DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

2. From Aristotle to Rome

Aristotle’s Poetics is probably the single most influential work on tragedy ever written (see Aristotle). In contrast to Plato, Aristotle argued that writing tragedy required an understanding of the functions of tragedy and of the principles that ensure that those functions are fulfilled. Writing good tragedy thus develops reason. He also argued that some pleasure gained from tragedy derives from learning about the things imitated, so that responses to it are cognitively rewarding.

Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy at the beginning of chapter six of the Poetics differentiates it from other types of imitation (painting, music, dithyramb, epic, comedy): ‘Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; in embellished language; …in the mode of action and not narrated; and effecting through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions’ (1449b24–28). Aristotle also held that tragedy has an end or purpose (telos), but there is controversy about what this is. Is its purpose to produce pity and fear, a catharsis, or pleasure (through imitation, pity and fear, and/or catharsis), or is it possibly to construct a plot of the kind which produces the appropriate effect? Aristotle clearly held that only certain kinds of plots will produce the emotions appropriate to tragedy. They are complex plots, involving recognition (of the tragic implications of the action) and reversal (of fortune). Tragic characters must be presented as better people than most and as agents actively affecting the course of action through their own choices, but operating in a world beyond their control.

The suffering that elicits pity and fear comes about through the actions of an agent who makes some kind of mistake or error in judgment (hamartia). Even very good people can make mistakes when subjected to forces beyond their control: we thus pity them (since pity is the appropriate response to undeserved misfortune) and fear for them and for ourselves (since if it can happen to people better than ourselves it can certainly happen to us). Aristotle allowed that tragedies could even have happy endings, on the grounds that the threat of suffering is capable of generating the ‘tragic emotions’.

Historically, catharsis has loomed large in discussions of Aristotle’s conception of tragedy, though the passage quoted above contains the Poetics’ only occurrence of katharsis in the relevant sense, and gives no explanation of what it means. Katharsis has in fact been translated as both a purging and a clarification. The ‘homeopathic’ account, in which emotional responses to tragedy purge us of their harmful effects, is probably the most popular. Other accounts of catharsis hold that emotions are rendered pure and clear, so that knowledge of them as psychological states is enhanced; emotions are clarified in the sense that we feel them in response to their proper objects, that is, we pity and fear the right kinds of things; and emotional responses clarify our understanding of the structure of the plot (see Katharsis).

Tragedies were written during Roman times, notably by the Roman Stoic politician and philosopher Seneca. He emphasized the nobility of suffering and gave little attention to action. His works were filled with rhetorical conceits, and are now generally held to be affected, sentimental and bombastic. Horace’s Ars Poetica proposed that poetry (including tragedy) is utile dulce, ‘delightful instruction’: poetry is seen here as a form of rhetoric that is styled to give pleasure and moral instruction.

Citing this article:
Feagin, Susan L.. From Aristotle to Rome. Tragedy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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