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Continental Philosophy Review 36: 177194, 2003.

2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Interrupting speculation: The thinking of Heidegger and Greek
School of Liberal Arts, Kansas City Art Institute, 4415 Warwick Boulevard, Kansas City, MO
64111-1874, USA (E-mail:
Abstract. Despite his extended readings of parts of the Antigone of Sophocles, Heidegger
nowhere explicitly sets about giving us a theory of tragedy or a detailed analysis of the es-
sence of tragedy. The following paper seeks to piece together Heideggers understanding of
tragedy and tragic experience by looking to themes in his thinking particularly his analyses
of early Greek thinking and connecting them both to his scattered references to tragedy and
actual examples from Greek tragedy. What we find is that, for Heidegger, tragedy is an inter-
ruption of speculation, a refusal to philosophize, a way of showing how things are that reso-
nates with the goal of Heideggers own thinking.
In an attempt to clarify the thinking of Heidegger either in general or with
regard to one aspect of his thinking (e.g., his poetics, ethics, or politics) com-
mentators occasionally make reference to a link between Heidegger and tra-
Though such references are interesting, they are also problematic. On
the one hand, some simply assume the meaning of tragedy is obvious, even
though tragedy has been interpreted in a variety of ways by our philosophical
and literary critical traditions. On the other hand, some make assumptions
about the meaning of tragedy based upon our philosophical and literary criti-
cal traditions that Heidegger himself has questioned. In either case, what is
needed is a clarification of Heideggers understanding of tragedy in order to
understand whatever link there is between Heidegger and tragedy.
It is understandable why Heideggers understanding of tragedy is gener-
ally overlooked. Despite his extended readings of parts of the Antigone of
Sophocles (GA 40, 153173; GA 53, 63ff, 127ff),
Heidegger nowhere explic-
itly sets about giving us a theory of tragedy or a detailed analysis of the es-
sence of tragedy. Yet Heidegger does leave clues that a particular understanding
of tragedy and tragic experience animates his thinking. Take, for instance, this
seemingly throwaway line from The Anaximander Fragment:
The experience of beings in their being which here comes to language is
neither pessimistic nor nihilistic; nor is it optimistic. It remains tragic. That
is a presumptuous thing to say. However, we discover a trace of the essence
of tragic, not when we explain it psychologically or aesthetically, but rather
only when we consider its essential form, the being of beings, by thinking
the didonai dikn . . . ts adikias (GA 5, 357358)
As is frequently the case with his references to tragedy and tragic experience,
Heidegger does not elaborate on this presumptuous remark with an analy-
sis of the essence of tragedy. Nonetheless, the remark is revealing. On the one
hand, here as elsewhere, he distances himself from the explanations of and
speculations about tragedy given by the philosophical tradition from Aris-
totles psychological account to Nietzsches aesthetic account suggesting
that they do not get to the heart of the matter. On the other hand, he gives a
clear indication that he sees his attempts to think what is experienced but un-
thought by the early Greek thinkers as closely linked to what is shown and
experienced in Greek tragedy. That in turn suggests that we might piece to-
gether Heideggers understanding of tragedy and tragic experience by look-
ing to other themes in his thinking (particularly his analyses of early Greek
thinking) and connecting them both to his scattered references to tragedy and
actual examples from Greek tragedy. In what follows I want to do just that: to
sound out the connection between the thinking of Heidegger and tragedy by
looking at some of Heideggers analyses of early Greek thinking that help to
elucidate both his thinking and the understanding of Greek tragedy that lies
behind his scattered references to tragedy. What we will find is an interrup-
tion of speculation, a refusal to philosophize about tragedy, and about the
matter itself which tragedy discloses that is not unlike Heideggers own view
of the goal of thinking: to see things as they are.
1. Unter-gang
As noted above, Heidegger distances himself in general from Nietzsches
aesthetic interpretation of tragedy which, according to Heidegger, sees art
as the exemplary activity of life and tragedy as the supreme art. Hence, ac-
cording to Heidegger, tragedy for Nietzsche is the fundamental characteristic
of beings as a whole (GA 6.1, 246250; cf. GA 44, 2730, 236237). Neverthe-
less, setting himself apart from Nietzsche does not mean that Heidegger sim-
ply rejects Nietzsche and his interpretation of tragedy. Indeed, Heidegger
calls Nietzsches understanding of tragedy profound, one that deepened
throughout his career (GA 6.1, 247248, 251, 282; cf. GA 44, 2829, 32, 65).
What especially intrigues Heidegger is the link Nietzsche makes between the
figure of Zarathustra and tragedy, and what that means for any thinking that
attempts to go beyond (or step back out of) the metaphysical tradition. So, on
our way toward understanding Heideggers understanding of tragedy and the
tragic, we will start with a theme connected to Nietzsche that helps propel
Heidegger toward a recognition of the tragic, and which, in Heideggers hands,
takes us back toward early Greek thinking. That theme is the Untergang.
Tragedy always begins with the Untergang of the hero (GA 6.2, 569);
the only thing that happens in tragedy is the Untergang (GA 6.1, 251; cf.
GA 44, 32). What does Heidegger mean by this oft-repeated (e.g., GA 53, 128;
GA 54, 168) characterization of tragedy? Untergang, of course, has the ordi-
nary meaning of decline, but that would be a thoughtless, everyday inter-
pretation of the word. What must be kept in mind is that the word echoes a
key term in Nietzsche which references Zarathustras descent from his moun-
tain retreat. It is a descent which, for Heidegger, marks the end of meta-
physics and the beginning of another thinking, though he wants to avoid any
simplistic anti-Platonic implications of the image.
He also uses the term in
other ways most notably (as we will see) in interpreting Heraclitus (GA
55, 44ff, 109ff; GA 7, 265ff).
Gang, of course, indicates going. So, clearly the Unter-gang involves
transition (Weg-gang) transition as departure (ber-gang) which points
to the importance of temporality in understanding tragedy (GA 6.1, 279280;
cf. GA 44, 62; GA 8, 6364). Going where? The Unter- here can be linked
with the Latin inter- , meaning intimacy or between (GA 12, 22). Untergang
might then be seen as a going-between, echoing a comment Heidegger makes
in connection with his elucidation of Antigone that the Da-sein of historical
man is a Zwischen-fall, an (unforeseen) in-cident, or literally, a falling-be-
tween (GA 40, 172; cf. GA 65, 317). Tragedy shows us a passage, a going-
between and falling-between past and future that nonetheless holds together
(intimates, i.e., announces) past and future in and through the present.
In tragedy, the characters undergo time in various ways. The characters
of tragedy undergo what has already happened. Each of the dramas in the
Oresteia plays out what has already happened prior to its start. Agamemnon
has already killed his daughter and led the Greeks to a glorious victory over
the Trojans by time the Agamemnon begins, Clytemnestra has killed Aga-
memnon by time The Libation Bearers begins, Orestes has killed Clytemnestra
by time The Eumenides begins. Likewise, Oedipus has already killed his fa-
ther and married his mother in Oedipus Tyrranos; already gouged out his eyes
and set out wandering in Oedipus at Colonus. The past rises up as a given in
tragedy, but a given that has unforeseen consequences, that plays itself out in
unexpected ways to which the characters must submit. As Euripides often says,
what we waited for does not come to pass, while for what remained un-
dreamed the god finds ways. Just such doing was this doing.
On another level, the transition and departure of tragic characters can be
seen in that they are always leaving leaving in the sense of leaving behind
the past or foregoing the future yet in such a way that what has been and
will be are not eliminated but give meaning to the present incident. The he-
roes and heroines of Greek tragedy generally depart from the glory that has
been for them a glory that is essential both to who they are and also their
ruin. Heracles won honor and glory by killing the Hydra, yet the Hydras poi-
son is used to kill him in Sophocles Women of Trachis. Oedipus departs from
being a pariah, yet is still the same (in Heideggers sense of Selbe, which is
to say, not Gleiche [identical]) man as he always was, in Oedipus at Colonus.
In a more positive way, The Eumenides departs from the cycle of revenge
that characterizes the Oresteia, but the Furies and the old divine order are not
eliminated nor are they even sublimated. Instead, the fear they invoke, the fear
of the terrible (to deinon; Eumenides, 698), is honoured on principle, as a
principle of the new constitution.
Likewise, though Philoctetes departs his
island seclusion, the heroic temperament that made him bitter is not eliminated
indeed, it is recalled with the appearance of Heracles. In addition, in a rather
bittersweet farewell, Philoctetes foregoes a future life on his island, a life that
had its good elements, as indicated by his last lines (1461ff). Antigone also
foregoes a future a future with a husband, children, family; her awareness
of this unrealized future (813, 869, 878) informs her character and helps to
signify her heroism.
The intimacy signified by the unter- in Untergang also directs us to the point
that this going-between is a moving amidst the things in the world. This cor-
responds to Heideggers treatment of the chorus from the Antigone of Sopho-
cles, with its images of man making way (360; see GA 40, 161) over seas,
over the earth, through life to death. It is through his work, working on things
and with things, that human beings show being (GA 40, 172). Which is on-
going. Untergang reminds us that, for Heidegger, we are always unterweg,
on the way. Not way as procedure, as method in the modern sense assault-
ing beings to bring about a determinate end but as a way that arises from the
things themselves, as they show themselves (GA 54, 87; cf. GA 13, 233; GA
15, 399). This image of being on the way is also a common one in tragedy
(and Greek culture generally), from the travels of Oedipus (who meets his fate
at a crossroads) to the traveler Dionysus in the Bacchae, to the image evoked
early in the Eumenides (13) of the Athenians as road builders (keleuthopoioi;
the Greek keleuthos can mean road, track, path, journey, voyage, and, met-
aphorically, a way of life). We are always finding our way (cf. Heideg-
gers notion of Befindlichkeit in GA 2, 178ff, 449f) amidst things, in
Finally, Untergang signals a going under, a going-down, a decline. To
what are we going-down? Untergang is an acknowledgment of the abyss
(Abgrund) (GA 6.1, 279280), i.e., an acknowledgment of the removal of
reasons or grounds (Ab-grund), of a firm and constantly present basis, for
what takes place. So we see in most tragedies that the hero dies and/or comes
to nothing. The chorus in Antigone, in Heideggers reading,
says man comes
to nothing (360), death (362). Oedipuss life too comes to nothing (Oedi-
pus Tyrannos, 1188), which maybe why Oedipus will later warn that time
shatters any momentary coherence and accord (Oedipus at Colonus, 617620).
This seems negative, pessimistic. Yet if time shatters coherence, Heidegger
also notes that khronos (time) means what corresponds to topos, to the
place where each respective being belongs (GA 51, 121) including hu-
man beings. Likewise, both Sophocles (OT, 1193) and Heidegger (GA 40,
114) share the insight that Oedipus is paradigmatic of who we are. If the noth-
ing referred to by tragedy points to our insubstantiality, our mortality, it also
refers to our essence, to who we are and how we may be. We can say then
that the Untergang of tragedy shows the way to ourselves, to how we are,
to being.
We can see that the themes Heidegger associates with the Untergang that
takes place in tragedy echo the key issues of Heideggers thinking. This is
particularly apparent in the following passage from Heideggers Letter on
Thinking does not overcome metaphysics by climbing still higher, sur-
mounting it, transcending (aufhebt) it somehow or other; thinking over-
comes metaphysics by climbing back down into the nearness of the nearest.
The descent (Abstieg), particularly where man has strayed into subjectiv-
ity, is more arduous and more dangerous than the ascent. The descent leads
to the poverty of the ek-sistence of homo humanus. . . . Thinking is on the
descent to the poverty of its provisional essence (GA 9, 352, 364).
Though Heidegger uses the term Abstieg rather than Untergang, the descent
and climbing back down associated here with overcoming metaphysics clearly
resonates with his discussions of going-down linked to tragedy. Metaphysics
names that kind of speculation initiated by Plato, a kind of seeing based upon
a distinction between true and apparent worlds. Metaphysics seeks to climb
out of the apparent world and see the true world that transcends it. The think-
ing of Heidegger interrupts that sort of speculation, overcoming or getting over
(verwinden) metaphysics by going down, descending into the world amidst
things (the nearness of the nearest) and back to who we are. This, accord-
ing to Heidegger, is how it is with tragedy as well. Beginning with the going-
down that marks the abolition of the distinction between the true and appar-
ent worlds (GA 6.1, 569), tragedy lets us see what it means to move amidst
things in the world and undergo time and transition, to be on the way, back to
ourselves and what it means to be.
2. Daim n: Gods and the riddle of human being
This descent into who we are, however, necessarily and paradoxically
brings us to a discussion of the gods. Heidegger leaves a number of clues to
this necessity. For instance, in the Beitrge (GA 65, 397), Heidegger notes that
Unter-gang, in its essential meaning, is the going toward the discreet prepa-
ration by those of the future of the moment and the site in which the deci-
sion about the arrival [or assault; Anfall] and non-arrival of the gods occurs.
More explicitly, in an oft-cited but little understood reference late in his life,
he noted:
Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by think-
ing and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or
for the absence of a god in our going-down, for in the face of the god who
is absent, we go-down (GA 16, 671).
This passage provocatively links the Untergang (which, we have seen, begins
tragedy for Heidegger) with becoming who we are (i.e., our salvation)
the issue of divinity. It is a link that exists in tragedy as well. If we focus our
attention on a key word in tragedy for divinity daimn and Heideggers
discussion of it, and how this resonates with his discussions of deinon and to
deinotaton in the Antigone (GA 40, 153ff; GA 53, 74ff, 127ff), these connec-
tions should become clearer.
The issue of divinity is a constant source of anxiety and frustration for com-
mentators on Greek tragedy (and for commentators on Heidegger, for that
This is particularly true of the daimn, which is one among a com-
plex of words (including theos, theoi, tuch, at, eudaimonia) that seemingly
makes the understanding of divinity in Greek tragedy evasive and incoher-
In his Parmenides lectures, Heideggers analysis of daimn is occasioned
by a reference to Platos myth of the warrior Er in The Republic, where Plato
makes reference to a topos daimonios. By way of reference to Aristotles use
of the term daimonia (Nicomachean Ethics Z, 7, 1141b) to mean excessive,
astounding, and at the same time difficult (GA 54, 148), Heidegger trans-
lates daimonion as the uncanny or extraordinary (das Ungeheure).
It is the
extraordinary because it presents itself in everything ordinary (das Geheure)
and is hence the most natural without being the ordinary. Daimonion
thereby points to being, as Heidegger had suggested some years earlier (GA
26, 211n); daimn (and its cognates in Greek that reference the gods or di-
vinities) indicates invisible and ungraspable being itself (GA 54, 173174).
But Heideggers analysis does not stop there; it makes its way a typically
Heideggerian and Greek way
amidst the ambiguity of ancient Greek. For
instance, Heidegger notes the connection between daimn and dai, translating
the latter as to present oneself in the sense of pointing and showing (GA 54,
151). This is related to thea, which is both the look, or the outward look,
the aspect, in which something shows itself, the outward appearance in which
it offers itself (GA 7, 46) and goddess, depending upon the accent. Also
related are to theaon (looking into), and to theion (the divine). In this way
daimn is revealed as the god who comes to view as one by whom we are
regarded (cf. GA 7, 284). It is a figure of awe (aids) and grace (kharis). The
uncanny which is specified as the astonishing be-ing of the ordinary takes
name and figure and place in the work, as the god.
Heideggers analysis makes clear that the references to the gods in early
Greek thinking are not to be understood according to our ordinary, contem-
porary understanding of gods as things present at hand, personalities that
come from the outside or spirits dwelling within the breast of man (GA 54,
164). Accordingly, for Heidegger eu-daimonia is not a good spirit but ge-
bndigt gefgten Daseins (roughly, controlled fitting being-there; GA
40, 115). That is, eu-daimonia names the relation of being to man; it means
the holding sway in the appropriate measure of the eu the appearing and
coming into presence of the daimonion (GA 54, 173; cf. GA 65, 210, 211). In
other words, eudaimonia names the appearance of what is strange and uncanny
in our actions and activities. This point alone allows us to avoid much of the
anxiety and frustration regarding the gods experienced by other commenta-
tors on tragedy an anxiety and frustration that has arisen from the fact that
we have treated the gods as beings, as objects of speculation, objects of a theo-
Nonetheless, the gods are a necessary part of Greek tragedy and thinking
and not casual additions to beings which we could bypass with no loss of
[our] own essence and could leave aside and could consider solely according
to [our] whims and needs (GA 54, 157). As Heraclitus said: thos anthrpi
daimn man dwells, insofar as he is man, in the nearness of the god (GA
9, 354355).
So, while many commentators have noted how the events of
Euripides Hippolytus can make sense without the prologues and epilogues
provided by Aphrodite and Artemis respectively, a Heideggerian reading would
disagree. Aphrodite and Artemis are important to the play, giving it signifi-
cance; they are the appearance in which the actors and events show themselves
and offer themselves up to us for consideration, indicating what emerges and
hides in our actions and in the events that overwhelm us.
The events in tragedy are indeed quite natural and ordinary in one sense;
the gods are rarely direct actors in the play at all. Nonetheless, they are im-
portant, emerging through the breaches in our sensible world and thereby
showing the astonishing being of the ordinary. There is, as Heidegger says, a
manifestation of the god in the abyssal space of being itself (GA 65, 416).
In Oedipus Tyrranos, Apollo emerges in the gap between Oedipuss knowl-
edge of himself and who he is. In Sophocles Ajax, Athena emerges in the gap
between who Ajax was and now is. The daimn that haunts the house of Atreus
emerges from the differences that arise between father and daughter, husband
and wife, son and mother, old and new order, in the Oresteia. A divine plan
emerges from the gaping wound inflicted upon Philoctetes in a most ordinary
way by a snake. The daimnic appears in general through elements both in-
side and outside the self through wind, rain, fire, animals, the passions, the
These unique events are seen as significant indicative of the over-
powering powers at work on and through human beings in the world.
Since the gods appear through the actions of the individuals that are at work
in the play, it is not surprising that there would be references that link daimn
and human beings in tragedy, that identify them. Among such instances is
the case of Oedipus in the Oedipus Tyrranos. At one point, in the final choral
ode, noting and lamenting the paradigmatic character of Oedipus, the chorus
notes how his life is fused with the daimon (1194).
Later, after he has gouged
out his eyes, the chorus asks him what daimonn urged him, to which he gives
the equivocal reply: It was Apollo, friends, Apollo,\ that brought this bitter
bitterness, my sorrows to completion.\But the hand that struck me\was none
but my own (OT, 13271333).
Oedipus doubles for the god, as do so many
of the tragic heroes, for human beings are the breach or in-cident [Zwischen-
fall] through which the unbound powers of being come forth (GA 40, 172).
This doubling link of daimn to human beings is even implied by Heideg-
gers well-known translation of deinon and to deinotaton in Antigone as das
Unheimliche and das Unheimlichste, the strange and the strangest (GA 40,
153ff; GA 53, 68ff, 127ff). His interpretation is inspired partly by Hlderlin
(who translated deinon with Ungeheuer; GA 53, 85) and is keyed to signifi-
cant phrases in a choral ode of Antigone (332375), particularly the appar-
ently paradoxical pantoporos aporos (berall hinausfahrend unterwegs
erfahrungslos ohne Ausweg Journeying out everywhere, inexperienced and
without a way) and hupsipolis apolis (Hochberragend die Sttte, verlustig
der Sttte Rising high above his place, losing his place). These phrases in-
dicate that human beings are the strangest among many strange things be-
cause in their (ordinary) deeds and activities they are cast out of the famil-
iar (heimisch). Violating familiar limits, human beings show what is native
(heimisch), essential, to who they are. This is not some accidental feature of
human beings; human beings endure and suffer (pathein) this fate (dik) in
the very deeds and actions that are the tragic drama (GA 53, 128). It is strange,
it is terrible, and yet awe-inspiring, divine, to find something so un-familiar
amidst the seemingly familiar. Das Ungeheure ist das Un-heimische The
uncanny is the un-familiar (GA 53, 86), such that, again, thos anthrpi dai-
mn: The (familiar [geheure]) abode is for human beings the open region for
the presencing of the god (the un-familiar one [des Un-geheuren]) (GA 5,
We can see that, in the end, the ambiguity of the daimn the slippage from
the uncanny to the gods to the terrible, to the strangest (human being) that
arises from Heideggers analysis is well-suited to the complex figure of the
daimn in Greek tragedy. What Heideggers interpretations of daimn and
deinon indicate is that tragedy shows us something divine, overwhelming,
unsurpassable, which emerges in, through and from our actions and refuses
our control. We thereby come to know and find ourselves dwelling in the
neighborhood of the uncanny and strange. With the abolition of the distinc-
tion between the true and apparent worlds announced by the Untergang, what
is meaningful and significant is not seen beyond this world, beyond the things
in the world and the things that take place in the world, but in the things them-
3. Al theia
Now Heidegger tells us that we cannot think the Greek gods without giving
thought to altheia, and that the topos daimonios belongs to the field of lth
(GA 54, 155156, 180183). In addition he notes: For the possibility, and
the necessity, of tragedy itself has its single source in the conflictual essence
of altheia (GA 54, 134; cf. GA 65, 360: And yet, everywhere in thinking
and poetizing [tragedy and Pindar], altheia is essential). These references
along with the indication above that the gods are a hint or trace of being
direct us toward early Greek words for being, in which the Greeks experienced
the matter to be thought, to understand the essence of tragedy.
It would be impossible at this juncture to completely lay out the way in
which Heidegger understands the Greek word altheia, a term that occupies
his thinking from beginning to end (e.g., GA 2, 44 and SD, 7778). To sum-
marize, Heidegger stresses the privative character of this Greek word for truth
(a-ltheia) to note a character of hiddenness and concealment (lth) insepa-
rably bound up with altheia understood and translated as unconcealment
(Unverborgenheit). Concealment permeates the essence of truth, such that a
conflict (truth brought out from concealment) is the primordial essence of truth,
defining a realm of oppositions in which truth stands (GA 54, 38).
One way to see this conflict is in tragedys depiction of law and order,
i.e., of dik, which is, according to Heidegger (e.g., GA 5, 357; GA 40, 172),
another ancient Greek term that helps indicate their experience of being. The
Anaximander fragment speaks of dik, and Heidegger finally translates part
of the fragment as:
. . .along the lines of usage; for they let order (Fug, translating dikn) and
thereby also reck belong to one another (in the overcoming [Verwinden])
of disorder (Un-Fug, translating adikias) (GA 5, 372).
What is tragic about the Anaximander fragment is the belonging-together of
order/jointure (Fug) and disorder/disjointure (Unfug), the transition from ap-
proach to withdrawal, the allowance of this jointure/disjointure, this rift of
being (GA 5, 357). Hence we find Heidegger interpreting arch as Verfgung
(GA 51, 107ff; cf. GA 9, 246248). Verfgung is perhaps best rendered into
English as incipient enjoining in an effort to indicate the ordering, arrang-
ing, joining and harmonizing (suggested by the root Fug) in which opposi-
tion, removal, reversal, even loss are suggested (by the prefix ver-). Thus, as
already noted, the Oresteia trace out the conflicts and rifts in the house of Atre-
us to disclose the arch, the incipient enjoining, that is the beginning of Athe-
nian justice. It is a beginning that joins together and holds to the rift between
the chthonic and Olympian gods, the demands of home (and the female) and
the polis (and the male), the obligations and duties of differing generations.
Likewise, most violently, the order of the two parts of Euripides Heracles,
joined at lines 814-815 (a gap through which the gods enter), are thrust to-
gether, at odds with one another, yet a unity we are forced to acknowledge.
Tragedy shows us the order dispensed by joining and setting apart the con-
flicting forces of being.
We can see this in the depiction of Zeus in Greek tragedy. Zeus is supposed
to be the seat of justice and order, dik. Nonetheless, as we learn in Prometheus
Bound, Zeus is also an arbitrary, unjust tyrant (e.g., 187, 222, 305, 357). He
has ordained that wisdom comes alone through suffering, whereby the grace
(kharis) of the gods comes somehow violent (Agamemnon, 177178, 182
183). The order and justice of Zeus not only Zeus, but the law of the gods
throughout tragedy is conflictual, dik against dik, as Orestes says in The
Libation Bearers (461). Whether it is in the Oresteia, the Antigone, (where
Creon and Antigone alike are aligned with justice and order), Seven Against
Thebes (pitting the right of Polyneices versus that of Eteocles), Hippolytus
(Aphrodite versus Artemis) or the Bacchae (pitting the order of the gods ver-
sus the order of men), tragedy shows us a conflicting law and order.
Zeus is a hint of being, the name being both wants and does not want to be
called (GA 7, 227ff), as indicated by Heraclitus (B 32), and by Aeschylus in
the Agamemnon (160ff):
Zeus: whatever he may be, if this name / pleases him in invocation, / thus
I call upon him. / I have pondered everything / yet I cannot find a way, /
only Zeus, to cast this dead weight of ignorance / finally from out my brain.
(Chicago, 1991).
This characterization of Zeus by the chorus, with its lament that I cannot find
a way, recalls an early characterization of Zeus by Aeschylus in The Suppli-
ants (8790), where the mind/desire/heart (prapides) of Zeus is a forest
through which run only dark and densely overgrown paths: dimly perceived
directions of sense, hinting at but failing to disclose a destination for human
We are reminded of Heideggers Holzwege:
Woods sounds an older name for forest. In the woods are paths, / which,
often crooked, abruptly breakoff in the untraversed. // They are called wood-
paths. // Each proceeding separately, but in the same forest. Often it / seems,
one is identical to another. Yet it only seems so. // Workers in the woods
and forest keepers recognize the paths. They know / what it means, to be
on woodpaths (GA 5, preface).
Heideggers Holzwege remind us that there is no (ultimate) teleology here,
either in being or in our path that corresponds to being. These tragic images
of Zeus (and therefore being) do not speak some sort of negative theology and
therefore the possibility of theodicy, of the possibility of salvation (conceived
as an end to being underway). In a forest, what is cleared for a time is soon
overgrown. Any coherence gained is shattered on the way, whether we try to
stop or continue ahead. A forest is neither all darkness nor all light; indeed,
the two belong together. Darkness and light are allotted to one another oppo-
sitionally [widerwendig], as Heidegger translates a line from The Libation
Bearers (319) (GA 15, 278). We are once again directed to the way, a way that
comes to nothing, which discloses being, to the essential concealment that
belongs to revealing, and how the daimn, the gods, those traces of being, are
demonic in their inconspicuous unsurpassability, securing for the Greeks
an experience of the dark and of the empty and the gaping in their brilliance,
awe and favor (GA 54, 157, 164165).
This belonging-together of revealing and concealing is found as well in the
ancient Greek word phusis. This word Heidegger translates (GA 40, 16f; GA
7, 278ff, et al.) as the Aufgehend upsurgence, emergence, arising by vir-
tue of which beings become and remain observable. Or, more precisely,
Heidegger sees in phusis an essential association or juncture (Fgung, as a
translation of the Greek harmonia; GA 55, 141) between Aufgehen and
Untergehen that shows itself with Heraclitus naming phusis (arising) and
kruptesthai (concealing, Verbergen or Untergehen) in closest proximity,
mutually inclined toward one another, the arising needing the concealing in
order to show itself.
We have hereby come full circle, back to where we started: to the Untergang,
the only thing that happens in tragedy, whereby there is a beginning and
dawning of the essential. The Greek thought Untergehen has its essence in
the entering into concealing (GA 55, 50; GA 7, 274). The going-down and
rising up of the hero belong together, as do the setting and rising of the sun
(Heidegger links Untergehen, as understood by the Greeks, to the setting of
the sun [GA 55, 50, 65]). It is also an image the chorus uses in talking of
man after man after man\o mortal generations\here once\almost not here\what
are we\dust ghost images a rustling of air\nothing nothing\we breathe on
the abyss\we are the abyss\our happiness no more than traces of a dream\the
high noon sun sinking into the sea\the red spume of its wake raining be-
hind it\we are you\we are you Oedipus\dragging your maimed foot\in
agony\and now that I see your life finally revealed\your life fused with the
god\blazing out of the black nothingness of all we know . . . (OT, 1186ff;
Berg-Clay translation)
This is what tragedy is all about: consideration or recognition of the order/
disorder, of jointure which means (for both Heidegger and tragedy) acknowl-
edgment of the need, the concealing, the abyss (GA 44, 62; GA 65, 107), but
then also acknowledgment of possibilities. We cannot have the one without
the other. Heidegger lets us see this in another forest image:
The oak itself spoke: Only in such growth is grounded what lasts and
fructifies: growing means this: to open oneself up to the expanse of heaven
and at the same time to sink roots into the darkness of earth. Whatever is
genuine thrives only if man is both in right measure: ready for the appeal
of highest heaven and preserved in the protection of sustaining earth. (GA
13, 88)
Or, as Heidegger puts it elsewhere: Emergence is not an abandonment of that
from whence it has emerged (GA 51, 113). The going-down, the concealment,
the assault of the daimnic, the disorder, the aporias and broken off paths of
thought, are essential to how things are and to who we are, enjoined to the
order and divine light that we reveal and which is disclosed to us. Hence in
stressing that tragedy needs to be thought out of a-ltheia, and the Unter-gang,
Heidegger points to the need to think tragedy apart from optimism (reconcili-
ation) or pessimism (despair, boundless separation). Perhaps in the midst,
in between, both optimism and pessimism (cf., e.g., GA 40, 185186). For, as
Adrian Poole (86) says:
Both these cries find their voice in tragedy: both what splendour it all co-
heres, and also Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone. Tragedy is a way
of doing justice to both voices . . . There is a coherence, but it does not all
cohere; things fall apart, but it is not all in pieces.
4. Heidegger and tragedy
We began with the two interrelated issues of clarifying Heideggers under-
standing of tragedy in order to understand the relation between tragedy and
the thinking of Heidegger. What we have learned, first of all, is that Heideg-
ger does not see the meaning and truth of tragedy in the catharsis of the audi-
ence (as in Aristotle), nor in the transcendence (Aufhebung, a cancellation/
relifting) of tragic consciousness as part of the dialectical progress of the
Absolute Spirit (as in Hegel), nor in the aesthetic affirmation of beings as a
whole (as in Nietzsche). These and other traditional interpretations of trag-
edy see the meaning and truth of tragedy above and beyond tragedy. No matter
what their merits, such interpretations remain heirs of Plato and his speculation
about a true world beyond this world which serves as a standard by which to
judge the world and to which only the philosopher has access. Instead, Heid-
egger understands the essence of tragedy in terms that interrupt such specula-
tion in two ways. On the one hand, Heidegger himself does not speculate
about tragedy but lets it shine forth as a poetic saying of being alongside the
thoughtful sayings of being found in early Greek thinkers. Understood in this
way as a demonstration and disclosure of being means that, on the other
hand, Greek tragedy itself serves to interrupt speculation. Going-down amidst
the things and events of the world whereby we are shown to be in time, on the
way, strange mortal actors dwelling in an extraordinary world that is none-
theless all too familiar, tragedy shows us how the speculations the intellec-
tual coherences of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and even
Nietzsche are interrupted, confounded, and destroyed even as it gives rise
to the questioning and speculating of philosophers.
True to how things are,
[t]he tragedies of Sophocles . . . preserve the thos [our dwelling place] in
their sagas more primordially than Aristotles lectures on ethics (GA 9, 354).
As a result, tragedy and Heidegger are linked insofar as they think the same,
though they are not identical. Tragedy is a poetic saying of being at the be-
ginning of metaphysics; Heidegger attempts a thoughtful saying of being at
the end of metaphysics. Tragedy, like the early Greek thinkers, gives us
indications of how to overcome metaphysics and interrupt speculation by
showing us the originary Greek experience of being at the beginning of meta-
physics. Heidegger, at the end of metaphysics, is left to think what is shown
in tragedy being, time, our place in the world, the divine in his own way.
In that sense, Heideggers thinking is an attempt at a thoughtful re-enactment
of Greek tragedy, a re-enactment of seeing the thing itself and the matter to
be thought.
1. Regarding Heideggers poetics and tragedy, see Vronique Fti, Heidegger, Hlderlin,
and Sophoclean Tragedy in Heidegger Toward the Turn: Essays on the Work of the 1930s,
ed. James Risser (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 163186, and
Empedocles and Tragic Thought: Heidegger, Hlderlin, Nietzsche in The Presocratics
After Heidegger, ed. David C. Jacobs (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999),
pp. 277294; cf. her discussion of Heidegger and Hlderlin in Heidegger and the Po-
ets: Poisis, Sophia, Techn (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1992). Regard-
ing Heideggers ethics and tragedy, see Frank Schalow, Why Evil? Heidegger, Schelling,
and the Tragic View of Being, Idealistic Studies 25.1 (1995), pp. 5167 and Language
and the Tragic Side of Ethics, International Studies in Philosophy 27.2 (1995), pp. 49
63; cf. his Language and Deed: Rediscovering Politics through Heideggers Encounter
with German Idealism (Amsterdam: 1998), pp. 7784 and passim. See also Will McNeill,
A Scarcely Pondered Word. The Place of Tragedy: Heidegger, Aristotle, Sophocles
in Philosophy and Tragedy, ed. Miguel de Beistegui and Simon Sparks (New York:
Routledge, 2000), pp. 169189, for another discussion of Heidegger and tragedy with
respect to ethics.
Reiner Schrmann published a quartet of interrelated articles that revolve around poli-
tics and the tragic condition of being: see Ultimate Double Binds, Graduate Fac-
ulty Philosophy Journal 14 (1991), pp. 213236; Riveted to a Monstrous Site in The
Heidegger Case: On Philosophy and Politics, ed. Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore
(Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1992), pp. 313330; A Brutal Awakening
to the Tragic Condition of Being: On Heideggers Beitrge zur Philosophie in Martin
Heidegger: Politics, Art, and Technology, ed. Karsten Harries and Christoph Jamme
(New York: Holmes and Meier, 1994), pp. 89103; and Technicity, Topology, Trag-
edy: Heidegger on That Which Saves in the Global Reach in Technology in the West-
ern Political Tradition, ed. Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 190213. See also Norman K. Swazo,
Gnthi Sauton: Heideggers Problem Ours, Journal of the British Society for Phenom-
enology 25.3 (1994), pp. 263287, and Miguel de Beistegui, Heidegger and Politics:
Dystopias (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 114ff, for other discussions of Heidegger
and tragedy with respect to politics.
Other references to a link between Heidegger and tragedy can be found in Karin de
Boer, The Tragic Movement of Human Life: Heideggers Concept of Finitude, Tijd-
schrift voor Filosofie 60.4 (1998), pp. 678695, Michael Gelven, Heidegger and Tra-
gedy in Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature, ed. William V. Spanos (1976;
rpt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), pp. 215228, and R. Jahan Rama-
zani, Heidegger and the Theory of Tragedy, Centennial Review 32 (1988), pp. 103
129; Gelven and Ramazani largely confine themselves to examples from Shakespearean
2. The texts of Heidegger are cited in this article as follows:
GA 2 Sein und Zeit, vol. 2 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1977).
GA 4 Erluterungen zu Hlderlins Dichtung, vol. 4 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt:
Klostermann, 1981).
GA 5 Holzwege, vol. 5 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1977).
GA 6.1 Nietzsche, vol. 6.1 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1996).
GA 6.2 Nietzsche, vol. 6.2 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1996).
GA 7 Vortrge und Aufstze, vol. 7 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000).
GA 8 Was Heit Denkens?, vol. 8 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2002).
GA 9 Wegmarken, vol. 9 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1976).
GA 12 Unterwegs zur Sprache, vol. 12 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann,
GA 13 Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens, vol. 13 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Kloster-
mann, 1983).
GA 15 Seminare, vol. 15 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1986).
GA 16 Reden und andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges, 19101976, vol. 16 of Ges-
amtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000).
GA 26 Metaphysiche Anfangsgrnde der Logik im Ausgang von Leibniz, vol. 26 of
Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1978).
GA 40 Einfhrung in die Metaphysik, vol. 40 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann,
GA 43 Nietzsche: Der Wille zur Macht als Kunst, vol. 43 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt:
Klostermann, 1985).
GA 44 Nietzsches metaphysiche Grundstellung im abendlndische Denken, vol. 44 of
Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1986).
GA 51 Grundbegriffe, vol. 51 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1981).
GA 53 Hlderlins Hymne Der Ister, vol. 53 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Kloster-
mann, 1984).
GA 54 Parmenides, vol. 54 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1982).
GA 55 Heraklit, vol. 55 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1987).
GA 65 Beitrge zur Philosophie, vol. 65 of Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1989).
SD Zur Sache des Denkens (Tbingen: Niemeyer, 1969).
Translations here generally follow the available English translations of these texts
(though some modifications have been made for the sake of clarity or consistency).
3. The literary image of Zarathustra going-down retraces the philosophers ascent toward
truth and speculation of the Forms (Eidos) of which Plato tells in his myth of the cave.
Whether it retraces Plato in the sense of merely inverting the Platonic view of truth
and thereby still remains a part of the philosophical tradition or not is one of the con-
troversial aspects of Heideggers interpretation of Nietzsche.
4. The Bacchae of Euripides, trans. C.K. Williams (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990),
pp. 8687. This epilogue is used in Alcestis, Andromache, Helen, and, with some vari-
ation, in Medea.
5. Adrian Poole, Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1987), p. 38.
6. Cf. Poole, p. 29: It is the basis of narrative pattern, the guarantee of intelligible shape:
beginning and middle and end. . . . But how can you be sure when to start counting and
when to stop? How can you be certain about a pattern when you have to view it from the
inside? . . . The end of the Oresteia is only a beginning. And beginnings and endings are
themselves only interim measures, the passage or initiation from one state to another, in
between times. Our beginnings are always in the middle.
7. An unusual if not controversial reading, to be sure. For example, Bernard Knox, Word
and Action. Essays on the Ancient Theater (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1979), p. 170, calls Heideggers reading perverse (and almost unintelligible),
for though the line may be read ambiguously, in context [it] may not because of the
subsequent monon (only). Certainly most English translations read this line optimis-
tically, as in David Grenes translation in The Complete Greek Tragedies, vol. II, ed.
David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991),
p. 174: He has a way against everything / and he faces nothing that is to come / without
contrivance. / Only against death / can he call on no means of escape.
8. See, e.g., GA 7, 29: To save is to fetch something home into its essence, in order to
bring the essence for the first time into its genuine appearing. Cf. GA 7, 152; GA 4, 37
9. In the case of tragedy, the gods have been a problem since Plato and Aristotle. Plato found
the poetic depiction of the gods as malevolent unacceptable and therefore threw them
out of the Republic. Perhaps having the same qualms as Plato, Aristotle saved the poets
place in the polis by secularizing tragedy. See, e.g., J.M. Bremer, Hamartia: Tragic Error
in the Poetics of Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy (Amsterdam: Adolph M. Hakkert, 1969),
and R.D. Dawe, Some Reflections on At and Hamartia, Harvard Studies in Classical
Philology 72 (1968), pp. 89123. This attempt to secularize tragedy is still found in
contemporary philosophical commentators who are nonetheless sympathetic to tragedy
in their reading of it. See, e.g., Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness. Luck
and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1986), who, in classic Aristotelian fashion, fails to discuss daimn despite her focus on
ethics and eudaimonia, and Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: Univer-
sity of California Press, 1993), especially pp. 130167.
In the case of Heidegger, this anxiety and frustration can be seen in commentators as
diverse as Richard Rorty and David Farrell Krell. In Overcoming the Tradition: Heidegger
and Dewey in Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1982), p. 52, Rorty laments Heideggers faint, modest, and inarticulate hope
which is just what was worst in the tradition the quest for the holy . . . A more sym-
pathetic interpreter of Heidegger, Krell (in Intimations of Mortality. Time, Truth, and
Finitude in Heideggers Thinking of Being [University Park: Pennsylvania State Uni-
versity Press, 1986], p. 141) nonetheless admits (in an essay that is both dedicated to
Rorty and a response to his essay cited above) that Heideggers preoccupation with the
holy is indeed discomfiting. I too get dizzy in the mirrorplay of the Fourfold, which is
a bit like being Lost in the Funhouse.
10. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press,
1967), p. 219.
11. In his lectures on Hlderlins Der Ister (GA 53, 86) Heidegger notes that das Ungeheure
a somewhat old-fashioned word created from the inflected form of the adjective unge-
heuer normally means the immense. However, Heidegger makes it clear that he means
the term as a synonym for das Unheimliche (the strange, which he uses to translate to
deinon), even creating neologisms (das Nicht-Geheure, das Geheure) from the adjec-
tive geheuer (normally used only in the negative nicht geheuer, uncanny) to rein-
force the point. Heidegger may also wish to suggest das Ungeheuere, monster or the
monstrous, a meaning that certainly should be kept in mind when discussing the Greek
daimn, particularly in the context of Greek tragedy.
12. See George B. Walsh, The Varieties of Enchantment. Early Greek Views of the Nature
and Function of Poetry (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984),
pp. 6368. Walshs account, however, is marred by (as Bernard Williams would put it)
a progressivist view that tends to look down on the archaic Greek view of language as
magical. Heideggers view is more positive. See, e.g., GA 54, 160: Tha, the look, as
the essence of emergent existence, and the, goddess, are one and the same word, consid-
ering the Greeks did not use accent marks in their writing and, above all, recognizing
the original attentiveness the Greeks displayed for the essential homophony of words
and hence for the hidden ambiguity of their expression.
13. Such a translation augments the conventionally secular translation, which can be ren-
dered either as Mans character is his fate or, alternatively, Mans fate is his charac-
ter; see R.P. Winnington-Ingram, Tragedy and Greek Archaic Thought in Classical
Drama and Its Influence: Essays Presented to H.D.F. Kitto (London: Methuen, 1965),
pp. 3150.
14. Regarding the prologue/epilogue appearances of the goddesses, see, e.g., R.P. Winning-
ton-Ingram, Hippolytus: A Study in Causation in Euripide: Entretiens sur lantiquit
classique, VI (Geneva: Foundation Hardt, 1960), pp. 188189, and Bernard Knox, Word
and Action (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 216, 226227. How-
ever, while citing this common knowledge about Hippolytus, Bernhard Zimmerman
(Greek Tragedy: An Introduction, trans. Thomas Marier [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni-
versity Press, 1991], pp. 9798) begs to differ, noting that it is just this divine frame
that imparts meaning to the intentions and actions of the characters in this play. David
Kovacs, The Heroic Muse: Studies in the Hippolytus and Hecuba of Euripides (Balti-
more: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 71ff, 110, also notes the importance
of the divine framework, even when the actions can seemingly be understood without
reference to the gods.
15. See Ruth Padel, In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 114192.
16. This is how Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay translate the reference to daimn; see Oedi-
pus the King (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 78. Robert Fagles trans-
lates daimn as destiny (The Three Theban Plays [New York: Viking Penguin, 1983],
p. 233), while David Grene translates daimn as fate in the recent Chicago transla-
tion, p. 64.
17. This is the Chicago translation, which translates daimn as spirit. Robert Fagles trans-
lation for daimn is superhuman power, while the Berg-Clay translation is demon.
18. Cf. William Arrowsmith, Introduction to Heracles in The Complete Greek Tragedies,
vol. III, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1991), p. 274: . . . the Heracles insists on the irreparable rift in its structure and invites
us by its great power to discover what nonetheless makes it one play. It is right that our
perception of power in literature should lead us more deeply into the order and disorder
created or invoked.
19. Stephen Halliwell, Human Limits and the Religion of Greek Tragedy, Journal of Litera-
ture and Theology 4 (1990), p. 170. See also Padel, In and Out of the Mind, pp. 135
20. Cf. Suzanne Gearhart, The Interrupted Dialectic. Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Their
Tragic Other (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). See also, Poole,
p. 3: . . . the world outwits the demands we make of it: tragedy takes its very being from
the embodiment and inspiration of such contradictions.