Aristotle’s Influence on Our Understanding of Tragedy

Aristotle was a great 4th century BCE philosopher who spent much of his life in Athens. He wrote one of the earliest and most important pieces of literary criticism, the Poetics. It is important to note, however, that the ideas about tragedy expressed in the Poetics were not necessarily held by the playwrights themselves, and most tragedies do not fit the strict guidelines established by Aristotle. The Poetics is the origin of the “tragic hero” concept, but in many tragedies, it is hard to figure out exactly who this tragic hero is. We should not hold a play to a philosopher’s standard, and just because Aristotle says something about tragedy or a specific play does not make it true. In general, the influence of the Poetics on future scholars has been somewhat excessive.

Aristotle can, nevertheless, help us understand how these plays were read and received about by the ancient Greeks themselves. Oedipus Rex was the tragedy that most closely fit his guidelines. Oedipus is the model of the “tragic hero,” because the concept is based on him. Because of his hamartia (mistake), he suffers a peripeteia (reversal), which, for Aristotle, is the heart of tragedy. Although often translated as “tragic flaw,” hamartia does not indicate a deep or abiding personality failure, such as “pride” or “lust,” but means a mistake of perception or recognition, although scholars debate the precise meaning and scale of this mistake. The peripeteia we might call a “reversal of fortune,” and in most tragedies, we do see the protagonists change from better to worse circumstances.

For Aristotle, this reversal was the key towards rousing fear and pity in the audience, which led to catharsis, another term that has become widely used in the study of literature. A word from Greek religion, catharsis indicates ritual purification from pollution, an important concept for Greek life. This pollution, or miasma , came about as the result of crime, especially murder. Just as the physical blood spilled had to be cleaned up, so the more abstract miasma needed to be purified through the proper rituals. This applied to the space where the crime occurred and to the person who committed it; if a murderer went somewhere without being purified, he would bring pollution onto this new place. This is precisely the situation at the beginning of Oedipus Rex, in which the gods have sent a plague against Thebes because of the presence of Laius’ murderer in the city and because of the incest of Oedipus and Jocasta.

Aristotle uses the term catharsis to refer to the purging of excessive emotions from a person. By watching the tragedy and feeling the strong emotions of fear and pity on behalf of the characters on stage, the spectator experiences a kind of cleansing of the soul. Just as ritual catharsis allowed the formerly polluted person to return to the community and take part in communal life without bringing miasma with him, so the metaphorical catharsis from watching tragedy gave the spectators a shared experience that bound them closer together. In other works, Aristotle locates the essence of the self in perception; by sharing perception or perceiving the same things, the spectators develop a sort of common identity. Thus, for Aristotle, watching tragedies was a beneficial activity, both for the individual and the community.