Aristotle On Catharsis, or On Detachment

A man lives in fear of saying the wrong thing, lest he be abandoned. Yet in truth the knowledge that they will abandon you if you say the wrong thing is all the more reason not to care what they want you to say.

The only legitimate purpose of amusement is as an efficient and necessary means of restoring the soul’s energy, much as amusement’s cousin, sleep, performs the same function for the body. The moment any amusement is experienced not as a pleasant restorative but as a drain on the stores of energy that might have been, and therefore ought to have been, spent on more substantial activities, one may be certain that one has developed a vicious habit, equivalent, in its spiritual and practical effects, to avarice, or to sleeping all day.

It is usually overlooked, or conveniently misunderstood, that the first true literary critic, Aristotle, explains the aims of tragedy primarily in political terms, and most famously as the art form tasked with purging men’s souls of pity and fear. That is, he regards the excess of these two passions as harmful to the proper moral condition, and therefore justifies the public enjoyment of tragedy (not a self-evident good, viewed within Aristotle’s Platonic context) as a means of restoring equilibrium to the souls of citizens by exhausting — by draining away — in the most harmless fashion, those two dangerous feelings which, if allowed to grow unchecked in the daily life of an individual or a society, would destroy both virtue and good citizenship. The reason Aristotle’s intention is so often misconstrued today is obvious: He wastes no time expounding upon the one premise of his argument which is least understandable to a modern reader, but which would have been most obvious to a student in the Lyceum, therefore requiring no explanation, namely the notion that unrestrained pity, far from being the wellspring of moral virtue, is rather a great poisoner of virtue, perhaps as dangerous as immoderate fear. Just as excessive fear, in a political context, causes slavishness and submission, so excessive pity stokes injustice and social unrest in the form of retributionist demands, engenders an inordinate identification with the weak which leads to tyranny’s precursor, demagoguery, and, worst of all, hardens the soul in extremes of righteous indignation, the condition most opposed to the spiritual detachment essential to the philosophic turn, and to the contemplative life itself.

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