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Catharsis – Plato versus Aristotle

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Enter the Academy

Originally uploaded by macropoulos

Way, way, way before TV was ever invented, philosophers were debating the effects of entertainment on society.  Today poetry has a marginal effect on American culture, but back before TV (and novels), poetry and rhetoric were major cultural forces.

Note: a fellow anti-TV person, “Dry Lips” who is much more conversant on Greek culture,  pointed out that:

“Poetry didn’t mean the same back then as today. “Poetry” did in fact include a whole number of different genres. Epic poetry, for instance, is a genre that has completely disappeared today, but was the historic forerunner of today’s novels. Theater was also in bound form, (dramatic poetry) and continued to bound until (I think) as late as the 1700’s. I think modern people who don’t know too much about literature, could misunderstand what you quoted in that wikipedia article… I think if you substitute “fiction” for “poetry”, you would probably be closer to the intention of Plato.”

Thanks Dry Lips! Also added to the end of the post are a couple of links delving further into what Plato and Aristotle meant, or at least what scholars believe they meant.


Plato proposed to ban poets from his ideal republic because he feared that their aesthetic ability to construct attractive narratives about immoral behaviour would corrupt young minds. Plato’s writings refer to poetry as a kind of rhetoric, whose “…influence is pervasive and often harmful.” Plato believed that poetry that was “unregulated by philosophy is a danger to soul and community.” He warned that tragic poetry can produce “a disordered psychic regime or constitution” by inducing “a dream-like, uncritical state in which we lose ourselves in …sorrow, grief, anger, [and] resentment.” As such, Plato was in effect arguing that “What goes on in the theater, in your home, in your fantasy life, are connected” to what you do in real life.”

And in a way Plato has been vindicated. If you think of modern media as a new, updated and more powerful form of poetry and rhetoric, then yes, the scientific evidence is pretty overwhelming, entertainment does have an effect, for good or for ill.


Aristotle, though, advocated a useful role for music, drama, and tragedy: a way for people to purge their negative emotions. Aristotle mentions catharsis at the end of his Politics , where he notes that after people listen to music that elicits pity and fear, they “are liable to become possessed” by these negative emotions. However, afterwards, Aristotle points out that these people return to “a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge [catharsis]…All experience a certain purge [catharsis] and pleasant relief. In the same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men””

Aristotle, on the other hand, argued for catharsis, the idea that drama or poetry that elicits strong emotions, helps to purge the audience of those same strong emotions, giving them a “pleasant relief”. Since then, the idea of catharsis has expanded to mean that expressing ones negative emotions will help to purge them from your system.

Does Catharsis work?

“Though pop psychology books and articles perpetuate the notion that “getting your anger out” is cathartic and can help dissipate hostility, the researchers have found just the opposite: Venting anger on inanimate objects — punching a pillow or hitting a punching bag, for example — increases rather than decreases aggressive behavior.”

“What you don’t know can hurt you: Violence, catharsis, and video games – Believing in catharsis may lead to behavior that promotes anger.”

“In her research, Rose has found that friendships that are overly focused on discussing problems may actually increase depression and other problems in girls.”

Violent Media Industry

Fans (and shills) of the violent media industry frequently promote Catharsis as an effective way to release anger and aggression:

“Basically this is the kind of game you will want to play when you come home from school or work and have some free time and want to take out your anger and stress out on a poor virtual driver. Toss him up in the sky or release your anger on the AI cars.”

The operations manager of Omaha video-game retailer Gamers said there’s no causal link between videogames and real violence. Ryan Miller said video games actually allow people to release aggression in a virtual world.

Interestingly the violent video game reps keep pretty mum on the subject of whether violent video games release aggression or increase aggression (since there are plenty of players who are happy to make their arguments for them). But in the violent video game “The Postal Dude” the creators couldn’t resist naming the main town Catharsis.

“In Postal III, The Postal Dude emigrates to Paradise’s sister town of Catharsis as he previously blew up Paradise with a nuclear bomb.”

Note:  Two excellent overviews of Catharsis

So what does work for reducing feelings of anger and aggression?

“What the results of the study suggest is that “exercise, even a single bout of it, can have a robust prophylactic effect” against the buildup of anger, said Nathaniel Thom, a stress physiologist who was the study’s lead researcher.”

Further Links on Plato and Aristotle:

“It is not easy to understand what Plato means by poetry, why it is an opponent, whether it is dangerous because of its form or content or both, and whether there is much of ongoing interest or relevance in his account. With respect to the third of these issues: would his critique apply to, say, Shakespeare’s tragedies? To E. E. Cummings’; or T. S. Eliot’s poetry? The questions are complicated by the fact that Plato was not (or, not primarily) thinking of poetry as a written text read in silence; he had in mind recitations or performances, often experienced in the context of theater. Still further, when Socrates and Plato conducted their inquiries, poetry was far more influential than what Plato calls “philosophy.” Given the resounding success of Plato’s advocacy of “philosophy,” it is very easy to forget that at the time he was advocating a (historically) new project in a context swirling with controversy about the relative value of such projects (and indeed about what “philosophy” means). By contrast, poetry seems relatively marginal in today’s large commercial and liberal societies, in spite of the energetic efforts of figures such as the recent American national Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, whereas media of which Plato knew nothing — such as television, videos, and the cinema, literary forms such as the novel, and information systems such as the World Wide Web — exercise tremendous influence. Television and movie actors enjoy a degree of status and wealth in modern society that transcends anything known in the ancient world. Is Plato’s critique marginalized along with poetry?”

“When it comes to Aristotle, it is not completely clear what he meant by catharsis. See this reference for a discussion of this”:;

One thought on “Catharsis – Plato versus Aristotle

  1. Some much needed historical/classical context here, all too often missing from the debate, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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