Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

School of Athens
School of Athens, by Raphael. 1509-1511

June 29, 2020

Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us by Simon Critchley. A lean, concentrated, engaging, exasperating look at Greek tragedy and “tragedy’s philosophy.” It is so lean that it feels like a fatter, more conventional book that’s been cooked down into a series of zen koans. I can read only so much at a time, usually in the morning, before it turns opaque and incomprehensible. But in this age of plague, a tyrant and the failure of democracy, a visit to ancient Athens feels right.

Here are a few of the ideas from the book:

Tragedy was performed not for individuals but for the city, a civic event more akin to a trial than to private reverie or religious ritual. Aristotle left this side out of his Poetics.

Gorgias the sophist wrote: “Tragedy . . . creates a deception in which the deceiver is more honest than the non-deceiver, and the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived.” Which is similar to Picasso’s “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

Critchley draws heavily on Hegel’s argument that tragedy is about the conflict between two rights, best illustrated by Antigone. (I first encountered this in Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, a book Critchley never mentions but affects my reading here.) He sets his progressives—Hegel, Marx—against his regressives—Nietzsche, Heidigger—but his strongest words come from Bernard Williams who said in Shame and Necessity that our current ethical condition is not so different from that of the Greeks. We all suffer from moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity. Critchley argues that it’s wrong to see the Greeks as too other, too exotic.

The hero in Greek tragedy is not a solution to the problem: he is the problem. A regular refrain in the plays is “What am I to do? How are we to choose?” The plays are about the disruption of meaning. Justice is conflict. Tragedy is a dialectical mode of experience. Meaning isn’t unified but polytheistic, like Greek religion.

Some of the plays I knowThe Orestia, Oedipus, Philoctetes, The Trojan Women—others I don’t—Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens. I wish he said more about the plays themselves. They are stepping stones through this existential thicket. Critchley makes much of the fact these are war plays, written at a time of war, and that they weren’t timeless but of “the tragic moment.” A xenophobic, sexist society watched plays that featured foreigners and women.

Demokratia is related to theatrokratia, “a theater state” like Geertz’s Bali. I don’t understand what this means yet but I am intrigued. This book, like Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro, is fueled by the triumph of Trump and the failure of democracy.

June 30, 2020

Critchley points out that although we have the complete texts of 31 plays, philosophers only talk about two, Oedipus and Antigone. I’d add the Orestia, but the point is taken. A sharp criticism of the concept of moral psychology—that ethics is part of human psychology—leads to the idea that tragedy disrupts such a connection. But a discussion of Schelling on Spinoza and Kant takes these ideas into the weeds where I couldn’t follow. When Critchley says, “We should get back to theater,” I was overjoyed—but he gives few specifics.

The section on sophistry and Gorgias takes me to more solid ground. In the great contest between tragedy and philosophy, Critchley adds a third force, the sophists. Plato dismissed them as wordplaying relativists, but Critchley takes them more seriously. They were not simply fancy talkers in it for the money, but serious thinkers arriving at different truths. Critchley compares them to Beckett; I was reminded of comic novelists like Sterne and Gogol. Their most effective thinker, Gorgias, survives as the subject of Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, in a few fragments, and in commentary by Sextus Empiricus. His most famous pieces are a defense of Helen and a look at non-being. His clever arguments take us closer to the law courts of Athens, but there’s forensic style in Plato, too, despite his claim he is more interested in truth than cleverness.

So how does sophistry connect to tragedy? The reversals of Euripides in Trojan Women and elsewhere drew on the reversals of Gorgias and others, where the losers are presented as winners, etc. Wordplay and persuasion are tried in Philoctetes, but only Herakles, the deus ex machina, can change the archer’s mind. However, at the end of Trojan Women, Helen defends herself against a death sentence with a lawyerly speech denying her responsibility for the war. Hecuba answers the speech point by point, but Helen still wins.

July 1, 2020

We see the sophists from Plato’s point of view in his dialogues, including Phaedrus and Gorgias. The first is about love and rhetoric, defining the love of philosophy. Critchley calls it a success, although his description suggests the odds are stacked—but they are always stacked in Plato’s dialogues. Gorgias promises to be an argument with the chief sophist, but Gorgias himself barely appears. The antagonist is Callicles, a cynic who speaks an entirely different language. Socrates is a total pain here, talking chiefly to himself and finally admitting he will win in the afterlife. (Philosophy is better than sophistry only in the eyes of the gods: it is “divine” while sophistry is merely human.)

Now we enter The Republic, where Plato launches his full-scale attack against tragedy. It appears to be set in 410 BCE and was written in 380 BCE. (Socrates was put to death in 399 BCE—one of the few dates from the ancient world that I can remember.)

Critchley’s account is clear and readable, constructed around Socrates’ attack on Homer and the tragic poets, first in Book 3, where his emphasis is on education, then in Book 10 where he returns to the subject as a kind of epilogue. Ironies abound. This is a criticism of drama that takes the form of drama itself. Tales of bad behavior by gods need to be deleted as “untrue,” yet truth here means whatever is useful in this ideal city state. “Being dead is not such a terrible thing” is a useful truth for future warriors. Mimesis, the imitation of reality, is bad because it introduces distracting superficiality as well as the irrational. Lamentation makes for exciting tragedies but is bad in real life. Emotional excess must be regulated.

Along the way Socrates deals with the four possible forms of government: timocracy (honor), oligarchy (money), democracy, and tyranny. Democracy looks appealing but is dangerous because it can lead to tyranny. He addresses “the good” in Book VI, which is where we get the parable of the cave, that favorite image of Gallatin students. But the dialogue builds to the exclusion of the tragic poets. One cant help suspecting this is as much about turf war between the philosophers and poets as it is about truth.

Socrates hates tragedy because it gives pleasure. Tragedy is bad because it turns men into women, making them suffer emotionally and cry. Emotions that should be repressed are released, which corrodes democracy and enables the rise of tyrants. (But we’ve seen here that coldness leads to the rise of men like Trump and Bolsonaro.) Comedy is bad, too, because jokes that should be told in private are now made public. After expelling the poets, Socrates closes with his own weird, longwinded fairy tale about Er, a man who returns from the afterlife with a detailed account of what happens to good people and bad people after they die.

Critchley doesn’t defend any of this—how could he?—or claim that it’s ironic, but leaves it as a mysterious puzzle. Indicating he was utterly serious, Plato expanded his view of the afterlife twenty years later with another dialogue, Timaeus.

— Christopher Bram.


Copyright© 2020, by Chistopher Bram. All Rights Reserved.

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