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The True Tragedy
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2012-06-15 08:55:17
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Recently I conducted a reading group for a year in which we read four tragedies, and it confirmed me once again in an opinion I took from Hegel, who writes in his Aesthetic that Greek Tragedy is the greatest art form in the history of the world, the truest and most sublime.  It has always troubled me that philosophy seems to have been born in the West as a rejection of tragedy.  Nietzsche said as much when he notes that Euripides is really the killer of tragedy, which thus committed suicide. Why and how did he do this?  The reason is that he was a student of philosophy, and preached foreign thoughts to his audiences, who were not approving.  Nietzsche hypothesizes that Euripides was instructed by Socrates, the megalocephalic, deficient in emotion.  Plato was very critical of the tragedians, particularly Euripides, who retired to a city ruled by a tyrant and lived his life out in a cave, where he could do his work alone and untroubled, and, at the same time, show his disdain for the human race and the gods. 

From early on when I taught philosophy I would lecture on Homer, who is almost everything to Greek culture, and among many other things one can find the origins of Greek tragedy in the Iliad, where Achilles is told by his mother the nymph that the Fates have decreed that if he kills Hector in the battle that is in the offing, his death will follow soon after.  He responds that a man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do.  I showed them that the structure of Greek religion allowed for tragedy because the economy of grace was such that one could be assigned roles in social life that contradicted one’s profit or happiness.  Later, Plato tries to usurp the role of tragic hero for Socrates, on the same basis.  In the Gorgias Socrates compares himself to Achilles, and says that come what may, he will maintain the position that he has been placed in by the god Apollo. 

Last, I would show that there can be no tragedy in a Christian civilization due to the infinite power and goodness of the deity, and also because of the Platonic nature of the quest, which goes beyond tragedy in the quest for wisdom. 

In the last week I have been reading through some materials that I Xeroxed a few years ago but never had the leisure to get around to reading.  They both give a reading of this same problem, in different contexts, and they have some things to say on this topic I found arresting.  I thought I would share them with you. 

The first text is a long article by Helmut Kuhn, the historian of aesthetic theory, entitled, “The True Tragedy.  On the Relation between Greek Tragedy and Plato,” which appeared in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 52 (1941), pp. 1 – 40; and ibid., vol. 53 (1942), pp. 37 – 88.

This article is very learned, as we would expect, and wide-ranging.  Whether its thesis convinces I ask you to decide. 

Kuhn states on the first page that tragedy is among the logical antecedents of philosophy.  His thesis is basically that philosophy saw its task the working out of the tasks tragedy had set for itself but failed to successfully answer.  Tragedy tried to use three things to solve the riddle of human life.  First was the antithetical nature of thought.  Everything that can be affirmed can be denied.  Kuhn finds that the debates so characteristic of Greek tragic dialogue between protagonist and antagonist finds a clearer expression in the dialogues of Plato, with Socrates debating with the Sophists.  Second there is the perplexity that every man experiences in suffering, particularly pain that seems unjust.  Plato claims that only a philosopher can deal with this, because only he sees the truth of things, and can therefore write the “truest tragedy.”  Third, tragedy, as opposed to the epic, where the gods decide a lot of things, puts the individual’s decision at the center of the action.  This separates man out from cosmic processes and makes him responsible, which anticipates Plato’s position in the matter.  (cf. the books by A.W.H. Adkins)

The difference between the two types of writing is that the philosopher knows the truth and tells the truth and the tragic hero does not know the truth.  The actions and reasoning engaged in by the latter originates in the thymos, the passions, not in nous, the mind.  In the absence of the truth, the true tragedy cannot take place.  In the Hippias Minor, a dialogue I spent a lot of time on myself, the mastery of techne is shown to lead to bad results if it is not directed by reason.  The machinations of Odysseus and of the Sophist Protagoras are the same, aimed at manipulation and victory, not the truth. 

Now Kuhn admits that these three things are merely analogies.  “We have to ask whether there is a causal relationship between the essential meaning of tragedy and the gist of Plato’s writings.” (P.15)  He opts for a “developmental causality” in which there is difference, but a difference that also preserves.  E.g., he quotes Jaeger’s Paideia: “It seems a short and inevitable journey from Pindar to Plato, from the aristocracy of race to the aristocracy of spirit and intelligence; but the transition can be made only through Aeschylus.”  Plato taught that only philosophers could do this because only they appreciate the truth of things.  Therefore they supplant the poets (tragedians) (cf. Laws, 817b) and tell the true tragedy. 

The problem with the poets is that they give evil a seat among the gods.  There is the human will, divine will, and Fate, but they are so intimately entangled that they cannot be separated out from one another.  When Orestes kills his mother, all three are cooperative in the deed, which is a sin, admittedly.  Plato admits of no evil in God.  He has to supplement this truncation by means of speaking of choosing a way of life, and total responsibility of the actor, but this is not how these things are actually experienced.  So, the theory of reincarnation comes in handy here, so that the guilt of an actor that would justify pain and sorrow as punishment so patently does not occur in tragedy. 

Plato requires a theodicy based upon the goodness and justice of the cosmos as a whole, one that is moral and noble, above human emotions and desires.  Tragedy is stuck here below, where bad things happen to good people.  But it is not pessimistic in the Schopenhaurian sense.  Aeschylus teaches pathe mathos: man learns through suffering.  The tragedians affirm that the justice of Zeus is in place, despite appearances.  This reconciles the irreconcilable, and is a distillate of the tragic hero’s “sorrowful wisdom.”  And on Plato’s side, there is the assertion, as in the Phaidon, that philosophic insight divests the world of its fearfulness.  The good man is the happy man, as he says at length in Book 9 of the Republic.  But this means that one has already become one with one’s soul in its purely rational part, and now lacks mournfulness because one is liberated from the world and all that is in it. 

But this is merely a theoretic refutation of the reality of evil.  Plato needed something more.  This can only be done if the arts of man are reformed so that the viewer is released from the bonds of pain and resignation, which are the subjects of tragedy.  Children are to be taught arts that later can be used to free one from the emotions in a true paideia that brings order to the sensual, emotive and rational elements of the soul.  The tragedies make the soul more attached to the senses and the emotions, and thereby lead the audiences of all ages astray.  All the arts, in short, should be religious, abstracting from the terror and pity inspired by scenes of sorrow and loss.  Religious art will inspire everyone, especially the young, with the optimism of the beauty of the cosmos and the justice and goodness of the gods.  Such a noble lie will make the young citizen good, with the desire to do the right voluntarily, without compulsion. 

Plato the theologian rejects the notion of fate, and also the notion of the jealousy of the gods (p. 33).   But, though he claims that a true tragedy, one that is also a theodicy, can be based upon the decisions of man and the goodness of the deity, it is hard to see how this would generate deep emotions in the audience.  The Republic, books 2 through 9, can be read as a program for a city that would have such arts based upon the goodness and of all things divine and perfect identity of all men with their souls.

In Book 2, Glaukon and Adeimantos, the brothers of Plato, pose to Socrates the perfect case of injustice, in which the distinction between appearance and reality is perfect.  If a victim of this can be said to be happy, then Plato would be right.  But who is convinced by his argument, particularly his arguments that material prosperity will come to the good man despite appearances?  Even Kuhn says that the final book exudes much confidence but gives hardly any reasons.  But it is a great exhortation to trust in the wisdom and justice of the gods.  Plato moves from logos to mythos in the Myth of Er, in which the poetry is of a new kind, guided by the mind and not the emotions.  If we take it seriously, it amounts to saying that with many reincarnations, the question of the disproportion between guilt and punishment can be minimized, and the actual culpability of the unjust can be seen more clearly.  Thus in Plato’s opinion the philosopher has beaten the poets on their own ground.  This is said directly in the Symposion, 213c.  There, and in the Phaidon, Kuhn says, philosophy “defeats sorrow not by voicing it but by charming it away…” (p. 52)

Kuhn sums up his text so far on p. 58: “In tragedy the self-consciousness of the responsible agent is gained in the face of suffering and destruction.  In Plato it results from recognition of the moral issue that reduces suffering and death to relative unimportance.  Our thesis is that these two types of consciousness are consecutive stages of an evolutionary process.”

The key seems to be that the protagonist in tragedy is willful, and knows that what he does flouts the moral law or the order of themis or of nature.  This is tantamount to allowing evil a seat among the gods, for Plato.  Every display of defiance in the tragic hero is an example of hybris.   The protagonist must die for disturbing the order of nature or the order of society.  Really, that is the essence of the tragic vision.  If the hero were not conflicted with knowledge of good and evil there would be no catharsis.  But tragedy, as the locus of the antinomic state of mind, eventually passed beyond itself and became philosophy, where these antinomies could be resolved.   This could be called “the self-transcendence of the tragic within tragedy.” (p. 63) 

Parenthetically, I find the locution beguiling, but not true, since it does away with the nature of nature and the gods, which in tragedy are not perfect and do not guarantee happiness. In modern dress, this is called “finitude.”  The work of the Socratic school is an exhortation to cast off finitude.  Cf. the last line of Aristotle’s Nikomachean Ethics.]

Next, Kuhn introduces three more determinants: Ionian cosmology; Orphism; and the Sophistic movement.  I would argue that it is a weak point to bring these things up. While Plato was indeed influenced by these things, they are not only not part of the basic thesis of development, but in fact detract from it.  It amounts to saying that a historical formation is the result of everything that went before.

The Socratic School renamed the virtues as those historical virtues as they are determined by knowledge of good and evil, and the decision to lead a holy life.  Aristotle makes fun of the tragedians for not knowing what is right and wrong.  The general argument is that philosophers ought to be the educators, not the poets (Rep. VII), for the reason that they know right from wrong.  And, not everyone can be a philosopher. There should be a screening process before admission to that status.  In fact, there is ten times as much evil in the world as good, and therefore education is difficult.

Kuhn now brings up the subject of world alienation.  (Pp. 78 ff.)  This is quite obvious.  Not only was Socrates interested in ethics and not in physical science.  He was instinctually right in this attitude.  Self-determination requires as a prerequisite that the agent not feel himself to be an agent of natural processes.  Even more consequential, this interiorization of the virtues is the precondition for the universal nature of all world-historical religions, and the other-worldly character of Christianity in particular.  Kuhn asserts that the dysfunctional relation between the tragic protagonist and the natural order is an element in this movement of thought.  It takes the greatest intensity of self-consciousness to decide to commit a “holy crime.”  Even the common use of the pathetic fallacy shows inanimate nature complicit in the human world, not the converse. 

Socrates completely ignored nature, and believed that the individual comes out of his human and natural surroundings in the same manner as he might step forward into becoming a kouros.  Plato went through a development through a long life, gradually moving towards the mythologos that the cosmos has a holy character.  Aristotle, as I believe with Kuhn, sums up and reconciles all previous thought, giving due weight to tragedy and to nature as well as the soul of the individual.  The chanciness of life, at one with the body, can overwhelm us at any time, and we cannot deny this or protect ourselves against it.  In this manner and at this level does tragedy reemerge in the last great Socratic.  Aristotle’s position is in a minor key of Plato’s desire to philosophize in poetry.  He deals with the question on another level.  (This naturalistic anguish is adverted to in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles III, 48.) 

But Plato’s position was championed by the early Christian fathers.   There suffering is accepted by Gregory Nazianzenus as an advantage, since Christ’s example shows that an imitation Dei involves suffering.  That which was a problem is raised to the level of a mystery.  “The truth of Aeschylus’ pathe mathos is made to shine in the light of a deeper insight.”

Thus far Kuhn.  I am not persuaded by his article, and I miss a reference to Socrates as a tragic hero in the Gorgias and any reference to the deus ex machina as early as Oedipus at Colonus.

A second essay on the same subject that I came across this past week, long ago Xeroxed, was ‘Greek Tragedy and the Search for Truth,” by George Sebba, contained in a volume of Collected Essays by Sebba, subtitled “Truth, History, and the Imagination” (Louisiana State U.P., 1991).

Sebba, it turns out, is an epigone of Eric Voegelin, a conservative thinker whose four volume work, Order and History did not earn him world fame, although he does have much to say. 

In this essay Sebba mentions that Aristotle loved tragedy because he saw in it a Gesamtkunstwerk, but rejects it as a vehicle for education because the tragic poet does not know enough.  But, Sebba says, neither Plato nor Aristotle saw tragedy as merely an aesthetic object, neglecting its political character. 

Friedländer, one of the best Plato scholars of the 20th century, attributed Plato’s mistake in this to the fact that he seemed not to know anyone but Euripides, who Friedländer says, destroyed high tragedy with the deus ex machina, and also by denigrating the gods and portraying ignoble heroes. 

In Friedländer’s opinion Plato was wrong about this.  High tragedy played a role in the rise of the polis, “investigating, in symbolic form, man’s new problems in the political society and paving the way for the very philosophy that would radically repudiate it.” (p. 143)

Greek tragedy was a state function, and flourished for the 90 years of Athens’ greatest power.  Plato knew only Euripides first hand, and saw him as an example of moral decline.  Aristotle came on the scene after the tragedians were all gone, so he knows it as we also know it.  [But certainly he saw many plays that are no longer extant?]

Werner Jaeger, in Volume One of Paideia, tells us that a new humanity emerged in fifth-century Athens, and that Aeschylus and Sophocles embodied it in their works.  In them art, religion and philosophy are merged.  Tragedy played the same role that Plato assigned to the Statesman.  It was the primary educative institution, engaging large sections of the population in the performance as well as audience members.  When Aeschylus invented the second actor, drama separated itself from epic, and a new world opened up.  Something happens to someone, something unspeakably bad, and the actors must engage this situation in speech.  There is irony, reversal (the peripeteia), and divine justice in the dramas.  The catharsis mentioned by Aristotle was not a private experience, but a social event, stemming from the poets’ telling the folk who they were, and what the human situation is.  The audience, it should be remembered, would not know what was going to happen. 

Jaeger explains the fact of tragedy’s political role as functional of its complete unity of all elements.  Voegelin tells us that it was a formal expression of Greek political thought.  How so? First we have to review Voegelin’s theory of history.  The first civilizations were the “hydraulic” societies of the Fertile Crescent.  For them the empire is a little cosmos, a cosmion that must stay in tune with the macrocosmos in order to survive its cyclical motions.  The governing myths do not distinguish polis from cosmos.  There is but one world.  The revelation on Mt. Sinai (1200 B.C.?) manifests an entirely new experience of deity.  World is separated from man.  World alienation.

[Notice the difference from Kuhn’s origination of the same thing.  I think Voegelin is currying favor here. The Hebrew deracination of nature had alienation of nature effect before Christianity, and is not part of this narrative.  The fact that it happened before something else does not establish that it had a causal relationship to the later event.]

In any event, Voegelin postulates that Aeschylus embodies the concept of order of Solon.  “The individual is required to impose limits on himself and observe measure, the polis to fuse individual and group interests in a well-ordered whole.” (p. 153) The individual has to make a difficult decision, and thus make himself.  [This, again, is the same point made by Kuhn.]  The hero of the play is not told what the right decision is; he must seek out the dike of Zeus within his own soul.  This is different from Homer, where the heroes do not hesitate, but simply act out their roles.  Aeschylus’ greatness lay in the fact of his recognition that the order of a just society is precarious, ever in need of renewal and ever threatened by the lusts and anger of individuals.  Just as tragedy is complementing the regnant political thought through a close reading of the decision process, Plato and the philosophers are engaging in speculation almost to the point of escapism.  Thus tragedy acted as a “pull” on Idealist tendencies, and caused philosophy to engage with the political world that it wanted to escape.

Another question arises about the fragility of the divine order.  What if these gods, particularly Zeus, is himself not just?  This question arises in Prometheus Bound. If Aeschylus had had the benefit of the Hebrew revelation, this skepticism would not have come to dominate, as it does in Euripides.  [But theodicy is an even greater problem, an insoluble problem, for monotheism, any monotheism, something that Voegelin. does not see.

Voegelin is at his best in his analyses of the Theban plays.  As we have seen with Kuhn, the progress of the human species in civilization is a sin against nature and themis.  Oedipus brings himself down, he who is hiddenly a basileus but thought initially to be merely a tyrannos.  In the end, arrogantly seeking wisdom, the truth, he becomes neither, and an outcast from society.  Punishment will come, but in the next generation, when his sons will kill one another.  Meanwhile, part beast, part god, Oedipus, who has polluted the whole city by his guiltless guilt, has become holy, and his tomb lies just outside the city walls, next to the shrine of the Eumenides, the punishers. 

This redemption, this transformation of a sinner into a tutelary deity seems to be a wonderful representation of the finitude of man, and his necessary implication in evil, an evil that can be burned away by undergoing suffering and repentance. Voegelin would have it signal man’s recognition of the order of the cosmos, but in my opinion represents an attempt to make morality into cosmology.

I would like to make one more point.  The tragedies are infinite in depth, and never grow old.


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Emanuel Paparella2012-06-15 18:49:40
Thank you Larry for this wide-ranging scholarly historical philosophical excursus into the meaning and the significance of Greek tragedy and the insightful review of some of its greatest proponents and commentators: Plato, Euripides, Aristotle, Jager, Helmut Kuhn, Sabba. Much food for thought here. It may take a while to digest it all, meanwhile let me propose some sundry comments of my own: what I found particularly intriguing is this statement of yours: “…there can be no tragedy in a Christian civilization due to the infinite power and goodness of the deity, and also because of the Platonic nature of the quest, which goes beyond tragedy in the quest for wisdom.” Which I suppose brings us to the supreme medieval Christian poet Dante Alighieri who calls his opus a “commedia” while considering his guide and mentor Virgil a tragedian. The facile explanation seems to be that tragedy depict a noble hero who usually dies for a noble cause and so it invariably ends badly, or tragically as the saying goes; while comedy depicts a story that ends well as with Dante’s vision of the all-good and all-powerful deity. But this is a bit too easy since the beginning of the “commedia,” especially the Inferno is quite tragic and full of tragic figures, as the Dante scholar Hollander has pointed out recently. Roberto Benigni, moreover, in his public readings of Dante never fails to point out that, as in his movie “La Vita è Bella,” the only actor who can mix tragedy and comedy is a clown like him, not a serious tragedian. In fact, the serious tragedians are the ones who were the most sever critics of such a movie. One can also think of some of Fellini’s movies where tragic-comedy is pervasive and life is seen as a great tragic circus. Not to speak that quite a few of the ancient Greek tragedies have a good ending, something that perplexed even Aristotle. So, we seem to have a slight semantic conundrum and or oxymoron at work here, having to do with the very definition and conception of tragedy. Any elaboration on those musing of mine would be most welcome.

Emanuel Paparella2012-06-15 18:58:58
P.S. If I may add a further comment: one likely explanation for the designation of "commedia" by Dante is that he is thinking in linguistic terms: there was the high language of tragedy which utilized Latin and there is the "low" language of the volgo or the people which Dante calls "il volgare illustre." There is to say, Italian, the language of the people for whom Dante writes the "Commedia." Were one to believe Boccaccio, Dante actually began to write his opus in Latin but then changed his mind and wrote it in Italian, thus giving evidence that Italian is in no way lower or inferior to Latin. What the professors deduced from this was that the Divine Comedy (here again it was Boccaccio who added the adjective "divine')belongs to the professors in the academies. What Benigni suggests, on the other hand, is that it belongs to the people (il volgo)in the square. To the chagrin of the professors Benigni attracts thousands in the square and even in the academy, the professors are nowadays likely to see their class on Dante closed if it does not reach a quota of 12. If that is not a comedy, I don't know what is...

Publius2013-04-18 15:32:29
I. There is no term for "nature" in the Hebrew Bible.

II. Dante's "Comedy" (e.g.) arguably points *beyond* a positive redemption that leaves negativity or darkness behind. This the work would achieve by poetically enshrining the philosophical life in the very belly of tragedy, and portraying the intervention of a deus ex machina to say the least ambiguous. The "Fedeli d'Amore" school of poetry out of which Dante emerges almost ubiquitously stressed the classical nexus between love (amor) and death (mors) without invoking any deus ex machina AND without ending up with Romanticism's narcissism.

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