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  • On CatharsisFrom Fundamentals of Aristotle's Lost Essay on the "Effect of Tragedy" (1857)
  • Jacob Bernays
    Translated by Peter L. Rudnytsky, Translator

The definition of the essence of tragedy () at the beginning of the sixth chapter of Aristotle's Poetics runs: . [Tragedy . . . is the imitation of a good action, which is complete and of a certain length, by means of language made pleasing for each part separately; it relies in its various elements not on narrative but on acting; through pity and fear it achieves the catharsis of such emotions.] In his Dramaturgy, Lessing has undertaken to discuss this definition in connection with the developments concerning "pity" and "fear" found in Aristotle's Rhetoric and to safeguard it against French and German misunderstandings, with on the whole utmost success for the part extending as far as . In the treatment of the last six obscure words, however, he no longer proceeds so securely: , first of all, poses difficulties for him; he extracts himself from these with the following turn, which is scarcely compatible with his otherwise sharp demarcation of pity and fear:

The relates merely to the foregoing pity and fear; tragedy should excite our pity and our fear only in order to cleanse these and suchlike passions, but not all passions indifferently. But he says and not he says "these and suchlike" and not merely "these" in order to point out that by pity he understands not merely actual so-called pity but rather all philanthropic sensations in general, just as by fear he understands not merely unpleasure about an evil looming [End Page 319] before us but rather also the unpleasure related to it, the unpleasure about a present evil as well as the unpleasure about a past evil, distress, and grief.

For Lessing, furthermore, means exactly the same as , and he has also—although he otherwise balances adroitly enough the gold scales on which the individual words of this definition are placed—not asked himself why, if both words are conceptually equivalent, for "pity and fear" Aristotle did not then rather choose the offering itself initially from the Rhetoric.

Finally, Lessing translates by "cleansing" [Reinigung]; but wherein "cleansing" consists he will "only say briefly." About this main point, however, everyman—including "those up to snuff" to whom Lessing appeals about a related question—would gladly have seen a more thorough exposition and justification, all the more so since the more precise definitions of catharsis, which seemed indispensable to Aristotle himself and which he had explained in the eighth book of the Politics that he wanted to save for the Poetics, are now to be sought in vain in our Poetics. Now, Lessing's discussion is the following:

Since, to put it briefly, this cleansing consists in nothing other than the transformation of the passions into practical virtues, yet with every virtue, according to our philosopher, one finds an extreme on this side and on that, between which it stands: so must tragedy, if it is to transform our pity into a virtue, be capable of cleansing us of both extremes of pity; which is to be understood also of fear. With respect to pity, tragic pity must cleanse not only the soul of the one who feels too much pity, but also of the one who feels too little. With respect to fear, tragic fear must cleanse not only the soul of the one who fears no misfortune at all, but also of the one who is placed in anxiety by every misfortune, even the most remote and improbable. Likewise, tragic pity must in purging fear navigate between too much and too little: just as, conversely, tragic fear must in purging pity. [End Page 320]

One has to concede that if such a "transformation of the passions into practical virtues" is the essential definition of tragedy for Aristotle—and so it would be, if he were to append this meaning of catharsis to a definition of its essence ()—then is tragedy likewise also for him essentially a moral event. Indeed, after Lessing has gone through all the stages of too much and too little pity and fear, one might call tragedy a moral house of correction...


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pp. 319-341
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