Catharsis, Music, and the Mysteries in Aristotle


  • Andrew L. Ford Princeton University



Of the many meanings of katharsis available to Aristotle, two have predominated in scholarly attempts to say what the word means in the Poetics when “the katharsis of pity and fear produced by pity and fear” is defined as the aim of tragedy.  The past thirty years have seen a concerted effort among scholars of the Poetics to overturn Jacob Bernays’ appeal to Aristotle’s use of katharsis in his Politics (1342a10-11) with its medical meaning of ‘purgation’ as the basis of his theory that tragedy provides a harmless ‘outlet’ for emotions; against this, Plato’s notion of intellectual ‘purification’ as a kind of katharsis has been invoked to argue that the workings of the tragic art were fundamentally cognitive and resulted in the ethical ‘clarification’ of the audience.  The present essay proposes that Aristotle’s theory of tragedy was deeply informed by another meaning of the word in his day: the ecstatic release provided by certain mystery cults.  After underlining Aristotle’s familiarity with such rituals, it draws on Walter Burkert’s Ancient Mystery Cults to bring out suggestive commonalities between mystery initiations and theatre. The ‘telestic’ ‘initiations’ (τέλη) aimed not at the afterlife but at alleviating fears and anxieties of initiates; both their secret nocturnal ceremonies and public choral processions were dramatic and highly theatrical, with an essential role played by ecstasy-inducing  ‘sacred tunes’. In order to discern the relevance of telestic katharsis to the Poetics it is necessary not to focus solely on the definition of tragedy in chapter 6 but to appreciate the anthropological approach to the poetic arts in chapter 4.  This context supplies, if not a fully worked out model of tragic katharsis, a broad-based explanation of how human beings might respond to imitations of terrible things with pleasure and profit. 


Works Cited

Andersen, Øivind and Jon Haarberg (eds), Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics, London: Duckworth.

Barker, Andrew (1989), Greek Musical Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 2.

Belfiore, Elizabeth (1992), Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bernays, Jakob [1857] (1979), “Aristotle on the Effects of Tragedy”, trans. by Johnathan and Jennifer Barnes, in Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield and Richard Sorabji (eds), Articles on Aristotle, London: Macmillan & Co.: 154-65, vol. 4.

Burkert, Walter (1987), Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Carney, Elizabeth (2006), Olympias: Mother of Alexander the Great, New York and London: Routledge.

Depew, David (2007), “From hymn to tragedy: Aristotle’s genealogy of poetic kinds”, in Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller (eds), The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual To Drama, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 126-49.

Destrée, Pierre (2011), “La purgation des interprétations: conditions et enjeux de la catharsis poétique chez Aristote”, in Jean-Charles Darmon (ed.), Littérature et thérapeutique des passions. La catharsis en question, Paris: Hermann: 41-63.

Dodds, Eric Robertson (1957), The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Dupont-Roc, Roselyne and Jean Lallot (1980), Aristote: La Poétique, Paris: Seuil.

Else, Gerald F. (1957), Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ferrari, Giovanni R. F. (1999), “Aristotle’s Literary Aesthetics”, Phronesis, 44: 181–98

Ford, Andrew (2004), “Catharsis: The Power of Music in Aristotle’s Politics”, in Penelope Murray and Peter Wilson (eds.) (2004), Music and the Muses: The Culture of “Mousikē” in the Classical Athenian City, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 309-36.

— (2015), “The Purpose of Aristotle’s Poetics”, Classical Philology, 110.1: 1-21.

Golden, Leon (1992), Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis, Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Goldhill, Simon (1987), “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology”, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 107: 58-76.

— (2000), “Civic Ideology and the Problem of Difference: The Politics of Aeschylean Tragedy, Once again”, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 120: 34-56.

Hall, Edith (1996), “Is there a polis in Aristotle’s Poetics?” in Michael Stephen Silk (ed.), Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 295-309.

Halliwell, Stephen (1986), Aristotle’s Poetics, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

— (2001), “Aristotelian Mimesis and Human Understanding” in Oivind Andersen and Jon Haarberg (eds), Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics, London: Duckworth: 87-107.

— (2002), The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heath, Malcolm (2001),”Aristotle on the Pleasures of Tragedy” in Oivind Andersen and Jon Haarberg (eds), Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics, London: Duckworth: 7-23.

— (2009a), “Cognition in Aristotle’s Poetics”, Mnemosyne, 62: 51-75.

— (2009b), “Should There Have Been a Polis in Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’?”, The Classical Quarterly, 59 (2): 468-85.

— (2014), “Aristotle and the Value of Tragedy”, British Journal of Aesthetics, 54 (2): 111-23.

Hoessly, Fortunat (2001), Katharsis. Reinigung als Heilverfahren. Studien zum Ritual der archaischen und klassischen Zeit so wie zum Corpus Hippocraticum, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Janko, Richard (ed.) (1987), Aristotle. Poetics I, Indianapolis: Hackett.

— (2011), Philodemus, On Poems, Books 3-4, with the Fragments of Aristotle, On Poets, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Keesey, Donald (1979), “On Some Recent Interpretations of Catharsis”, The Classical World, 72-(4): 193-205.

Kraut, Richard (1997), Aristotle “Politics” Books VII and VIII. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lear, Jonathan (1988), “Katharsis”, Phronesis, 33: 327-44. Reprinted in Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1992: 315-40.

Lord, Carnes (1982), Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Linforth, Ivan M. (1946), “The Corybantic Rites in Plato”, University of California Pubications in Classical Philology, 13: 121-62.

Nussbaum, Martha (1992), “Tragedy and Self-Sufficiency: Plato and Aristotle on Fear and Pity”, in Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1992: 261-90.

Radermacher, Ludwig (ed.) (1954), Aristophanes “Frösche”, Vienna: Rohrer.

Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg (1992), Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Schadewaldt, Wolfgang (ed.) (1955), “Furcht und Mitleid”, Hermes, 83: 129-71.

Sifakis, Gregory Michael (1986), “Learning from Art and Pleasure in Learning: An Interpretation of Aristotle Poetics 4 1448b8-19”, in John H. Betts, James T. Hooker, and John Richard Green (eds), Studies in Honor of T. B. L. Webster I, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press: 211-22.

Vöhler, Martin and Bernd Seidensticker (eds) (2007), Katharsiskonzeptionen vor Aristoteles. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.