Plato and Aristotle on emotional release – the philosophy and art of social control


Plato believed that in the poet’s presentation, what is at third remove from reality, he appeals not to (linguistic) reason – the highest part of the soul (and the reason of patriarchy) – but to the lowest, seeking to provoke the non-rational emotions. In so doing he undermines and corrupts character.

When citizens enter into the emotions expressed by a character on stage their reason is obstructed by their own emotional arousal and they will carry this arousal from the theatre into their daily lives. Since emotions struggle against their control by reason, they are dangerous for the polis. For this reason, the poet should be banished from the commonwealth.

Contrary to Plato’s rigid opposition between (linguistic) reason and the emotions, but with equal though far more nuanced recognition of the relation between art, emotion, society and control, Aristotle’s theory of art in his Poetics is built on an understanding of the emotions which considers them not only bound, appropriately, to the functioning of reason (evocative of the Ethics, there is a ‘right’ emotion for a particular circumstance) but essential to the life of the citizen.

Where for Plato art is the poorest imitation of the Forms, for Aristotle, although he agreed that art is intentional, representational and that it appeals to the emotions, it imitates human interactivity by means of universals (kinds of people) and the possible consequences. We enjoy and learn by mimesis – art is educational, with nature as the teacher of practical not theoretical knowledge.

Aristotle defined tragedy as ‘the imitation of an action that is serious…in language with pleasurable accessories (my italics)…in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions’.

Through the arousal of fear we identify with the tragic hero, burdened by a fatal flaw (‘The best-laid plans of mice and men…’); through that of pity (for the hero’s suffering) we distance ourselves from him.

The tragedy brings about a catharsis or therapeutic purging of those emotions, with the spectator leaving the theatre emptied of them. It could be argued that the tragedy simply serves a pedagogical purpose provoking insights into the human condition without endangering society – ‘you don’t leave the theatre wanting to burn chariots’.

But Aristotle’s purpose was not merely pedagogical – his writing is too comprehensive, too considered, too hard for that interpretation alone.

Neither Plato nor Aristotle were ‘men of the people’. Both weighed their philosophising in relation to the practice and maintenance of power. Aristotle’s dry and formal language in the Poetics conveys an understanding which is anything but dry and formal.

He chose the most powerful art form in his society to conduct a study of how two of the most powerful emotions can be used – socially, pedagogically and for the maintenance of power (compare with the Ethics – while the ‘common man’ can gain a lot from reading it, it was not primarily intended for him – rather it is a guide to the perfection of self for the self-focused ‘man of substance’, culminating in the philosopher).

Not only did Aristotle choose tragedy (the most concentrated and powerful presentation of life – more so than the epic), employing chorus, song, stage-setting and acting, he analysed every possible element and means to maximally concentrate its potential for the arousal and purging of fear and pity – wrapped in pleasure: plot, characterisation, diction, thought, spectacle, melody, that the tragedian must be as realistic as possible, must develop, like Homer, an aspect rather than a whole, should not speak in his own person, should use a convincing impossibility rather than an unconvincing possibility, should employ consequential surprise.

Maximum realism (with which the audience can most immediately and powerfully relate) with optimal sensory engagement to most powerfully draw out and release two particular emotions. Why? And why fear and pity?

At a social level, arousal and purging are facilitated by the pleasure of tragedy both as theatre and illusion and through the experience of fear and pity as an audience member (symbolic of one’s larger society), thereby allowing both identification and distancing from the emotions because they are shared.

At a pedagogical level, in experiencing fear and pity ‘safely’ and in the most concentrated way, one can later reflect on these two emotions that are both ‘unhealthy’ (consider Epicurus on fear) and would be best purged from our lives.

At the level of control, ‘catharsis’ can be understood both as ‘purification’ – getting rid of the ‘baser’ (more primal, less ‘decent’, less ‘nice’) aspects of one’s character, symbolised by fear and pity and, through that experience, as ‘safety valve’.

As the bourgeoisie leave their operatic and symphonic performances, the working class leave their rock concerts…

Rock concert audience


Images: top/bottom

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