Catharsis is a Greek word meaning "purification", "cleansing" or "clarification." It is derived from the infinitive transliterated as kathairein "to purify, purge," and adjective katharos "pure or clean."
Using the term "catharsis" to refer to a form of emotional cleansing was first done by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work Poetics. It refers to the sensation, or literary effect, that would ideally overcome an audience upon finishing watching a tragedy (a release of pent-up emotion or energy). In his previous works, he used the term in its medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the "katamenia", the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material). Because of this, F. L. Lucas maintains that catharsis cannot be properly translated as purification or cleansing, but only as purgation. Since before Poetics catharsis was purely a medical term, Aristotle is employing it as a medical metaphor. "It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions. Lessing sidesteps the medical aspect of the issue and translates catharsis as a purification, an experience that brings pity and fear into their proper balance: "In real life, he explained, men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean. Tragedy is then a corrective; through watching tragedy the audience learns how to feel these emotions at the proper levels. Some modern interpreters of the work infer that catharsis is pleasurable because audience members felt ekstasis (Greek: ἔκστασις) (literally: astonishment, meaning: trance) from the fact that there existed those who could suffer a worse fate than them was to them a relief. Any translator attempting to interpret Aristotle's meaning of the term should take into account that Poetics is largely a response to Plato's claim that poetry encourages men to be hysterical and uncontrolled. In response to Plato, Aristotle maintains that poetry makes them less, not more, emotional, by giving a periodic and healthy outlet to their feelings.
In literary aesthetics, catharsis is developed by the conjunction of stereotyped characters and unique or surprising actions. Throughout a play we do not expect the nature of a character to change significantly, rather pre-existing elements are revealed in a relatively straight-forward way as the character is confronted with unique actions in time. This can be clearly seen in Oedipus Rex where King Oedipus is confronted with ever more outrageous actions until emptying generated by the death of his mother-wife and his act of self-blinding.
In contemporary aesthetics catharsis may also refer to any emptying of emotion experienced by an audience in relation to drama. This exstasis can be perceived in comedy, melodrama and most other dramatic forms. Deliberate attempts, on political or aesthetic bases, to subvert the structure of catharsis in theatre have occurred. For example, Bertold Brecht viewed catharsis as a pap for the bourgeois theatre audience, and designed dramas which left significant emotions unresolved, as a way to force social action upon the audience. In Brecht's theory, the absence of a cathartic resolving action would require the audience to take political action in the real world in order to fill the emotional gap they experience. This technique can be seen as early as his agit-prop play The Measures Taken.
The term catharsis has also been adopted by modern psychotherapy, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis, to describe the act of expressing deep emotions often associated with events in the individual's past which have never before been adequately expressed. Catharsis is also an emotional release associated with talking about the underlying causes of a problem or seeing a dream.
Some in the entertainment industry claim that violence in media such as television, video games and films produces an effect similar to catharsis by providing an outlet for violence and by acting as a form of release for violent behaviour. However, as hundreds of studies conclude, "viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children" instead of providing catharsis.
Another meaning under the heading of "purging" can concern body and soul — in it concerns efforts made to come to terms with guilt and sin, penance such as by chastisement (in modern use of that word, the meaning of punishment has taken over from the original sense of purification), such as practiced by flagellants; a testimony to the age of this use is the very name of the Cathars (a medieval sect).
In Mysticism, the end of human life and of philosophy is to realize the mystical return of the soul to God. Freeing itself from the sensuous world by katharsis, the purified human soul ascends by successive steps through the various degrees of the metaphysical order, until it unites itself in a clear and completely conscious contemplation to the One, and unifies into the state of ecstasis.
Thus in the neo-Platonism of Plotinus, the first step in the return of the soul to God is the act by which the soul, withdrawing from the world of sense by a process of purification (katharsis), frees itself from the trammels of matter. A point to note here is that psychology and philosophy were not separate in Classical Philosophy (Greek through Roman period). Thus in classical mysticism, as well as current mystical traditions, katharsis is a process leading to the transcending of psychological, as well as spiritual, traumas and negativities.