A New and Complete Translation

Essay 75

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 19 January 1768[75.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 These thoughts are so correct, so clear, and so enlightening that you would think everyone could have and must have had them. Nevertheless I do not want to subsume the insightful observations of the modern philosopher under those of the ancient philosopher.[75.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I know very well the former’s contributions on the subject of mixed emotions, the true theory of which we owe to him alone. But Aristotle still may have sensed, to some extent, what the modern philosopher dissected so excellently; at the very least it is undeniable that either Aristotle must have thought that tragedy could and should awaken nothing but compassion proper – that is, nothing but displeasure over the present misfortune of another – which is highly unlikely; or he understood the word compassion to encompass all of the passions in general that can we might share with another.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 For it is certainly not Aristotle who made the justifiably criticized classification of the tragic passions into compassion and terror. He was falsely understood and falsely translated. He speaks of compassion and fear, not compassion and terror; and his fear is absolutely not the fear that another’s impending misfortune awakens in us for the other person, but rather it is the fear for ourselves that stems from our similarity with the suffering person. It is the fear that the misfortunes we see hanging over that person could befall us ourselves; it is the fear that we ourselves could become the pitied object. In short: this fear is compassion directed at ourselves.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Aristotle should always be explained through his own writing. I advise that anyone who wishes to provide us with a new commentary on his Poetics that will surpass Dacier’s should first and foremost read the philosopher’s work from beginning to end.[75.3] He will find insights into the Poetics where he least expected; in particular he must study the books of Rhetoric and Morals.[75.4] One would think indeed that the academics who have the writings of Aristotle at their fingertips must have long ago discovered these insights. But among all his works, the Poetics was the one to which they paid the least attention. They also lacked other knowledge, without which these insights remained unproductive: they knew neither the theater nor its masterpieces.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The real explanation of this fear that Aristotle links to tragic compassion can be found in the fifth and eighth chapters of the second book of his Rhetoric. It was not at all difficult to recall these chapters; nevertheless, not one of his interpreters seems to have remembered them, or at least no one has taken advantage of what they offer. For even those who understood without reading them that this fear was not compassionate terror still could have learned an important fact from them, namely: the reason why the Stagirite associated compassion with fear, and only fear, and why not with some other passion or with several passions.[75.5] They know nothing of this reason, and I would love to hear what answer they would come up with if you were to ask them, for example, why tragedy cannot and may not arouse compassion and admiration just as well as compassion and fear?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 It all depends on Aristotle’s conception of compassion. Namely, he believed that a misfortune that becomes the object of our compassion must be so constituted that we might fear it could happen to us or to one of our own. Without this fear, there can be no compassion. For neither the man so beaten down by misfortune that he feels he has nothing left to fear, nor the man who thinks himself so perfectly happy that he cannot even imagine how misfortune could befall him – neither the desperate man nor the over-confident man – tends to have compassion for others. Aristotle thus explains what is to be feared and what is deserving of compassion each through the other. He says that we fear everything that would awaken our compassion if it happened to another person,[*]and we feel compassion for everything affecting another person that would frighten us if it threatened us ourselves.[75.6] It is not enough then that the misfortunate person, for whom we are to feel compassion, does not deserve his misfortune, whether or not he has brought it upon himself through some weakness. His tormented innocence, or rather his too severely punished guilt would be lost on us, could not arouse our compassion if we did not believe in the possibility that his sufferings could also befall us. But this possibility can arise and indeed become a probability as long as the writer does not make him worse than we usually tend to be, when he has him think and behave exactly as we would have thought and behaved in his circumstances (or at least as we believe we would have thought and behaved); in short, when the writer depicts him as cut from the same cloth as ourselves.[75.7] Out of this similarity arises the fear that just as we ourselves resemble him, so our fate could quite easily resemble his; and it is this fear that gives rise to compassion.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This is what Aristotle thought about compassion, and only from this perspective does it become clear why, in his explanation of tragedy, he only named fear alongside compassion. Not because this fear was a special feeling, independent of compassion, which could be aroused with or without compassion, just as compassion could be aroused with or without fear (which was Corneille’s misinterpretation). Instead, according to his explanation of compassion, it necessarily includes fear: because nothing can arouse our compassion other than that which simultaneously awakens our fear.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Corneille had already written all of his plays when he set himself to commenting on Aristotle’s Poetics.[†][75.8] He had devoted fifty years to the theater, and after that experience he undoubtedly could have given us marvelously perceptive insights into the old dramatic codex, if he had only consulted it more diligently during the years he was working. He only seems to have done so in reference to the mechanical rules of the art. With regard to its more essential points, he did not trouble himself with it, and when he found in the end that he had run up against it, despite not wanting to have done so, he tried to absolve himself through exegesis and had his presumptive master say things that he plainly never thought.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Corneille had brought martyrs on the stage and portrayed them as the most perfectly blameless beings; he had produced the most despicable monsters in the characters of Prusias, Phocas, and Cleopatra.[75.9] Aristotle declares of both types that they would be unsuited to tragedy because neither could awaken either compassion or fear. What does Corneille answer to this? How does he manage it so that neither his reputation nor Aristotle’s might suffer because of this contradiction? “Oh,” he says, “it is easy to reconcile ourselves with Aristotle.[‡][75.10] We can simply assume that he did not wish to assert that both of these means, both fear and compassion, were necessary at the same time to effect the cleansing of the passions that he makes the main purpose of tragedy; according to his opinion, just one would be sufficient. […] We can support this explanation,” he continues, “from his own writing, if we properly weigh the reasons he gives for excluding those incidents that he disapproves in tragedy. He never says: this or that does not belong in tragedy because it merely awakens compassion and not fear, or this is unbearable because it only awakens fear without arousing compassion. No; rather, he rejects them because, as he says, they bring neither compassion nor fear into effect, and thereby signifies to us that he does not like them because both the one and the other are lacking and that he would not withhold his approval if they just put one of the two into effect.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [*] Ώς δ᾽ἁπλῶς εἰπεῖν, φοβερά ἐστιν ὅσα ἐφ᾽ ἑτέρων γιγνόμενα ἢ μέλλοντα ἐλεεινά ἐστιν. I do not know what Aemilius Portus was thinking (in his edition of the Rhetoric, Spirae 1598) in translating this: “Denique ut simpliciter loquar, formidabilia sunt, quaecunque simulac in aliorum potestatem venerunt, vel ventura sunt, miseranda sunt.” It should simply read, “quaecunque simulac aliis evenerunt, vel eventura sunt.”

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [†] “Je hasarderai quelque chose sur cinquante ans de travail pour la scène,” he says in his essay on the drama. His first play, Mélite, was in 1625, and his last, Surena, in 1675, which makes exactly fifty years; therefore it is certain that in his interpretations of Aristotle he could and did have an eye on all his plays.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [‡] Il est aisé de nous accomoder avec Aristote &c.

  • 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
  • [75.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [75.2] In [74], Lessing begins his analysis of Aristotle’s statement in Poetics that tragedy should evoke eleos (compassion) and phobos (terror/fear); at the end of the essay, he cites Moses Mendelssohn’s thoughts on “mixed sentiments,” in which Mendelssohn argues that all tragic passions originate in compassion.
  • [75.3] André Dacier; see [37.14].
  • [75.4] Lessing refers to Aristotle’s Rhetoric (divided into three books) and his Nicomachean Ethics (divided into ten books).
  • [75.5] Stagirite: Aristotle was born in Stagira, Macedonia.
  • [75.6] The Greek line in Lessing’s footnote, and the passage that he quotes here in this essay, are from Rhetoric 2.5.12. Aemilius Portus’s Latin translation of the Greek reads, “Denique ut simpliciter loquar, formidabilia sunt, quaecunque simulac in aliorum potestatem venerunt, vel ventura sunt, miseranda sunt” [“Finally, to speak plainly, those fearful things become pitiable when they have come or are about to come into the sphere of other people”]. Lessing’s alternate suggestion reads “quaecunque simulac aliis evenerunt, vel eventura sunt” [“those things are fearful, when they have happened – or are about to happen – to others…”].
  • [75.7] Lessing’s emphasis on the familiarity of a character’s circumstances echoes eighteenth-century critics such as Marmontel and Diderot who advocated for the development of middle-class drama. See, for example, [14].
  • [75.8] For the quotation in Lessing’s footnote, see P. Corneille, “Sur le Poème Dramatique” [“On Dramatic Poetry”] in Trois discours sur le poème dramatique [Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry] 10; for an English translation, see P. Corneille, “First Discourse on the Uses and Elements of Dramatic Poetry” 140.
  • [75.9] In [2], Lessing critiques martyr-dramas, and specifically P. Corneille’s Polyeucte. Prusias, Phocas, Cleopatra: characters in, respectively, Nicomède (1651), Héraclius (1647), and Rodogune (1644). Lessing discusses Rodogune, and Cleopatra in particular, in [29] – [32].
  • [75.10] Here Lessing draws from P. Corneille’s second discourse, “Sur la Tragédie” [“On Tragedy”] in Trois discours 60; for an English translation of the passage, see P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 8–9.
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