Thursday, 14 January 2010

Aristotle on feelings

Aristotle seems to have a different take on feelings from Plato.

He has the famous definition of tragedy as effecting a catharsis of the two emotions of pity and fear. (Poetics ch. 6, 1449b)

Cooper comments: Good art [note the adjective 'good'] can benefit both understanding and emotions - or better, in doing either of these, it does both. I.e. if it benefits one, it benefits the other. to benefit one is to benefit the other. The reason Aristotle can say this is that he rejects Plato's Manichean divide between reason and the passions. (Recall the higher and lower parts of the mind.) Far from the latter being always a distraction to reason, it will often be irrational not to feel, say, shame or anger. Mature understanding and mature emotional sensitivity are inseparable elements of the good life. And art can contribute to both. (Cooper 29-30)

In contrast to Plato for whom art itself is bad, we find Aristotle here speaking of good art (implying, presumably, that there is also bad art).

Poetics ch. 13, in fact, talks about what should not be shown in poetry: virtuous men passing from good to bad fortune, since this does not arouse fear or pity, but only outrage; bad men passing from bad to good fortune: this is neither tragic nor does it satisfy human feeling, nor does it arouse pity and fear; nor a wicked man passing from good to bad fortune: this would satisfy human feeling, but not arouse pity or fear. So there is one alternative left: the man who is not pre-eminent in moral virtue, who passes to bad fortune not through vice or wickedness, but because of some piece of ignorance, and who is of high repute and great good fortune.


  1. What is your religious orientation. I don't mean to be rude but in my experience this is always a great factor in one's take on the classics.

    1. no problem about that, I'm Catholic.
      however: some of my posts here are just jottings, which means they need not reflect my own position.
      the post on which you have commented is one such: a jotting from the book I was using in my Aesthetics class.
      it needs to be swallowed, digested, etc.

      i would be happy to hear your take on what i've jotted above.

      and you are quite right: religious orientation, and, I would add, also other factors, including 'philosophical' ones, and perhaps also psychological ones - fundamental factors in reading.