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Aristotle on the Mystery Drama
GA 34

Whoever does not look upon art as idle play or as a subordinate addition to life must seek for its connexion with the deeper sources of our being. He will incline towards the belief that beautiful works of art are not to be regarded merely as creations of the imagination but as expressions of the same powers and laws of existence as are revealed to us from other realms as well. Those versed in art who have been favoured with deeper insight into the world’s secrets, they have always emphasized this.

Aristotle said of the drama that it was truer than mere historic representations, for whilst these only gave again what incidentally in the course of time had been brought about, drama described the actions of men in the way that, from inner reasons, they should and must be. Goethe named the creations of art revelations of secret laws of Nature which, without art, would be for ever hid. And Schiller’s saying is well known: ‘Only through the sun-rise gates of the Beautiful canst thou break through to the land of Knowledge.’

Beauty and truth, art and knowledge, appear thus to be only forms of expression for one and the same thing. That modern men are not inclined to admit this is undoubtedly the case. The investigator of to-day is apprehensively anxious that nothing of fantasy should enter into his activities. And the artist supposes that he will fall into barrenness and pedantry if in his art he were to embody anything like an idea or a truth. It is the case that much is said to-day about ‘truth to Nature’ and ‘truth in Art,’ but probably they who speak so are also they who draw a hard and fast line between what are scientific and what are artistic truths.

We shall never arrive at any solution of these questions if we do not go, back to the primary sources from whence, for the higher activities of life, men have been able to draw ideas. In this connection Aristotle gives us a remarkable example in his writings about the art of poetry. This philosopher (384-322 B.C.) sought to present the laws upon which the greatest Grecian poets had built their works. And in this he laid a foundation upon which an outlook on art has been adhered to by numberless observers. His explanation of tragedy is trenchant. Lessing, as is well known, built upon this explanation his ‘Hamburg Theory of Dramatic Art,’ and from it tried to throw light upon tragedy. Thereupon a whole literature arose to show what was really the meaning of Aristotle’s explanation. And for this there is truly a deep reason. For an essential question is raised here over the relation of art to truth. Aristotle described tragedy as the representation of a complete, meaningful plot, not given in the form of a tale but through the direct activity of the persons concerned. And he maintained that in these representations would be brought about the catharsis (purification) of emotional impulses through pity and fear. This sentence has been given the most varied interpretations. Lessing says:

‘It all rests upon what Aristotle understood by the word pity. For he believed that the trouble which was the object for pity must necessarily be caused by what we have to fear for ourselves also, or for someone belonging to us. Where there is no fear, pity cannot exist. For no one who is either sunk so deep in trouble that he need fear nothing further for himself, nor he who thinks himself so happy that he does not see from whence a misfortune could befall him,—neither the doubter nor the over-confident will bestow pity on others. And he consequently explains what is worthy of pity and what is to be feared; the one by the other. Everything is to be feared, he says, which would awaken our pity if it were encountered by another or if it might be encountered; for we have pity for all that would cause us fear if we were to encounter it. It is therefore not enough that the misfortune of one whom we pity was unmerited or that he himself brought it about through some weakness; his tortured innocence and still more, his too heavily punished guilt, is lost for us and is not able to arouse our pity if we see no possibility of ourselves encountering his sorrows. But we do see these possibilities and they can become extremely probable when the poet does not make them worse than we usually experience them, when the sufferer realizes and treats them as we, in his circumstances, would treat and think about them, or at least believe that we must so think and treat them. In short, when the poet depicts the sufferer as being of the same calibre as ourselves. Out of this likeness comes the fear that our fate may easily be so similar to his that we may feel ourselves to be him; and this fear it is which calls forth our fear and pity.’

Lessing implies therefore that, according to Aristotle, the action presented before our eyes in the tragedy is, through the likeness of the hero to ourselves, adapted to purify us in our emotional impulses of fear and pity.

Goethe has remarked that it is not a question of purification in the onlookers but that this should lie in the tragedy itself. Fear and pity should be aroused by the drama and then, these themselves should bring about a balance. The storms aroused through these emotional impulses must be laid to rest in the further treatment of the drama.

People have taken trouble to find the right meaning of the expression catharsis. Jacob Bernay has shown that this word had a medicinal significance. An amelioration and removal of illness through the art of healing was implied by it. Aristotle applied this to the soul and his meaning is, that through the emotional impulses which lie hidden in the soul being driven out by the tragedy, an alleviation and liberation is brought about. It is consequently a kind of healing process which takes place. The soul is suffering from secret fear and hidden pity and the sight of the person in the tragic position brings about the healing through the pity and fear being exteriorized.

This means that Aristotle set as the goal of tragedy the co-operation of the poet in the process of the evolution of the human soul. One can be quite sure of this if one thinks how tragedy is not, in itself, original. It evolved indeed from the religious drama as this was originally practised as Mystery-drama. In the Mysteries the destiny of the god Dionysos was portrayed and in this destiny the devout onlooker saw not only the god who presents himself in the processes of the outer world, but he saw also his own destiny represented pictorially. Before the Greeks placed a single hero on the stage in a work of art, the priests had sought, in the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, to portray human fate in general before men’s eyes. A sacred way led from Athens to Eleusis. Cryptic signs placed along this road were intended to raise the soul to loftier levels. In the Temple at Eleusis priestly families carried out divine worship. The Festivals which were celebrated here gave presentations of the great world drama. The Temple was erected in honour of Demeter, the daughter of Kronos, who had borne Zeus, before his marriage with Hera, a daughter, Persephone. (Proserpina) Persephone was stolen while at play by the god of the underworld, Hades, and in consequence of this Demeter wandered over the Earth lamenting. She sought her daughter. The daughters of Celeus found her once in Eleusis seated on a stone, wearing the mask of an old woman.

She entered the house of Celeus as a nurse and wished to give immortality to her charge. To do this she hid the child every night in the fire. The mother once saw this happen and wept and mourned. Therefore Demeter was not able to give the child immortality and she left the house. Celeus then erected a Temple. Demeter’s sorrow over her lost daughter was immeasurable. She condemned the Earth to barrenness. Unless the greatest misfortune were-to befall mankind, Demeter had to be comforted by the gods. Hades was induced by Zeus to let Persephone come back to the upper world. But first of all she must eat a pomegranate by which means she was obliged from time to time to return to the underworld. So she always spent a part of the year with her husband in the underworld and the other part on the upper world. Thus was Demeter reconciled with the gods. But in Eleusis a Temple was founded in which, as remembrance, her fate was to be represented.

The whole legend has a deep meaning. Persephone, who from time to time has to descend into the darkness of the underworld, is an emblem of the human soul. This soul comes from heavenly regions and is destined for immortality. She is daughter to the undying soul of Earth which is emblematically presented as Demeter. But the human soul may not enjoy its immortality without break. It must from time to time go into the kingdom of the dead.

The Greek loved the world and death for him was terrible. Achilles, who was met in the underworld by Odysseus, said in well-known words that he would rather be a beggar on Earth than king in the realm of the shades. But to this commonly held Grecian conception the Mysteries were to give another-picture.

The Mysteries were to present the values of the eternal, the lasting, against the earthly and transitory. Thus in the Persephone legend the upper world represented the heavenly region in which Persephone is immortal and the underworld is an emblem of the Earth. In the beginning the soul came forth from heavenly regions, but from time to time it is incarnated on Earth. Here it enjoys the fruit of the Earth (the pomegranate) and must therefore always return again and again. This means that the soul desires what is of the Earth, and therefore is always impelled towards new incarnations. The soul of the Earth, Demeter, would like to give to her daughter immortality, and for this reason Demeter tries to refine through fire the child that has been entrusted to her, to heal it from mortality.

It now came about that the destiny of the god Dionysos was brought into connexion with this drama of the human soul. Dionysos is the son of Zeus and a mortal mother, other, Semele. Zeus wrested the yet unborn child from the mother who was killed by lightning and within his own groin cherished it until birth: Hera, the mother of the gods, incited the Titans against the child. They tore the child to pieces. But Athene saved the boy’s heart and brought it to Zeus, and from it Zeus, a second time, begot Dionysos. The human spirit is symbolized in the immortal and mortal origin of Dionysos. And in the human spirit a portion of divine spirit itself is to be recognized. This divine spirit does not appear in men in its purity but clothed in the passions. The Titans are the representation of these passions. They do not allow the entire pure, divine spirit to act in men but only a portion of it. But in spite of this there exists in every man the source of the divine—the heart. Through wisdom, Athene—this is saved. The refining, the healing of the divine spirit which is destroyed by the Titanic passions, is represented in the Dionysian drama.

Taken together, in the two dramas of Persephone and Dionysos, the great parent drama of man is seen as it was represented to those Greeks who were admitted to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The inner, the higher man, consists of spirit and soul. The soul originates from the immortal Earth soul, the spirit from the eternal Spirit of God. For the soul’s earthly life, Earth presents an interruption; for the spirit it presents a tearing to pieces. Both have to be cleansed from what is earthly. Earthly passions must become spiritualized. He who witnessed both dramas was to be stimulated to undertake this cleansing with his own soul and his own spirit. In the fate of Persephone and that of Dionysos he was to see his own destiny. In these dramas was presented the great self training that he was to undertake.1Edouard Schuré, the poet who wrote The Children of Lucifer, has attempted to reconstruct with true intuition and fine artistic vision the parent drama of Eleusis. This is to be found in his Oriental Sanctuaries, a work the study of which is advisable to all who wish to learn about the Mysteries. Thus a kind of parent drama is here before us. Later dramatic works are therefore a secularization of what in its origin was religious drama. Dramatic art is born from out of religion. In the place of divine heroes, human heroes were substituted, and in the place of universal passions, human passions and emotional impulses were given. Particularized human passions were presented. In the older Grecian tragic poets one still finds the basic religious character of the original drama shining through. But tragedy became ever more and more a faint after-glow of what the old religious original drama had originally been.

The refining process which a human being had to accomplish in himself in order to develop from the earthly to the divine, was designated as purification, cleansing, catharsis. Through the vision of his divine models the need for and the essential nature of this catharsis was made clear.

Just as the later drama was an aftermath of the religious, original drama, so was also the catharsis of the onlookers of the secular drama but a feeble aftermath of the religious catharsis which was accomplished within the Mystery Temple. The term Catharsis remained however for that which drama itself should have for its aim.

Aristotle found this name which had been handed down by tradition. Therefore one can say that his explanation of tragedy is also a feeble aftermath of what the Greek Mystery priest would have given as an explanation of the original drama. It is only to be understood in conjunction with the entire evolution of Greek drama, with its coming forth from the religious parent drama. Historical evidences are naturally not to be found for what is brought forward here. Whoever finds of value only what is to be upheld by such historical proofs will naturally be discontented with these explanations. But if one does not accept the conclusions drawn here from given facts as being scientifically valid, then one would also have to overthrow the foundations for many of the sciences. In Natural Science all hypotheses, for example, about more ancient periods in the Earth’s history would have to be rejected without deductions such as these. What has been said here may therefore have value as such a hypothesis to those who cannot, through intuition, become convinced of the whole truth for themselves. But without these hypotheses Aristotle’s argument about tragedy will for ever remain incomprehensible.