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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 78

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 29 January 1768[78.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 2. Because Aristotle’s opponents did not take into consideration which emotions he actually wanted to have purified in us through the tragedy’s compassion and fear, it was natural that they must also be wrong about purification itself.[78.2] At the end of his Politics, where Aristotle speaks of the purification of the emotions through music, he promises to engage this purification at greater length in his Poetics.[78.3] “Because, however,” Corneille says, “there is nothing at all of this material there, most of his interpreters have arrived at the conclusion that it has come to us incomplete.”[78.4] Nothing at all? For my part I think that even in what remains to us of his Poetics, whether it is much or little, we can find everything on the subject that he considered necessary to say to one who was not altogether unfamiliar with his philosophy. Corneille himself noticed a passage that, in his opinion, could illuminate for us the manner by which purification occurs in tragedy, namely the one in which Aristotle says: “compassion requires someone who suffers undeservedly, and fear requires someone like ourselves.”[78.5] This passage is very important indeed, only Corneille made a wrong use of it and could hardly have done otherwise, because his mind was stuck on the purification of the emotions in general. “Compassion for a misfortune that we see befall someone like ourselves,” he says, “awakens in us the fear that a similar misfortune could befall us. This fear awakens the desire to avoid it, and this desire awakens an attempt to purify, moderate, improve, or totally eradicate the emotion that draws the person whom we pity into misfortune before our very eyes; for reason tells us that, to avoid the effect, one must cut off the cause.”[78.6] But this reasoning, which turns fear into a mere instrument through which compassion effects the purification of emotions, is false and cannot possibly be Aristotle’s intention.[78.7] According to this, tragedy could purify all of the emotions except the two that Aristotle explicitly wants to see purified. It could purify our anger, our curiosity, our envy, our ambition, our hatred and our love, whichever of these emotions it is that draws the person with whom we commiserate into misfortune. It would only leave our compassion and fear unpurified. For compassion and fear are the emotions that we, and not the acting personages, feel in tragedy; they are the emotions by means of which the acting personages move us, but not the ones that draw them into misfortune. There could be a play in which they are both; I am well aware of that. But I am not yet aware of such a play, one in which, namely, the object of our compassion plunges into misfortune though misconceived compassion or fear. Yet this play would be the only one in which what Corneille thinks Aristotle wants to happen in all tragedies actually occurs, and even there it would not happen in the manner demanded by Aristotle. This one play would be, so to speak, the point at which two inclined straight lines intersect, never to encounter each other again in all eternity. – Even Dacier would not mistake Aristotle’s meaning so badly.[78.8] He was obliged to be more attentive to the words of his author, and these convey quite positively that our compassion and our fear are to be purified by the compassion and fear of tragedy. But because he undoubtedly believed that the benefit of tragedy would be very small if it were limited just to this, he allowed himself to be led astray by Corneille’s explanation and additionally assigned to tragedy the similar purification of all the other emotions. And when for his part Corneille denied this, and showed through examples that this was more of a beautiful idea than a thing that could generally be achieved in reality, Dacier had to engage with these examples himself, and found himself in such a corner that he had to make the most violent twists and turns to extricate himself and his Aristotle from the situation. I say: his Aristotle, for the real one is far from needing such twists and turns. The latter, to repeat it over and over again, thought of no other emotions to be purified by compassion and fear in tragedy other than our compassion and our fear themselves, and it made no difference to him whether tragedy contributed much or little to the purification of the other emotions. Dacier should have stopped at this purification too; but admittedly he then also would have had to assign a more complete conception to it. “It is not difficult to explain,” he says, “how tragedy arouses compassion and fear in order to purify compassion and fear. It excites them by putting before our eyes the misfortune into which a person like ourselves has fallen through unintentional errors, and it purifies them by familiarizing us with this misfortune and thereby teaching us neither to fear it too much, nor to be too affected by it, when we meet with the same misfortune in reality. – It prepares people to endure the most challenging accidents with courage and disposes the most miserable to consider themselves happy when they compare their own woes to the much greater ones represented in tragedy. For in what condition can a person find himself that, at the sight of an Oedipus, a Philoctetes, or an Orestes, he would not be obliged to recognize that all of the evils he must endure cannot even begin to compare with those that these men must endure?”[78.9] Now this is true; this explanation cannot have caused Dacier much head-scratching. For he found it almost word for word in the Stoic who always had half an eye inclined toward apathy.[78.10] Without registering here the objection that the feeling of our own suffering does not leave room for much compassion along with it, and that as a result there can be no purification or mitigation of suffering via compassion for a sufferer whose compassion cannot be aroused, I will allow for the validity of everything he says. Only I must ask: how much has he really said thereby? Did he say anything more than that compassion purifies our fear? Certainly not: and that would scarcely be a quarter of Aristotle’s claim. For when Aristotle claims that tragedy excites compassion and fear in order to purify compassion and fear, who does not see that this says much more than Dacier thought worth explaining? According to the various combinations of the concepts presented here, anyone who wants to fully exhaust Aristotle’s meaning must show, bit by bit: 1) how tragic compassion can, and really does, purify our compassion; 2) how tragic fear can and does purify our fear; 3) how tragic compassion can and does purify our fear; and 4) how tragic fear can and does purify our compassion. Dacier, however, confined himself to just the third point and did this quite badly to boot, elucidating it only halfway. For anyone who strives after a correct and complete apprehension of the Aristotelian purification of the emotions will find that each of these four points above actually consists of two things. Since, in brief, this purification rests in nothing else but the transformation of emotions into virtuous dispositions and, according to our philosopher, every virtue is situated between two extremes, then, if tragedy is to transform our compassion into virtue, it must be able to purify us of both extremes of compassion. The same is to be understood of fear. With regard to compassion, tragic compassion must not only purify the soul of one who feels too much compassion but also of one who feels too little. With regard to fear, tragic fear must not only purify the soul of one who fears no misfortune whatsoever, but also of one who is afraid of every misfortune, no matter how distant and improbable. Likewise, regarding fear, tragic compassion must navigate between too much and too little, and vice versa, tragic fear with regard to compassion. But as I said, Dacier has only shown how tragic compassion moderates our excessive fear, and not at all how it remedies the complete lack of fear, or raises it to a healthier degree in those who feel too little of it; never mind that he should also have shown the rest. Those who came after him have not made up for what he omitted in the least; however, to settle the conflict – in their opinion – over the benefits of tragedy once and for all, they have pulled in things that belong to poetry in general but not specifically to tragedy as tragedy: for example, that it nourishes and strengthens human propensities, that it should activate the love of virtue and hatred of vice, and so on.[*][78.11] My dear reader! What poem should not do this? But if every poem is to do this, then this cannot be the distinctive characteristic of tragedy, it cannot be what we are looking for.


3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 [*] Curtius, in his “Essay on the Purpose of Tragedy,” appended to Aristotle’s Poetics.

  • 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0
  • [78.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [78.2] In [74] Lessing begins a discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics; exploring in particular Aristotle’s statement that tragedy should evoke eleos (compassion) and phobos (terror/fear). Here, Lessing continues, from [77], his examination of Poetics (Part VI).
  • [78.3] In Book 8 of his Politics (Sections 1339a–1342b) Aristotle discusses the role of music in the education of the young; for Lessing’s specific reference, see Politics (Section 1341b).
  • [78.4] See Pierre Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” [“On Tragedy”] in Trois discours sur le poème dramatique [Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry] 51; for an English translation directly from the French, see P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 2.
  • [78.5] See Poetics (Part XIII).
  • [78.6] See P. Corneille, “Sur la Tragédie” [“On Tragedy”] in Trois discours [Three Discourses] 51; for an English translation of the passage, see P. Corneille, “Discourse on Tragedy” 2–3.
  • [78.7] Here Lessing echoes earlier arguments in the Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiel [Correspondence on Tragedy] (1755–57), in which he connects such reasoning to a “false concept of compassion.” See “Brief an Nicolai” [“Letter to Nicolai”] dated 2 April 1757, Werke und Briefe 3: 716.
  • [78.8] André Dacier; see [37.14].
  • [78.9] For original French, see Aristotle and Dacier, La poëtique d’Aristote 78–9. Oedipus, Philoctetes, Orestes: tragic characters in ancient Greek drama.
  • [78.10] Stoic: Lessing refers to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE), known for his Meditations (167 CE) in Greek on Stoic philosophy. In Book 11 of Meditations (to which Dacier refers), Marcus Aurelius states that tragedies were created to help us endure the “things we all have to go through”; the pleasure incurred through that stage, he writes, allows one to resist anger on the stage of life.
  • [78.11] Curtius, “Abhandlung von der Absicht des Trauerspiels” in Aristoteles Dichtkunst.
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