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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Ancient Greek Tragedy: The Dionysian Vision.
The Greek understanding of the nature of evil and
man's relation to it cluster around the notion of fate
or necessity. This compelling element in human life
flows mainly from the past. Fate in the Homeric writ-
ings is an altogether obscure power, perhaps dominat-
ing the gods (in its older form) or perhaps obedient
to the gods. It is most important to recognize that this
fate is related to the sense of “noumenous” or divine
power before that power had gone through the ethical
phase of evolution which divided its good from its evil
component. Both fate and the Homeric gods are in-
different to man's ideas of good or of justice. Precisely
the nonhuman character of this power, a character
which shades off into malevolence, is that which is
terrible in itself and strikes terror to man's heart.

In addition, the gods are jealous and send evil fortune
to the man of hybris who dares to rival or to challenge
them. Hybris, although often translated as “pride,” is
not felt as a sin. Yet it is a dangerous possession, for
it dares much and is regarded by Aristotle as a flaw
of the heroic character. Hybris is the quality of self-
confident greatness which makes for heroic virtue. It
is the mask of divinity which certain men tend to
assume and which is destined to be torn from them
to expose the suffering humanity beneath. The presence
of hybris in the persons of Hector, Achilles, or
Agamemnon is their moving element. Such men are
often blinded by a jealous god and brought low ac-
cording to the standards of their world. The tragic
spirit appears in their struggle to remain themselves
and to retain their human dignity despite their check-
mate by fate or by the gods. Though they acknowledge
their defeat by the gods or their domination by fate,
they transform this defeat and this domination into a
kind of bitter victory. The hybris which was their
undoing is also the occasion of their heroism. Thus,
within this context two elements are essential to tragic
action: a fateful power, which is indifferent or hostile
to man, and a hero, one moved by hybris, who fears
this fateful power but yet is undaunted by it.

Aristotle and many recent writers regard tragedy as
a prolongation of the chthonic religion centered around
the birth, life, and death of the god. Indeed the priest-
king, leader of the Dionysiac chorus and ritual scape-
goat, is said to have evolved into the hero of tragedy.
Such a leader is caught up in the inexorable movements
by which time is fulfilled. He is in an admirable posi-
tion for exhibiting the hybris and suffering the fate of
man in conflict with the indifference of time and sea-
sonal change. Even if this genealogy of the tragic hero
were historically incorrect, it would retain an aesthetic
appropriateness, for it accords with the movement of
the whole history of tragedy, to involve others in the
hero's struggle and epiphany. Aeschylus and Sophocles
illustrate especially well the quasi-religious character
of the hero's trial, purifying insight, and its often
revivifying public effect.

Aeschylus made frequent references to the indiffer-
ence of the gods and the nonjustice or injustice of the
events which they let occur. But he also makes explicit
the law that the human good is wisdom and that wis-
dom is linked with suffering (e.g., Agamemnon, 160ff.).
The Prometheus who can suffer without yielding to
the injustice of Zeus is the true purveyor of wisdom
to man. And Orestes, cursed before his birth by the
curse upon the house of Atreus, was condemned by
the gods no matter what choice he would make, yet
he did not remain quiescent nor take refuge in suicide
but pressed active obedience to the limit and accepted
the consequent madness with the sacrificial fortitude
which led finally to a change in the order of human
justice. Sophocles dwelt upon the inscrutability of the
gods and of fate, yet he saw heroic virtue in learning
of the human status and in retaining it in spite of

Euripides seemed to judge the gods to be irrational,
and hence he turned with the practicality of the
Sophists to study man's struggle with other persons or
with himself in his effort to dominate his own destruc-
tive passions. His last play, the Bacchae, tells of Agave's
discovery of the destructive character of a Dionysian
fertility cult to which she was fondly attached.
Pentheus, her son, slain by her and the chorus, also
acquired a new evaluation of those passions which he
had mistakenly thought easy to civilize. Perhaps fate
becomes somewhat more humanized in this context,
but it seems to become Apollonian or perspicuous in
principle only with the philosophers.

The tragic vision of these writers, especially of
Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, has always been
regarded as archetypal. The rationale of this evaluation
most likely lies in their intuition of the trans-human
and altogether mysterious character of the evil to
which some men are subject. The remark of Heraclitus
is descriptive of this trans-human quality: “To god all
things are beautiful and good and just, both those which
men call just and those which they call unjust” (frag.
61). The point is the inappropriateness to the divine
of metaphors and explanations drawn from human life
and its conventional values. The source of the evil of
fate is external to man's being; it is visited upon men
by impersonal force or by the nonhuman gods. Such
an evil cannot be said to be deserved, nor to be excus-
able in terms of some obscure cosmic justice, nor to
be explained away by a theodicy. But the significant


point is that certain of the men caught in this net are
not passively resigned; they do not turn away in
neurotic flight; they do not attempt to disguise their
suffering in pious platitudes. On the contrary, these
men around whom the tragic net is drawn become
heroes. To a dark fate and to a superhuman malig-
nancy, they oppose heroic virtue, the straightforward
affirmation of human dignity and freedom.

The tragic sense is traditionally best understood
against the background of this cosmic evil. What good,
what rationality, what order or justice there is does
not exist apart from man. And yet this impersonal and
irrational evil which brings unmerited suffering upon
a man is that which elicits his heroic character and
brings him to those efforts which do build value, order,
rationality, and justice in the world. The inhuman evil
of the cosmos is, thus, ironic in that it is the source
and provocation of human good. It is in the end only
ambiguously evil.

We shall return presently to elements of this classic
view of tragedy which are present in other contexts.
We should first take note of some recent opinions to
the effect that tragedy of an even approximately Greek
kind can no longer be written at all, since the present
climate of belief no longer nourishes the tragic sense.

Confidence in the power of technology to bring
nature and fate itself under our control, to prolong life
indefinitely, to cure suffering, even mental anguish, and
to relieve all human wants by means of applied science
have radically altered beliefs about the universe. They
have also changed human character. The consequence
is that only pathos, not tragedy, is the burden of much
of recent literature. Nietzsche stands solidly with the
view that the powerful Dionysiac conception of man
and his relation to fate cannot be recaptured without
radical and universal changes in human character (cf.
his Birth of Tragedy from The Spirit of Music). Still
attempts to communicate a sense of the tragic do exist
in modern times. To take an example, Thomas Hardy
attempted tragedy, but he is said to have offered only
relatively quiescent actors caught in a fate made up
of unforeseen accidents and mechanical determination.
Again, Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, in Death of a
or the actors in Albee's Who's Afraid of
Virginia Woolf
have their illusions painfully stripped
from them. But their illusions are said to be rather silly
to begin with, and no one of them achieves a notable
insight into human destiny and freedom.

On the other hand, one may speculate that contem-
porary literature of the absurd represents a return to
something like the nonhuman cosmos of the Greek
tragedy. However, emphasis in modern times is cer-
tainly placed upon the indifference rather than upon
the malignancy of fate; one remembers here the final
attitude of Mersault in Camus' L'Étranger or of
Bertrand Russell in “A Free Man's Worship.” But again
in modern times this fate or natural law is understood
to be penetrable by the scientific intellect and even
to be determinable by technology. At the same time,
man is seen as just another sort of object within this
universe. Thus, he tends in some recent writing to lose
his unique status and his human value. He tends to
fade into the cosmic background of objects. Samuel
Beckett's characters in Endgame or in Krapp's Last
appear to be losing their human identity, and in
Robbe-Grillet's novels objects may be more important
than people just because they are not people. This
meaningless modern cosmos has lost its ironic charac-
ter; likewise, modern man has lost his tragic resolution
and his hybris. He has become as meaningless as the
cosmos itself. Thus, if the literature of the absurd pre-
serves some awareness of the nonhuman character of
the cosmos, its writers do not communicate the con-
viction that man retains the power of reaching tragic
proportions within it.