Katharsis and Askesis

Katharsis: thus the Greeks called the state of mind produced by the spectacle of the tragedy, the stillness of heart in which compassion and fear have been dissolved, the purification of the soul which springs from having grasped a deeper meaning in things; which creates a grave and new preparedness for acts of duty and the acceptance of fate; which breaks the hybris: as it was seen to be broken in the tragedy; which liberates from the violent passions of life and leads the soul to peace.

For the spiritual clarification which our time needs, a new askesis: will be necessary. The bearers of a purified culture will have to be like those waking in an early dawn. They will have to shake off evil dreams. The dream of their soul which grew up out of the mud and would sink back into it. The dream of their brain which was but steel wire and their heart of glass. The dream of their hands growing into claws and the tusks between their lips. They will have to remind themselves that man can will himself not to be an animal.

The new askesis: will not be one of renunciation of the world for heavenly bliss; it will be one of self-domination and tempered appraisal of power and pleasure. The exaltation of life will have to be toned down a little. One will have to remember how Plato already described the occupation of the wise man as a preparation for death. A steady orientation of the life-consciousness on death heightens the proper use of life itself.

The new askesis: will have to be a surrender, a surrender to all that can be conceived as the highest. That can no more be nation or class than the individual existence of self. Happy those for whom that principle can only bear the name of Him who spoke: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

-Johan Huizinga (In the Shadow of Tomorrow, p.234-5)

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