The Three Catharses

Our current endeavor is to discuss how it is that liberal education frees a person from slavery, and even more specifically how it frees a person from the slavery to passion.

In chapter 6 of the Poetics, Aristotle gives us a clue. When defining a tragedy (e.g. Oedipus Rex) he says:

 “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament …through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”

It is interesting to note the Greek word that Aristotle uses for “purgation.” The word is “Katharsin” from which we get the English word catharsis. There is a close analogy that exists between medicine and education. Socrates was always fond of comparing a good teacher to a good physician (or sometimes even a midwife). The analogy is wonderful because just as the principles of health are already within the body so the principles of learning are already within a student.

Doctors and teachers must assist nature by first removing those things that impede good health or the growth of knowledge. This is precisely what the word Catharsis means. It is a medical term signifying something which is administered to a patient for removing a harmful substance from his body. If a patient swallows a poison or some other harmful substance, he stands in need of a catharsis. n the same way if a student suffers from one disordered passion or another, he too stands in need of a catharsis.

The first Catharsis – Fire with Fire

The love sick Duke Orsino says of music,

“give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

The Duke understands that the emotions like any appetite may be exhausted by sating it. If we are suffering from too much of an emotion we can purge ourselves of it by indulging that very emotion. It seldom works to tell someone who is in the throws of sorrow to simply “cheer up.”

On the other hand excessive sorrow left to burn untended within ourselves is not good and sometimes leads to despair.  We can take a lesson from fire fighters who sometimes will allow a controlled burn to exhaust the power of a fire. Good literature and music can do just that. They have the power to focus our emotions and let them vent themselves, focusing our sorrow or anger or hate, or some other emotion, and letting them consume themselves on objects worthy of sorrow, anger and hate.

Youth is particularly susceptible to excessive and sometimes uncontrolled emotion. If only that emotion could be spent on events or objects that really befit such intense sufferings. Who can’t feel an intense pity and sorrow for Romeo and Juliet. Who wouldn’t want to angrily hack Tolkiens’ hateful and wicked Trolls and Goblins to pieces. It is beneficial to us to feel intense emotions in an appropriate manner. That is why we have them. Those whose passions are well ordered are able to act with greater conviction and vigor.

Thus sometimes the best way to bring our intense passions under control is to indulge ourselves in music or literature that will help bring out the very passion that we are suffering an excess of. When a person is sorrowful, sometimes the best thing is to have a good cry, especially to weep over the true and very pitiable misfortunes of another, as depicted by a skillful author.

The Second Catharsis- Fire with Water

If the first catharsis was similar to fighting fire with fire, the second entails dousing fire with water. In other words we will “douse” the excessive emotion that we suffer with it’s opposite. We try to cheer our overly melancholy friends by being jovial and painfully cheerful, or perhaps we take them to a funny movie. Many people when they come home from work from a very stressful day will turn on music that is calm and relaxing. Parents will try to calm the high spirits of their children by playing recordings of the most relaxed music they can find. Pachelbel’s Canon, and various second movements from Beethoven and Mozart Sonatas and Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, maybe even Brahm’s Intermezzo opus 117.

I remember a particular story related by Boethius’ in his De Musica, where he relates how an angry mob gathered outside of a house, getting ready to lynch or stone various of the inhabitants, were unwittingly pacified by some soft peaceful loving music played in the background. This second kind of catharsis can be very useful.

The Third Catharsis- responsible exercise

 The first two catharses assume that we are suffering from an excessive emotion of one sort or another. The third catharsis does not. So why would we need a catharsis? Well, here it is better to change our fire analogy to that of an athlete. Our emotions are like muscles which if unused for long periods of time will atrophy and become dysfunctional. We should not be surprised. Every power or function of the human person is like this, the emotions are no different. Things need to be used and exercised and maintained if they are to retain their function and usefulness.

Remembering that we have eleven basic emotions and an indefinite number of permutations and combinations of them, it actually presents a challenge for us all to keep our emotions in fine form. Those who are blessed with means, a peaceful family, and loving friends may not encounter situations that require hate and fear and anger. Similarly, those who live in the various violent war zones around the world may rarely feel joy and love and those other peaceful emotions. All of the emotions are necessary for free and effective human behavior.

Fortunately, we are all the beneficiaries of centuries of production by great men and women who have provided a world of their own in words and music. By availing ourselves of the literature and music of the greatest authors and composers, we provide ourselves with ample opportunity to exercise all of our emotions on a regular basis. Great authors like Homer who created “a cosmos in verse” leave no part of the world, no part of human action, no part of human experience out of their works.

Thus, the third kind of catharsis, like exercise, is something about which everyone needs to be concerned. Those who desire a well functioning body exercise at regular times. They undertake studied and various exercise routines focused on different and specific muscles. They maintain their functioning muscles with repetition of the same routines. In the same way, those who wish to be free from disordered and dysfunctional passions need to maintain a constant and regular schedule of reading the greatest literature and listening to the best music.



About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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6 Responses to The Three Catharses

  1. Margie says:

    I think from reading this post it follows that if we have not experienced a particular passion for a while we ought to read literature or music that will bring out and purge that passion.

  2. Mark Langley says:

    Margie, ….absolutely right …My favorite living philosopher keeps an entire collection of the works of Mozart and Hayden (and others, especially composers of the Baroque period) in a bookshelf near his CD player. He will then cycle through the complete collection – I am guessing in part because he is inspired by the same thought.

  3. Mary says:

    More photos, please. 🙂
    I’m thinking about why and how the emotions relate to the intellectual life. As a parent, as the first educator, I like the line in the opening:…if a student suffers from one disordered passion or another, he too stands in need of a catharsis…just as a physician wants to remove something harmful.

  4. Genevieve says:

    But Mr. Langley, (I am referring to the second Catharse) what about the people who lived in ancient times and were unable to obtain access to pleasant/relaxing music? What would they do to overcome their emotions? I am confused…

  5. Mark Langley says:

    Genevieve, I am not quite certain I understand what you mean when you say “what about the people who lived in ancient times and were unable to obtain access to pleasant/relaxing music?”

    Do you think that there were ever such times when people were not able to obtain access to beautiful music?

    We do not want to overcome our emotions – but rather we want to harness and cleanse our emotions.

  6. Ron says:

    Is education really just supposed to be all about emotions? Isn’t there real-world knowledge that children need to be taught by professionals, while personal formation should be left up to parents?

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