Tragic Pity Versus Pity in Everyday Life

face of a prisoner

A scholarly book on suffering and sympathy in Athens has sharply distinguished between tragic pity and pity in everyday life. That distinction is based on the timeframe of emotional effects:

one must draw a clear distinction between “tragic pity” and pity in everyday life. … In the theater, pity is akin to pleasure and costs nothing but spent tears. Nothing is required of the spectator but a fleeting emotional involvement in fictional situations that are soon over and done with. In real life, however, pity may lead to significant expenditures of time, energy, goods, or money; it can entail lasting emotional pain.^

Real life unquestionably provides experiences that intentionally constructed representations cannot. However, tragic plays in fifth-century Athens did require spectators to consider specific matters of civic importance. Prometheus Bound, for example, insisted that spectators consider their communication with persons being punished. Moreover, Athenians’ emotional experience of fifth-century Athenian theatre differed significantly from that of movie-goers at movie theatres today. Fleeting, labile emotions much better describe modern experience in movie theatres than Athenians’ experience of tragedies at the annual City Dionysus.

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