Greek tragedy grew up and was cultivated within the context of religious festival, but these play-festivals of Dionysus, as Paul Cartledge has written in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, “served further as a device for defining Athenian civic identity…exploring and confirming but also questioning what it was to be a citizen of a democracy.”
This politically formative dimension of tragedy, and indeed of all “poetry” (i.e. narrative art) and music, is a central theme of Aristotle’s Politics. For Aristotle, as the Aristotelian scholar Stephen Salkever observes, tragedy is the most effective paideia appropriate to the best democracy, the aim of which is the citizen’s cultivation of virtue. We shouldn’t let an academic tendency to approach Greek tragedy primarily as philosophical text to mute the striking nature of this claim. For Aristotle, tragedy and all the mimetic arts fall under the genus of amusements, along with games, circuses, and pageants. Thus Aristotle claims for a kind of entertainment a pivotal political role. As an amusement, tragedy serves as a means of relaxation so that citizens are fortified for further work and virtuous activity. But that it has the potential to serve as more than merely relaxation, that it can help inculcate virtue, becomes clear when we examine how Aristotle understands the immediate impact of tragedy upon its audience.
Whatever its effect, it is implausible to think that tragedy directly instills virtuous dispositions in its spectators. If moral philosophy cannot make us good, it is hard to see how tragedy can do so. So what happens in the heart and mind of a spectator of tragedy?
To ask this question is to ask after the extrinsic ends of tragedy, the effects it produces in its audience. Aristotle in the Poetics identifies two such ends. First of all, in Poetics 4, Aristotle speaks of the universal pleasure humans take in imitation:
“Objects which in themselves we view with pain we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity….The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general, whose capacity, however, for learning is more limited.”
This text makes clear that the pleasure found in works of imitation is a cognitive pleasure, the pleasure of contemplation.
Secondly, in Poetics 6, Aristotle speaks of tragedy producing a purgation of the passions of pity and fear. So here are poetry’s two extrinsic ends: one affective, one cognitive. Catharsis and contemplation. As we watch the character Oedipus recognize that he has killed his father and married his mother, we feel pity for what he suffers and we feel fear, if not horror and abhorrence, for what he has done. Our emotional responses to Oedipus, as well as the causes of these responses, are there to be contemplated, not directly acted upon. As Mortimer Adler remarks, “Because art is imitation, the emotions which it creates in the spectator become part of the spectacle, and are thus understood rather than expended in impulse and activity.”
Yet Aristotle speaks of a proper purgation of pity and fear. The passions are not just felt, they are purged, in some sense of that word. On Adler’s reading of Aristotle, purgation refers to the re-ordering of the passions. He contends,
“[J]ust as the passions in every man are in varying stages of violence and uncontrol, so the reason of every man is in varying stages of weakness and undevelopment. It is in this situation, in which all men find themselves, that the arts and other imitations perform their valuable political and moral function.”
Salkever offers an interpretation of Aristotelian katharsis (the “purgation” of pity and fear) by observing how the term is used in Plato. His conclusion agrees with Adler’s precisely. Salkever notices that in Plato katharsis is used, among other ways, to describe the effect on souls of the Socratic dialectic. In this sense, katharsis is more transformation than purgative cleansing, in that it introduces order “into otherwise disorderly or incoherent souls…with the result that involuntary ignorance and tyrannical dreams [dreams of wealth and power] are removed and the educated person becomes better.”
Tragedy, in this view, is analogous to philosophical dialogue; it is a kind of dialectical persuasion intended to bring just order into the soul. Of what truths does tragedy seek to persuade us? From the extant tragedies Salkever culls three over-arching themes, all with a clear political resonance:
“first, that serious mistakes are possible, and one must therefore act with caution; second, that wealth, social prestige, and the power to do whatever we want do not necessarily bring happiness, and one must therefore resist the tendency to identify freedom and happiness with power; third, that the familial order is as fragile as it is precious, and so requires the support of institutions such as the laws if it is to be maintained.”
These are the truths by which tragedy hopes to introduce order into the souls of democratic citizens, a set of truths, certainly, that testify to the enduring relevance of tragedy to democratic government.
While it is too much to say that tragedy accomplishes on its own that psychic re-ordering, it does prepare the ground for it by simulating it—that is, Aristotelian tragedy gives the spectator, in Salkever’s phrase, a new focus of concern. The word “concern” is well chosen, as it captures both the contemplative and the affective element of the experience of tragedy. In a suggestive comparison, Salkever likens the new focus of concern produced by tragedy to the wonder that begins philosophy.
Indeed, in Aristotle’s time as in ours, tragedy and other works of narrative art are, for most people, the customary and most compelling occasions of such philosophical wonder.
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