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Tragedy and Politics

Derek W. M. Barker and David W. McIvor

Of all the artistic genres, tragedy has attracted
the most interest and contestation in the
history of political thought. Tragedy flourished
in fifth-century bce Athens, which is commonly regarded as a golden age of enlightenment in the history of western civilization.
With its enduring appeal in western culture,
many political thinkers have subsequently
engaged with tragedy to work through their
views on ethics, epistemology, theology, and
psychology. As a complex genre that is inherently open to interpretation, however, tragedy
has yielded multiple and sometimes contradictory insights. This entry provides a review of
tragedy in historical and contemporary
political theory. We begin with a brief historical overview. We then focus on selected
approaches to tragedy with the most enduring
influence in the history of political thought:
Platos critical view of tragedy as an inferior
form of political education to philosophy;
Aristotles rehabilitation of tragedy as a fine
art; Hegels ethical theory of tragedy; and
Nietzsches call for a culture of creativity
inspired by the Dionysian roots of tragedy. We
conclude with a discussion of tragedy and the
politics of gender.

Historical Overview: Tragedy as Ritual,

Civic Institution, and Artistic Genre
Tragedy evolved within the civic context of the
Greek polis. However, as an art form that
changed over time and served multiple purposes, the meaning of tragedy has remained
subject to debate. Tragedy can be understood
as a religious ritual, civic institution, or an
artistic genre that transcends any historical
context. Each view has important implications
for political thought.

For insight into the essence of tragedy, many

have sought to identify properties traceable to
its origins. The etymological roots of tragedy
are the Greek words tragos, or goat, and oidia,
or songs. Most interpreters agree that tragedy
originated as a religious ritual in honor of
the god Dionysus, who was associated with
animality, music, dance, intoxication, and
masking. Since Nietzsches Birth of Tragedy,
classicists have envisioned tragedy as evolving
from cult rituals with various combinations of
goat costumes, animal sacrifice, music, and
dancing (Goldhill 1997). The association with
Dionysus continued in fifth-century Athens, as
tragedies were performed in the context of a
large public festival that honored the god and
incorporated ritualistic practices. In this sense,
the mature forms of tragedy can be seen as
extensions of their Dionysian roots, lending
support to those who associate tragedy with
the irrational and chaotic dimensions of
human nature.
Although tragedy retained ritualistic elements throughout its history in the polis, important changes also occurred as Athens developed
democratic institutions. This classical period
is arguably more central to political theory than
the origins of tragedy. Theconnection between
tragedy and Greek democracy has been of
interest to contemporary theorists of participatory democracy, notably Peter Euben (1986,
1990). At this time, tragedy developed an
organized public space for performances the
theater within the leading festival in the civic
life of the polis. This process began in the sixth
century under the rule of Peisistratus, a popular
dictator who acted as a patron of the arts and
integrated tragedy into the City Dionysia (Else
1967). By the fifth century, participation in the
tragic festival came to be regarded as a civic
duty, similar to attending the assembly or
serving on a jury (Meier 1993). The audience
likely included the majority of Athenian citizens, and possibly noncitizens such as women

The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, First Edition. Edited by Michael T. Gibbons.

2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118474396.wbept1009

and slaves, and the city actively subsidized
poorer citizens attendance. Each tragedy was
part of a competitive festival to be judged by a
panel of citizens following democratic procedures. Classical tragedy at times (though not
always) addressed explicitly political topics,
such as the rule of law in the Oresteia trilogy,
and the conflict between religious obligations
and the authority of the polis in the Antigone.
Although the tragedies rarely focused on contemporary events, they typically used language
drawn from Athenian civic discourse, perhaps
to indirectly celebrate and provoke reflection on
the ideals of the polis (Goldhill 1990). While
most agree that tragedy was part of a patriotic
civic event, some scholars question whether
tragedy was understood to honor democracy
specifically or Athenian cultural and military
superiority in general (Carter 2004).
In the context of Greek democracy, tragedy
also evolved as an artistic genre with distinct
formal qualities and substantive themes.
Tragedy built upon the oral tradition of
Homeric epic and was considered a form
of poetry. However, the stage performance of
tragedy enabled increasingly complex and
vivid adaptations of mythical stories through
the use of actors in dialogue with the chorus.
Perhaps most important, tragedy developed its
distinctive thematic focus on suffering due to
limitations of the human will (Nussbaum
1986). These limitations take several recurring
forms in Greek tragedy: ethically complex situations that are beyond the control of the hero,
such as the choice between city and family
faced by Antigone; the power of fate over
human life, as in Oedipus failed attempts to
escape his future, as prophesized by the Delphic
oracle, and his past, the inherited curse on the
House of Laius that forms the background
ofthe Theban trilogy; the difficulty of governing the passionate and irrational components
of the soul, such as Orestes revenge impulse
and Antigones intense love for her brother;
and the human tendency toward hubris, or
excessive pride or overconfidence. Depending
on which of these particular narratives is
emphasized, subsequent thinkers distill

varying political and philosophical implications. Nevertheless, these narratives reflect a

common preoccupation with the inability of
human beings to be in full control over their
actions, suggesting that tragedy is defined
more by an underlying ethical worldview than
any specific formal qualities.
Since the decline of Athenian democracy,
tragedy has continued to develop new forms
in other contexts, including Roman, Shakespearean, and modern tragedy. Indeed, Greek
tragedy continues to be adapted and performed
in the contemporary theater, and influence
film and television. For example, the creators
of The Wire (20028), an American serial
drama that depicted urban youth struggling
against forces out of their control, cited Greek
tragedy as an important influence. In these
new contexts, the genre has retained many of
the formal and thematic components of Greek
tragedy. However, as the polis declined in
importance and tragedy was separated from
the City Dionysia, these new forms have had
weaker and less explicit ties to the civic realm.
The separation of tragedy from the polis has
suggested a death of tragedy, in that contemporary audiences are unable to fully appreciate
tragic ambiguity (Steiner 1961). Nevertheless,
tragedy continues to evolve beyond the specific
context of Greek democracy.

Truth and Imitation: Platos Critiques

ofTragedy and Democracy
The modern understanding of tragedy is
unthinkable without the critique leveled
against it by Plato, who reached maturity as the
golden age of Greek drama was coming to an
end. In the history of political thought, Plato is
notable for seeing a fundamental and irreconcilable quarrel between philosophy and
poetry (Plato 1968: 607b). Plato singled out
tragic poetry as a source of moral confusion,
political instability, and cultural decay. In fact
the key categories of Platonic philosophy, such
as virtue, moderation, and wisdom, were
defined in direct opposition to tragedy, which
he considered an inferior form of education for

the citizens of the polis. Furthermore, Plato saw
tragedy as intertwined with democracy, which
he saw in equally critical terms. For instance,
in the Laws, Plato compares democracy to
a vicious theatrocracy (1970: 700a-d).
According to Plato, democracy, by emphasizing equality among citizens, breeds intemperance, immodesty, and injustice within the
polis. For Plato, philosophy is the only antidote
to the diseases that tragedy and democracy
cultivate within the soul and the polis.
The modern reader may have difficulty
appreciating the urgency of Platos critique of
tragic poetry. The classical tragedies do not
seem to present any immediate harm to
individual citizens, much less to the public as a
whole. Platos hostility to tragedy, however,
makes sense in the context of the central theme
of his philosophy: an ongoing struggle between
virtue and vice within each individual soul,
mirrored by the larger struggle between justice
and injustice in the polis. While later audiences
and critics have come to identify tragedy with a
sense of humility, Plato associates its arousal of
the passions with excess. As Plato puts it, a
dangerous, wild and lawless form of desire
haunts human life (1968: 372b). The only solution to this problem is certain knowledge of the
good, provided by philosophy, so that human
beings might lead virtuous and just lives. Platos
critique of tragedy is thus both epistemological
and moral-political in nature. That is, tragedy
interferes with knowledge of the good, first, by
substituting a representation of the good for
the thing itself; and second, by arousing the
irrational parts of the soul. Tragedy does
not educate or train the emotions, as Platos
studentAristotle later argued, but enflames the
passions, leading to a civil war within the
soul (603d).
Platos epistemological critique of tragedy
centers on its imitative form. Tragedy is imitative not only in the mundane sense that the
poets and actors imitate different characters,
but in a deeper sense insofar as tragedy is
concerned only with appearances and a semblance of the truth. Philosophy, for Plato, is
fundamentally defined as inquiry into the

truth, but tragedy is a medium that teaches its

lessons through fictional narratives. Plato
argues that the poets cannot speak to the truth
or rightness of their claims, because they are
merely vessels for the muses. For example, in
the Apology, an account of Socrates trial and
death, the philosopher challenges the supposed
wisdom of the poets by insisting that they
create their stories not through knowledge
but through divine intervention (Plato 1969:
In The Republic, Plato extends this epistemological critique of tragedy in the process of
developing a more elaborate theory of
knowledge. Platos system relies on distinctions
between true forms, which are timeless and
universal qualities (for example, the form of
the Good); representations of those forms
(such as built objects); and representations of
those representations, such as paintings (1968,
509c511e). Platos most famous illustration of
his theory of knowledge is provided by the
image of a cave (514a518d), where prisoners
watch the shadows of puppets dance along the
cave wall, unaware that what they are watching
is twice removed from the truth. Later, Plato
asserts that the tragic poets, like painters, can
produce only copies of copies, and as such they
have no grasp of the truth (600e). They create
disorder in the soul by undermining the search
for truth: the imitative poet produces a bad
regime in the soul of each private man by making the phantoms that are very far removed
from the truth and by gratifying the souls foolish part (605b). For Plato, the audience members at the tragic festival were akin to the
prisoners of the cave, entranced by the spectacle of fabricated images and unaware of their
If the stories of the tragic poets had an ennobling effect on their audience, then they might
overcome their epistemological shortcomings.
After all, Plato embraces noble lies to reinforce political and religious unity (414c), and
he accepts poets into his ideal polis if they
would restrict themselves to hymns to the
gods and eulogies to good people (607a).
However, tragedy as a whole dramatizes

suffering, ambiguous ethical situations, and
good characters suffering bad luck. Such narratives have adverse consequences for individual
morality and social order. They are impious
and harmful to people who hear them (391e).
This leads Plato to endorse the censorship of
poetry in the city in speech: such tales must
cease, for fear that they sow a strong proclivity
for badness in the young (392a).
Platos hostility toward tragedy is deeply
connected with his attitude toward democracy.
The Republic presents a city in speech, an
attempt by Plato to illustrate the virtues of the
individual soul to an audience of young men
who are questioning the concept of justice
(368b). In this context, Plato seems to view
democracy as a larger metaphor for the disorder unleashed by tragedy, just as the ideal
city in speech is a metaphor for the virtuous
soul. The emphasis within Athenian democracy on equality among citizens exemplified
by the selection of officers by lottery and by the
reliance on majority rule within the assembly
levels the distinctions between the educated
and the ignorant, the virtuous and the vicious.
The democratic polis is full of freedom and
freedom of speech; it is where each citizen can
arrange his own life in whatever manner
pleases him (557b). By definition, then, democratic regimes are unjust, since they encourage
citizens to play a variety of roles and they distribute a sort of equality to both equals and
unequals alike (558c). Democracy empowers
the lowly and the ignorant, just as tragedy cultivates the spirited and erotic parts of the soul.
The result is injustice, chaos, civil war, and ultimately tyranny (562a). Just as individual virtue
depends on eliminating the educative force of
the tragic poets, justice in the city depends
upon an ordered regime controlled by philosopher kings.
While Platos criticisms of tragedy and
democracy seem unrelenting in their severity,
contemporary political theorists including
Peter Euben have contextualized these criticisms within Platos debts to the intellectual
traditions and political practices that defined
the Athenian polis (Euben 1990). Moreover,

these theorists have emphasized the dramatic,

and even tragic, elements within Platos dialogues, which complicate the apparent dismissal of poetry in the Republic. The very form
of Platos philosophy shows a debt conscious
or unconscious to the tragic genre.

Aristotle and the Rehabilitation

Aristotles Poetics is a foundational text in the
study of tragedy in any discipline, including
political thought. Any discussion of tragedy as
a literary genre must at some point grapple
with Aristotles famous definition: the imitation of an action that is serious with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to
accomplish its katharsis of such emotions
(1984: 1449b). The meanings of particular
terms have been contested, but Aristotles definition of tragedy has remained remarkably
authoritative and has been applied over time to
forms of drama far beyond those of classical
Greece. The very nature of Aristotles inquiry
implicitly challenges Platos critique and stands
at the beginning of efforts to rehabilitate
tragedy in the history of political thought.
However, the Poetics never explicitly ascribes a
political purpose or teaching to tragedy, a surprising omission for a thinker who was centrally concerned with politics and familiar with
the civic context of Greek theater.
Aristotles definition of tragedy accepts
Platos view of the genre as an imitative and
emotional art. However, in contrast to Plato,
Aristotle explicitly affirms the imitative aspects
of tragedy. Aristotle begins his inquiry into
poetry with the assertions that human beings
are imitative and learn through imitation
(1448b). Aristotle praises classical tragedy as a
fine art that attained its final and natural
form in the tragedies of Aeschylus and
Sophocles (1449a). He further argues that
tragedy is more philosophical than history
because its deals with universals, or representative characters and stories, rather than
particular individuals and events (1451b). In
contrast to Plato, Aristotle seems to see the

imitative medium of tragedy as potentially
aligned with the pursuit of truth.
The Poetics also reflects a more favorable
assessment of the emotions associated with
tragedy. Aristotle praises tragedy for aiming at
the arousal of pity and fear, and recommends
paradigmatic plot devices to maximize these
effects, including the ironic peripeteia, or
reversal of expectations; and anagnorisis, or
moment of recognition (1452a). Aristotle
praises Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannos as the
paradigmatic narrative for eliciting pity and
fear through these devices (1452a; 1453ab;
1455a). In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics,
Aristotle applies the doctrine of the mean to
the passions. There Aristotle acknowledges
that pity and fear can take extreme forms, but
he also claims that they can be experienced in a
correct way: to feel them at the right times
and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of
excellence (1106b). Although the concept of
katharsis arguably implies that Aristotle values
the moderation or eventual purgation of the
tragic emotions, the Poetics illustrates a
complex view that genuinely values the tragic
emotions, at least in limited circumstances,
rather than seeing them as opposite to or inherently incompatible with rational thought. At
the same time, Aristotle neglects to directly
challenge the ultimate superiority of reason to
emotion and philosophy to poetry.
There is little question that Aristotles
treatment of tragedy is more favorable than
Platos, but considerable debate remains over
the extent and larger implications of these
departures. One view is that Aristotle recovers
important but limited benefits of tragedy, while
reaffirming the ultimate superiority of philosophy. (For example, Hegels attempt to reconcile art and philosophy draws heavily upon the
Poetics.) Critics, however, see Aristotles rehabilitative project as a domestication, rather
than vindication, of tragedy. According to this
view, tragedy is a source of insight into the
fundamental chaos of human life, fundamentally at odds with any philosophical attempt to
see the world as a rational order. Aristotle, in

this view, follows Plato in taking for granted

the inherent value of morality and supremacy
of philosophy, while obscuring the implications of tragic insight. (As we argue below,
Nietzsche is a particularly noteworthy critic in
this tradition.)
Others have argued that rather than domesticating tragedy, Aristotle conceptualizes tragedy
and philosophy as overlapping and mutually
enriching, complicating the binary oppositions
between tragedy and philosophy, chaos and
order, and emotion and reason. In this view,
Aristotle infuses philosophy with a genuine
sense of tragedy, shifting philosophy in a more
humanistic direction that honors the richness
and complexity of moral life, including the
emotions (Nussbaum 1986). Accordingly,
Aristotle sees the tragic emotions as legitimate
and valuable ethical resources, especially for
practical situations in which theoretical reason
fails to resolve ethical problems. Aristotle
defends tragedy against philosophy, and in so
doing he supplements philosophy with new
forms of inquiry that exceed Platos narrow form
of rational inquiry into the Idea of the Good.
Aristotles thought falls short of any direct or
explicit challenge to Platos interwoven critiques
of tragedy and democracy. Aristotle never gives
tragedy serious consideration for a claim to be
the highest human activity, nor does the Poetics
contain any explicit vindication of democratic
regimes. Nevertheless, since the time of Aristotle,
a remarkable consensus in philosophy has
treated tragedy with a sense of legitimacy and an
undeniable role to play in human flourishing.

Hegel: Ethical Conflict and

As the performance of tragedy spread beyond
the Greek polis through the Renaissance and
into the Enlightenment, Aristotles view of
tragedy as a fine art continued to dominate
western culture. In the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, the larger philosophical
and political implications of tragedy became
topics of particular urgency among German
romantic and idealist thinkers (Steiner 1961).

G. W. F. Hegel was a central figure in these
developments. Building upon Aristotles rehabilitation of tragedy, Hegels thought aims at
comprehensive logical syntheses of art and philosophy, reason and emotion, and conflict and
order. The distinctive feature of Hegels understanding of tragedy is his central focus on
themes of ethical conflict and reconciliation.
Even if they disagree with Hegels conclusions,
contemporary scholars such as Martha
Nussbaum are indebted to Hegel for their
studies of ethical conflict in tragedy (Steiner
1961; Nussbaum 1986; Vernant and VidalNaquet 1990). Although Hegel maintains Platos
view of philosophy as the ultimate human task,
like Aristotle, he regards tragedy as a complementary expression of the human spirit, fully
compatible with and developmentally necessary to the insights of philosophy.
According to Hegels system, absolute
spirit is the unity of subjective spirit
(individual self-consciousness) and objective
spirit (the collective social world, including
the structures of the family, civil society, and
the state). This harmony is expressed in the
trinity of art, religion, and philosophy. Despite
obvious differences, Hegel sees this trinity as
expressing the same underlying content: the
unity of ideal and real, freedom and necessity,
individuals and their social world. Art achieves
this unity through intuition, while philosophy
employs rational thought, but both express the
unity of subjective and objective spirit. Within
this framework, tragedy, according to Hegels
Lectures on Fine Art, points through and
beyond itself (1998: 9) and is therefore
the highest stage of poetry and of art generally (1158). Rather than a source of conflict
and disorder, in Hegels system tragedy
becomes an expression of the unity and
rationality of the world.
Hegels analysis centers on the distinct ability
of tragedy to portray complex ethical conflicts.
According to Hegel, each character in tragedy
embodies a pathos, a legitimate ethical principle that establishes the sympathy of the audience. For example, in his influential reading of
the Antigone, Hegel views Antigone and Creon

as equal protagonists representing the unconscious bonds of the family and the human law
of the state, respectively (Hegel 1977). Hegel
argues that tragic heroes are driven to actions
for which they are culpable in a specific ethical
sense, due to the one-sided nature of the
pathos. Although their ethical principles are
independently sound, circumstances drive
them into conflict, pushing them to extremes.
The inevitable conflict provides the central
action of the drama: For although the characters have a purpose which is valid in itself, they
can carry it out in tragedy only by pursuing it
one-sidedly and so contradicting and infringing
someone elses purpose (1977: 1197).
According to Hegel, tragedy not only problematizes ethical dilemmas, but also provides a
sense of Vershnung, or reconciliation. Applying his dialectical logic, Hegel argues that
tragedy reveals the excesses of the protagonists
while restoring the unity of their essential principles: In tragedy the eternal substance of
things emerges victorious in a reconciling way,
because it strips away their false onesidedness, while the positive elements it displays as what is to be retained, without discord
but affirmatively harmonized (1199). This
means that the ethical conflicts are not, in fact,
conflicts in any fundamental sense. Tragic reconciliation results in the cancellation of conflicts as conflicts, thereby restoring the unity of
the ethical system (1215). While a primitive
consciousness (like that of an innocent child)
may have an undeveloped sense of unity,
tragedy provides a more absolute reconciliation by confronting and working through
compelling ethical conflicts.
In Hegels dialectical logic, tragedy arouses
emotions in order to purge them; problematizes ethical conflict to restore order; and
questions the state to deepen its authority.
Tragedy brings the audience to despair only to
supply a more powerful sense of reconciliation. Far from a disruptive force, tragedy
provides an intuitive reconciliation that is
necessary for and leads logically toward philosophys rational ordering of individuals and
the social world.

Nietzsche: The Origins of Tragedy

andthe Revaluation of Philosophy
Friedrich Nietzsches interpretation of tragedy
and Greek culture has become a touchstone for
contemporary understandings of the genre
(Silk and Stern 1981). This has happened in
spite of the fact that Nietzsches primary text on
tragedy, The Birth of Tragedy, was controversial
when it was published and was dismissed by
most classicists at the time (Nietzsche 2000;
Nietzsche 1954: 8). Nevertheless, Nietzsches
reading of tragedy is valuable today not only
for its novel theses about the origins and
decline of tragic drama in ancient Greece, but
also for how it challenges earlier approaches to
tragedy including those of Plato, Aristotle, and
Hegel. In contrast to all of these thinkers,
Nietzsche radically embraces the chaotic and
irrational aspects of human experience, and he
views philosophy as a creative rather than
truth-seeking activity. The Birth of Tragedy,
moreover, stands as an important foundation
for some of Nietzsches most important ideas,
such as the will to power. Although Nietzsche
is often understood as a deeply antipolitical
thinker, his philosophy, formed through
repeated encounters with tragedy, has become
a central point of departure for postmodern
theorists skeptical of claims to universal moral
principles and in search of alternative foundations for political life.
Tragedy for Nietzsche represented the conjoining of two different sources of artistic
creativity, which he called the Apollonian and
the Dionysian. The first emphasizes harmony
and structure, while the second refers to the
ecstatic energies of nature, the collapse of
structure, and complete self-forgetfulness
(Nietzsche 2000, I, 36). Apollonian art was
characterized by measure and order, while
Dionysian art invoked wild and irruptive forces
associated with the gods cultic worship. For
Nietzsche, Greek tragedy was a reconciliation
or treaty of peace between these aesthetic
values (II, 39). Through his genealogy of
tragedy, Nietzsche seeks to return to its origins
and recover its Dionysian elements.

A key difficulty in evaluating Nietzsches

concept of tragedy is that it centers on forms of
tragedy that are barely recognizable to most
modern audiences, reflecting what some characterize as an excessive preoccupation with its
origins rather than the genre as a whole (Else
1967). Nevertheless, Nietzsche locates the
essence of tragedy in its ritualistic history, when
it lacked actors, dialogue, and the characteristic
plots of reversal and downfall that later came to
typify the genre. Nietzsche instead focuses
almost exclusively on the role of the tragic
chorus. As he puts it, tragedy was originally
only chorus and nothing but chorus (VII, 56).
This leads Nietzsche to the unorthodox view
that tragedy had already begun to decline during what most regard as its classical period.
Nietzsches claims about Greek art and society
as represented by its tragic dramas challenged
the dominant image of classical Greek culture at
the time. The great architectural, cultural, and
aesthetic achievements of the ancient Greeks
were held for millennia as the summit of western civilization. This sentiment was summed up
by classicist Johann Winckelmann, for whom
the ancient Greeks were characterized by noble
simplicity and calm grandeur (2006: 82). For
Nietzsche, however, the dominant characteristic
of the Greeks was not the Apollonian emphasis
on order and moderation, but was instead the
Dionysian spirit of excess and formlessness.
Greek tragedy was not so much a demonstration
of the Greeks civilized qualities, but the means
by which they knew and felt the terror and horror of existence (Nietzsche 2000: III, 42). Rather
than representing the culmination of Greek
enlightenment, Nietzsche saw the philosophies
of Plato and Aristotle as displacing the tense
balance between order and disorder, harmony
and chaos that tragedy represented.
Nietzsches valorization of the Dionysian
spirit of tragedy is in sharp contrast to Platos critique of tragic drama. For both Plato and
Nietzsche, tragedy puts its audience into contact
with the passionate and chaotic forces of life. Yet
for Nietzsche these experiences represent the
heights of Greek artistic achievement, whereas
for Plato they are the sign of cultural decay and a

bellwether for political turmoil. For Nietzsche,
the deep suffering portrayed in tragedy is an
ennobling experience, whereas for Plato it is a
degradation of the human soul. According to
Plato, the just and virtuous man suffers the least,
even if he is being actively persecuted, harassed,
or in the case of Socrates executed by the
state. For Nietzsche, on the other hand, the
suffering portrayed in tragedy and conveyed
through the choral music is the basis for an overcoming of the narrow life of moral rectitude in
the name of creative individual achievements.
For Nietzsche, it was the moralistic rejection
of Dionysian excess that infiltrated Greek
tragedy and led to its demise through the teachings of Socrates. This spirit appeared on the
tragic stage through the plays of Euripides,
under whose influence tragedy alienated itself
as much as possible from the Dionysian
elements (XII, 72). Euripides aesthetic
Socratism de-emphasized the role of the
chorus and made the dialectical arguments
between the actors the central dramatic element.
For Nietzsche, Euripides further embodied a
Socratic optimism that demanded poetic justice, whereby the suffering hero onstage is ultimately redeemed, often through the last-minute
appearance of the deity (XVIII, 111). For
Nietzsche, Euripidean drama supplants the
Dionysian joy of existence in all its horrible,
terrible ugliness with a philosophical demand
for justice and earthly happiness (XVIII, 111).
This process was completed by Aristotle, who
Nietzsche saw as domesticating tragedy by subjecting works of art to ethical rather than
aesthetic standards (XXII, 132). Aristotle takes
for granted Platos view of philosophy as inquiry
into certain knowledge of the good, thereby
obscuring the true implications of tragic insight.
Through dialectic and the redemptive force of
the deus ex machina, Greek drama lost its connection with its Dionysian roots.
Although Nietzsche grew disenchanted with
The Birth of Tragedy, several themes from this
text reappear in his later work. Following the
decline of tragedy, Nietzsche saw western culture
as internalizing Platos view of philosophy as
the pursuit of true moral principles. Nietzsche

recast the contrast between Dionysian tragedy

and Socratic philosophy in his later work as a
struggle between a creative and life-affirming
philosophy and a Judeo-Christian tradition that
called upon individuals to discipline their desires
and impulses to fit a socially constructed moral
system. By contrast, in works such as Thus Spoke
Zarathustra, Nietzsche located within the Greek
fascination with Dionysus a primal will to
power, an ability to transcend moral systems
(1954: I: XV). Although often misunderstood
as a demand for power political or otherwise
over others, the concept of the will to power
captures, above all else, Nietzsches spirit of
creativity. If moral values are created rather than
discovered, the supposed quarrel between philosophy and poetry is nullified. Instead of
divining moral truths, both are concerned with
the testing, evaluation, and creation of values.
Nietzsches main concern from the early texts
on tragedy until the end of his active career was
creating philosophical texts that could, like
poetry, empower individuals who have grown
dissatisfied with accepted patterns of life to will
their own greatness.

Tragedy and Gender: Psychoanalytic

and Anthropological Traditions
Despite its democratic ideals, the Greek polis
excluded women from citizenship and created a
rigidly gendered division of labor in both public
and private life. As a genre that began as a constitutive ritual of citizenship, a critical question
in the history of political thought is the extent to
which tragedy reflects, contributes to, and perhaps problematizes gender norms (Goldhill
1997). This in turn raises the question of
whether larger political and philosophical distinctions implicated in tragedy such as public
and private, citizen and noncitizen, reason and
emotion turn on the exclusion of women.
According to the dominant view reflected in
classical texts of political thought, tragedy
expresses conflicts between deviant erotic
desires and normative family and political
structures. Whether their unit of analysis is the
healthy individual or society as a whole, classic

works in phenomenological, psychoanalytic,
and anthropological traditions see tragedy as
reinforcing gender norms and kinship systems
by dramatizing the negative consequences of
their transgression, even in complex and
understandable circumstances.
For example, Hegel conceives of Antigone as
representing the feminine, irrational, and
unconscious aspects of human nature, in contrast to the rational law of the state. The play
describes women as the eternal irony of
community because the family is necessary
for the reproduction of the citizenry, yet creates
obligations that appear to be in conflict with
the state (Hegel 1977: 288).
In psychoanalytic theory, Freuds classic
works appropriate the Oedipus story as an
illustration of erotic and aggressive desires that
are repressed in the course of individual and
social development. According to this account,
internal erotic compulsions force humans into
a traditional family structure; yet these same
kinship relations breed an intense form of
conflict conscious and unconscious that
plagues human relations. This irresolvable
conflict mirrors the struggle between order
and chaos in Greek tragedy (Freud 1961: 956).
Yet in offering this narrative, Freud arguably
reifies kinship and gender norms and neglects
their socially constructed character.
Just as classical psychoanalysis has held
tragedy to reflect normal patterns of individual
development, anthropology has historically
held tragedy to reflect fundamental social patterns. Claude Lvi-Strauss, a leading influence
on structuralist anthropology, sees the Oedipus
myth as a reflection of the incest taboo, a
prohibition that is at the foundation of all social
life (1969). Whether tragedy is seen as affirming or complicating the fundamental binary
value systems of Greek culture (such as male
female, statefamily, civilizedbarbaric) contemporary classical scholarship is deeply
indebted to structuralist theory (Vernant &
Vidal-Naquet 1990; Goldhill 1997: 3316).
In the late twentieth century, however, more
progressive views of tragedy and its implications
for gender identity have emerged. To many

feminist political theorists, Antigone has represented possible models for feminist resistance
to patriarchy and the state. A key issue within
this literature is whether the Antigone celebrates femininity or subverts gender distinctions altogether. For example, Jean Elshtain
(1991) appeals to Antigone as a model for feminist politics rooted in the distinct experiences
of women in social and familial settings
independent of the state. Luce Irigaray (1985)
sees in the play a melancholic drama of the
essential differences between masculine and
feminine consciousness. In contrast, Judith
Butler (2000) sees Antigone not as a vindication
of feminine identity but rather as a challenge to
all gender and kinship systems. Relatedly, postcolonial scholars have deployed tragic themes
to avoid excessively romantic narratives of
emancipation (Scott 2004). Despite important
differences, these works have a strong affinity
with recent classicist scholarship that has come
to see tragedy as complicating or problematizing the exclusions of the polis while simultaneously celebrating its democratic ideals
(Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990; Goldhill
1990). As reflected in this debate, political theorists have nearly inexhaustible resources at their
disposal within the genre of tragedy, yet
inherent in the genre is a degree of ambiguity
that prevents any lasting consensus. This sense
of the complexity and ambiguity of the human
condition may be the most important contribution that tragedy has made to political theory.
SEE ALSO: Aristotle (384322 bce); Athenian
Democracy ; Epistemology ; Ethics; Euben, J. Peter
(1939); Freud, Sigmund (18561939); Gender and
Sex; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (17701831);
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (18441900);
Nussbaum, Martha Craven (1947); Passions;
Plato(429347 bce); Reason
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ed. J. Barnes, vol. 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.
Butler, J. (2000) Antigones Claim: Kinship between
Life and Death. New York: Columbia University

Carter, D. M. (2004) Was Attic Tragedy
Democratic? Polis: The Journal of the Society for
Greek Political Thought, 21 (12), 125.
Else, G. (1967) The Origin and Early Form of Greek
Tragedy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Elshtain, J. B. (1991) Antigones Daughters. In
W.McElroy (Ed.), Freedom, Feminism, and the
State: An Overview of Individualist Feminism.
New York: Holmes & Meier, pp. 6175.
Euben, J. (Ed.) (1986) Greek Tragedy and Political
Theory. Berkeley : University of California Press.
Euben, J. (1990) The Tragedy of Political Theory:
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Goldhill, S. (1990) The Great Dionysia and Civic
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Irigaray, L. (1985) Speculum of the Other Woman.
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Lvi-Strauss, C. (1969) The Elementary Structures of

Kinship. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Meier, C. (1993) The Politics of Greek Tragedy.
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Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, NC:
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Silk, M. S. and Stern, J. P. (1981) Nietzsche on
Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Steiner, G. (1961) The Death of Tragedy. New
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The Wire. (20028) Created by D. Simon
[TVdrama]. USA: HBO.