Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.42

Rana Saadi Liebert, Tragic Pleasure from Homer to Plato.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. ix, 218.  ISBN 9781107184442.  $99.99.  

Reviewed by Clément Bertau-Courbières, Université de Toulouse (


This is one of a growing number of studies on Greek aesthetics published in the last decade. The aim of Liebert’s book is to resolve a classic paradox in the field of ancient aesthetics, namely the pleasure taken in tragedy, and more widely the mimetics of painful emotions. This issue was significant enough in ancient Greece for Plato and Aristotle to address it at length. It has since been a standard problem in Europe that many philosophers and thinkers have tried to resolve. Being human and rational, how is it possible for us to feel pleasure at others’ misfortunes? Is this ethical, acceptable or even beneficial? In Plato’s Republic, the Muse is finally exiled from the ideal city, and in Aristotle’s Poetics the mimesis theory partly relies on the famous but equally arcane notion of catharsis. However, the argument presented here refutes this traditional (and mainly Aristotelian) response and at the same time gets away from Kant’s legacy. According to Liebert, there are no differences in archaic poetry between real and mimetic experiences of tragic pleasure. So then, to understand this “tragic pleasure”, the author goes back to the Homeric epic and mostly follows Plato’s philosophy to stress a “psychosomatic model of aesthetic engagement”.

In the introduction, the author presents her central argument as follows. The tragic pleasure at stake is a “satisfaction of a subrational appetite for grief”, a satisfaction that, according Liebert, the hero Odysseus, for example, seeks to obtain while listening to Demodocos on the Phaeacian island – a reading first made in Peponi’s book.1 But, as we shall remember, Odysseus is secretly crying like a woman when listening to the bard. How can we explain his behaviour? Here, Liebert’s objective is ambitious: she wants to refute a large part of contemporary aesthetic theory based on Aristotle. There is neither “aesthetic transformation” nor edifying dimension, the author argues, to explain the appeal of tragedy. Painful objects are pleasurable because “the pain itself, in art as in life, satisfies an unregulated appetite for affective intensity”. At this point, Charles Altieri’s conception of an aesthetic experience eluding any cognitive control – and therefore ethically neutral2 – serves as a keystone in Liebert’s argument.

In chapter I, the author focuses on poetic pleasure as it appears in archaic poetry – mainly Homer, Archilochus, and Pindar. In her reading of the sources, she underlines the peculiar sweetness of this poetic pleasure and the gustatory dimension that accompanies it. The purpose of song is to provide pleasure, and many poems use a comparison with honey, desire, and love to evoke that function. But this irresistible pleasure is at the same time deceptive as it arouses an insatiable desire. For that reason, Liebert explains how a poet like Pindar has to perpetuate a “painful state of arousal” so as to maximize the pleasure and avoid its satiety (koros) in the audience. Thus, in underlining the somatic features of poetic pleasure, the author basically regards it in a platonic way as a mixed or impure pleasure. Any experience of pleasure involves pain, and the good poet has to deal with it to reach his goal and enchant the listeners.

In chapter II, the author proposes to unveil the source of pleasure in the mimetic context. To this end, two emotions (grief and anger) that affect Homeric heroes are analyzed. In Liebert’s view, modern cognitivists have neglected the body, which is indeed central to the comprehension of the mimetic context. She goes on to demonstrate that anger and grief are a kind of addictions: they flourish even at the expense of well-being. Homeric poetry mentions more than once the “pleasure of tears”. In the case of anger, Achilles’ well-known comparison with honey helps to show the appetitive nature of the emotion. Given the nature of these “pathological” emotions, the author explains that pleasure in the mimetic context derives from the sympathetic identification of the audience. There is no transformation at all, but only persuasion and identification. Gorgias may have been the first to recognize this in ancient Greece, as the author argues. Starting from this point, Liebert employs Altieri’s affective theory to explain this nonrational desire of painful emotions. Affective experiences are not ethically motivated: the emotions are desired for themselves, as a “mode of participation in the world”.

In chapter III, the author goes back to Plato’s Republic. The philosopher’s view, she says, is precisely that mimesis offers a way of vicariously experiencing tragic emotions. Socrates claims in the Republic that poetry satisfies our “hunger for tears”. That is one of the reasons Plato decided on the expulsion of the Muses. Mimetic poetry can promote painful affective states that become addictive. Few can see it, but the poet’s work has absolutely no ethical utility and is therefore harmful to the body and the city. Moreover, poetry takes advantage of the seductive quality of poikilia (variety), the same poikilia that Pindar used to enchant his audience, and that Socrates knows to be suspect as a way towards lawless desires. In that sense, wanting to satisfy one’s desire for pathological emotions is nothing else than threatening one’s psychological harmony and its social conditions. In an Epilogue, Liebert recalls that Plato would offer an attentive ear to any defence of the Muse’s utility in the city, and that Aristotle’s defence of poetry could be found in the Poetics, and even more in the Politics. But in her discussion of this defence the author concludes that Aristotle fails to address Plato’s most compelling charges against poetry, those based on psychological and social grounds.

Liebert’s book is a thought-provoking study. Many poetic passages and fragments are given welcome new interpretations. Her argument is demanding and ultimately persuasive. Many ideas are well elaborated. Claiming that the appeal of painful emotions stands at the core of “aesthetic experiences” (and of human psychology) is quite bold but interesting. Nonetheless, one could ask for more details in the description and presentation of the problem addressed. What is “poetic pleasure” in an anthropological, historical, or psychological perspective? “Tragic pleasure” could have been defined in comparison with other kinds of pleasures – those evoked by Sappho, Mimnermus, or Theognis for example. There are a number of Greek words that refer to different positive affects, helping us to understand the Greek point of view. Another question is about the methodological choices that are made at the beginning. The author seems to think that most of modern cognitive psychology – a quickly developing field of study – goes in a wrong direction, because it does not recognize the reason/passion dichotomy any more: a statement of this kind appears a little schematic. We may feel sometimes that Liebert has, against this modern view, an overwhelming confidence in Plato’s reading. We should not forget the historical gap between Homeric epic and the Athenian thinker. Plato condemns the Iliad and Odyssey for moral reasons, but the Homeric poems have an ethical basis that may have something to do with the “poetic pleasure” felt by the internal and external audiences. If Homeric epic had nothing to do with pedagogy, how do we explain Telemachus’ decisive place in the Odyssey narrative? Most of the theoretical tools employed here come from literary criticism, philosophy and aesthetics, and the study at times lacks a historical perspective. For example, there are very few mentions of religion or of the religious dimension of poetry, and of Homeric poetry in particular, although this is certainly not an irrelevant issue when we try to understand the “mimetic context”.

These comments do not diminish the high value of the work proposed here. Anyone interested in Greek aesthetics should read it and think about it. The volume is completed by a bibliography and a general index.


1.   Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi, Frontiers of Pleasure : Models of Aesthetic Response in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought, (Oxford; New York, 2012).
2.   Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects, (Ithaca, 2003).

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