Nietzsche, Tragedy, and the Theory of Catharsis


  • James I. Porter UC Berkeley



Nietzsche’s view of catharsis has attracted some but not a great deal of attention. Part of the reason is that he rarely makes use of the term itself, whether in his Birth of Tragedy or elsewhere, and when he does he is rather dismissive, seemingly rejecting out of hand the Aristotelian-inspired theory of tragic catharsis in its ancient or modern (notably, classicizing) forms. Catharsis would appear to be an unrewarding area for understanding Nietzsche. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that The Birth of Tragedy appears to foreground Nietzsche’s rejection of tragic catharsis in its classical form, and the book is surely very much about catharsis in this sense. As it happens, a closer look at both this work and a handful of later texts on tragedy in Nietzsche’s writings suggests that catharsis theory is everywhere on his mind even where the term is not being mentioned, not least of all in The Birth of Tragedy, where it is fully operative in the form of pity or co-suffering (Mitleid[en]), identificatory fear and horror (Furcht, Schrecken), and redemptive discharge (Erlösung, Entladung). Nor is his view as clear-cut as his emphatic rejection of Aristotelian catharsis might appear to indicate. His view of catharsis is neither simple nor entirely uniform across his corpus. Nietzsche’s understanding of catharsis proves to be much closer to the view he appears to reject, and much closer to classicism’s reading of tragedy than one might suppose.

Author Biography

James I. Porter, UC Berkeley

Chancellor's Professor, Dept. of Rhetoric


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