Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.16

Sifakis on Belfiore on Sifakis.   Response to 2002.06.34

Response by G.M. Sifakis, NYU (

Taking advantage of the opportunity offered by BMCR to authors of books reviewed in the journal to respond to their reviewers, I would like to comment briefly on Elizabeth Belfiore's critique of my Aristotle on the Function of Tragic Poetry (Herakleion: Crete University Press, 2001) which appeared in BMCR 2002.06.34.

I start by expressing my gratitude to Ms. Belfiore for her careful collection of errors, not all of which, as she rightly says, "can be attributed to the press." Ms. Belfiore has a negative remark, or additional request or warning, even about things she likes. However, I intend to confine myself to a few points only, which will bring, I hope, some basic issues into focus, and spare the reader details that may be confusing without extensive discussion (or irrelevant to the main argument of the book and indifferent to her/him as much as they are to me -- whether, for instance, the concepts of progress or free will are anachronistic or controversial).

Ms. Belfiore accepts my interpretation of Aristotle's theory of music as mimesis of moral qualities (êthê) and, in consequence, its function and significance in tragedy, starting with the meaning of hêdusmenôi logôi (qualifying perainousa) in the definition of tragedy. But, then, she rejects my reading of Politics viii.3-7 on which my discussion of music in the Poetics entirely depends.

Aristotle expounds his views about the mimetic character of music, and its didactic, entertaining and cathartic functions, in the Politics. The relevance of Politics to Poetics is the basis of the medical interpretation of tragic catharsis since Jakob Bernays, but it is denied by the cognitivist interpreters of the Poetics and others who reject Bernays' view that tragic catharsis concerns people with excessive or pent-up emotions; and because Bernays' theory is based on the idea that "[t]he Politics discusses a cathartic use of music to treat abnormal people, who experience emotional states more strongly than do others," as Belfiore writes (BMCR 2002.06.34, p. 2), the same scholars also reject the relationship of Aristotle's discussion of music in the Politics to the Poetics. However, Bernays and his continuators are wrong on both counts because they fail to take into account Aristotle's references to the all-inclusive character of audiences of both poetry and music (Pol. 1342a 18-22), and above all his clear statements in Politics iii to the effect that the many or indeed the populace (hoi polloi, to plêthos, ho ochlos), consisting of farmers, artisans, traders, seamen, manual laborers, and any other such groups (1291b 18-30), are, collectively, not only wiser, stronger, less corruptible, but also, specifically, "better judges of music and poetry [sc. than a single excellent man or the few best ones]; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole" (1281b 7-9). Once the view that tragedy addresses -- or produces its effect on -- an abnormal audience is understood to be wrong, no interpretation of tragic catharsis can stand unless it can accommodate what the philosopher says in the Politics about the catharsis brought about by music: "all (members of the audience) have a kind of purgation and are relieved with pleasure" (1342a 14-15).

Professor Belfiore prefaces her presentation of my interpretation of tragic catharsis with the stern warning that "[a] scholar who attempts another study of the catharsis question must be both learned and brave" (p. 2) -- an unexpected statement, to say the least, coming as it does from the author of a 400-pager on Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion (Princeton U.P., 1992) -- and then, predictably, dismisses most of what I have to say on the subject. Obviously, I cannot engage in a serious discussion of such a complex topic in the context of this response, but I hope I'll be permitted to voice my surprise at Ms. Belfiore's failure to report that, while I indeed agree with Martha Nussbaum in that the "proper pleasure" (oikeia hêdonê) of tragedy is produced by the prior excitement of the emotions of pity and fear which subsequently facilitate an understanding of the plot and the predicaments faced by tragic characters, I do not equate this process with catharsis, but consider the latter as a relief that follows upon the termination of the emotional excitement. This is precisely what Aristotle states in the Politics with regard to people who have just experienced ecstasy through music: "we see them restored [kathistamenous: calmed down] as a result of the sacred melodies -- when they have used the melodies that excite the soul to mystic frenzy -- as though they have found healing and purgation (katharsis)" (1342a 9-11, Oxford transl. with additions). "Healing" and "purgation" are, of course, used metaphorically.

Naturally, Aristotle's analysis of passions and the way they function is vital to my reading of the Poetics. Ms. Belfiore observes that "S. has a great deal to say about the tragic emotions" (p. 3), but she also advances a mass of questions and objections which I was unable, I confess, even to sort out, let alone appreciate. She writes, for instance: "[S.'s] 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 [she refers to recent works by W. V. Harris and D. Konstan]. S. 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, [Pity Transformed, London,] 2001, 5-6). S. 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 ...' " (p. 3).

To begin with, "to compare ancient with modern views on the emotions" was never my intention. The reason that I discuss at some length the findings of Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux is to show that Aristotle's insightful and truly prescient understanding of the nature and function of the emotions -- their material basis (achôrista tês phusikês hulês tôn zôiôn, "inseparable from the physical matter of animals," De an. 403b 17-18; logoi enuloi, "rational processes rooted in matter," De an. 403a 25) and the direct relationship of the emotions to reasoning and decision making -- can now be confirmed by recent discoveries (rather than ideas or views) in neurosciences. As to why I cite only two scientists instead of many, the answer is that I am hardly competent to survey such fields of science as neurology and neurobiology and had to confine myself to the two scientists who revolutionized the study of the emotions and their basis in the brain and the neural system in the 1990's and subsequently broke the barrier of specialist journals and reached the attention of general public through mainstream publications.

Now what exactly Konstan reveals to Ms. Belfiore by his short quotation from the very first paragraph of the introduction of Damasio's Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1994), which my four pages devoted to Damasio's work failed to do, is something beyond my comprehension. As regards her appraisal that "S. does not consider these and other possible differences between ancient and modern views [does she mean the "modern dichotomy between reason and passion, in contrast to Aristotle's view that emotion itself has an evaluative component"?] when he states without argument [emphasis added] that 'Aristotle and Damasio ... share a number of concepts ...'," I can only express my regret that, after reading (as I am entitled to assume) the two sections of my Ch. VI ("Descartes' Error" and "Emotions, deliberation and choice in Aristotle's Rhetoric," respectively), Ms. Belfiore could not make out the connections between the ancient philosopher and the modern scientist.

For the sake of brevity, I shall refrain from discussing Ms. Belfiore's views and critical remarks any further.

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