Tragedy and Philosophy

2009 Film ‘Stoning of Soraya M’ by Director Cyrus Nowrasteh

1. What is tragedy?

The word tragedy (τραγῳδία) takes its roots from the Greek words, tragos (τραγος) and oide (ᾠδή). It literally just means, “goat-song” (or, “song of the goat”).

Although there are many suggestions, scholars have no definite explanation for how this dramatic art form came to be called ‘tragedy’. What is known is that sometimes goats were offered as sacrifices during important rituals and ceremonies. So possibly the tragedy is somehow derivative of these rituals. It is also a well-known fact that tragedy as a dramatic art form flourished only in Athens at the time.

There are many important features of tragedy. But instead of giving a very technical outline of all these features, I will only present the features which are relevant to the purposes of this post. (As a forewarning, some of my descriptions may go against or are not mentioned in the standard descriptions of the features of tragedy, typically taken from Aristotle’s Poetics.)

♦ One relevant feature of ancient tragedy is the chorus. The chorus is a group of actors who represent the voice of the “many.” In contrast, the protagonist’s voice is of the “one.” The chorus provides the protagonist with a dynamic context; a context from which the protagonist can discover his or her own unique voice.

♦ Another key feature of the ancient tragedy is the protagonist’s character. The protagonist is not permitted to have major character flaws. In this way, the protagonist is very much like a sacrificial goat, since sacrificial goats are always chosen for their purity, wholeness, and beauty. Aristotle speaks of a “hamartia” (ie, “fatal flaw”) that seems to make the protagonist responsible for his or her ill fortunes. However, on my view, this is not the case. If the protagonist does have a fatal flaw, then it is rooted in something external to the character himself/herself — such as invoking the jealousy of the gods.

♦ Finally, the protagonist’s fate is one that is determined by the gods based on their own arbitrary agendas. From the point of view of the protagonist, his or her suffering may simply seem to be case of very bad luck. One often feels pity for the protagonist because it is apparent to the audience that the hero has been singled out by the gods to be the object of intense suffering for no justifiable reason — except that it is simply what the gods have chosen for the protagonist.

These special features make tragedy distinct from any other dramatic art form.

In a sense, the protagonist is the sacrificial goat chosen by the gods. Within the framework of tragedy, the victim takes center stage; the story of the sacrifice is told from the point of view of the blameless victim. The noise of the goat grows ever more human, until the goat’s song finally becomes utterances which the audience can understand. The audience is able to see itself reflected in the eyes of the victim, as the aggressor and the god; while at the same time, the audience realizes that it stands in relation to the gods as the sacrificial goat stands in relation to us. In this way, the goat’s song is intended to evoke empathy in the audience for the victim. Finally, empathy annihilates hubris.

2. Why tragedy?

Aristotle suggested in his Poetics that the purpose of tragedy was to facilitate the katharsis of harmful emotions, thereby producing a therapeutic effect. In a sense, this is not incorrect. However, the description is somewhat superficial and incomplete. He also leaves out the mention of a key element: empathy. When genuine empathy enters, hubris leaves because they are opposing spirits. Thus, it was not “pity” which tragedy was intended to invoke, but more truly, empathy. In this regard, I am in disagreement with Aristotle.

Now on my view, tragedy served two primary functions in Athens: to educate, but also to persuade. Its entertaining aspects were a means to facilitate these primary functions.

The medium provided a way to introduce new ideas to the public — not so different from the way that sci-fi movies now often introduce new ideas to its audiences. Sometimes the new idea was simply an insightful perspective on contemporary socio-political situations. The principle of this educative aspect of tragedy is the belief that a person who can see both sides of an issue is in a better position to make sensitive and meaningful contributions to the issue or relationship, than a person who can only see their own point of view.

Tragedy’s other primary function was to persuade the public. Since Athens was a democracy, her citizens were not accustomed to being commanded by masters and rulers. As individual citizens, they each had a right to speak and to be heard in an assembly of fellow citizens. Important matters of state relating to war and law, were decided by the votes of the people. In short, Athens was ruled by her people. Still, Athens was not without her share of individuals from powerful families who occasionally attempted to exert their influence over the city. And one of the most peaceful ways of doing this was to finance the work of a like-minded playwright whose mastery with words could tug at the heart-strings of the public. Persuasion is a subtle art.

Additional questions to think about might be: Why did tragedy flourish only in Athens at the time? Sparta was just as large and as militarily impressive as Athens, if not more. And Corinth had many connections with the outside world. And certainly, many smaller city-states were the hometowns of very clever and famous Sophists. But why didn’t tragedy flourish in any of those other city-states? What makes Athens so special?

3. How is Philosophy related to Tragedy?

Before there was Philosophy, there was Tragedy. Tragedy had its benefits. Its aim was to lead people by means of education and persuasion, in contrast to terror and coercion. Also, being able to see both sides of an issue was an invaluable social and political skill. Finally, inculcating the people with empathy and compassion enriched the culture of Athens and promoted justice.

But the way of Tragedy was destructive to the the best and the brightest. The tradition of Tragedy demanded a life sacrifice. And instead of educating the youth, tragedy tended to confused the younger members of the audience because they often lacked the relevant life experiences to be able to know their own hearts and minds; this made young people particularly vulnerable to the impressionable sights and sounds of the theater. They imitated the trope, and missed the point.

Philosophy was born out of this desire to keep the beneficial elements of Tragedy, while inhibiting its harmful aspects. Through Plato, Athens found a way to appease the harmful spirit of Tragedy, and to turn it into the kinder and beneficial spirit of Philosophy. Through Plato, the spirits of justice became friends to the youth, rather than terrible and bloodthirsty huntresses of criminals.

Philosophy’s purpose is the same as that of Tragedy: to educate and to persuade. But although they have the same purpose and function, their methods differ. Philosophy appeals chiefly to the intellect, while Tragedy appeals chiefly to the emotions. To note, this does not make Philosophy more superior than Tragedy; indeed, there is something to be said about the strength of the holistic nature of the emotions which the intellect lacks. However, if the aim is to educate and to persuade, then it does seem to be a better way at introducing new ideas since thoughts tend to become clearer and more distinct through Socratic dialectic, while they remain entrenched in fuzziness when they are transmitted as a whole through more holistic methods.

If Tragedy is the song of empathy, then Philosophy is the skill/art of friendship. The way of Tragedy is not for everyone, since empathy requires that one enter the skin of the sufferer; the enjoyment of such wines may require great and painful sacrifices. On the other hand, friendship only demands understanding, imagination, and good-will. But ultimately, Philosophy and Tragedy are two sides of the same coin and their common aim is justice.

• Last updated 2017, June 12 @ 9:13 am.

For Further Reading:
♦ Aeschylus, Oresteia
♦ Bertrand Russell, Wisdom of the West (p. 96-97)
Gunnel Ekroth, Castration, Cult and Agriculture: Perspectives on Greek animal sacrifice
♦ Plato, Republic
♦ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music
♦ Kathryn Morgan, Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato
♦ Parmenides, Proem
♦ Herodotus, Histories
♦ Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem