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Catharsis (Latin), from the Greek Κάθαρσις Katharsis meaning "purification" or "cleansing" (also literally from the ancient Greek gerund καθαίρειν transliterated as kathairein "to purify, purge," and adjective katharos "pure or clean" ancient and modern Greek: καθαρός), is a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great pity, sorrow, laughter, or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal, restoration, and revitalization.

The term “catharsis” was used in a philosophical sense by Aristotle to describe the effect of music and tragic drama on an audience. Aristotle did not leave a clear definition of the term, resulting in centuries of discussion, commentary, and debate, which contributed to the development of theories such as aesthetics, psychology, drama, and artistic ethics. In religion, catharsis refers to efforts made to come to terms with sin and guilt through penance and atonement, and through symbolic cleansing rituals such as baptism. For centuries, medicine had used the term “catharsis” to mean a purging which helps to rid the body of disease-causing elements. The term catharsis has also been adopted by modern psychotherapy to describe the act of expressing deep emotions often associated with events in the individual's past which have never before been adequately expressed.

Historical Overview

In ancient Greek tradition, catharsis referred to religious rituals performed to “purify” criminals and those who violated established religious codes in order for them to be allowed to return to a society. Similar practices are found in almost all cultural traditions. In the ancient medical practices of Hippocrates and others, catharsis referred to medical treatments that involved cleansing poisonous liquids or discharging body fluids through vomiting and diarrhea.

Socrates took the “purification of the soul” as the primary task of philosophy. For him, the purification of the soul meant to remove all undesirable stains and contaminations of the soul caused by immoral acts driven by bodily desires. Socrates characterized philosophy as a practice of dying, which was a departure of the soul from the body, indicating the purification of the soul. Aristotle offered the first philosophical elaboration of catharsis, particularly in relation to its role in tragic dramas. The many analyses of catharsis in Aristotle's theory of drama have had a lasting influence on intellectual history. Catharsis has been a universal theme adopted in diverse traditions including mysticism.

Catharsis in Philosophy and Aesthetics

The Greek philosopher Aristotle used the term “catharsis” twice, in Politics and the sixth book of Poetics:

We also say that music should be used to procure not one benefit but several. It should be used for education and for catharsis and thirdly as a pastime, to relax us and give us rest from tension (Aristotle, Politics).

For every feeling that affects some souls violently affects all souls more or less; the difference is only one of degree. Take pity and fear, for example, or again enthusiasm. Some people are liable to become possessed by the latter emotion, but we see that, when they have made use of the melodies which fill the soul with orgiastic feeling, they are brought back by these sacred melodies to a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge [catharsis]. Those who are subject to the emotions of pity and fear and the feelings generally will necessarily be affected in the same way; and so will other men in exact proportion to their susceptibility to such emotions. All experience a certain purge [catharsis] and pleasant relief. In the same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men (Aristotle, Politics VIII:7; 1341b 35-1342a 8).

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language that has been artistically enhanced . . . ; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such incidents (Aristotle, Poetics ch. 6, 2).

A whole body of explanatory literature was written about the meaning of the term “catharsis,” for which Aristotle did not offer a clear definition. Philologists do not agree on the exact meaning of the word. Some commentators interpret catharsis as an experience which purges and cleanses the spectators of emotions like pity and fear, as they observe the actions of the characters on stage, and leaves them in a calmer and more mental balanced state. Aristotle may have been defending music and the dramatic arts against Plato’s charge that dramatic poets were a danger to society because they incited the passions and overshadowed reason. Aristotle may also have been referring to the religious role of drama; ancient Greeks performed dramas for religious purposes. Aristotle admired Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and Sophocles was an Asclepian priest in Athens.

Other commentators, such as Else and Hardison, suggest that “catharsis” refers to the resolution of dramatic tension within the plot of the drama, and not to the emotional effect of the drama on the audience. The rest of Poetics is a discussion of dramatic form and style, rather than the effect of poetry and literature on its readers. The structure of a tragedy is such that it arouses fear and pity, then resolves major conflicts and brings the plot to a logical conclusion. However, the passages referring to catharsis in Politics suggest that music offers some kind of emotional release.

During the Renaissance, when interest in Aristotle was revived, the interpretations of many commentators were influenced by religious, namely Christian, concepts of catharsis. Centuries of discussion on the meaning and significance of catharsis have contributed significantly to the theories of aesthetics, psychology, drama, and artistic ethics.

Aristotle taught that virtue and character were connected with the pleasure and pain that resulted from successful or thwarted activities. An important aspect of character education was learning to experience pleasure and pain at appropriate times and to an appropriate extent, and to know in what circumstances fear and anger were suitable emotions. Catharsis brought about through drama and music was a means of producing a moderation and balance of the emotions, and of connecting the passions with reason and wisdom. Corneille, Racine, and Lessing advanced views that such an experience of catharsis had a moral value in educating the public.

Another interpretation of catharsis is based on the medical concept of purging or cleansing. The ancient Greeks recognized the link between mental and emotional states and the health of the physical body. Music and drama could be used to “purge” the mental disturbances that resulted in physical illness, by artificially stimulating the passions of an audience and leading them to an emotional crisis, which would be followed by relief and calm pleasure. In his preface to Samson Agonistes (1671), John Milton suggested that drama had the ability, “by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions, that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated.” Antonio Minturno made a similar interpretation in 1564 in his L'Arte poetica, as did Thomas Twining in 1789 and H. Weil in 1847.

Modern genres such as horror and thriller films depicting major catastrophes, graphic violence, and extreme conflicts could be said to induce catharsis by building up to an almost unbearably stimulating climax, before releasing the audience back into their everyday mundane lives. The emotions portrayed in these genres are not as profound as those of plays and literature, but they reflect the fear, irreverence, and nervous tension of modern society.

In literary aesthetics, catharsis is developed by the conjunction of stereotyped characters and unique or surprising circumstances. Throughout a play we do not expect the nature of a character to change significantly; instead we see pre-existing elements of the character revealed more deeply as the character is confronted with a sequence of events, until a breaking-point is reached.


In contemporary aesthetics, catharsis may also refer to any emptying of emotion experienced by an audience in relation to drama. This can be perceived in comedy, melodrama, and most other dramatic forms. There are sometimes deliberate attempts to subvert the structure of catharsis in theater in order to achieve a political or aesthetic purpose. For example, Bertold Brecht viewed catharsis as a “pap for the bourgeois theatre audience,” and designed dramas which left significant emotions unresolved, as a way to force social action upon the audience. According to Brecht's theory, the absence of a cathartic resolving action would require the audience to take political action in the real world in order to fill the emotional gap they experience. This technique can be seen as early as his agit-prop play, The Measures Taken.

Religious Catharsis

Almost every religion has rituals of cleansing, purification, and rebirth, such as washing before entering a mosque, pouring sanctified water before approaching a Buddhist shrine, bathing in the Ganges River, or baptism with holy water. The ancient Greeks had priests called katharai who performed purification rites with water. Some forms of religious catharsis concern efforts to come to terms with guilt and sin by punishing or restricting the physical body through ascetic practices, penance, self-chastisement, or meditation. Catharsis can also refer to an overwhelming spiritual experience of repentance and renewal.

In Mysticism, the aim of human life and philosophy is to realize the mystical return of the soul to God. Freeing itself from the sensual world by catharsis, the purified human soul ascends by successive steps through the various degrees of the metaphysical order, until it unites itself in a confused and unconscious contemplation to the One, and sinks into it in the state of ecstasis.

In the neo-Platonism of Plotinus, the first step in the return of the soul to God is the act by which the soul, withdrawing from the world of sense by a process of purification (catharsis), frees itself from the trammels of matter.

Cathartic Sacrifice

Early religious cults used two types of cathartic sacrifice to distinguish between the sacred and the unclean: One to cleanse of impurity and make the object fit for common use, and another to rid of sanctity and similarly render the object suitable for human use or intercourse.

  • A conspicuous example of the first class is the scapegoat of the ancient Hebrews. On the Day of Atonement two goats were offered as sacrifices. The high priest sent one into the desert, after confessing on it the sins of Israel; it was not permitted to run free but was probably cast over a precipice; the other was sacrificed as a sin-offering. In the purification of lepers, two birds were used; the throat of one was cut, the living bird was dipped in the blood mingled with water and the leper sprinkled with the mixture; then the bird was set free to carry away the leprosy.
  • An example of the second class is the sacrifice of the bull to the Rigvedic god Rudra. M.M. Hubert and Mauss interpret this to mean that the sanctity of the remainder of the herd was concentrated on a single animal; the god, incarnate in the herd, was eliminated by the sacrifice, and the cattle saved from the dangers to which their association with the god exposed them. At the Feast of First Fruits, holiness is seen to be concentrated in a single animal, which is shown respect or veneration as a representative of its species. In both these cases the object of the rite is the elimination of association with the divine as a source of danger. A Nazarite was required to lay aside his holiness before mixing with common folk and returning to ordinary life; this he did by a sacrifice, which, with the offering of his hair upon the altar, freed him from his vow and reduced him to the same level of sanctity as ordinary men.

Medical Term

The term catharsis has been used for centuries as a medical term meaning a "purging." Most commonly in a medical context it refers to a purging of the bowels. A drug, herb, or other agent administered as a strong laxative is termed a cathartic.

In the 1890's, when Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer introduced therapeutic psychotherapy, they termed it “Cathartic therapy.” Freud was already aware of the modern medical interpretation of Aristotelian catharsis by Jakob Bernays in Bonn, who was the uncle of Freud's wife. The term catharsis has been adopted by modern psychotherapy to describe the act of expressing deep emotions associated with events in an individual's past which have never before been adequately expressed.

Catharsis is also an emotional release associated with talking about the underlying causes of a problem.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Berczeller, Eva. “The Aesthetic Feeling and Aristotle's Catharsis Theory.” The Journal of Psychology. 65. 1967. p. 261-71.
  • Brunius, Teddy. Inspiration and Katharsis. Uppsala. 1966.
  • Else, Gerald F. Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1963.
  • Kitto, H. D. F. “Catharsis.” The Classical Tradition, Studies in Honor of Harry Caplan. 1966. p. 133-147.
  • Lucas. D.W. Aristotle's Poetics. Introduction, Commentary and Appendixes. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 1968.
  • Moulinier, Louis. Le Pur et l'impur dans la penséedes Grecs. Ayer Co Pub. Reprint edition. 1976. ISBN 0405072600
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External Links

All links retrieved January 18, 2017.


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