Comedy, Catharsis, and the Emotions: From Aristotle to Proclus


  • Matt Cohn University of Toronto



This paper takes a fresh look at ancient theories about the catharsis afforded by comedy. I adopt the model of Aristotelian catharsis proposed by Richard Janko and Stephen Halliwell and argue that Aristotle thought that comedy should elicit, and thus effect catharsis of, not only pleasurable emotions, such as the emotion associated with laughter, but also certain painful ones as well. In particular, Aristotle hints in the Poetics that certain comic plots elicit the painful emotion indignation as part of the process of eliciting pleasurable emotions that I call ‘justified schadenfreude’ and ‘justified gratulation’. These emotions are intertwined with fear and pity in Aristotle’s philosophy of the emotions, and thus the catharsis of such a comedy complements the catharsis of tragedy. I next turn to later theories in the Tractatus Coislinianus, Iamblichus, and Proclus. These tend to distort or diverge from Aristotle’s theory, but all four are in agreement in one important respect: comedy produces real emotions, and those emotions are in need of catharsis.