Clarification Theory

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Clarification Theory

“Aristotle’s statement about the final end of tragedy— Purgation or Catharsis—has been so endlessly misunderstood, so uncritically assumed to be true.” Discuss. ‘Katharsis’ or ‘Catharsis’ is a word of Greek origin. In the Greek language it has three meanings—”Purgation,” “Purification,” “Clarifica¬tion.” Aristotle uses this word in the Poetics only once. While dealing with the function of tragedy, Aristotle says only this much :— ‘’..……….through pity and fear effecting the proper Katharsis or purgation of these emotions.”

But he himself does not give any meaning of the term ‘Catharsis.’ These are the later critics who have interpreted this word in various ways. And this has given birth to various theories. Let us, therefore, discuss some major theories of Catharsis.

1. The Pathological or Purgation Theory

According to some Renaissance critics and later on critics like Twining and Barney, Catharsis is a medical metaphor, it denotes purgation, a pathological effect on the soul similar to the effect of medicine on the body. Just as the purgatives purge the body of the dirt and dross, similarly tragedy purges the mind of the unpleasant emotions of pity and fear by first exciting them and then providing them an emotional outlet. The result is a pleasurable relief. Milton also had explained this theory of Katharsis in his preface to Samson Agonistes. In the neo-classical era, Catharsis was taken to be an alopathic treatment with the unlike curing unlike.

The arousing of pity and fear was supposed to bring about the purgation or evacuation of other emotions like anger, pride, etc. The spectacle of suffering arouses our pity and fear and we are ‘purged’ of the emotions that caused the suffering. If the suffering is caused by emotions like anger, hatred, or impiety towards the gods, we are ‘purged’ of such undesirable emotions, because we realise their evil consequences. “We learn from the terrible fates of evil men to avoid the vices they manifest.” Thomas Taylor in his introduction to the Poetics (1818) holds this view.

Psychological Interpretation

F.L. Lucas rejects the idea that Katharsis as used by Aristotle is a medical metaphor, and says : “theatre is not a hospital.” Both Lucas and Herbert Read regard it as a kind of safety valve. Pity and fear are aroused, we give free play to these emotions as we cannot do in real life, and this safe and free outlet of these emotions is followed by emotional relief. In real life they are repressed, and in the theatre the free indulgence in these emotions, aroused by the suffering of the hero, is safe and brings relief to our pent up souls. LA. Richards also approaches this issue from a psychological angle. Fear is the impulse to withdraw and pity is the impulse to approach. Both these impulses are harmonised and blended in tragedy, and this balance brings relief and repose.

Ethical Interpretation

The ethical interpretation is that the tragic process is a kind of elevation of the soul, an inner illumination resulting in a more balanced attitude to life and its suffering. Tragedy makes us realise that the divine law operates in the universe, shaping everything for the best.

Purification Theory

Humphrey House rejects the idea of purgation in the medical sense of the term, and is the most forceful advocate of the ‘purification’ theory, which involves the idea of moral instruction and moral learning. It is a kind of ‘moral conditioning’ which the spectators undergo. So to Humphrey House purgation means ‘cleansing’. This cleansing may be a ‘quantitative evacuation’ or a ‘qualitative change’ in the body brought about by a restoration of proper equilibrium; and a state of health depends on the maintenance of this equilibrium. Tragedy by arousing pity and fear, instead of suppressing them, trains them, and brings back the soul to a balanced state. So Humphrey House regards Katharsis as an educative, and controlling process. Thus according to the purification theory, Katharsis implies that our emotions are purified of excess and defect. Butcher, too, :grees with the advocates of the ‘purification theory1, when he writes, “the tragic Katharsis involves not only the idea of emotional relief, but the further idea of purifying the emotions so relieved.”

Inadequacy of above Theories : Clarification

However neither the purgation theory nor purification theory explains the whole thing. The basic defect of these theories is that they are too much occupied with the psychology of the audience, with speculation regarding the effect of tragedy on those who come to the theatre. It is forgotten that Aristotle was writing a treatise, not on psychology, but on the art of poetry. He is more “concerned with the technique, the way in which an ideal tragedy can be written, and its nature, than’ with its psychological effects. For this reason, eminent modern critics like Leon Golden, O.B. Hardison and G.E. Else advocate the ‘clarification theory.’ According to O.B. Hardison, Aristotle meant pleasure by Katharsis. In his opinion, tragic events are pitiable and fearful. They produce pleasure in the spectator. Hence Catharsis refers to the tragic variety of pleasure. In order to create a tragic pleasure, a tragic poet may begin by select¬ing a series of incidents that are intrinsically pitiable and fearful. From history or legend, he may borrow material or invent events.

“He then presents them in such a way as to bring out the probable or necessary principles that unite them in a single action and determine their relation to this action ‘Thus catharsis means clarification of the essential and universal significance of the incidents depicted, leading to an enhanced understanding of the universal law which governs human life and des¬tiny. ‘Catharsis’ is a process of learning, and therefore, pleasurable.’ The Clarification theory has, in this way, various good points in it. (1) It interprets the Catharsis clause as a reference to the technique of the tragedy, and not to the psychology of the audience, and thus recognises the true nature of the Poetics as a technique treatise. (2) It truly interprets Aristotle’s view, contained in his Poetics. (3) It relates catharsis both to the theory of imitation and to the discussion of probability. (4) It is in perfect accordance with current aesthetic theories.


Purgation and Purification theories are merely incidental. They do not remain authentic and authoritative for long, because the basic tragic emotions are pity and fear. If tragedy is to give pleasure—pleasure that comes from learning—the pity and fear, or atleast the painful element, in them, must be removed. Though there may be purgation in the feelings of pity and fear, but “it is merely incidental, and secondary.” (O.B. Hardison). Thus Aristotle’s view of Catharsis is mainly intellectual. It is neither didactic nor theological. It is not a moral doctrine requiring the tragic poet to show that bad men come to bed ends, nor is it a kind of theological relief arising from the discovery that God’s laws operate invisibly to make all things work out for the best.


1. “Catharsis” means purgation, purification, or clarification. 2. Though Aristotle uses the term catharsis only once yet it has given currency to a number of theories. 3. The main theories of Catharsis are—the purgation, the psychological, the ethical, the purification and the clarification. 4. The purgation or pathological theory treats catharsis as something having a pathological effect—on the soul similar to the effect of medicine on the body. Tragedy purges the mind of the unpleasant emotions of pity and fear. 5. The psychological interpretation offered by Lucas, Read and Richards says that tragedy by arousing pity and fear provides emotional outlet to the audience. 6. The ethical interpretation says that the tragic process is a kind of elevation to soul. 7. The Purification Theory presented by Humphrey House says that catharsis means cleansing or purification of emotions of excess and defect. 8. All the above theories are inadequate. Hence the necessity of Clarification Theory by Golden, Hardison and Else. Aristotle was writing about art and poetry. Hence by Catharsis he meant aesthetic pleasure.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 24 December 2016

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