BMCR 2012.10.47

Tragic Pathos: Pity and Fear in Greek Philosophy and Tragedy

, Tragic Pathos: Pity and Fear in Greek Philosophy and Tragedy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xiii, 278. ISBN 9780521765107. $99.00.


φόβος and ἔλεος, pity and fear, are famously (or notoriously) associated with tragedy in Aristotle’s Poetics. As the “proper pleasure” of tragedy, they are importantly connected to ancient understandings of the genre and of the emotional response to works of art, yet their precise meaning, their linkage to one another, and their relations to other aesthetic emotions have proven resistant to explanation. Dana LaCourse Munteanu’s study Tragic Pathos: Pity and Fear in Greek Philosophy and Tragedy lays out and analyzes the significance of these tragic emotions with considerable subtlety, and offers the firmest basis yet for understanding their place in classical Greek culture.

Munteanu approaches the topic of pity and fear from two sides: by examining surviving fifth- and fourth-century philosophical texts dealing with the emotions and their connection to tragedy (Gorgias, Plato, Aristotle), and by looking at expressions of fear and pity within extant tragedies. This method allows the study to draw together strands from philosophy and literary criticism, and makes for a fascinating bifocal perspective. Though I was not entirely convinced by the results of the juxtaposition, Munteanu’s discussions are consistently insightful and judicious, and make a number of important points about canonical texts and much-discussed cruces.

Munteanu’s approach is framed anthropologically rather than historically, introducing the topic of pity and fear through discussions of emotional response to art in analytical philosophy and cognitive science. A second chapter compares the Greek “tragic” emotions to those associated with Indian epic and drama, and shows that the focus on pity differentiates Greek commentators. Together, these chapters set out a universal perspective on the question of aesthetic emotion, to which the remainder of the book will offer a historical answer, examining aesthetic emotions in ancient Greece. The approach is quite bold, as it situates historical and philological methods within an ahistorical and even anachronistic conceptual framework, and a more direct discussion and justification of method would have been useful in the introduction.

Relatively short chapters on pity and fear in Gorgias and Plato set the stage for the much more extensive analysis of Aristotle. In dealing with Gorgias’ Encomium to Helen, Munteanu discusses the various invocations of emotions as responses to speech and poetry. For Gorgias, pity and fear are clearly associated with the effect of art, but they do not seem to have a special relation to any particular form or content. Indeed, they are invoked in rather different and, Munteanu suggests, at times mutually exclusive contexts.

The chapter on Plato approaches aesthetic emotions through Socrates’ insistence that the fear of death is irrational, because based on ignorance of what death holds. The pleasure of art, similarly, is created by deception (in the Gorgias), or in the case of tragedy, by a false pain (in the Philebus). Turning to the crucial condemnation of poetry in Republic X, Munteanu shows how bound up Plato’s critique is with notions of proper emotional response. Pity and mourning seem to be the central tragic emotions for Plato, and as attributes of the “lower” parts of the soul, they must be carefully controlled in public contexts. The sensitivity to pity engendered by tragedy, Plato believes, will make viewers more susceptible to fear, suggesting a causal link between the two that was absent in Gorgias. Munteanu points out that Plato in fact accepts much of the sophistic description of the pleasure of aesthetic emotions as a kind of deception, while deploring this deceptive quality for its blurring of the boundary between emotions felt for others and those felt for the self.

The seventy pages on Aristotle (twice as much as for Gorgias and Plato combined) were for me the highlight of the book, and constitute one of the most judicious and incisive discussions of Aristotelian poetics of recent years. Munteanu begins with Aristotle’s treatment of emotion generally, comparing passages from the Rhetoric and Poetics to argue that an element of visualization (which is elicited ideally by language, but can be aided by visual impressions) is essential to the tragic emotions. Relating images of pathos on stage or in words to our own past experience and expectations for the future, we feel a localized pity for the individual. As we generalize the individual case, we experience a more global fear for the general fact of suffering. Both responses are based, Munteanu argues, on a process of actualization or “bringing before the eyes”, which enables fictional occurrences to appear as if real, and thereby to create the same emotional response as real events. The discussion here is admirably clear and constructs in detail the psychological mechanisms that Aristotle only sketches in scattered passages.

The second stage of Munteanu’s treatment of Aristotle centers on the “proper pleasure” of tragedy. Though Aristotle was not the first to have associated pity and fear with tragedy, his insistence that pity and fear are the exclusive emotions proper to tragedy seems to be unprecedented. Munteanu connects tragedy’s “proper pleasure” to the discussion of pleasure in Nicomachean Ethics 10, where pleasure is described as a “supervening completion” that accompanies an activity when pursued to perfection. Munteanu argues that the pleasure of tragedy is not independent of or opposed to the tragic emotions, but comes about through pity and fear. There is thus a paradox built into Aristotle’s description of the pleasure of tragedy.

Munteanu’s most innovative step comes in explaining the paradox. She points to descriptions of memory and mourning in the Rhetoric, which, she argues, are similarly produced as the completion of painful emotions. Both memory and mourning involve an element of temporal detachment (i.e., we mourn by recalling the past), which is analogous to the detachment of aesthetic emotions. The vision associated with mourning and the vision of the tragic audience seem to share a two-part structure: a visualization concerned with creating an image of the object (the deceased or the suffering tragic figure) together with a cognitive abstraction that compares the universal and the particular image, thereby relating to the spectator’s own experience. This latter step, Munteanu suggests, is no different from the syllogism involved in recognizing that “this is that”, which for Aristotle is always a pleasurable experience. “Emotional syllogism”, then, is the particular tragic pleasure, involving a pitiful and fearful visualization that is transferred from the fictional to the real; this transfer, which is based on a correspondence between drama and reality, creates the pleasure of recognition through pity and fear.

Munteanu’s argument is dense and suggestive, and demands close engagement from readers of the Poetics. I came away with a number of questions, which I would have liked to see answered more clearly. First of all, I wanted a more direct argument as to the nature of the connection between mourning and the tragic emotions. Do they simply rely on analogous psychological structures or is there a more immediate connection (as there seems to be in Plato)? It seemed a missed opportunity not to devote more space to the comparison between Plato’s notion of tragic emotions and Aristotle’s. This might have sharpened the connection between tragedy and mourning, since it could have shown what elements of Plato’s analogy Aristotle accepts and what he rejects.

Finally, Munteanu does not address the question of katharsis in the main text, though an appendix reviews some of the major issues concerning it. One can only sympathize with the desire to avoid this slimiest can of worms in tragic poetics, and Munteanu asserts that the meaning of katharsis is not essential to her discussion of tragic emotions. But this only begs the question: the discussion of tragedy in the Poetics clearly links pity and fear with katharsis, so only an investigation of the nature of this connection could shed light on whether it is essential to understanding the tragic emotions. Even if not engaging directly with the intricacies and debates around the concept, Munteanu might have suggested how it relates to the notion of tragic pleasure she does outline: could katharsis be a part of the pleasure of “emotional syllogism”? Is it a pleasure at all? Munteanu’s answers would surely be worth reading, and would have made the larger argument more satisfying.

The second half of the book turns to extant tragedies, and considers the relevance of pity and fear both externally (in the audience’s response) and internally (in the responses of characters). The aim is to compare the expressions of pity and fear in, and resulting from, tragic drama to the philosophical accounts of tragic emotions. In this section, a suspicion of anachronism is sometimes troubling, as Munteanu compared and applied Aristotelian and Platonic arguments to the understanding of fifth-century drama. Such an approach could perhaps yield insight into implicit (or perhaps explicit and lost) fifth-century notions of tragic emotions, but the method of application would have to keep in mind the distance, temporal and conceptual, between fourth-century philosophers and the fifth-century tragedians. Munteanu first discusses Persians, and wades into debates concerning the degree of audience sympathy with the defeated enemy. Though pity is considered the emotion most relevant to audience responses, fear appears as the most important emotion expressed by characters in the play. Munteanu explores the varied descriptions of fear in the play, which are concentrated around the (pity-inducing) anxiety of Atossa on one hand and the fear- inducing descriptions of the Persian army on the other. The on-stage suffering of the Prometheus Bound seems more obviously to invite pity from the audience. Munteanu points out the metatheatrical effect of Prometheus’ frequent reference to himself as an object of pity, a dramatic spectacle within the story. Most intriguingly, Munteanu discusses a link between pity and action suggested by Prometheus’ “pity” for mortals, which motivated his rebellion. Pity seems to have the potential to move individuals to action, even when it leads to terrible consequences for the pitier.

In the Ajax, Munteanu concentrates on the varying internal expressions of pity and fear. A reading of the opening scene between Athena and Odysseus points to the metatheatrical import of seeing without being seen. Watching the mad Ajax, Odysseus is moved to pity not only for the individual, but for humankind generally, a nice illustration of the movement from particular to universal that Munteanu described earlier. Likewise, we see Ajax moved both by self-pity and by pity for Tecmessa to a broader conception of moderation. In the responses to Ajax’s suicide and the debate over burial, Munteanu finds a process of generalizing from individual pity to a kind of σωφροσύνη. Her sensitive reading of expressions of pity in the Ajax makes an important contribution to discussions of the work.

In discussing Euripides’ Orestes, Munteanu considers a complex range of invocations and manipulations of pity within the story. Many of the characters lay claim to pity, but for very different ends: for their own benefit (Orestes), against others (Tyndareus, reminding Menelaus of Orestes’ murder of Clytemnestra), or as a ruse to entrap someone (in appealing to Helen before trying to murder her). Euripides seems to be quite self-conscious in playing with the tragic emotions, and Munteanu argues that this playfulness explains some of the often-noted “comic” elements of the piece. Orestes’ and Pylades’ strategy for manipulating Helen’s pity seems to be a Euripidean specialty; other versions of this “trap of pity” are found in the Medea and Helen. There may be a political implication in such stories, Munteanu points out, as they suggest the potentially self-destructive nature of pity and warn the audience to be on guard against feelings of sympathy for enemies.

Munteanu’s conclusion juxtaposes some of the differing viewpoints on pity and fear to suggest the range of valences these emotions have for tragedy and philosophy. As throughout the book, she is refreshingly undogmatic about where the investigation should lead and does not seem to be pressing a single answer. Unusually for a first book (and refreshingly), Tragic Pathos appears to have been written to answer a question, and not to justify a narrow thesis. Munteanu’s fascinating questions and incisive scholarship make it a valuable and original work.