
is counterintuitive.
It may be objected that the effects on audiences,or lack thereof, are taken to
be signs of their success or failure. This is true, of course. But the issue here is
whether a productionhas to produce psychological effects on audiences to be
good. I may judge a man to be an uncle by listening to what he says about his
family. But nothinghe says makeshim an uncle. Audiences who pay and volun-
tarily turn up to view performancesmay well be in the right frames of mind to
recognize the quality of a work of theaterand be moved by it. They may enter
into the work and have feelings appropriateto what is going on on stage. But the
fact that what is being performedon stage is a good tragedy being performed
well is certainlyno guaranteeeffects like these will ensue.
Finally, Aristotlementionsthe pleasuremen take in such "imitations",i.e., in
make-believe.1Yet if these works were known to producereal pity and fear, it
would seem that only masochists would voluntarilyview them. To seek to have
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the negative emotions of pity and fear so one can then have a catharsisand be
free of them is like knocking one's head against the wall in order to have the
subsequentrelief of ceasing to do so. The common interpretationconfuses plea-
sure with relief.
In this essay we plan to offer an interpretationof Aristotle which is not
subjectto these defects and to squareit, so far as possible, with Aristotle's text.
We confess in advance that we cannot, by textual citation, prove ours to be the
correctinterpretationof the text and the common one to be incorrect.But there's
no question that, as philosophy,our interpretationdoes not suffer from the gross
flaws of the popularreading. So if Aristotle was indeed a good philosopher,he
can't have meant what he's commonly taken to be saying. He may have meant
what we take him to be saying. It's hard, if not impossible now, to know what
Aristotle's views really were. We shall rest content if nothing shows our inter-
pretationto be grossly untrueto his text and what it might possibly mean.
Not only will be present an interpretation,but we will check it passage by
passage against Aristotle's text.2 Of the co-authorsSam Scully has produceda
translation that is as flat and interpretation-neutral as possible, and Charles
Daniels is responsible for the reading of it which avoids the difficulties just

2. What Tragedy Is
We startby noting that for Aristotle a tragedy is an imitation of an action. An
action is a series of events. An imitationof an action is a make-believe series of
events. Unlike what tennis players do on court, what actors do on stage is
symbolic. What the actor on stage does thrustingthroughthe curtain with his
sword represents Hamlet thrusting through the curtain with his sword. That
Hamlet thruststhroughthe curtainis a make-believe event, and what the actor
does on stage representsthis make-believeevent.
Now some real-life series of events do typically produce pity and fear in
witnesses and end by giving them a sense that things have been appropriatelyor
fittingly (although not perhaps happily) resolved. One way a philosopher can
explain what make-believe events he has in mind as suitable for tragedy is by
describing real series of events like them. This is what we take Aristotle to be
doing at many points in his text, for instance, at the beginning of section 10,
where he says:

Someplotsare"simple"andsome"complex", for indeedtheactionsrepresented

the plots are naturallyof such types. By a "simple"actionI mean one that is
continuousand single, as earlierdefined,and whose changeof fortuneoccurs
without"reversal"or "discovery";by a "complex" actionI meanone whosechange
involvesa "discovery"or "reversal"orboth.3

Plots are simple or complex because the imitationactions in them are. These are
becausereal-life actions can also be divided into simple and complex.

Aristotle's writing often operates at four removes from the dramaticcontext

itself. This distance results from two antitheses:(i) reality vs. make-believe and
(ii) emotional characterizationof feelings vs. emotional characterizationof
actions, incidents,or events. The first antithesisis, of course, explicit in the pas-
sage just cited. In many places in the text the second, we hold, is equally and
importantlythere, but implicit. Earlier we remarkedthat Aristotle spends no
pages discussinghow to preparepeople so thatexposureto dramatictragedywill
actually work to arousethe correctemotions in them. Whathe does insteadis to
describe the kinds of actions, incidents, or events that should and should not be
contained within works of dramatictragedy. This we take as evidence of an
implicit recognitionby Aristotleof the second antithesis.While he does say that
certainactions arousecertainemotions and othersdon't, we take him in doing so
to be interestedin conveying to his readerinformationaboutthe kinds of actions,
incidents,or events he is discussing,not the effects they have.
(1) Make-believe and real-life actions. In explaining what kinds of actions,
incidents, or events occur in works of drama,fiction, and make-believe, we are
not limited to the fields of drama,fiction, and make-believe. We can say that
events in a play or novel are like things that happen in real-life. We can draw
upon this similarityin our explanation.We cite familiar sorts of real-life events
and expect hearersto be able to recognize the same kinds of events when they
occur in drama,fiction, and make-believe.
(2) Make-believe and real-life emotional responses. While the same sort of
event can occur in both real-life and make-believe, we do not expect the make-
believe event to have the same typical effects or consequences in real-life that
the real-life event has in real-life. Spectatorsmay well try to stop a real-life
death,but will not be moved to action at all when Hamletpierces the curtainand
behind it Polonius. Movie-goers may cringe when the monster lurches towards
them on the screen, but they do not run screamingout of the theaterto call in the
police for protection.
This Aristotlerecognizes explicitly in the first paragraphof Section 4:

Speaking generally, poetry seems to owe its origin to two particularcauses, and
these are natural. From childhood men have a natural instinct to engage in
representation,and in this respect they differ from the other animals, that man is
thoroughlyimitative and learns his first lessons by representingthings. And natural
is the enjoyment all people get from representation. What happens in actual
experience proves this, for we enjoy looking at the most accurate likenesses of
things which are themselves painful for us to see, the appearance of the lowest
beasts,for instance, and of corpses [our emphasis].

Things that in reality evoke unpleasantemotions, in imitation or make-believe

need not do so, but instead may evoke pleasure.Indeed, we take Aristotle to be
holding this throughoutthe Poetics with respect to the negative emotions of pity
and fear.
208 NOUS

Just as childrenget involved in make-believe, so, we believe, do adults when

they watch the make-believe being represented in theatrical performances.
Childrenride aroundon broomstickhorses, but adults' involvement is typically
more sedentary.Adults are content to be in frontof the tube or seated in theaters
with merely spectators'involvementin the make-believe.As such they, like their
more active children,may feel the appropriatemake-believeemotions, the same
types of emotions in make-believe as they would feel genuinely if they believed
themselves to be witnessingreal-life events. Indeed,to make audiencesenterinto
the make-believe and feel appropriatemake-believe emotions is an under-
standable,sensible, and worthwhilegoal for playwrightsto aim at. But from this
it in no way follows thatfulfillmentof this goal is essential to success in creating
tragedies, or good ones. Too much depends upon the kinds of audiences fate
happensto attractto performanceson particularnights.
(3) Typical emotional effects. In explaining what kind of events we have in
mind, we may cite the effects on witnesses real-life events of this kind typically
have. Some events typically produceamusement,some hilarity,some pity, some
fear. Whetheror not these emotions are produceddependsnot only on the nature
of the events themselves, but on the witnesses. People fresh from a loved-one's
funeralare not likely to be uncontrollablyamusedby events that othersmay find
(4) Emotional characterizationof actions, events, incidents,etc. That certain
kinds of real-life events typically produce hilarity is registered in our calling
them hilarious events. Indeed, the careworn or mourning may agree that the
events are hilariouseven when not feeling the slightest twinge of amusement.A
real-life incidentmay be fearful and pitiable, and yet its witnesses may be in the
middle of a drunkenrevel, too stupid to feel fear, too self-centeredto feel pity,
or, like some doctors,too inuredto this kind of event to feel much of anything.
Thus events or incidents may be amusing, hilarious,pitiable, or fearful. The
labels "amusing","hilarious","pitiable",and "fearful"apply to the events and
incidents, and it is not thereby implied that these events and incidents produce
actualfeelings of amusement,hilarity,pity, or fear in any witness. Just as we can
characterizean event as sudden or electric or pregnant,so too we can charac-
terize an event in these ways. And others will understandwhat we're talking
about. We leave for someone else the task of analyzing, in general, the applica-
tion of ". . . able", ". . . ious", and ". . . ful" adjectives to actions, situations,
incidents,and events.4
Now the kind of actions, situations,incidents, and events we are concerned
with in dramatictragedy are those that, in rpal-life, are pitiable and fearful and
progressto afitting or appropriateresolution.We use the idea of afitting resolu-
tion in the sense in which we judge whethera punishmentdoes or does not "fit"
a crime. The notion of punishmentis appropriatehere, since, as is broughtout in
the first quotationabove, a change of fortune (for the worse) is requiredfor a
tragedy,while neitherreversalsnor recognitionsare. A change of fortunefor the

worse which is a morallyfitting or appropriateresolutionof a pitiableand fearful

situationis the correlatein the sphereof events of effecting a catharsis,a resolu-
tion, of pity and fear in the sphereof felt emotions.
Let it be absolutely clear that we in no way deny that real-life or dramatic
events arouseemotions in witnesses. No doubtsabout it, they do. Ourconcernis
to insist that whether they do or don't is not essential to tragedy, or good
tragedy-even on Aristotle'sview.
To summarize:Our minimal claim is that Aristotle's definition of dramatic
tragedy implies neither (A) that works of tragedy produce real pity, fear, or
emotional catharsisin their audiences, nor (B) that the actions and incidents in
them, were they to occur in real-life, would do so, nor yet (C) that works of
tragedyproducemake-believepity, fear, and emotionalcatharsisin the audience,
nor finally (D) that dramaticrepresentationsof such works produce such emo-
tions in audiences.Of course, tragediesmay incidentally,even typically, produce
emotions in people, but on our interpretationAristotle is not committedto their
having to do so. We also wish to make a further, stronger claim: that what
Aristotle really wishes to do is to characterizethe kinds of actions and events
which are appropriatefor dramatictragedy;these arepitiable andfearful actions
and events whichpass tofitting or appropriateresolutions.
What Aristotle often does to characterizethe kinds of events appropriateto
dramatictragedyis to characterizethe real-life kinds of events these imitate.He
often does so by describing the kinds of responses such events give rise to in
witnesses in real-life. This style of conveying what one has in mind is like
indicatingthe number3,749,823 by saying "The topmost numberon the black-
board".Being the topmost numberof the blackboardis in no way an essential
featureof 3,749,823, yet the numberto which one refersdoes get across to one's
audience. We take Aristotle to be making a similar kind of reference when he
talks about people's feelings of pity and fear and catharses of these feelings.
Laterin the book he characterizesthe dramaticevents of tragediesmore directly
by describingwhat kinds of thing happenin them, as opposed to what emotional
effects their real-life counterpartsnormally have. We contend that in both the
pre-analyticstage and laterin the detailedanalysis, his purposeis to characterize
the events appropriatefor dramatictragedyand not theireffects.
To repeat,then, our principalthesis is this:

For Aristotleproductionof emotionaleffectsin audiences-readers,auditors,or

viewers-is notessentialto dramatictragedy,or gooddramatictragedy.

Our strategywill be to paraphrasepassages that seem to contradictthis thesis in

two ways: (1) by taking Aristotle to be talking about the typical effects of the
real-life counterpartsof the events and incidents of dramatictragedies,or (2) by
using the words "pitiable","fearful",and "capableof fitting resolution"to char-
acterizethese events and incidentsdirectly.
210 NOUS

In defining dramatictragedyin ?6 of the Poetics, Aristotleis remarkablyclear

aboutwhat kinds of situationshe has in mind.

Tragedy is, then, a representationof an action that is serious and complete and of a
certain magnitude-by means of language made pleasing for each of the forms
separatelyin the different parts [of the play]: it representsmen in action and does
not use narrative,and throughpity and fear it effects a catharsisof such emotions.

We take him to be saying in his definition:

Tragedy is, then, a representationof an action that is serious and complete and of a
certainmagnitude-by means of languageenrichedwith all kinds of ornament,each
used separately in the different parts of the play: it representsmen in action and
does not use narrative,and from things that happen to men that typically produce
pity, fear, and kindredemotions it progressesto fitting resolutions.

Or, very briefly:

Tragedy is a make-believe play whose story is serious, complete, and ample and is
aboutthe fitting resolutionof a pitiable and fearful situation.

We note here that if a change of fortunefor the worse is necessary for tragedy,
its presence in Aristotle's definitionmust be keyed eitherto the "serious"quality
of the action, or to the catharsis,its having to progressto a fittingresolution.
That the imitation action's being serious entails a change of fortune for the
worse is doubtfulfor two reasons: (1) Aristotle characterizesthe actions of epic
poems as serious and it is not clear thatepic poetryrequiresan overall change for
the worse in the hero's fortunes.(2) The characterizationis used by Aristotle in
the beginning chapters to distinguish the actions of epics and tragedies from
those of comedies. "Serious"is opposed to "ridiculous","funny",or "ludicrous".
As such thereis no reasonwhy the seriousneed involve a change for the worse.
But in tragedies the hero's fortune has to change for the worse, and this
change, given the hero's circumstancesand actions duringthe course of the play,
should be just, appropriate,fitting. Locating the catharsis in the emotions of
readers,listeners,or spectatorsin no way ensuresthat a change of fortuneoccurs
in the plot. But if the catharsisis itself located in the plot in the form of a just,
appropriate,and fitting resolutionto pitiable and fearful incidents,the change of
fortunewill reside theretoo.
3. Section 13
Aristotle'sdiscussion of artisticexcellence in tragedycommences in Section 13.

13. Following upon what has been said above we should next state what ought to be
aimed at and what avoided in the constructionof a plot, and the means by which the
function of tragedy may be achieved. Since then the structureof the finest tragedy

shouldbe not simple but complex and one that representsfearfuland pitiful
incidents-forthatis peculiarto thisformof representation-itis obvious,to begin
with,thatgoodmenshouldnotbe shownpassingfromgoodfortuneto bad.Thisis
not fearfulor pitifulbut repulsive.Nor again wickedpeople passingfrom bad
fortuneto good. That is the most untragicof all, havingnone of the requisite
qualities,sinceit does not satisfyourfeelingsnorit is pitifulor fearful.Noragain
the passingof a thoroughlybad man from good fortuneto bad fortune.Such a
structuremightsatisfyourfeelingsbutit arousesneitherpitynorfear,theonebeing
for the manwho does not deservehis misfortuneandthe otherfor the manwho is
like ourselves-pityfor one whodoesnotdeservemisfortune, fearfor themanlike
ourselves-so thattheeventwill be neitherpitifulnorfearful.

A problem arises in this passage, even under the interpretationwhich requires

pity and fear to be producedin a tragedy's audience. The passage rejects three
kinds of situationas inappropriatefor tragedy.The difficultyconcernsthe first:

It is obviousto beginwiththatgoodmen shouldnot be shownpassingfromgood

fortuneto bad.Thisis notfearfulorpitifulbutrepulsive.

When this sort of thing occurs in real life, the typical response is moral outrage
and revulsion.For "good men" the paragraphthatfollows in the text allows us to
read "menwho are pre-eminentlyvirtuousandjust".
But why is it that the plight of a pre-eminentlyvirtuous and just man, who
throughno fault of his own-he is, after all, pre-eminentlyvirtuousand just-
falls from good fortuneto bad is neitherpitiablenor fearful?After all, at the end
of the paragraphAristotle says:

theone beingfor themanwhodoesnotdeservehis misfortune andtheotherfor the

manwho is like ourselves-pity for theone who does notdeservemisfortune, fear
forthemanlikeourselves-so thattheeventwill be neitherpitifulnorfearful.

A man pre-eminentlyvirtuous and just does not deserve misfortune so we

should have pity on him; and we should have fear, for if misfortunecan strike
man of such characterand ability,none of us is safe from the cruel handof fate.
The most drasticremedy would be to amendAristotle's original definition of
tragedy by requiringthat pity and fear be aroused, but not moral outrage and
revulsion. Aristotle is quite right, of course, in his observationthat the real-life
plight of men of such characterwhom fate thrustsinto misfortunedoes typically
shock and revolt us. We tend to view such happenings as not only pitiable
and fearful, but as really unfair. This amendmentin the definition of tragedy
would also call for an amendmentto the passage under discussion, which now
should read:

one shouldnot show good men passingfromgood fortuneto bad.Thatdoes not

212 NOUS

A more moderatesolution is available. The problem with this kind of situation

may lie not in that it is pitiableand fearful,but, given that our protagonistis pre-
eminentlyvirtuousandjust, the pitiableand fearfulcircumstancesthatbefall him
are incapable of generating the right kind of catharsis-a catharsis of the
emotions of pity and fear on the popularinterpretation,a fitting,just, or appropri-
ate resolutionwhich yet remainscalamitouson ours.
Oedipus and Antigone, at least to some extent, dig their own graves. There is
some justice in the change of fortuneeach suffersby play's end. Indeed,the kind
of situationAristotle puts forwardas appropriatefor tragedyis precisely one in
which the hero does, at least to some extent, deserve the calamitythat in the end
befalls him. As he says very shortly:

The fine plot must then be single and not, as some say, double; and the change must
be not to good fortunefrom bad but, on the contrary,from good to bad fortune,and
it must not be due to villainy but to some great fallibility on the partof such a man
as we have described,or of one who is betterratherthan worse.

The protagonistmust be good, at least betterratherthan worse, but not preemi-

nently good. The fall from good into bad fortune of the pre-eminentlyvirtuous
andjust man throughabsolutelyno fault of his own is in no way fitting, appropri-
ate, or just. Thereis no appropriateresolutionto such a calamitousturnof events,
since if justice really were to prevailit would not happenin the first place.
Aristotle divides the six parts of tragedy into means, manner, and object-
diction and song-makingbeing the means, spectacleor dramaticperformancethe
manner,and thought,character,and plot the object. Now in this passage Aristotle
is concernedwith how the object of tragedymay be achieved, that is, a protago-
nist with a certainhistory that will not be dramatizedon the stage in performing
the play (thought)5and a certain set of desires and dispositions (character)is to
be placed in a situationthe resolutionof which we see in performanceon stage
(plot). His purposeis to tell us what kind of situationand person are requiredfor
successful tragedy. If the emotions of pity, fear, and their catharticresolution
were involved, he'd spend more time talking about the background of the
readers,viewers, or listeners who are typically exposed to tragedy-for whether
people do feel pity and fear depends upon their circumstances, background,
character,and experience. But Aristotle's subjecthere is the kind of situationor
series of events that are appropriatefor dramatic artists to represent. So we
interpretAristotleto be saying:

Following upon what has been said above We should next state what ought to be
aimed at and what avoided in the constructionof a plot, and the means by which the
object of tragedy may be achieved. Since then the structureof the best tragedy
should be not simple but complex and one that representsincidents that in real-life
typically arouse pity and fear-for that is peculiarto this form of art-it is obvious,
to begin with, that one should not show good men passing from good fortuneto bad.

That does not in real-life merely arouse pity and fear but leaves us shocked and
revolted. Nor again wicked people passing from bad fortune to good. That is the
most untragicof all, having none of the requisitequalities, since such circumstances
in real-life typicallydo not satisfy our moral sense or arousepity and fear. Nor again
the passing of a thoroughly bad man from good fortune to bad fortune. Such a
situation in real-life might satisfy our moral sense but it typically arouses neither
pity nor fear, the one being for the man who does not deserve his misfortuneand the
other for the man who is like ourselves-pity for the undeservedmisfortune,fear for
the man like ourselves-so that the resultwill typicallyarouseneitherpity nor fear.


Following upon what has been said above we should next state what ought to be
aimed at and what avoided in the constructionof a plot, and the means by which the
object of tragedymay be achieved. Since then the structureof the best tragedymay
be achieved. Since then the structureof the best tragedy should be not simple but
complex and one that representspitiable andfearful incidents- for that is peculiar
to this form of art-it is obvious to begin with that one should not show good men
passing from good fortune to bad. Such situations are not just pitiable and fearful;
they are incapable of fitting resolution. Nor again wicked people passing from bad
fortune to good. Such a situation is the most untragicof all, being neitherfitting,
pitiable, or fearful. Nor again the passing of a thoroughly bad man from good
fortuneto bad fortune.Such a turnof events might be fitting, but it is neitherpitiable
norfearful, the one being a case of a man who does not deserve his misfortuneand
the other of the man who is like ourselves-pity for the undeservedmisfortune,fear
for the man like ourselves-so thatthe resultis neitherpitiable norfearful.

4. Section 14
In this section we find:

14. The fearful and the pitiable can result from the spectacle, but they can arise
from the actual arrangementof the incidents, which is preferableand the markof a
betterpoet. The plot should be so arrangedthateven without seeing the play anyone
hearing of the incidents happening will feel terror and pity as a result of what
occurs. So would anyone feel who hears the story of Oedipus. To produce this
effect by means of an appeal to the eye is inartistic and needs lavish expenditure
while those who by such means produce an effect which is not fearful but merely
monstrousare not dealing with tragedy.For one should not seek from tragedyevery
pleasure but that which is peculiar to tragedy, and since the poet must by
"representation"produce the pleasure which comes from feeling pity and fear,
obviously this quality must be embodied in the incidents.

Plot is one of the six componentsof tragedyand spectacle another.Plot refers to

the series of incidents dramatized.Spectacle refers to what spectators see at
particular performances of a work of tragedy. The plot must be presented in
every performanceof a work for what is presentedto count as a performanceof
214 NOUS

the work; whereasthe elements of spectacle differ from one performanceof the
work to the next.
In his opening sentence Aristotleis observingthat it may be eitherthe craftof
the playwrightthat animatesthe representationof pitiable and fearful incidents
or the craft of particularactors, customers,and stage technicianswith props and
special effects thatdoes this. We should interprethim to be saying:

14. That the incidents represented are pitiable and fearful at times results from
spectacle and at times from the actual arrangementof the incidents, which is
preferableand the mark of a better poet. The plot should be so arrangedthat even
without seeing the play anyone hearingof the incidentsactually happeningtypically
will feel terrorand pity as a result of what occurs.

He then proceeds to remarkthat it is inartisticand crude when, like so many of

the horrormovies we see these days-short on plot and long on special effects,
stagingalone makes the representedevents have theiremotionalcharacter.
Threepoints shouldbe emphasizedconcerningthe remainderof the paragraph:
(1) The pleasure"thatcomes from feeling pity and fear"is not masochistic.It
is ratherthe pleasurereferredto at the beginningof section 4:

4. Speaking generally, poetry seems to owe its origin to two particularcauses, and
these are natural. From childhood men have a natural instinct to engage in
representation,and in this respect they differ from the other animals, that man is
thoroughly imitative and learns his first lessons through representingthings. And
naturalis the enjoyment people always get from representation.What happens in
actual experience proves this, for we enjoy looking at the most accuratelikenesses
of things which are themselves painful for us to see, the appearanceof the lowest
beasts, for instance, and of corpses. The reason is this. Learningthings gives great
pleasure not only to philosophersbut also in the same way to all other men, though
they share this pleasure only to a small degree. The reason why they enjoy seeing
likenesses is that, as they look, they learn and infer what each is, for instance, "this
is so-and-so".If one has never happenedto see the original, the pleasure is not due
to the representationas such but to the workmanshipor the colour or some other
such reason.

Here Aristotle observes that children naturallylike to engage in mimesis, in

make-believe, that they gain knowledge from their make-believe games-which
is a good thing, since they can do so without having to undergo many of life's
real (and often nasty) experiences-and that even as adults we take pleasurein
Inasmuchas the incidentsin Tragedyare only make-believeones, we can take
pleasure in them instead of feeling real pity and fear, which, if we were to
witness such incidents in real-life, we typically would feel. Only a sadist takes
pleasurein witnessingreal pitiableincidents;and only a masochisttakes pleasure
in his own real feelings of pity and fear.

(2) The appropriatepleasureto be taken in dramatictragedyis createdby the

authorthroughhis plot, not by actors, costumers,and stage techniciansthrough
the spectaclethey offer in particularperformance.
(3) The causes of this pleasure lie not in the hearts of drama-lovers,in their
feelings of pity and fear, but in the kinds of things that happento the personages
represented.It is the kind of incident dramatizedthat gives rise to the pleasure
of tragedy: make-believe pitiable and fearful incidents which pass to fitting
resolutions-not make-believe incidents that if real would arouse pity and fear
in everyone who witnessed or heard of them, not make-believe incidents that
are really pitiable and fearful, and not make-believe incidentsthat do arousereal
pity and fear in everyone who witnesses or hears of them knowing them to be
Aristotlebegins the second paragraphof section 14 by raisingthe question:

We must now decide what incidents seem dreadfulor pitiable.


What, then, are the sorts of actions which are (really) fearful and pitiable?

In what follows Aristotlemakes it crystal clear that it is the natureof the events
represented that makes a tragedy successful, not the kinds of feelings its
audienceor readersare having.
The action must be against a friend or family member. It is better done in
ignorance than in full awareness, since the latter constitutes morally abhorrent
treatmentof a friend or family memberand ceases therebyto make the protago-
nist's situation pitiable. Best, according to Aristotle, is to have the deed
intended,but owing to a fuller recognition of the circumstancesnot carriedout.
For example, a leader precipitatelyagrees to kill an unknownenemy of the state
and then, when it becomes known that the enemy is his own father, refuses to
do so. This refusal then brings abouthis downfall, when things move to a fitting

5. Section 11
The final passage we need deal with appearsin this section.

A "discovery",as the term itself implies, is a change from ignoranceto knowledge,

producingeither friendshipor hatredin those who are destined for good fortune or
ill. A discovery is most effective when it coincides with a reversal, as with that in
the Oedipus. There are also other forms of discovery, for what we have described
may in a way occur in relationto inanimateand trivial objects, or one may discover
whether someone has done something or not. But the discovery which is most
essentially part of the plot and partof the action is of the kind described above, for
such a discovery and reversal will involve either pity or fear (and it is actions such
216 NOUS

as these which, according to our hypothesis, tragedy represents),since misfortune

and good fortuneare likely to turnupon such incidents.

Ourinterpretationmakes a minimalchange in the last sentence:

But the discovery which is most essentially partof the plot and partof the action is
of the kind described above, for such a discovery and reversal will involve either
pitiable orfearful circumstances(and it is actions such as these which, accordingto
our hypothesis, tragedyrepresents),since misfortuneand good fortune are likely to
turnupon such incidents.

Thatmisfortuneand good fortuneturnon pitiableand fearfulcircumstancesis no

mere accident. The catharsisor fitting resolution essentially involves a turn of
the worst in the fortunesof the hero, what Aristotle cites as the thirdelement of
the plot (in additionto reversaland discovery), namely calamity,itoOo; (1459).

6. Conclusion
The interpretationpresentedin this paper avoids the problems of the common
view, which requiresreadersor viewers of a (good) work of tragedy to feel the
emotions of pity and fear and a subsequentcatharsisfor it to qualify as (good)
tragedy. On our view Aristotle's real concern is to characterizethe kinds of
actions and events thatare appropriatefor representationin dramatictragedyand
not to characterizethe emotional effects these kinds of actions and events have
on audiences. We take him to be using emotion words to describe the kinds of
emotions that are typically felt in response to the kinds of real-life incidents
tragedies representin make-believe, for the purpose of conveying to his reader
the sort of incidentsthat are appropriatefor dramatictragedy,pitiableand fearful
incidents that move to fitting resolutions.On this interpretationthere is no need
to inspect anything other than the words of the text or a performanceof it to
determinewhetherit is a tragedyand whetherit is a good one.
We cannot prove conclusively that our interpretationis correct. At least it
is not directly contradicted by Aristotle's text, and it does save Aristotle's
analysis of tragedy from the philosophical flaws that on the common reading
are clearly fatal.6

UIntaking imitationto be make-believe, we following KendallWalton 1973, 1978.
2The Greek text we use is R. Kassel 1965.
3We note the implicationhere that a change of fortuneis not the same thing as a reversal.
41ndeed,it may be appropriateto call a situation"fearful"even if this kind of event turnsout not
to producefear typically. We still call the things "sunrises"even though we now know the sun does
not revolve aroundthe earth.

5See the beginning of ? 18 for further evidence that plot is limited to what is dramatizedon
6We wish to acknowledge the University of Victoria President's Discretionary Fund for its

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