Catharsis is a term first used by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. In Poetics, his writings about dramatic tragedy, he describes the increased morality and emotional release that a tragedy evokes in its readers. He attributes those emotions to catharsis, a psychological phenomenon through which a person is relieved of unhealthy emotions. When reading or viewing a tragedy, people replace unhealthy emotions with an impersonal sympathy with all humankind and a calm feeling.
Aristotle maintained that the plot of a well-written tragedy should make its readers aware of the capriciousness of fortune. Viewing the uncertainty of life should fill people with compassion and fear. Through the machinations of the plot, a tragedy's author has to convert the experience of negative emotions into an inspiring and enjoyable incident. A good plot should arouse negative emotions and then relieve readers of its painfulness. The catharsis occurs when readers identify with the characters, seeing their own fate in the prospect of doom followed by redemption.
Aristotle believed that certain emotions become poisonous if people persist in engaging them. While healthy in moderation, feelings such as pity, fear and enthusiasm tempt people to overindulge. Excessive expressions of such emotions prevent healthy functioning. Therefore, those who are held sway by their emotions need to have a cathartic experience in order to lighten their souls.
Countless debates and discussions have ensued as to how Aristotle believed the cathartic process worked. No matter how it is interpreted, there is a general consensus about his theory: that the main function of emotional expression in art is to leave its viewers calmed and refreshed, made noble by an awareness of man's fate. In each generation, scholars' attempts to further explicate the process have reflected the prevalent philosophy of that era.
One group of historical commentators explains catharsis by accessing all the linguistic uses of catharsis in ancient Greek. Ancient Greek medicine used the term to describe a cure associated with bringing harmony to the four humors that maintain a healthy body and mind. Doctors at that time believed that the excessive secretion of black bile upset the body's balance. Catharsis was a process in which mystic rites purged the patient from the pollution of black bile. Through the process, the gods changed their attitude toward the patient from anger to happiness.
Medically, catharsis also meant the process of regulating the amounts of each humor in the body. Music or another external force could induce a balance of the body's fluids without having to expel a humor. This interpretation, too, has a religious overtone as rites help regulate the quantities of fluids and emotions.
The term was also used in Hippocratic homeopathy. Catharsis refers to a homeopathic treatment wherein the negative elements of the mind or body are driven away by exposure to a disproportionately large amount of the same element. Similar to vaccination, where a strain of a disease causes immunity to a disease, an illness is cured by exposure to more of the illness.
Understood from this approach, Aristotle's catharsis refers to both a medical and a religious experience. Reading or viewing a tragedy should expel the same type of emotions that are presented by the characters. Afterward, the reader or spectator feels a sense of satisfaction, as if relieved of a burden.
Another group of subject experts interpret catharsis as a moral or ethical concept. From the time of the Renaissance through the end of the 18th century, this was the conventional explanation. The interpretation likely arose as a defense of imaginative literature against accusations of irresponsibility and depravity. Supporters of literature in that age described it as a forum for advancing ethical concepts.
Ethical interpretations argued that observing tragedy purges the mind from vices and induces viewers to adopt positive morals. The stories teach people to abstain from the bad and imitate the good. They will want to avoid the travails of the tragedy's characters, so they will resist following the passions of their hearts. Tragedies revealed the dangers of acting according to one's passions.
Literary critics of the Romantic period had yet another explanation. They turned to the writer as the recipient of catharsis. Author's catharsis refers to the relief of tension experienced by the writer who spells out his worries. Writing provides healing relief to secret emotions and mental states. This idea is congruent with the general view of the Romantics, who saw art as a means of personal therapy for the artist.