Honors Bachelor of Arts

Document Type


Faculty Advisor

Thesis Director: Dr. Timothy Quinn; HAB Program Faculty Advisor: Dr. Shannon Hogue




This essay argues that the Greeks experienced and understood combat trauma, and that they used tragedy and the catharsis that it effected as a means of restoring the order of souls traumatized in war. Our examination of the horrors of hoplite warfare should leave us with no question that ancient warfare was no more clean, decent, or glorious than modern war. To treat the trauma induced those horrors, the Greeks did indeed practice certain societal mechanisms, which our own society seems to so sadly lack. One of these was Attic tragedy. Certain of the tragedies explicitly speak to military experience, but the very nature of the tragic genre itself is a perfect portrayal of choices a soldier must make in combat. This is the case, I argue, with tragedies that are not ostensibly related with warfare, such as the Oedipus. If this is the case, the structure of the tragic narrative itself should imitate or re-present the sort of impossible choices that soldiers face. Hamartia, a key element of tragedy according to Aristotle’s account, represents just this situation. Hamartia serves to bring about an anagnorisis, and, in association with this anagnorisis, a change in fortune, peripateia in Greek, for the tragic hero. The narrative structure that presents these elements of the story brings about a certain pleasure. But more importantly, the purpose or telos of tragedy is the working out of a certain catharsis, through pity and fear, of such emotions. Aristotle’s remarks in the Politics on the end of mimetic arts in general and tragedy in particular seem to indicate that it serves an educative function in the polis. This statement should be taken quite loosely, however, as he says that it provides an emotional rest from past labor and a preparation for future pains, rather than any strictly cognitive education. If it provides this cleansing of the emotions, what emotions does it cleanse? According to the Rhetoric, the emotions similar to pity and fear mentioned in the Poetics are all thumetic emotions: all of those passions originate in the spirited part of the soul, or the thumos. Thumos is the seat of the political passions in every human being, and even more specifically, the passions most proper to the military profession. These passions are also the tragic emotions. An analysis of their role in tragedy reveals that they almost universally drive the action of the plot and exacerbate the hamartia, if they are not themselves part of the hamartia. They form the perfect candidate for this place, because we do not assign moral blame to someone who has committed a bad action out of thumos, as his action was due to a “necessary or natural” passion. Thus, thumos forms the perfect candidate for causing a tragic hero to run afoul of the hamartia in himself and his surroundings. All of this also establishes thumos as the perfect target for catharsis: that which brings about the tragedy can be cleansed by means of the tragedy. Having concluded that catharsis is the restoration of balance in the thumos, I addressed several possible theories that seek to explain how catharsis works, testing them against the definition we had established. Each contains elements of truth, but was found lacking in explaining how catharsis functions due to misunderstandings of the role of tragedy as an antidote to combat trauma. An alternative theory, that catharsis functions through communalizing traumatic narratives, seems to fit both Aristotle’s Poetics and the effective methods of modern clinical psychology as practiced by Jonathan Shay and others.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.



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