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Genealogy of the Tragic

Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy

Joshua Billings
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Genealogy of the Tragic
    Book Description:

    Why did Greek tragedy and "the tragic" come to be seen as essential to conceptions of modernity? And how has this belief affected modern understandings of Greek drama? InGenealogy of the Tragic, Joshua Billings answers these and related questions by tracing the emergence of the modern theory of the tragic, which was first developed around 1800 by thinkers associated with German Idealism. The book argues that the idea of the tragic arose in response to a new consciousness of history in the late eighteenth century, which spurred theorists to see Greek tragedy as both a unique, historically remote form and a timeless literary genre full of meaning for the present. The book offers a new interpretation of the theories of Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Hölderlin, and others, as mediations between these historicizing and universalizing impulses, and shows the roots of their approaches in earlier discussions of Greek tragedy in Germany, France, and England. By examining eighteenth-century readings of tragedy and the interactions between idealist thinkers in detail,Genealogy of the Tragicoffers the most comprehensive historical account of the tragic to date, as well as the fullest explanation of why and how the idea was used to make sense of modernity. The book argues that idealist theories remain fundamental to contemporary interpretations of Greek tragedy, and calls for a renewed engagement with philosophical questions in criticism of tragedy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5250-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Note on Translations, Citations, and Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Tragedy and Philosophy around 1800
    (pp. 1-16)

    Tragedy is the most philosophical of art forms. The reasons may be historically contingent, but the consequences have been profound. No form of art has inspired as much theoretical reflection, or been as important to the development of philosophy. This interrelation of text and theory, which reaches from Greek antiquity to the present, results largely from the survival of Aristotle’sPoetics. Aristotle, writing in the mid-fourth century BC, gave an account of tragedy’s constitution and effect that has influenced nearly all philosophical understandings of the genre—and of poetry in general—since. Tragedy is the only form to arrive in...

  6. Tragic Modernities

    • CHAPTER 1 Quarreling over Tragedy
      (pp. 19-44)

      Antiquity or modernity? Today, the question seems incoherent. Even if “antiquity” and “modernity” were clearly defined, the notion of comparing the merits of one age to another seems both pointless and perilous. Antiquity was one thing; modernity is another. There is no general method of evaluating ages or cultures. If we speak of ancients and moderns in the same breath, it may be with an eye to understanding their differences and similarities, but never to declaring the absolute superiority of one over the other. Evaluating entire epochs is not the work of serious thinkers, any more than debating the relative...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Antiquity of Tragedy
      (pp. 45-72)

      Historicization, in something like its modern form, enters discussions of Greek tragedy around 1770. Historicizing elements have been important in discussions of tragedy throughout the eighteenth century—especially in Brumoy and his readers—but they become newly self-conscious in the latter third. Though the conclusions drawn are often not radically new, they are articulated more systematically than previously. Thought about tragedy feeds on ulterior discussions of ancient political systems (most importantly, that of Montesquieu) and of ancient epic (especially those of Robert Wood and John Brown), but the most significant factor may be a change in the status of poetics,...

  7. Tragic Themes

    • CHAPTER 3 Revolutionary Freedom
      (pp. 75-104)

      Two revolutions, the French and the Kantian, contributed to making the concept of freedom newly tragic for German thinkers of the 1790s.“Freedom” can mean many things, but the sense in which it is used in idealist discussions of tragedy is uniquely post-Revolutionary and post-Kantian, reflecting both the political sense of freedom as liberation from arbitrary hierarchy (as opposed to tyranny) and the metaphysical sense of freedom as lack of external determination, (as opposed to necessity). Both of these strands could be linked with tragedy before the 1790s, but the combination of the two in reflections on the sublime from 1792...

    • CHAPTER 4 Greek and Modern Tragedy
      (pp. 105-132)

      “The problem of our poetry appears to me to be the unification of the essentially modern with the essentially ancient,” writes Friedrich Schlegel to his brother in 1794 (27.2.1794:KFSA23, 185). This could describe the program for much of Schlegel’s writing and thought of the 1790s; it could equally apply to Schiller’s “classical dramaturgy” and, in philosophical context, to Schelling’s thought on art. For all three, the challenge for modern artworks and thought on art is to incorporate elements of ancient practice, and to conceive of a possible union of what appear to be opposed principles. The names for...

    • CHAPTER 5 Tragic Theologies
      (pp. 133-158)

      Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin were all trained to be pastors—not philosophers, poets, or philologists.¹ This is often forgotten in discussions of Idealism, but crucial to understanding the reasons why all three turn to tragedy in the 1790s. On leaving the Tübingen Stift—Hegel and Hölderlin in 1793, and Schelling in 1795—they were expected to enter the clergy of Württemberg, the duchy in the southwest of Germany in which they grew up. In Tübingen, they had received five years of education free of charge, of which the latter three were devoted to theology. Their course of study included extensive...

  8. Tragic Texts

    • CHAPTER 6 Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Fate of Tragedy
      (pp. 161-188)

      Tragedy for Hegel is the emergence of union from contradiction. It begins in opposition, as the latent instability of one form of consciousness becomes apparent, and progresses through the destruction of the terms of opposition to a new state of (provisional) stability. In theNatural Lawessay, Hegel described this process at work in the ethical life of societies; in “The Spirit of Christianity,” he demanded it in religious life.The Phenomenology of Spirit(Die Phänomenologie des Geistes) treats tragedy both as a model for historical processes in ancient Greek society, and, for the first time, as a literary genre...

    • CHAPTER 7 Hölderlin’s Sophocles: Tragedy and Paradox
      (pp. 189-221)

      “The meaning of tragedies,” Hölderlin writes in an undated note, “is most easily grasped through paradox” (E&L316;SWB2, 561). Paradox, the co-presentation of opposites, is the guiding principle of Hölderlin’s thought on tragedy. Unity, Hölderlin believes, can only be grasped through difference, presence through absence, continuity through change: “for everything original [alles Ursprungliche], since all potential is justly and equally divided, does not in fact appear in original strength, but actually in its weakness” (E&L316;SWB2, 561). The tragic is based on a tension between an infinite signified and its finite signifier, in which “the sign...

    • EXODOS: Births of the Tragic
      (pp. 222-234)

      The concept of the tragic emerged from a few small, interconnected circles, centered geographically on the Weimar/Jena area (with a few satellites), over the fifteen years between Schiller’s first essay on the tragic sublime in 1792 and Hegel’sPhenomenologyin 1807. During these years, a sense of the “spiritual violence of the time” (Hölderlin’s words) extending to political, philosophical, artistic, and religious life seems to have been powerfully and widely felt, and the turn to tragedy is best understood as a response to these forms of upheaval. Though this revolutionary moment has passed, responses to it constitute a central element...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-250)
  10. Index
    (pp. 251-258)