A New and Complete Translation

Essay 77

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 26 January 1768[77.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I will add one more interjection here.[77.2] If Aristotle had this concept of compassion’s affect as being necessarily combined with fear for ourselves, why did he need to make a special mention of fear? The word compassion already includes it, and it would have been enough if he had merely said: tragedy should effect the purification of our passions by exciting our compassion. The addition of fear does not say anything more, and only makes what he should say ambiguous and uncertain.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I answer: if Aristotle only wanted to teach us which passions can and should be awakened by tragedy, he certainly would have been able to omit the addition of fear, and doubtless would have omitted it; for no philosopher was ever more sparing with words than he. But he wanted to teach us at the same time which passions should be purified by means of those awakened in tragedy, and for this purpose he had to think about fear in particular. For although, according to him, compassion’s affect cannot exist – either in the theater or out of it – without fear for ourselves; although fear is a necessary ingredient of compassion, the reverse is not also true. Compassion for others is not an ingredient of fear for ourselves. The moment that tragedy is over, our compassion ceases, and nothing remains of all the emotions we have felt except the believable fear for ourselves that the pitied misfortune has allowed us to create. We take this with us; and in the same way that, as an ingredient of compassion, it helps purify compassion, it now also helps to purify itself, as an independent passion in and of itself. Consequently, in order to indicate that fear can and really does work in this way, Aristotle found it necessary to highlight it in particular.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It is indisputable that Aristotle did not want to provide any kind of strict, logical definition of tragedy. For he did not confine himself to its essential features, but also included several incidental ones, because the customs of his time had made them necessary. If we put these aside and distill the remaining features, we are left with a perfectly precise definition: namely, that tragedy is, in brief, a poem that arouses compassion. According to its genus, it is the imitation of an action, just like the epic and the comedy; but according to its species, it is the imitation of an action deserving of compassion. All of its rules may be perfectly deduced from these two concepts, and even its dramatic form may be determined by them.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One might perhaps doubt that last statement. And yet, I cannot name a single critic who has even thought to attempt it. They all assume the dramatic form of tragedy as something already established, which simply is the way it is, and which we leave this way because it is good. Aristotle alone got to the root of the matter, but in his definition he implied it rather than pointing it out clearly. “Tragedy,” he says, “is the imitation of an action that, through compassion and fear (and not through narration), effects the purification of these and similar passions.” This is how he expresses it, word for word.[77.3] Who would not be put off by the peculiar opposition here, “through compassion and fear (and not through narration)”? Compassion and fear are the means used by tragedy to achieve its purpose; narrative can only refer to the manner in which these means are employed or not employed. Does it not seem that Aristotle has taken a leap here? Does it not seem that the proper antithesis to narrative, that is, dramatic form, is clearly missing? But what do the translators do with this leap? One circumvents it quite carefully, the other fills it, but only with words. All of them see nothing more in it than a careless sentence, to which they do not consider themselves bound to adhere as long as they convey the philosopher’s meaning. Dacier translates: “d’une action – qui, sans le secours de la narration, par le moyen de la compassion & de la terreur” and so on.[77.4] And Curtius: “of an action, which not through narrative but (through the representation of the action itself) by means of terror and pity purifies us of the faults of the represented passions.”[77.5] Oh, very correct! Both say what Aristotle wants to say, only they do not say it how he says it. Yet much depends on this “how,” for it is not merely a careless sentence. In short, the matter stands thusly: Aristotle noted that compassion necessarily demands a present misfortune, that misfortunes occurring long ago or looming in the distant future either do not awaken in us any compassion at all, or only a much weaker compassion than a present misfortune does. Consequently, it is necessary to represent the action by which we want to arouse compassion not as having already occurred – that is, not in the narrative form – but rather as currently occurring – that is, in the dramatic form. And this fact – that our compassion is hardly, or not at all, aroused by narration but rather almost solely by the sight of it currently occurring – is what justifies him in substituting the feature itself for the form in his definition, because the feature is only capable of this one form. If he had thought it possible that our compassion could be aroused through narration as well, then it would have been a very mistaken omission indeed if he had said “not by means of narration, but by means of compassion and fear.” But because he was convinced that compassion and fear could only be aroused by a representation through the dramatic form, he could allow himself this leap for the sake of brevity. – For this, I refer my reader to the above-mentioned ninth chapter of the second book of his Rhetoric.[*][77.6]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 With regard to the moral purpose Aristotle gives to tragedy, and which he believed he needed to include in its definition: it is well known how much this has been argued over, especially in recent times.[77.7] But I venture to argue that all who have declared themselves against it have not understood Aristotle. They foisted all their own thoughts on him before they knew for certain what his were. They argue over fanciful ideas that they themselves have thought up and imagine how incontrovertibly they refute the philosopher while really they merely dismantle their own fantasies. I cannot enter into a closer discussion of this matter here. But just so that I do not appear to be speaking without any proof at all, I will make two observations:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 1) They have Aristotle say, “tragedy should purify us of the flaws of the represented passions by means of terror and compassion.”[77.8] Of the represented passions? So, if the hero meets adversity on account of curiosity, ambition, love, or anger, then is it our curiosity, ambition, love, or anger that is purified by tragedy?[77.9] Aristotle never thought anything of the kind. And so the gentlemen have a good argument, their imagination transforms windmills into giants, they tilt at them in the certain hope of victory and give no mind to any Sancho with nothing more than healthy common sense and who, from atop his more circumspect steed, calls after them not to be too hasty and at least just open their eyes first.[77.10] Τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων, Aristotle says, and that does not mean “the represented passions”; they should have rendered it with “these and similar ones” or “the passions awakened.”[77.11] The τοιούτων refers solely to the preceding compassion and fear; tragedy should arouse our compassion and our fear only to purify these and similar passions, but not all passions without distinction. He says, however, τοιούτων and not τούτων;[77.12] he says “these and similar ones” and not just “these” in order to indicate that by the term compassion he understands not merely the so-called compassion proper, but rather all philanthropical feelings in general, just as by the term fear he understands not merely displeasure at a misfortune that threatens us, but also all displeasures related to it, including displeasure at present and past misfortunes, sadness, and grief. The compassion and fear that tragedy awakens should purify compassion and fear in this widest sense, but it should only purify these passions and no others. Of course, useful lessons and examples can be found in tragedy that serve to purify other passions as well, but these are not tragedy’s purpose; tragedy has these in common with the epic and comedy insofar as it is a poem, an imitation of an action in general, but not, inasmuch as it is a tragedy, the imitation of an action worthy of compassion in particular. All species of poetry should better us; it is lamentable enough if one must prove this, and even more lamentable if there are writers who doubt it. However, all species cannot improve everything, or at least not all things equally well; and what each can improve to the greatest degree of perfection, and better than any other genre – that alone is its real purpose.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [*] ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἐγγὺς φαινόμενα τὰ πάθη ἐλεεινά ἐστιν, τὰ δὲ μυριοστὸν ἔτος γενόμενα ἢ ἐσόμενα οὔτε ἐλπίζοντες οὔτε μεμνημένοι ἢ ὅλως οὐκ ἐλεοῦσιν ἢ οὐχ ὁμοίως, ἀνάγκη τοὺς συναπεργαζομένους σχήμασι καὶ φωναῖς καὶ ἐσθῆσι καὶ ὅλως ὑποκρίσει ἐλεεινοτέρους εἶναι [Rhetoric 2.8.14 – Ed.]

  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • [77.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [77.2] Lessing continues his discussion, begun in [74], of Aristotle’s Poetics; exploring in particular Aristotle’s statement that tragedy should evoke eleos (compassion) and phobos (terror/fear).
  • [77.3] Lessing apparently possessed a corrupted edition of the Poetics; his “word for word” quotation is therefore inaccurate. In Butcher’s English translation, Aristotle’s text reads: “Tragedy . . . is an imitation of an action . . . in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” See Aristotle, Poetics (Part VI). On Lessing’s corrupted edition, see Anderson, “A Note on Lessing’s Misinterpretation of Aristotle.”
  • [77.4] “[…] of an action – that, without help from the narration, by means of compassion and terror.” Aristotle and André Dacier, La poëtique d’Aristote 70–1.
  • [77.5] Curtius, Aristoteles Dichtkunst 12.
  • [77.6] Lessing errs here; he quoted previously from the eight chapter, rather than the ninth. The passage in Lessing’s footnote reads, “And since sufferings are pitiable when they appear close at hand, while those that are past or future, ten thousand years backwards or forwards, either do not excite pity at all or only in a less degree, because men neither expect the one nor remember the other, it follows that those who contribute to the effect by gestures, voice, dress, and dramatic action generally, are more pitiable.”
  • [77.7] Here, and in earlier writings, Lessing seeks a middle ground when addressing the moral purpose of tragedy. He avoids on the one hand a strict adherence to moral sensualism, and on the other a moralistic rubric conforming to social norms. Feeling and reason are both required for theatre to achieve its moral purpose. Although, according to Aristotle, tragedy is meant to evoke compassion and fear, the spectator’s emotion requires regulation. An audience member should be neither overwrought nor insensible, and the arousal of theatrical emotion must be coupled with an understanding of the natural law that is responsible for its arousal.
  • [77.8] Curtius, Aristoteles Dichtkunst 156–7.
  • [77.9] Lessing had already asserted this in a letter to Nicolai. See “Brief an Nicolai” [“Letter to Nicolai”] dated November 1756, Werke und Briefe 11/1: 668–73.
  • [77.10] An allusion to the novel Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes. The title character, an elderly knight, has become delusional after reading chivalric romances; in his eyes, quotidian objects become fantastical. He is accompanied by his decidedly unromantic squire, Sancho Panza.
  • [77.11] Τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων: ton toiouton pathimaton (of such passions/sufferings).
  • [77.12] Τοιούτων: such as these. τούτων: these.
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