Catharsis – Concept, Greek tragedy, psychoanalysis and medicine

We explain what catharsis is and the origin of the term. Also, what is catharsis in Greek tragedy, in psychoanalysis and in medicine.

Catharsis implies a beneficial release.

What is catharsis?

In general, catharsis is called an act of liberation, purification or cleansing, whether of the body, mind or emotions. It can occur spontaneously or thanks to the action of external forces, depending on the specific meaning given to it.

The term was coined in ancient Greek (kátharsis), and used with different senses: the physician Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 370 BC) used it to call the menstrual flow, which involved the expulsion of malignant humors that the body needed to discard; while the botanist Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC) used it as a synonym for “pruning”, since inconvenient branches are removed from trees.

However, the best known use of the term comes from the Poetics of Aristotle (384-322 BC), a work that founds Western literary criticism, and in which the term catharsis appears associated with the positive effects that tragedy has on Greek citizens, by allowing them a space for the purge of low passions, which would have a direct positive impact on the quality of their souls.

This last sense of the word catharsis lasted in the tradition of the West and reappeared in the Middle Ages to give its name to the Cathars or Albigenses, a fanatical Christian sect that proliferated in Europe between the 11th and 13th centuries, especially among the inhabitants of the French South ( southern France) and the ancient Crown of Aragon.

Cataloged as heretical by the Catholic Church, the Cathar doctrine proposed that the world was a terrain of conflict between the material and base forces of Satan and the spiritual and pure forces of God.

According to this view, in the middle of both forces were human souls forced to reincarnate, unless they managed to purify themselves sufficiently through extreme asceticism, obligatory chastity, and vegetarianism. For them, Jesus had never been incarnate, but rather had been an apparition of God to guide his faithful on the right path.

Catharsis in Greek tragedy

According to what was formulated by Aristotle in his Poetics, catharsis is a procedure of emotional, spiritual and moral purification or purging, which takes place when the spectators of the work are involved in the destiny of the characters, and they contemplate their own low passions being punished in them.

That is to say, by suffering witnessing the fate of the characters, viewers were freed from their passions, for fear of suffering their consequences too.

In this way, the Greek theater fulfilled an important civic and educational role, since it promoted the values ​​of the Greek tradition, among which was the hybris (something like pride) as the most serious of the defects of the human being, and the reason why the great Greek heroes fell from grace.

Catharsis in psychoanalysis

catharsis psychoanalysis freud
For Breuer and Freud, psychic ailments stemmed from repressed trauma.

The term catharsis was not adopted in the world of the study of the mind until the 19th century, thanks to the psychologist Josef Breuer (1842-1925) and especially the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

The latter proposed that the source of many emotional and psychic ailments in humans came from repressed childhood traumas, most of which were sexual in nature. To heal them, the trauma had to be relived, either through hypnosis or through conversation with the psychotherapist (that is, through psychotherapy), to allow an exit to these “blocked” content.

This process was known as the “cathartic method” and it was often used to combat the so-called “hysterical affections” of the time. Thus, from 1909 the term “catharsis” was used to replace the German open, originally used by Freud and translatable as “vent.”

Catharsis in medicine

In the field of medicine, the term catharsis also appears, with its sense of purification or relief. Except, in this case, refers to the spontaneous expulsion of harmful substances from the body, that is, to the purge. Thus, certain substances can have a cathartic effect on the body, to the extent that they expel toxins or potentially harmful waste.