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Catharsis – Plato versus Aristotle

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.

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Especially in the business world, the term “aggressive” is often used as a way to describe someone working hard, showing initiative, or assertively making their point.  So when scientists argue that watching violent TV or playing a violent video game increases aggression,it kind of sounds like a good thing.  But in reality, when these researchers use the term aggression they are specifically using it to mean a willingness to harm others.  “The report takes sharp aim at the notion that aggression is not bad. Most studies define “aggression” as behavior intended to harm another person. So when Tiger Woods attempts to drive the green on a short par-4, that wouldn’t meet the psychological definition of aggression.”

Some of the studies linking increased aggression with exposure to violent media have been correlational.  These correlational studies found that the more violent media someone has watched, the more likely they are to commit an aggressive act. The question then becomes, did watching violent media cause them to become more aggressive, or did being aggressive cause them to watch more violent media, or was it a bit of both?

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Do Violent Words Cause Violence?

Do violent words cause violence?

Yes, violent words do cause violence, especially when they are amplified by the power of mass media.

An individual spewing hatred and arguing for violence may or may not inspire those around him to commit a violent act. But those spewing hatred and arguing for violence through the mass media reach many, many more people, some of whom are going to be mentally unhinged. Also, generally speaking, someone who inspires a mass following (high ratings) will generally have much more charisma and persuasive abilities than the average person, thus giving their violent rhetoric even more power.

Here are a few examples:


Dr. King was especially adamant that Wallace and other Southern politicians who inflamed racist sentiments were complicit in the era’s trail of blood. On September 16, 1963 — the day after four African-American girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham — King wrote

The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.

The evidence seems to support King and others who argue there was a connection: As Raines notes, 12 people were killed in civil rights-related slayings during Wallace’s first term between 1963 and 1966 — a product not only of Wallace’s escalating rhetoric, but also his famous unwillingness to prosecute the murder suspects.

And then there was Dr. King himself: James Earl Ray, the man eventually convicted for shooting King, was greatly influenced by Wallace and his agenda, even moving to Los Angeles to volunteer in Wallace’s campaign headquarters in North Hollywood.


Most people had never even heard of the Tides Foundation until Glen Beck decided to vilify them:

As John Hamilton reported, alleged California highway shooter Byron Williams – who reportedly told investigators that “his intention was to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU” – repeatedly assailed financier George Soros. Fox News host Glenn Beck, whose show Williams touted, has also attacked “evil” Soros and Tides, often weaving them into his conspiracy theories.

Tides Foundation and Soros frequently mentioned by Beck. From the first day of Beck’s Fox News program to July 18, the day Williams was arrested, the Tides Foundation has been mentioned on 29 editions of his show. In most of those instances, Beck attacked Tides, often weaving the organization into his conspiracy theories. Two of those mentions occurred during the week before Williams’ shootout, and three occurred during June — the month of programming Williams highlighted to journalist John Hamilton. Since the start of his Fox News program to July 18, “Soros” has been mentioned on 85 programs – nine times in June alone, according to a Nexis search.

In vilifying Soros, Beck has claimed that the Tides Foundation acts as a vehicle for Soros’ ruinous plans to enact an extremist left-wing agenda.


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The Ticking-Time-Bomb Argument

A couple of points about the ticking-time-bomb argument used to promote torture:

1. As Alfred McCoy wrote in Alternet:

Number one: In the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender. The scenario assumes a highly improbable array of variables that runs something like this:

–First, FBI or CIA agents apprehend a terrorist at the precise moment between timer’s first tick and bomb’s burst.

–Second, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed foreknowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it right now.

–Third, these same officers, for some unexplained reason, are missing just a few critical details that only this captive can divulge.

–Fourth, the biggest leap of all, these officers with just one shot to get the information that only this captive can divulge are best advised to try torture, as if beating him is the way to assure his wholehearted cooperation.

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TV Makes the Case for Torture

Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, “In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” So considering the newest poll numbers, it seems that Americans deserve (and are in the process of getting) a government that supports torture:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day.

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