The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama

The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama


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The Soul of Tragedy: Essays on Athenian Drama by Steven M. Oberhelman

The Soul of Tragedy brings together top scholars to offer a wide range of perspectives on Greek tragedy. The collection pays homage to this ancient, enduring theatrical and literary genre by offering a deep exploration into the oldest form of dramatic expression. It is a reminder that, for all their years, these dramas still have much to teach us.

Exemplary of the nature and scope of this book, the essays range from Simon Goldhill's comparative study of music, gender, and culture to Martha Nussbaum's inspection of "the comic soul." Through the critical lenses of psychoanalysis, gender, social history, and philology, this compilation looks at Greek tragedy's peculiar power to illuminate the workings of the human soul. Structures of tragic meaning, the relationship between character desire and spectator experience, and investigations of tragedy's extraordinary preoccupation with gender reveal the form's emotional core and explain its rapid ascent through the hierarchy of cultural practices in classical Greece. The Soul of Tragedy is a celebration and a model of collaboration that will be essential reading for scholars in classics, literature, and drama.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226653068
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/16/2006
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Victoria Pedrick is associate professor in the Department of Classics at Georgetown University. Steven M. Oberhelman is professor in the Department of European and Classical Languages at Texas A&M University.

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The Soul of Tragedy
Essays on Athenian Drama
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-65359-4


Aristotle on the Tragic Emotions

* * *

David Konstan

In this paper I review once more the role of the emotions in tragedy according to Aristotle, a subject that always engaged the interest of Charles Segal. Although I have touched on this subject elsewhere in one or another context, in some respects I have altered my earlier opinions and in others feel that I did not go sufficiently deeply into the problem at hand. I take this opportunity to revisit some of these issues, in the hope of shedding light on questions that still perplex me. In particular I challenge the idea that pity is a form of identification and question whether tragic fear is fear for another, as opposed to fear for oneself, although the latter is a component of pity, according to Aristotle. I then look at a third response to tragedy mentioned by Aristotle, to philanthropon. I argue that this term indeed signifies sympathy for the pain of another, irrespective of desert. Just as pity, for Aristotle, is the opposite of indignation (to nemesan), so too to philanthropon may be seen as the missing opposite of the nonmoral emotion of phthonos or envy.

Aristotle's definition of pity in the Rhetoric-the locus of his most extensive investigation of the nature of the pathe or emotions-runs as follows: "Let pity be a pain arising from a perceived evil that is destructive or painful, in a person who does not deserve to meet with it-an evil that one may expect either to suffer oneself, or that someone of one's own may do so; and this, when the evil appears near" (Rhet. 2.8.1385b13-15). Because we must be able to anticipate the possibility of suffering a like misfortune to that which afflicts the person who is pitied, pity requires that we be vulnerable. Hence, as Aristotle continues, those who have lost everything are incapable of feeling pity, because they do not expect that any further adversity will befall them. For the same reason, those who are well off and confident that they will continue to prosper are immune to pity (2.8.1385b15-23). Aristotle also points out that there must be a certain distance between the pitier and the pitied. We pity acquaintances when they suffer a catastrophe, but when it befalls someone who is closely related, for example, one's own child, the result is not pity but rather what Aristotle calls to deinon, or "horror." And horror, Aristotle observes, tends to drive out pity (2.8.1386a.22-24; Halliwell 2002, 215-16).

We can see why Aristotle distinguishes between people we know and those who are kin or dear ones in regard to the possibility of pity. In the definition of pity, Aristotle had already said that pity is reserved for those kinds of evils that might afflict us or ours. Those nearest to us are, as it were, an extension of ourselves, and their misfortune affects us exactly as does our own. Our kin are part of the same substance as we, as Aristotle puts it in the Nicomachean Ethics (8.12.1161b17-19), and friends, in Aristotle's famous expression, are another self. If, as Aristotle argues, "In general, one must presume that people pity just those things, when they happen to others, that they fear when they happen to themselves" (Rhet. 2.8.1386a27-29), then fear rather than pity will also result when such things happen-or rather threaten to happen-to those closest to us, for they are more like a part of ourselves than like distinct beings.

Finally Aristotle remarks that people pity those who are similar (homoioi) to themselves, whether in age, character, family, or some other respect. A few years ago I wrote in this connection: "Here, Aristotle seems to adumbrate a notion of identification, according to which pity arises when one is able to put oneself in the place of the other. For identification to be possible, the other person must be similar in some respect to ourselves" (1999, 1-2). This, even though I was aware that, as I then put it, "Pity requires a certain distance: if suffering touches one's children, for example, one shares in their pain directly and experiences horror, not compassion." Identification is not identity; on the contrary it presupposes nonidentity. Aristotle says that the pitier and the pitied must be similar, not the same.

By the time I came to writing Pity Transformed (2001, 71-73), I had realized my mistake. Identification, I now argued, is best reserved-if indeed the concept is useful at all in discussing Aristotle's conception of the emotions-for the relationship precisely between those nearest to us and ourselves. If friends are indeed other selves, then I am identified with them in the strong sense of having the same identity. I noted too that in speaking of such intimate relationships, including that with our own selves in the case of self-love (philautia), Aristotle avoided the term eleos (pity). Rather he preferred such expressions as sullupeisthai, sunalgein, and sunakhthesthai, meaning "to condole" or "feel pain together" with another. Correspondingly, for what we might call positive sympathy, Aristotle employed words such as sugkhairein, sunedesthai, and analogous compounds with the prefix sun-, which signify that we feel the same pleasure as the other, or feel it as our own. In the case of pity, we do not experience the pain of the other as our pain. Rather the pain entailed in pity, according to Aristotle's definition, derives from the expectation, or recognition of the possibility, that we might ourselves suffer a like misfortune. This pain is closely related, or rather I would say identical, to the pain produced by fear; we recall Aristotle's dictum that "people pity just those things, when they happen to others, that they fear when they happen to themselves." As Aristotle defines this latter emotion: "Let fear be a kind of pain or disturbance deriving from an impression [phantasia] of a future evil that is destructive or painful; for not all evils are feared, for example whether one will be unjust or slow, but as many as are productive of great pain or destruction, and these if they are not distant but rather seem near so as to impend. For things that are remote are not greatly feared" (Rhet. 2.5.1382a21-25). We may note that fear, unlike pity, does not depend on desert. We only pity the misfortune of one "who does not deserve to meet with it." I may fear harm to myself, however, irrespective of whether I deserve it.

The awkwardness in treating pity as a form of identification becomes particularly clear when we consider the condition of the person who elicits our pity in comparison with our own. Someone who has lost everything-Philoctetes in Sophocles' play, for example-is a prime candidate for evoking pity, but such a person is, by Aristotle's own account, least likely to be able to feel pity for someone else. There is thus a deep emotional difference between the pitier and the pitied. What Philoctetes experiences in his affliction is not pity but rather the immediate pain, both physical and spiritual, of his misfortune; but this pain is not, on Aristotle's definition, an emotion at all, but simply the state of distress (lupe). Lupe is a perception (aisthesis) rather than a pathos, of which it is a component. We recall Aristotle's definition of pathe as "those things on account of which people change and differ in regard to their judgments, and upon which attend pain and pleasure" (Rhet. 2.1.1378a20-23). The pitier would only feel the same pathos as the pitied in the strange situation in which the suffering that elicited pity was precisely an excess of pity on the part of one who is pitied-surely not the kind of situation Aristotle imagines to be characteristic of tragedy. So the emotion of the pitier is different from what the pitied is experiencing, and the pain in each case has a different source. It is direct anguish in the case of the one who is pitied, whereas the pain of the pitier derives from fear that arises from an impression or phantasia of future, not present, harm. Given this radical difference between the sentiments of the pitier and the pitied, it is best not to speak of identification in this context.

In my 1999 article I proceeded: "The account of pity developed in the Rhetoric explains why we feel this emotion in regard to characters in a tragedy, but seems to exclude the possibility that a work of art can arouse fear: pity is precisely what we experience in behalf of others when they suffer things that we fear in our own behalf" (Konstan 1999, 2). As stated, this claim now strikes me as not quite correct. A tragedy can arouse fear insofar as it produces in the audience "an impression of a future evil that is destructive or painful." Destructive or painful to whom? To the spectators themselves, it must be. But the spectators of a tragedy are hardly likely to fear that the events on stage are in fact directly threatening to themselves, as though the mad Heracles might leap into the stands and slay several Athenian citizens in addition to his wife and children. The fear must in some sense be vicarious. If I see a lion in a movie, I am unafraid; but if I see the lion approach a sleeping child on the screen, I am likely to become tense with anxiety.

For this reason I concluded, "Aristotle modifies his analysis of these emotions" (1999, 2)-that is, of pity and fear-in the Poetics. The change occurs in his discussion of the kinds of reversal characteristic of tragedy. In this passage Aristotle states that pity and fear are not excited when one sees thoroughly bad men brought to ruin. Aristotle then explains, "For such a plot may involve to philanthropon, but neither pity nor fear, for the one concerns a person who is undeservedly unfortunate, while the other concerns a person who is similar [homoios]: pity concerns the undeserving person, fear concerns the one who is similar" (Poet. 13.1453a2-6).

That pity is elicited only in the case of a person who is suffering undeservedly is, as we have seen, an essential part of the definition of pity that Aristotle offers in the Rhetoric, although, as Stephen Halliwell (1998, 174) rightly points out in his study of the Poetics, it "cannot be held to have been a universal presupposition of Greek pity." (I shall return to this point shortly.) Aristotle had also argued in the Rhetoric that pity is elicited only when we are in some respect similar to the pitied which, as we have seen, is not to be construed as a basis for identification, but furnishes rather the reason why we can expect to suffer the kind of misfortune that is at this moment afflicting the other. From our similarity to the pitied we infer our own vulnerability-a vulnerability that is part and parcel of Aristotle's definition of pity-and hence we are disposed to fear that a comparable misfortune may befall ourselves.

In the Poetics, however, Aristotle divides the factors of desert and similarity, between the two emotions of pity and fear. Pity, he continues to maintain, depends on the perception that the other person is suffering undeservedly. But Aristotle now exploits the idea of similarity to explain why tragedy also induces fear. If the characters in a tragedy are like ourselves in some relevant respect, then their misfortune will, I suppose, induce in the spectators "an impression of a future evil that is destructive or painful" to themselves. As Halliwell (1998, 176) writes, tragic fear is, at bottom, "an emotion felt at one's own prospective experience." But how is this fear different from the fear that Aristotle has already associated with the emotion of pity? Pity, he claims in the Rhetoric, is aroused precisely insofar as we ourselves may expect to suffer something similar to what the pitied is currently experiencing. That expectation is just what fear is-a phantasia of a misfortune that might befall one. Is tragic fear in fact something more than this, or has Aristotle, in dividing the elements of desert and similarity between pity and fear, simply made clear in the Poetics what was implicit in the Rhetoric, namely, that pity itself contains a necessary element of fear, based precisely on our similarity to the other? If this is so, then tragic fear is in effect nothing other than a constituent part of tragic pity.

Unfortunately Aristotle is reticent about just how pity and fear are generated in the audience of a tragedy (cf. Halliwell 2002, 207-8). I believe that we can, however, see at least one reason why Aristotle separates out fear as a distinct response to tragedy, even though pity itself entails fear because of the expectation that a like misfortune to that of the pitied may befall oneself. Pity for another, as I have just remarked, is elicited only in the case of undeserved suffering. But surely another's misfortune can cause us to fear that something similar may happen to ourselves, irrespective of merit. We have observed that, on Aristotle's definition, fear differs from pity precisely in that it takes no account of desert, and yet Aristotle states that the ruin of a thoroughly bad man elicits neither pity nor fear, but at best that mysterious response he calls to philanthropon. Does Aristotle mean to suggest that the audience bears no similarity to such a person?

In separating out fear from pity, might Aristotle also have had in mind a more other-regarding kind of emotion than so far described, one that may be labeled "fear for another"? If so, we shall have to distinguish such an emotion from feeling the same pain as does another person, which Aristotle denominates, as we have seen, by expressions such as sullupeisthai and sunalgein. We recall that, according to Aristotle, these sentiments arise in relation to those who are nearest and dearest to ourselves. Such feelings will not constitute one of the emotions characteristic of tragedy for two reasons. First, by virtue of making eleos (pity) one of the two tragic emotions, Aristotle makes it clear that we regard tragic characters not as kin or close friends but rather as people at a certain distance. They are of the class of gnorimoi (people known to ourselves), as he puts it in the Rhetoric, not philoi (intimates). Second, as already remarked, feeling the same pain or pleasure as another does not mean experiencing the same emotion, since pain and pleasure are not themselves pathe but rather constituent parts of pathe. When we feel pain with another, we experience the same aisthesis, or sensation, rather than a common emotion such as fear. If my son's leg is broken, or if he is afraid of the dark, I share in his pain, but not because my own leg hurts or because I feel fear based on my similarity to him (I know that his fear of the dark is groundless). I imagine the case is rather like saying that I feel pain because my own leg hurts, since my son is, according to Aristotle, a part of me. But I am not certain that Aristotle offers a fully adequate account of this kind of sympathetic aisthesis.

Feeling fear for another person, however, would be rather the kind of sentiment that Latin distinguishes by a particular grammatical construction with verbs of fearing. The verb timeo with the accusative means to fear someone or something; with the dative it means to fear for someone. Greek expresses the latter by means of a preposition such as peri. Is this, then, what Aristotle means by tragic fear-a fear for, or on behalf of, another person? Halliwell affirms (1998, 176) that such tragic fear "differs from ordinary fear by virtue of being focused on the experience of others." He adds, nevertheless, that "this does not take it outside the conception of the emotion expounded in the Rhetoric." As Halliwell puts it, "Aristotle's discussion of the nature of fear ... does not rule out the possibility that its object can in some cases be the prospect of others' sufferings." How might such fear work? Halliwell continues (1998, 176): "For this to be so, we can deduce, one condition must be satisfied: the prerequisite of strong sympathy. Once this exists, we can feel fear for others analogous to fear for ourselves, because, just as in pitying others we are (if Aristotle is right) implicitly sensing an underlying fear for ourselves, so the capacity to fear for others must rest on an imaginative fear for ourselves."


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Table of Contents

Introduction - Victoria Pedrick
I. The Geometry of Suffering
Aristotle on the Tragic Emotions - David Konstan
Divine and Human in Sophocles' Philoctetes - Seth L. Schein
Euripedes' Heaven - Pietro Pucci
Dionysiac Triangles: The Politics of Culture in Wole Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides - Barbara Goff
II. A Vast Continent of Sorrows
The Subject of Desire in Sophocles' Antigone - Mark Griffith
Beyond Sexual Difference: Becoming-Woman in Euripides' Bacchae - Victoria Wohl
The Comic Soul: Or, This Phallus That Is Not One - Martha C. Nussbaum
III. The Ordinary Horrors of the Feminine
Women in Groups: Aeschylus's Suppliants and the Female Choruses of Greek Tragedy - Sheila Murnaghan
Redeeming Matricide? Euripides Rereads the Oresteia - Froma I. Zeitlin
Clytemnestra's First Marriage: Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis - John Gibert
IV. Cautionary Tales
Visuality and Temporality: Reading the Tragic Script - Karen Bassi
Music, Gender, and Hellenistic Society - Simon Goldhill
The Tyranny of Germany over Greece - Page duBois
List of Contributors
Index of Key Passages
Subject Index

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