The two main strands in the history of philosophical reflection on tragedy, as a genre of art, can both be seen as having their origins in Plato’s critique of tragic poetry in the Republic and other dialogues. It is there that we find their first sustained philosophical treatment; and with respect to this small part of it, at least, Alfred North Whitehead’s characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato is not too fanciful.

Tragedy and Emotion

One strand of thought focuses on the character and value of our experience of tragedy, and can be seen in Plato’s charge that tragedy (and indeed mimetic poetry in general) “gratifies and indulges the instinctive desires ... with its hunger for tears and for an uninhibited indulgence in grief”; that “it waters [passions] when they ought to be allowed to wither, and makes them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them”).

Plato’s thought that the emotional dimension of our experience of tragedy is particularly significant has been taken up in a variety of directions by other philosophers.

tragic emotions
tragic emotions

In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragedy’s capacity to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in its audience, so far from rendering it intellectually and morally damaging, is in fact a source of its value: Tragedy aims at emotional effect not for its own sake, or for the sake of gratifying or indulging its audience, he argued, but rather in such a way as to bring about a catharsis of the tragic emotions.

Precisely what Aristotle meant by catharsis is far from clear, and has been the topic of much scholarly debate: The notion has been understood in terms of purgation (of excessive or pathological emotion), of purification, and of intellectual clarification, to mention only some of the most influential of the interpretations that have been offered.

Whatever its precise meaning may be, however, it is clear that Aristotle took catharsis to be a process or experience that in one way or another is conducive to emotional health or balance, such that our emotional experience of (well-written) tragedy is not indulgently sentimental and opposed to “our better nature,” as Plato argued, but is rather an essential element in a fully comprehending attitude to what a work depicts.

Lao Traditional Costume

Aristotle linked catharsis with the pleasure that we take in tragedy: The fact that mention of the former comes at the end of his definition of tragedy suggests that he takes it to be in some sense the goal of works of this sort, and (an appropriate form of) the latter is said to be “what the poet should seek to produce.”

His defense of the value of our emotional experience of tragedy in terms of catharsis is thus at least implicitly a defense of it in terms of tragic pleasure; and a debate related to, and at least as extensive as that concerning the meaning of “catharsis,” has its origins in his characterization of tragic pleasure as “the pleasure derived from pity and fear by means of imitation [mimesis]”.

For how is it that one can derive pleasure from what Aristotle himself describes elsewhere (notably in the Rhetoric) as painful feelings? This question is a more difficult relative of one prompted by Plato’s reference to the fact that “when we hear Homer or one of the tragic poets representing the sufferings of a hero and making him bewail them at length ... even the best of us enjoy it”: How is it that in engaging with a work of tragedy one is able, or is enabled by the work, to enjoy the depiction of human suffering?

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Adam Smith

Debate surrounding these and related questions was particularly prevalent in eighteenth-century British philosophy and criticism, attracting contributions from such figures as Lord Kames, James Beattie, and Joseph Priestley, as well as, more influentially, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke.

Some contributors to the debate focus on the question of how one can respond with pleasure to what tragedy depicts: Edmund Burke, for example, in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, took the problem to lie in the “common observation” “that objects which in the reality would shock, are in tragical, and such like representations, the source of a very high species of pleasure”, and thus in effect construed the problem as one concerning the consistency of one’s patterns of response. (As, in a sense, did Plato, though he took the inconsistency between our responses to depictions of suffering in tragedy and our responses to suffering “in reality” to lie not in the fact that the former involve pleasure and the latter “shock” or horror, but rather in that in the former we give vent to our emotions whereas in the latter we strive “to bear them in silence like men.”)

yellow flower
tragic pleasure

Discussions that remain exclusively occupied with the pleasure that Plato holds that one takes in what tragedy depicts often proceed by attempting to resolve the apparent inconsistency in one’s patterns of response by pointing to relevant differences between the contexts in question: for example, one’s awareness of the fictional status of tragedy, the contribution of artistry, and “aesthetic distance” have all been cited as aspects of our experience of tragedy that are not involved in our experience of actual suffering, the functioning of which explains why pleasure is a characteristic element of the former while typically absent from the latter. However, such discussions risk missing the more difficult issue that arises from Aristotle’s characterization of tragic pleasure.

For if that characterization is right, the peculiarity of the latter is not simply that it occurs in response to the depiction of things that in other contexts do not give one pleasure, but rather that it is a variety of pleasure that is intimately bound up with painful feeling; as he put it, it is the pleasure “of,” or “derived from,” such feeling.

"Babylon" by Ivan Troitsky | Illustration | 2D | CGSociety
emotional experience

The more sophisticated treatments of our emotional experience of tragedy have attempted to address this. Burke, for example, suggested that the apparent inconsistency between one’s responses to tragedy and one’s responses to actual suffering is illusory; in fact, he held, we are just as disposed to take pleasure in actual sufferings as we are in depictions of suffering, and in both cases our response is based on sympathy, a psychological mechanism that involves pain at the distress of its objects, but also (in order to foster its occurrence) pleasure: “as our Creator has designed we should be united by the bond of sympathy, he has strengthened that bond by a proportional delight”.

Adam Smith made a similar point when he argued that it is because of its social utility that the experience of sympathy, even when the emotions communicated sympathetically are painful, is naturally pleasurable to human beings.

Humean theory
Humean theory

This account of the matter, though clearly based on a Humean theory of the passions, was rejected by Hume himself, on the grounds that the operation of sympathy is not always pleasurable: If it were, he suggested in a letter to Smith, “an hospital would be a more entertaining place than a ball.” (A point anticipated in its spirit if not its tone, by Burke, who suggested that people do indeed find public executions more compelling than “the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have.”)

Hume’s own account of what he described as the seemingly “unaccountable pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy” is by far the most discussed by contemporary contributors to the debate, although it is more interesting as an application of his theory of the passions than it is as an account of our experience of tragedy.

Hume suggested that the spectators’ pleasure and their “disagreeable and uneasy” emotions are initially responses to different aspects of a work of tragedy: their distress is a response to what the work depicts, their pleasure a response to the “eloquence” and “genius” with which it depicts it. To leave the matter at that would clearly miss the problem posed by Aristotle’s characterization of tragic pleasure.

predominant emotion
predominant emotion

But Hume went on to argue that these responses merge, as the pleasure, which is dominant, overpowers, and somehow “converts” the distress in such as way as to reinforce the former: “The impulse or vehemence, arising from sorrow, compassion, indignation, receives a new direction from the sentiments of beauty. The latter, being the predominant emotion, seize the whole mind, and convert the former into themselves, at least tincture them so strongly as totally to alter their nature”.

Contemporary discussions of Hume’s account have focused on just what this “conversion” of emotion is supposed to involve, for Hume himself was less than clear on the matter. Whatever it does amount to, however, it is clearly dependent on Hume’s associationist psychology, and is unlikely to survive the rejection of this.

Philosophical discussion of tragic pleasure, or what scholars often refer to as “the paradox of tragedy,” has continued on very much the lines established by eighteenth-century thinkers, though a new slant on the matter (and indeed on the nature of catharsis) has been introduced by philosophers and others influenced by the methods and findings of psychoanalytic theory. It remains a recurring theme in contemporary philosophy of art.

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philosophy of tragedy

THE PROFUNDITY OF TRAGEDY The second major strand in the history of the philosophy of tragedy is represented in Plato’s discussion of the epistemic credentials of tragic poetry, so to speak, where he argued that the tragedian has neither knowledge nor true belief concerning that of which he writes, and (hence) that tragedy cannot be a source of knowledge.

Plato’s target here is the view that “the tragedians ... are masters of all forms of skill, and know all about human excellence and defect and about religion”, or more broadly the thought that tragedy’s distinctiveness has to do with its capacity to prompt, and to suggest authoritative answers to, questions of a distinctively ethical sort.

Despite Plato’s efforts, the appeal of this line of thought survived his critique, not least due to the support that some found for it in Aristotle’s claim that “poetry is a more philosophical and more serious business than history”, a claim made in the context of his attempt to show that the tragedian’s art is, despite Plato’s arguments to the contrary, a technê, a productive activity that employs rational means or principles in the pursuit of a predetermined practical end.

Friedrich Schiller

The thought that tragedy is an especially philosophical form of art received its most sustained treatment in nineteenth-century German philosophy and criticism, where versions of it were expounded by Gotthold Lessing, Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel, and Johann Goethe, as well as, and from a philosophical point of view more notably, by Georg Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Hegel argued that the business of Classical tragedy— its “essential basis”—is to demonstrate “the validity of the substance and necessity of ethical life”. It achieves this first by showing the “collision” between different aspects of the ethical that occurs when the latter is fragmented and particularised in human social life: thus he claimed that Sophocles’ Antigone dramatizes the collision between the authority of the state (represented by Creon) and family love (represented by Antigone).

These aspects of ethical life collide because “each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has justification; while each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only by denying and infringing the equally justified power of the other”. The task of tragedy is then to show the “resolution” of conflict of this sort, which it can do in a variety of ways.

form of resolution
form of resolution

The most satisfying form of resolution, Hegel claimed, involves the destruction of the characters who embody “false one-sidedness,” as happens in Antigone, but “the unity and harmony of the entire ethical order” may also be effected and exemplified by the surrender of the hero (as in Oedipus the King), the reconciliation of opposing interests (as in the Eumenides), or “an inner reconciliation” in the tragic hero himself (as in Oedipus at Colonus).

Although he held that tragedy was at its most beautiful in the classical period, Hegel argued that it is in what he called Romantic tragedy that art is at its most philosophical, or, in his terms, comes closest to “bringing to our minds and expressing the Divine, the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of spirit”.

The subject matter of tragedy by this stage of its development is “the subjective inner life of the character,” and at its best, which Hegel thought was in Shakespeare’s hands, these characters are “concretely human individuals,” “free artists of their own selves”.

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Romantic tragedy

Tragedy at this stage represents not collision between particularised ethical powers, as did classical tragedy, but either (and, Hegel claimed, unsatisfactorily) collision between different aspects of a character’s personality, or (in what he held are the finest examples of Romantic tragedy) between the character and external circumstances. Tragedy of the latter sort presents the “progress and history of a great soul, its inner development, the picture of its self-destructive struggle against circumstances, events, and their consequences”.

Hegel’s claim that the importance of tragedy lies in its capacity to reveal important truths about the human condition is echoed by Schopenhauer. Indeed, like Hegel, Schopenhauer saw the arts in general as engaged fundamentally in the same task as philosophy; both, as he said, “work at bottom towards the solution of the problem of existence”.

Tragedy, Schopenhauer held, is “the summit of poetic art,” for in dramatising “the terrible side of life … the unspeakable pain, the wretchedness and misery of mankind, the triumph of wickedness, the scornful mastery of chance, and the irretrievable fall of the just and the innocent,” tragedy reveals to us more clearly than anything else the most important feature of reality: “the antagonism of the will with itself ” and the fact that “chance and error” are “the rulers of the world”.

appropriate response
appropriate response

However, in Schopenhauer’s view tragedy is significant not merely because of the importance of what it reveals to us concerning the nature of reality, but also because in the experience of tragedy one may come to recognize the only appropriate response to the terrible truth it presents. This is to adopt an attitude of “resignation”: as Schopenhauer put it, “The horrors on the stage hold up to [the spectator] the bitterness and worthlessness of life, and so the vanity of all its efforts and endeavours.

The effect of this impression must be that he becomes aware … that it is better to tear his heart away from life, to turn his willing away from it, not to love the world and life”. The greatest tragedies, Schopenhauer said, are those in which this attitude of resignation is not only suggested by a work but also demonstrated by its characters.

If Schopenhauer was less concerned with particular works of tragedy than Hegel, Nietzsche was still less so. In The Birth of Tragedy, his infrequent references to particular works of Greek tragedy betray very little of the knowledge of this part of literary history that he surely had; and the Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides whom he discussed in that work figure not as artists in a history of a genre of art, but rather as symbols or personifications of different cultural points or tendencies in Nietzsche’s working out of a genealogy of the tragic spirit.

Dionysian spirit
Dionysian spirit

The main symbols in this genealogy are those of Dionysus and Apollo, Greek deities whom Nietzsche used creatively to stand for both metaphysical and artistic categories. The Apollonian spirit is that which is concerned with appearances, with the world as composed of individuals; what it offers us is “beautiful illusion”. The Dionysian spirit is that through which this illusion is shattered, and what is revealed to us reality as it truly is: an endless and pointless struggle of things in flux.

As its objects are illusory, the Apollonian vision is too fragile to sustain human beings indefinitely. But with its object of what Nietzsche described as a “witch’s brew” of “lust and cruelty” the Dionysian vision is too terrible for human beings to survive. The “supreme goal” of art, Nietzsche claimed, is to allow us to escape this dichotomy.

Art, at its highest, does not attempt to evade the Dionysian truth but rather, by somehow (and in a way that Nietzsche is never very clear about) mediating it through the Apollonian, renders it bearable and even something to be exulted in.

Aeschylus and Sophocles
Aeschylus and Sophocles

Nietzsche suggested that the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in which, as he put it, “Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo finally speaks the language of Dionysus” are instances of such art. But he also held that the tragic spirit was almost immediately extinguished in tragedy (in the literary-historical sense), snuffed out by Euripides’ rejection of Dionysiac wisdom in favor of Socratic rationality.

Nor, he held, is the tragic spirit to be found in post-Renaissance tragedy, in which music, through which the Dionysian wisdom is expressed, plays no substantial role. In fact, Nietzsche believed, at least at the time when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy, if not for long afterward, the only art capable of rediscovering the spirit of tragedy is the music-drama of Richard Wagner, the dedicatee of The Birth of Tragedy.

The concern with tragedy as a source of insight into problems that are in the broadest sense problems of ethics, which is exhibited in different ways by Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, has been taken up distinctively in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy by Stanley Cavell, who has shown how Shakespearean tragedy can be read as working out problems of skepticism, and as occupied with “how to live at all in a groundless world”; by Martha Nussbaum, who has taken up Hegel’s concern with the ethical dilemmas posed in classical tragedy; and by Bernard Williams, who finds in classical tragedy an exploration of the nature of necessity which challenges Kantian conceptions of the voluntary, of obligation, and of responsibility. Here, as in contemporary discussion of the so-called “paradox of tragedy,” Plato’s fascination with tragedy, though not his condemnation of the art form, lives on.

Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum
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