A good idea from ... Aristotle
Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, writer and television presenter. His books include Essays in Love (published when he was only 23), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Status Anxiety (2004) and Religion for Atheists (2012)
Sunday 16 May 1999
Aristotle (384-322BC) did wonder, and arrived at the following definition: "A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious ... with incidents arousing pity and fear, in order to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions." He was out to disprove the view of the most famous philosopher of antiquity, who believed that going to the theatre was a most pernicious way to pass the time. Plato had argued in The Republic that poets should be exiled from the ideal state because they aroused emotions which flouted the dictates of reason. Aristotle rejoined that, although watching tragedies raised emotions, it also purged them. An audience would come away from Oedipus humbled, keen to be better and wiser.
We are moved by tragedies principally because we think, "What if I had been in that situation?", and they terrify us because we realise we would not necessarily have come out of it better than the heroes and heroines on stage. We are affected by tragedies because we identify with these figures, despite the fact that we live in very different times. Their stories, however far-fetched, are a possibility for us too. That's why Aristotle argued that a good tragedy should not have an entirely good or bad hero, but rather someone "whose misfortune is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment".
We might make that kind of error, if life were to test us as harshly as it has tests the characters. We, too, could stab the wrong people, or realise too late that we ruined what we cared about most, or overlooked the people who loved us. We are all in danger of doing a Hamlet or an Othello. Perhaps we already have made some pretty serious errors, in which case tragedy invites us to feel a kind of sympathy for our flawed selves (and a generosity towards the flaws of others).
Most of the time, we don't bring this empathy to bear on our own or others' stories. We look at them as Shakespeare led us to look at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. It took some four centuries for Tom Stoppard to demonstrate that these two men were also worthy of the complex consideration that tragic heroes and heroines are subjected to. Tragedy trains us to be more understanding of human frailty - and that's why Aristotle seemed to believe that attending regular performances where people killed their fathers and married their mothers was not a bad way of spending time.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Enrique Iglesias injured trying to catch a drone mid concert
- 2 Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, reveals new look on Annie Leibovitz shot Vanity Fair cover
- 3 Arsenal players boo chief-executive Ivan Gazidis after being told they would not get bonus for FA Cup triumph
- 4 Man on naked bike ride gets ejected after becoming aroused
- 5 UK weather: Temperatures set to soar making parts of Britain hotter than parts of the Mediterranean
The 1975 leave social-media after tweeting cryptic comic strip hinting at break up
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Winner Matisse had secret dog double, says owner Jules O'Dwyer
Top Gear to follow Have I Got News For You format with 'different host for each episode'
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: Ofcom receives 90 complaints about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing dresses'
Ed Sheeran debuts new love song 'Sweet Mary Jane' about relationship with weed
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Why this year's general election was the most unfair in Britain's history