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The Tragic Emotions1 David Konstan Among the critical ideas—such as imitation, catharsis, recognition , and peripety—that Aristotle's Poetics has bequeathed to the world is the thesis that tragedy engenders two characteristic emotions, pity (eleos) and fear (phobos).2 Few scholars have quarreled with this proposition: but do these two feelings exhaust the range of responses typically evoked by tragedy? In what follows , I suggest that Aristotle's account is in fact deficient, and, more specifically, that Greek tragedies characteristically produce , alongside pity and fear, a sense of triumph and exultation in the audience. Furthermore, I argue that this question of the tragic emotions may have been in the air toward the end of the fifth century B.c., at a time when dramatists were experimenting with stories that simultaneously evoked the contradictory experiences of compassionate terror and victorious confidence. I Aristotle says little about why audiences feel pity and fear when they watch tragedies. In the Rhetoric (2.8.2), he defines pity as "pain arising from a perceived evil that is destructive or painful, in a person who does not deserve to meet with it—an evil that one may expect either to suffer oneself, or that someone of one's own [family] may do so; and this, when the evil appears near."3 Aristotle goes on to say that those who have lost everything are, accordingly, incapable of pity, since they have nothing more to fear, as are those who expect that they will prosper exceedingly (2.8.3). He says too that one pities acquaintances unless they are too closely related, in which case a sense of horror (to deinori) drives out pity (2.8.12). Finally, he adds that people pity those who are similar (homoioi), whether in age, character, family, or whatever; "in general," he concludes, "one must presume that people pity just those things, when they happen to others , that they fear when they happen to themselves" (2.8.13). Here, Aristotle seems to adumbrate a notion of identification, according to which pity arises when one is able to put oneself in 1 2 The Tragic Emotions the place of the other. For identification to be possible, the other person must be similar in some respect to ourselves; furthermore, we must be liable to the same kind of suffering: one who believes himself to be wholly immune will not be capable of pity. On the other hand, pity requires a certain distance: if suffering touches one's children, for example, one shares in their pain directly and experiences horror, not compassion. Aristotle tends to regard members of a single family as sharing a common substance (Nick Ethics 8.12.1 161M7-19). Where there is identity, there is no scope for identification. The account of pity developed in the Rhetoric explains why we feel this emotion in regard to characters in a tragedy, but seems to exclude the possibility that a work of art can arouse fear: pity is precisely what we experience in behalf of others when they suffer things that we fear in our own behalf. For this reason, I believe, Aristotle modifies his analysis of these emotions in the Poetics. Here, he explains that pity and fear are not excited when we see thoroughly bad men ruined: "for such a plot may involve sympathy [to philanthrôpon], but neither pity nor fear, for the one concerns a man who is undeservedly unfortunate , while the other concerns a man who is similar [homoios]: pity concerns the undeserving man, fear concerns the one who is similar" (13.1453a2-6). The idea that the object of pity does not deserve his fate is present in the definition Aristotle offers in the Rhetoric; in the Poetics, however, Aristotle exploits the concept of similarity in order to explain the terror that tragedy induces. If the characters on stage are enough like ourselves—the context indicates that the sense is morally similar—then we will experience their fear as our own. Why only their fear, however? It is true that tragedy normally represents human suffering, but such suffering is usually the consequence of a conflict of wills between opposing parties. Perhaps Sophocles' Oedipus the King...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 1-21
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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