Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.34

G.M. Sifakis, Aristotle on the Function of Tragic Poetry.   Herakleion:  Crete University Press, 2001.  Pp. 206.  ISBN 960-524-132-3.  $30.00.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Belfiore, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (
Word count: 2326 words

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.08.16.]]

The stated aim of Aristotle on the Function of Tragedy is to study "the significance and social function of tragic poetry in classical Athens as understood and explained by Aristotle" (p. 9). Chapter 1, "The Function of Poetry," argues that the aim of poetry, according to Aristotle, is to represent the truth in the form of generalizations (23), a truth that is "relative to, and dependant [sic] to a large extent on, the collective beliefs and ideology of a specific historical society" (24). Specifically, Greek tragedy, which represents a "great step towards a less conventional and more empirical way of viewing human life" (30), is connected with the rise of democracy. Chapter 2, "The Audience of Tragedy," argues that Greek tragedy "was a truly democratic art form" (37), addressed to an Athenian audience made up of all classes and both genders. Chapter 3, "The Pleasure of Learning," argues that tragedy teaches people about "the character of the person represented" on stage (51), leading them to conclude, for example, that this is what Medea was really like (49). Chapter 4, "The Function and Significance of Music in Tragedy," argues that music has a much more important role in the Poetics than is usually recognized, and Chapter 5, "The Proper Pleasure of Tragedy," is concerned with the catharsis question, discussing the author's own views and surveying those of other scholars. This survey continues in Appendix 1. Chapter 6, "Passion and Reason," provides support for Sifakis' views about the tragic emotions, pity and fear, drawing on the work of the modern neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, and Aristotle's views expressed in the Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics. Chapter 7 is a summary of the author's conclusions. Appendixes 2 and 3 provide, respectively, a brief discussion of Aristotle's semiotics, and a list of important Greek passages.

The greatest strength of this book is the serious attention it pays to the role of music in the Poetics, a topic usually ignored or treated as of little importance. In the definition of tragedy in Poetics 6, the phrase "sweetened language" (ἡδυσμένῳ λόγῳ: 1449b25) refers to the musical elements of tragedy. Sifakis argues convincingly that these are not mere "embellishments," or "non-essential additives." Instead, Aristotle uses this metaphor from cooking to refer to what corresponds, in tragedy, to "precisely these additives which characterise the art of cooking" (56). Music imitates "character qualities," such as anger, gentleness, courage and temperance, and thus effects a change in the souls of the audience. In tragedy, the musical elements help "to reveal ethical qualities and emotions that lie beyond the limits and expressive capabilities of ordinary speech" (58-59). Sifakis gives some excellent examples of passages in tragedy that serve this function, arguing, for example, that in Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, "the function of the kommos is to set the moral tone that will make Orestes' dreadful task appear just and inevitable" (61). More detailed metrical analysis would have helped to make these ideas even more convincingly. Sifakis also includes a good discussion of Greek music and the commentaries of Avicenna.

In other respects, this book is less satisfactory. The treatment of the social functions of tragedy contains too little detailed analysis. For example, although Sifakis argues that the character of the Athenian audience and Aristotle's views on constitutional government are very important for an understanding of the Poetics (18), he provides little discussion of political and social history. There are also a number of vague, inadequately supported generalities. Many scholars would question the statement: "Classicists are fascinated by the unprecedented progress of the Greeks" (27), the concept of "progress" being now highly controversial. The idea that "Classical art falls squarely between the two extremes of the movement from the mythological to logical, traditional to empirical, collective to personal, in antiquity" (29) also makes assumptions about concepts and dichotomies that have recently been questioned. Sifakis imports what many would consider to be an anachronistic idea when he discusses "free will" (25 and n. 14), and he appeals to the even more questionable concept of predetermination when he writes: "[t]he construction of the plot was more important than the drawing of characters because the actions tragedy normally represented were preordained and motivated by divine powers, and the freedom of choice of its human agents were to a large extent restricted by such powers" (132). This statement is especially jarring in light of Aristotle's notorious restriction of the role of the gods in tragedy.

The book contains a number of errors, not all of which can be attributed to the press. I noticed these typographical errors: "dependant" for "dependent" (24), "inhent" for "inherent" (34), "seemed to have had changed" (116-17), "researh" for "research" (119), "definite" for "definitive" and "demostration" for "demonstration" (122), "undestanding" for "understanding (137), "Elisabeth" for "Elizabeth" (138), an added asterisk in n. 26, p. 164. In addition, there are some careless errors in the notes and text: the works by Halliwell, Gould, Easterling, Goldhill, and Gill cited in n. 12, p. 160 do not appear in the bibliography, nor does Nussbaum 1990 (n. 25, p. 183). Sifakis gives no citation when he states that Golden accepted Else's definition of tragedy (102). The twentieth century is referred to as the "middle of our own century" on p. 97, but as "the past century" on p. 114. The quotation from Belfiore 1992, 342 adds a definite article that is not in the original: "associated with the excessive thumos" (148).

The major concern of Sifakis' book is the interpretation of Aristotle's statement that tragedy is imitation, "by means of pity and fear accomplishing the catharsis of these kinds of emotions" (δι' ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν). A scholar who attempts another study of the catharsis question must be both learned and brave. Every word of the phrase has been the subject of intense controversy. The subject index of Omert Schrier's bibliography contains three pages of entries under the heading "catharsis," from 1565 to 1996, to which Malcolm Heath's electronic bibliography continually adds more.1 The controversy has fed on the lack of data provided by Aristotle, who promises, in Politics 8, to explain the term catharsis "in our works on poetry" (1341b39-40), but who notoriously fails to do so in our text of the Poetics. Interpretations, then, necessarily rely on sources external to the Poetics, and must be judged according to how well they succeed in elucidating both Aristotle's thought and Greek tragedy.

Sifakis, like others before him, draws on Aristotle's discussion of catharsis in the Politics to explain the concept in the Poetics. He writes: "Catharsis, then, in the sense of emotional relief, is brought about by music which arouses the emotions by providing likenesses ... of emotions and qualities of character ... (Pol. 1340a19-21). This is consistent with Aristotle's doctrine of poetry and music as imitations ... It is reasonable ... to extend what Aristotle says about the effect of music to that of tragedy, namely, that the emotions of spectators are excited 'in so far as each is susceptible to such emotions, and all have a kind of catharsis and are relieved with pleasure'" (135). It can be argued against this interpretation that it fails to take into account the very different concerns of the Politics and the Poetics. The Politics discusses a cathartic use of music to treat abnormal people, who experience emotional states more strongly than do others (1342a4-7). In contrast, as Sifakis admits (33), the Poetics is concerned with the effect of the tragic plot on the audience of normal people who attend the Athenian dramatic festival. In reply to this objection, Sifakis argues that Aristotle's focus in Politics is not on the ritual catharsis needed by abnormal people but on a weaker form of catharsis available to all (83-89), an interpretation supported by Richard Kraut.2 Even if we accept this idea of a weaker form of catharsis in the Politics, however, it is hard to see how the tragic plot, however much "sweetened" by music, can produce the same kind of catharsis that music does. Moreover, in the Politics, the cathartic function of music is contrasted with its educational function (1341b32-1342a4), while Chapter 4 of the Poetics emphasizes the educational aspects of poetry. Sifakis acknowledges the importance of learning in the Poetics (Chapter 3), but he begs the question when he denies that catharsis in music and tragedy should be equated with "clarification" "because it is expressly distinguished from mathêsis" in the Politics (135-36: emphasis added). Furthermore, Aristotle's own statement that he will explain catharsis in more detail in his works on poetry is in itself some evidence that he did not consider that the discussion in the Politics could be applied to the Poetics without revision and explanation.

Sifakis has a great deal to say about the tragic emotions. After surveying a number of interpretations of catharsis, Sifakis argues that all of them "fall short of integrating the two kinds of pleasure -- the cognitive and the emotional -- mentioned by Aristotle without undervaluing either of them" (109). In trying to achieve this integration, Sifakis writes: "Understanding comes through contemplation while the spectator is emotionally aroused, and normally painful emotions, such as pity and fear, become eventual inducers of pleasure because they lead to and facilitate understanding" (112). His view, then, as he says, is closest to that of Martha Nussbaum (107). In support of his view that emotions assist deliberation, Sifakis discusses the ideas of the modern neuroscientist Antonio Damasio,3 and Aristotle's Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics. However, he fails to explain the precise psychological mechanism involved, or to adduce textual evidence in Aristotle's works that supports his views. Sifakis holds that "Emotional excitement ... is what makes understanding and a fair judgement of tragic actions -- including their motives, deliberations and choices of their agents, and consequences -- possible" (136). In the Rhetoric, Sifakis notes, Aristotle has an ambiguous attitude toward emotion, which can either mislead people or help them to judge correctly (122). Why, then, does he think that pity and fear lead to "a fair judgement of tragic actions" instead of misleading the audience, as Plato believed? And what exactly constitutes a fair judgement about Oedipus or Medea? Sifakis would be more persuasive if he provided detailed analyses of the tragedies themselves, and of the passages in the Poetics that concern pity and fear. His appeal to modern science would also be more convincing if he offered the kind of deeper and broader analysis given by other recent works that compare ancient with modern views on the emotions.4 Sifakis cites only two scientists, Damasio and LeDoux. Revealingly Damasio is quoted by David Konstan to illustrate modern dichotomy between reason and passion, in contrast to Aristotle's view that emotion itself has an evaluative component (Konstan 2001, 5-6). Sifakis does not consider these and other possible differences between ancient and modern views when he states without argument that "Aristotle and Damasio ... share a number of concepts ..." (128).

Sifakis devotes nine pages (143-151) to the views on catharsis expressed in my 1992 book.5 Some of his criticisms are well taken. My interpretation of τοιούτων is perhaps a bit strained, and I may have been too eager to "combine all major readings into one" (150). I would, however, take issue with a number of his criticisms, especially those concerning my ideas about thumos, shame, and the tragic emotions. Sifakis asks whether shamelessness is an emotion, as I claim, or the lack of an emotion (146-7). At NE 1107a30-35, which I cite pp. 193-94, Aristotle writes that there are mean states concerning the emotions and that the shameless person has the deficiency of which the αἰδήμων has the mean state. Nor do I see anything incoherent in the idea that people may be inclined to do shameless acts because of excessive thumos while also being responsive to shame (Sifakis 147-48). This is clearly stated in Rhetoric 2.12, which I cite p. 341. It is true that the term "shamelessness" does not appear in this passage, but Aristotle cites such obvious examples of shamelessness as being unable to control one's sexual desires (1389a4-6). I would still maintain that, even though Aristotle does not mention shame and thumos in the Poetics, an understanding of the important role thumos (anger) and shame play in Aristotle's ethical and political works, and in Greek literature generally, is crucial to an understanding of the philosopher's views on the tragic emotions. The thumos, which is the source of both friendship and of anger against friends (Pol. 1327b36-1328a16), can be trained to be a force for the good because it is responsive to the kind of shame that prevents wrongdoing (NE 4.9). Now kin-killing and anger against kin are central issues in Greek tragedy, as well as significant dangers in Greek society.6 Because the tragic emotions, pity and fear, are incompatible with anger (Rhet. 1380a33-34, 1385b29-30), it is not unreasonable to suppose that their arousal by tragedy can help to provide training for the thumos, leading people to be ashamed of harming kin and friends.

Aristotle on the Function of Tragic Poetry makes an important and original contribution in helping to correct the view that music is treated as an unimportant aspect of tragedy in the Poetics and that it is a mere embellishment in Greek tragedy. In other respects, I found it to be less useful in helping the reader to understand Aristotle's views on tragedy within the social context of fifth and fourth century Athens. More attention to such topics as history and society, the nature of pity and fear in Aristotle's works, his views on the interconnections between emotion and cognition, and more detailed analysis of individual tragedies would have helped me to understand and be persuaded by Sifakis' idea that "[t]he audience is moved by the tragic imitation and consequently gains at the same time an insight into the deliberations and choices of the tragic characters" (137).


1.   O. J. Schrier, The Poetics of Aristotle and the Tractatus Coislinianus. A Bibliography from about 900 till 1996, Leiden, 1998; M. Heath
2.   R. Kraut, Aristotle. Politics, Books 7 and 8, Oxford, 1997, 208-212.
3.   A. Damasio, Descartes' Error. Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York, 1994.
4.   For example, W. V. Harris, Restraining Rage. The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001; D. Konstan, Pity Transformed, London, 2001.
5.   E. Belfiore, Tragic Pleasures. Aristotle on Plot and Emotion, Princeton, 1992.
6.   Poetics 14.1453b19-22. See my Murder Among Friends. Violation of Philia in Greek Tragedy, Oxford 2000 and Harris 2001.

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