Introduction: a tragic world

From this point on the interest in everything that stimulates the relationship between emotions and reactions becomes necessary. The first thing to do is to try to examine which elements  arouse our perception and therefore awareness of the emotions themselves. The answers to  this examination can be found in literature and also the whole of the representation which  is founded on the love of mimetic art. This art is pleasurable, and this notion was  evident in ancient Greek culture. Therefore, in the ancient world, as in the modern and contemporary world, the relation between spectator and fiction  is considered as the figurative place in which it  is possible to experience emotions.

This ‘figurative place’ was well defined in ancient Greek society and, through it, a connection between society itself and theatre was created. In fact, there was an important Greek tradition around the public representation of open events; celebrations, feasts, festivals and symposia were a constitutive part of the Greek universe. According to these customs[1], theatrical performances had the role of a communal expulsion of suppressed behaviors. In light of this, it is necessary to explain the different philosophical positions about the role of poetry in general and  its ‘responsibility’ over the emotions. There are, indeed, different positions over poetry and approach to the emotions.

A negative position is taken by Plato. Plato, in fact, disillusioned with democracy after the victory of Sparta over Athens, writes his opinions about the perfect society in the work called Republic in which he affirms that tragedy was no longer permitted[2] in his utopian model. This conception represents the position of a censor and that gives the idea of a different importance given not only to poems and poetry, but also to the position of the philosopher and artists. At this point “Plato argues that Homer and drama present the gods and heroes in a very poor light, whereas in a good society the young should only be given positive role models, and he finds drama particularly problematic because it involves mimesis, which involves imitation or performance. In his ideal society, every member has a single role, with which they should be content, but drama fosters the adoption of multiple roles, which undermines that acceptance of one’s lot (Republic 394-397). Towards the end of the book Plato returns to the theme again. From a philosophical and religious standpoint he claims that life itself is a kind of illusion; hence, representational art is nothing but the illusion of an illusion. From a moral standpoint, he argues that theatrical experience is about being carried away by one’s feelings – towards grief and sentimental pity in tragedy, towards uninhibited laughter in comedy – and surrender to these emotions weakens one’s power of self-control. He ends his discussion with the wry comment that philosophers and artists often disagree; if anyone can demonstrate that drama and poetry do indeed have a place in a model society, he will be only too delighted, for he knows their fascination (Republic, 607c)”[3].

We will introduce distinct points of view and according to these positions

What is  extremely fascinating is the self-contradictory character of our enthusiasm in respect to tragedy. In other words: “Tragic drama portrays the destruction of individuals who are, if not always perfect, at least outstanding, the finest among us. It portrays, that is, distressing events, events which presumably give rise to the ‘negative’ emotion of distress. Yet our enthusiasm shows that there must be something beneficial, something ‘positive’, we derive from tragedy”[4].

By now the  intricacy of the artificial arousing of the emotions is clear: it presents the possibility of a dual investigation  into the perception we have about emotions, and the knowledge we can  attain from those perceptions at the same time. What is the difference in the analysis of Aristotle and the Stoics?  I will analyze the similarity and the dissimilarity between  the Stoics on one hand who want to completely extirpate  the passions from human life, and Aristotle on the other hand who wants to moderate the effect of the emotions to underline their beneficial function.

Aristotle and tragedy

We mentioned that Aristotle is the author who assumes the position of a positive way of control of the emotions and the arousing of the same. In his book entitled to the ars poetica, precisely the Poetics, the Greek philosopher gives an explanation of his own interpretation of ‘theory of drama’. According to him, tragedy is composed by six components: the story (the plot, mythos), the character (ethos), the intellectual argument (the thought, dianoia), the language (the diction, lexis), the song (the melody, melos) and the visual (the spectacle, opsis).

All these parts create the whole of the tragic representation, but not all of these are involved in the final result with the same importance. What is, exactly, the final purpose of Aristotelian conception of tragedy? Aristotle says that tragedy is an “imitation … by means of pity and fear accomplishing the khatarsis of such emotions” (Poetics, VI, 1449b 24-28). In this well-known definition he provides the beginning of an interpretation that he would have never given.

According to Aristotle’s general theory, happiness is the final purpose of all the human actions[5]; therefore, also the Poetics has to be part of this interpretation.  It is important to remember this attitude when we analyze his work. Hence, the conquest of happiness is achievable by a sequence of actions and facts that happens throughout plausibility (probability) or necessity[6].

Happiness is therefore the goal of poetry and tragic drama, but in the opinion of Aristotle the different parts of tragedy that we briefly introduced, have a diverse effect on the beneficiary. The most significant contribution given by Aristotle on the analysis of the role of tragedy is, without doubt, the interpretation of the importance of the plot. About this discussion the philosopher is quite meticulous. He states that tragedy imitates action (Poetics 1449b 24; 1449b 36) and this is possible thanks to the plot defined as composition of the events (Poetics 1450a 4-5). More precisely, he is cautious to give a definition of the plot, which is for him imitation of action, and the actions of which the plots are imitation (Poetics 1452a 13). About the question of imitation, mimesis, it is very hard to give a complete clarification of the meaning. However, it is necessary to remember that Aristotle used this notion to explain two different senses: on the one hand mimesis conveys the general notion of imitation, common to every art expression; on the other hand mimesis applied to poetry tends to underline the ‘dramatic’ imitation typical of poetry[7].

We stated that Aristotle considers the plot as the most important part of poetry, this consideration seems now to open new reflections. When the philosopher ascribes to the poetry the role of dramatic (Poetics 1448a 24-30), he introduces an important consideration: a dramatic text does not need the support of recitation[8]. The task of art is to give knowledge to his beneficiary; that is why Aristotle affirms that it is not so important for tragedy to have its own representation[9]. This is probably possible because he considers the plot as the essential part of tragedy’s play. Therefore, the beneficiary can receive the same level of knowledge by poetry when attending a play as well as while reading. We are now able to consider that this difference between public performance and individual reading of a tragedy was a political view: the public representation[10] was a way to reach also the men which were not able, for example, to read[11].

According to Aristotle, indeed, the goal of tragic poetry is to arouse emotions (especially fear and pity). The arousing of the tragic emotions increases our ability to recognize and overcome them. Hence, it is important to show how the spectator, or the reader, with recognition and identification, can grasp an ethical interpretation[12].

In the opinion of the Greek philosopher, it is through moral interpretation that man realizes the true value of emotions. It is this epiphany that generates in his mind a kind of pleasure that brings him to higher purgation the higher the knowledge.

The Stoics: from the paradox to a systematic knowledge of poetry

The position of the Stoics about emotions is peculiar and makes it immediately clear that they find themselves in a paradox. On the one hand, the Stoics take a sharp position concerning passions; affirming that they should be not just controlled, but even extirpated from human existence. On the other hand, they show a particular attention to the question and to the genre, inspecting the works of the poets, putting the situation of passions at the very center of their work[13].

This ambiguous positions reflects their attitude about poetry: they agree with Plato’s arguments in favor of the censorship of most existing poetry but they also examine their ‘enemy’ not only to criticize it. They, indeed, recognize that poetry, despite having passions as objects, is a valuable part of education, an indispensable component, as well as a step towards happiness.

Hence, the interest for poetry is one of the possible keys to understand passions; but what is exactly poetry for the Stoics?

According to them, poetry is a combination of mousikē and poietikē. These elements constitutes the first and most essential structure of poetry. In other words, the amalgam of instrumental and vocal performance is constitutive of the framework which has melos, rhythmos, harmonia and lexis as components. With melos it is possible to refer to the chant, the melodic part; rhythmos is the word used to describe the relation of the duration of the sounds; harmonia is the equilibrium of the combination of the different parts; lexis, finally, is the term used to the expressions themselves, the words. All these ingredients make up the parts of the process of stimulation of the soul.

The soul, in Plato’s view, has three parts: namely, reason, spirit and appetite. According to Platonic tradition[14] the spirit part, as well as the appetite part, can be educated but not through cognitive changes. In this context, passions are analyzed as irrational desires to be developed step by step across non-cognitive strategies. On the contrary, the Stoic theories are more involved in giving a new and important roles to external goods. The thinking process is evident: if we consider the reasoning part of the soul as a part involved in the evaluation of external goods, we have to admit that emotions are activities of the rational part; passions are “not animal urges or stirring, not rational motions, but choices about how to view the world. They can, therefore, be modified and educated only by an education of reason”[15].

More generically, it is clear that emotions require a degree of judgement that already involves reason. For the Stoics, judgement takes shape not only recognizing the nature of the item, indifferently if it is good or bad, but also judging that a particular emotional response is appropriate. Regarding this position we can quote Seneca: “We are investigating whether anger follows immediately upon the impression itself and runs over without the mind agreeing; or is stimulated when the mind assents” (Seneca, De Ira 2.I.3). To confirm his position about the role of the mind he continues: “We maintain that anger does not venture anything on its own but only when the mind approves; for to accept the impression of an injury that has been sustained and desire vengeance for it – and to unite the two judgements, that one ought not to have been harmed and that one ought to be avenged – this is not characteristic of an impulse (impetus) that is aroused without our will (voluntas). For the latter kind is simple, but the former is composite and contains several elements: one has discerned something, grown indignant, condemned it, and takes revenge: this things cannot occur unless the mind consents to those things by which it was affected” (Seneca, De Ira, 2.I.4).

By then it seems evident that there is a relation between emotions and reason that passes through the education of the mind. Thus, the educational way finds the best means in literature. Literature, indeed, can have the purpose to describe passion and this passion, once it has been described, is a constitutive part of educational theorists[16]. With respect to this theory, the Stoics cannot be analyzed as a group, but it is better to consider them as expressing of different points of view[17].

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the Stoics are involved in a real analysis of the effect of poetry throughout the mousikē and the text. Poetry has the important role to affect the hearer and to lead him to a judgement about what is important and what is not. It is obvious that, in this view, the poet has an important position: the arousing of emotions through the composition of music and text. His ability should be to improve ēthē and pathē and praxeis from the content of poetry. This point seems to show that the role of poetry is itself ‘more philosophical’. We stated that the role of poets, according to the Stoics, is to improve and create the ideal situation in which the arousing of emotions can increase our knowledge about passions themselves. However, none of the great poets was a Stoics. This situation origins an ambiguous position. On the one hand the Stoics use them anyway, without any justification about the ‘use of the poets’ themselves. On the other hand they seem to note an empty space due to this lack of stoic poets because the ideal role of poets should be always balanced between ethos and pathos[18].

This topic is possibly the very decisive point of Stoic argumentation to the question of the role of poetry and emotions. The relation between the hearer and the depicted events passes through a judgement that is possible thanks to an identification with a character who is suffering or feeling passions. This judgement is due to a certain interest we have in relation to the represented events. In the moment in which we experience this affinity, we create the structure useful to recognize the passion and the real value of it. This assent becomes necessary to demonstrate that during the experiencing of representation we feel the infection of the emotions described in poetry[19].

It is exactly from this point that we agree with Seneca’s complaint about the indifference to the truth by the poets. It seems impossible to the Stoics to give their assent to something completely false because this conduct can stimulate a deviated judgment.

By now the importance of poetry for the Stoics is clear: on the one hand they offer a way of thinking suitable to freedom from passions; on the other hand they need to recognize that this process of freedom has to be part of the analysis of poetry. Poetry inspires the self-recognition in the audience and, thanks to this identification, a sympathy with the character is possible. Subsequently, through this sympathy, it is possible to experience the transmission of emotion, necessary to generate a judgement. Poetry, again, presents a substantial number of information and the spectator has to grasp the meaning of the information and use it to improve his knowledge about passion. This process, in the opinion of the Stoics, is more efficient with the structure of the dramatic poetry. It is generally recognized that every man is seduced by a story, but the dramatic form is the one that creates more ethical information and, consequently, throughout its structure, promotes more involvement in the situation.

The identification, as we already stated, is the fundamental step of poetic experience. The beneficial effect of this experience, that characterizes the value of poetry, is dual: the first one is, as we explained, the recognition of the passions and, furthermore, an evaluation of those across judgements; the second one is a more ‘practical’ benefit. The spectator, the hearer of poetry, during the recognition of the events, gains consciousness of the misfortune that he could have in his life[20].

Accordingly, we have to remind ourselves another time that the Stoics should not be considered as a group with a single point of view[21]; however, we have to recognize that they all see the role of the spectator as crucial and critical. The characteristic position of the Stoics here is the real cornerstone of their thinking. We stated that the spectator, the hearer, has to, firstly, recognize the tragic of the event, subsequently he has to identify himself with the suffering of the characters and, lastly, the spectator must believe that it is impossible to prevent the situation.

This organized series of events has the crucial role to stimulate in the spectator the judgement about the situation of misfortune and therefore to create in his mind the conviction that the tragic events are the consequence of a series of events in which any man can be involved. Thus, “from the point of view of Stoicism, this three beliefs, all constitutive of tragic spectatorship, are false and pernicious. The suffering shown in tragedy are important only to one who has the wrong view about what is important. And they are beyond our control only when we do not take control of our own lives, extirpating the attachments to externals on which these sufferings are based. We cannot control the events; we can control ourselves and the ways in which events matter to us. Accordingly the Stoic spectator must take up a new attitude to the tragic characters. The essence of this attitude is a concerned but critical detachment. By supplementing the works of the poets with the continual guidance of philosophical commentary, the Stoics hope to form a spectator who is vigilant rather than impressionable, actively judging rather than immersed, critical rather than trustful”[22].

Final considerations

In this essay we analyzed some of the points of view of the thinking of Aristotle and the Stoics.

There is, of course, a difference between Aristotelian and Stoic theories: Aristotle, favors emotions when necessary; for example he legitimizes anger in case of an insult or an incorrect treatment. This conception was called from ancient Greeks metriopatheia, in other words, a moderation of passion. By contrast, the Stoics sought to eliminate, not moderate, the passions; hence they adopted the notion of apatheia, a complete lack of pathē.

On the one hand, both schools of thought work on the practical side of philosophy: the goal of their ethical philosophies is the improvement of the human condition. In other words, they both try to obtain and promote the eudaimonia, the supremely good life, the most complete happiness. This eudaimonia is, clearly, a state to reach which is sufficient in itself: when we get to this level we do not lack anything and we cannot wish anything else.

On the other hand, we observed how the different currents of thought try to amount to this eudaimonia throughout virtue. Aristotle has built a structure in which his ethics notions are not aimed at producing happiness in a direct way, but helping men to improve their duty in a more efficient way. This Aristotelian structure has to be considered as a guide. In fact, this moral path can be viewed as an upbringing in which people have a clear idea about what is important or, conversely, what has to be avoided. It is possible to say, more simply, that we are talking about a real guide to the sinuous path of life towards the eudaimonia.

At points Aristotle and the Stoics seem to agree on some general consideration, but when we analyze the situation more closely, the inherent substantial differences of their thoughts become evident. As an example, they seem to agree on the importance of poetry and its ‘more philosophical’ role[23]; however, looking deeper after this common starting point, it is evident they use poetry for different purposes.

The purpose of the Stoics is to create a system in which, through dramatic poetry, the spectator grasps the level of apatheia after a period in which the sympathy with the represented event is necessary. Aristotle’s purpose also includes a certain sympathy for the tragic action but, after this necessary step, the result is not of an apatheia, but of an ethical purgation of the emotions.

Another breaking point between Aristotle and the Stoics is the different role of the author in the act of producing poetry. While Aristotle affirms that the author should not be too involved in the narration of the events because his role should be more of a selector of events rather than narrator, the Stoics interpret the role of the author in a different way. Seneca, for example, says “an orator is sometimes better for being angry. No-for pretending to be angry. Actors do, when they speak their lines steer the populace not by feeling anger but by putting on a good act. Similarly, before a jury, at a public meeting or wherever we have to work the minds of others to our own will, we ourselves will make a show of anger or fear or pity so as to instill them into others; and it often happens that what would never have been achieved by genuine emotion is achieved by its imitations.” (Seneca, De Ira, 2.17.1).

Others can be the breaking points or the common grounds between the two schools, but the most important thing is the different use of literature and the instruments of knowledge deriving from the tragic experience.

The poet has the role of arousing the emotions and playing with them in the aim to transport us in a world of illusions that can generate a tragic pleasure.

[1] “For one thing, Aristotle and his fellows Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. shared beliefs about the benefits of fear. It is a commonplace in Greek thought that a certain kind of fear is essential to a well-ordered society: ‘there is a place where terrible is good, and must remain established, an overseer of thoughts’ (Aeschylus, Eumenides, 517-519). This beneficial fear, which preserve law and customs, prevents civil strife, and adverts shameless crime against kin, is the fear of wrongdoing and the respect for parents, god, and custom that the Greeks called aishunē or aidōs (shame, respect).” Belfiore E., Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion, Princeton: Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992, p. 9.

[2] See especially the arguments of the second and the third book of the Republic in which poetry is criticized for its influence on the beliefs of the good person and, through these, on the emotions of fear and grief. In addition, see also the critic of the arguments of book X in which the poets are criticized because they feed human soul, strengthening the irrational appetite and making it so difficult to control human life.

[3] Mc Donald M., Walton M., The Cambridge companion to Greek and Roman theatre, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 93-94.

[4] Young J., The Philosophy of Tragedy: from Plato to Zizek, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013, p. 1.

[5] See, above all, his quotes in Nicomachean Ethics: I,i. 1094a 18-22; I.ii, 1095a 16-17; I.v, 1907a 22-06.

[6] See the considerations in Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd, London, 1986, p. 99-106; and Elizabeth Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992, p. 111-119.

[7] See the clear explanation made by Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd, London, 1986, p. 109-137.

[8] See again Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd, London, 1986, p. 129.

[9] Aristotle repeats this concept in Poetics 1450b 18; 1453b 4-7; 1462a 11-14.

[10] Aristotele, Poetica, a cura di Pierluigi Donini, Einaudi Editore, Torino, 2008, p. CXXII.

[11] It is true that his interpretation of poetry was so complex and refined to result almost impossible to be grasped by everybody; however, it is also suggestive the meaning that Aristotle gives to tragedy.

[12] See Elizabeth Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992, p. 170-176.

[13] “We see this enthusiasm in many ways. First, we notice the striking number of the Stoic treatises devoted to the topic of poetry. Zeno wrote a Peri poiētikēs akroaseōs (On listening poetry) and may also have discussed poetry in his Peri lexeōn (On diction). Cleanthes wrote a Peri tou poietou (On the poet) and, of course, poetry… Timon, nothing his slowness in cientifica reasoning, mocks him as a ‘slow-witted lover of verses’. Chrysippus wrote a Peri poiēmaton (On poetry) in one book, a Peri tou pōs dei poiēmaton akouein (On how one should listen to poetry) in two books, and several other works that may have dealt with poetic matters. Diogenes of Babylon made important contributions to the debate in Peri phones (On voice) and Peri mousikēs. Posidonius gave the topic a new direction, as we shall see; and poetry is discussed often in Epictetus and Seneca, as well as in the Stoic geographer Strabo.” In Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 99

[14] The tripartite structure of the soul is clearly based on the assertions of Plato in book IV of the Republic, in which he describes the education of the ‘thumos’ as something that has to be “calmed by means of harmony and rhythm” (Republic, IV, 441e).

[15] Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 106.

[16] “Posidonius insisted on the great benefits of his account of the passion for the educational theorists. He wrote: ‘when the explanation of the passion was grasped, it removed the absurdity, and showed the origin of distortion in what is desired and avoided and distinguished the method of training’. In particular he instead on the crucial importance for education of recognizing that the goal, where emotion is concerned, is not learning or judging but the production of a balanced movement whose sharp hedges have been ‘blunted by good habits’ and that it weak and gentle enough to receive the rule of the rational part.” Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 112.

[17] See explanation about the different points of view made by Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire.

[18] “Seneca’s primary complaint is that poets are indifferent to the ethical truth. They do not think the search for truth is important (De Beneficiis 1.3.10; 1.4.5); and they tell many stories that are false and potentially pernicious…what interests Seneca about this poetry falsehoods is their effect on the passion of the hearer, through a formation of judgment”. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 124.

[19] According to E.P. Arthur explanation and interpretation of the notion of assent it is clear that there is a relation between the psychology of the agent who assents and the impression that has to be assented. E.P. Arthur, Stoic analysis of the mind’s reaction to presentation, Hermes III, Roma, 1983, pp. 69-78.

[20] “The argument is that hearing poetry – in this case, tragic drama above all – prepares one for the various misfortunes that can take place in a human life. At the same time it shows how morally ruinous it is to come to misfortune with a mistaken set of values. The importance of being prepared for misfortune is, of course, a constant theme of Stoic thought about the ‘therapy’ of the passions.” Again, according to Plutarch: “It is a consequence of having experience of poetry that ‘we ourselves when we encounter misfortune we will not be struck down or disturbed, but we will bear calmly with ridicule and revealing and laughter’”. And again with Epictetus words: “You will learn, he tells the pupil, not only to be prepared for misfortune but also not to become excessively attached to the things that can be altered by fortune”. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 128.

[21] See, for example, the difference between Seneca and Epictetus about the role of the spectator: “Seneca, too, seems in Letter 108 to assume at least a certain degree of relaxed participation and identification. Epictetus, on the other hand. Seems to be thinking of a very different spectator: a watchful, critical, actively assertive spectator, who dissociates him or herself from characters like Oedipus and Medea, and refuses to participate in their fate”. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 130.

[22] Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 137.

[23] See Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 122; and Aristotle consideration in Poetics, IX, 1451b.

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