Thursday, August 28, 2008

Augustine: theater causes excessive emotions

Augustine, in his Confessions describes a period in which he fell in love with the theater and would visit it frequently (beginning of Book III). What seems inaccurate to me is his discussion of how the theater encouraged his already strong emotions. Augustine's style suggests that he was always a person of strong emotions (especially in the Confessions), add to that him being a youngster in the prime of his life, chasing women and partying with the boys, and that seems to me a good reason why he was so emotional. But Augustine seems bent on condemning the theater for causing these emotions and thinks it cause. Nonetheless, he is troubled by the question, which he can't answer, of why it is we enjoy seeing sad things and enjoy tragedies. This seems to me a big problem. If theater encourages emotions, then tragedies should make us more prone to sadness. If this were the case, why would anyone go see tragedies?

Unfortunately, Augustine wasn't too familiar with Aristotle, since Aristotle had a better explanation of this issue. For Aristotle, in the Poetics, the appeal of Tragedy was cathartic: by experiencing sadness we relieve ourselves of suffering. I must say I don't agree with Aristotle that this is the appeal of tragedy (I think experiencing sadness, and weeping in particular is pleasurable, it's just that the loss that usually attends the sadness that is unpleasant; in other words, if someone close to me dies, that will be painful and I will use expressions of grief to bring relief; but in the context of a film or play, all I experience is the relief, without the pain of loss. Interesting theory? Foolish theory? what do you think?). But the important thing is that Aristotle thinks that tragedies actually reduces emotional expression by relieving us of emotions.

What's even more interesting is how these two conflicting ideas keep coming up. For example it comes out in debate about violent movies and video games. There are those who take the Augustinian side and think they increase violence. But then there are those who respond with the idea that they actually serve as a surrogate for real violence and thus have a cathartic effect (I always wonder why they never try to make the argument that since many video games frequently involve the death of the main character, why this doesn't increase suicide; it seems to be about equally sound). The Mises Institute just published an article discussing the connection between pornography and rape. Art Carden, the author supports the Aristotelian side on this debate and backs it up with two recent studies which both show an inverse correlation between availability of porn and incidence of rape. But, of course, there are those that take Augustine's side on this and assume that porn increases the incidence of rape. Alas, how little the debates change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you have are confused on Augustine's understanding of the theatre, Aristotle and katharsis. Augustine argued against the theatre not because it aroused emotion, but he explicitly refers to Aristotle on katharsis. Augustine argues that emotions have a purpose, a telos, and contra Aristotle, that it is not a good thing that emotions can be sublimated through drama.

He uses the example of anger: the telos of anger is that God would rouse us into action, perhaps to fight injustice.

Ironically, on this point Augustine was a good Aristotelian. In understanding that everything has a telos he re-iterates Aristotle's understanding of final causality.


Rev. Craig Vance