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  • Conflict and Reconciliation in Hegel’s Theory of the Tragic
  • J. G. Finlayson

Ἂϱης Ἂϱει ξυμβαλεῖ, Δίϰᾳ Διϰα. (Κοεφοϱοι 461)

this article has two related aims: to expound and defend Hegel’s theory of the tragic; and to clarify Hegel’s concept of reconciliation. These two aims are related in that a widespread, but misleading, conception of the tragic and a common, but mistaken, understanding of Hegel’s concept of reconciliation can seem to offer mutual support. According to the misleading conception, the tragic consists in the defeat of human lives and projects that arises from irresolvable conflict. Goethe is the most notable exponent of this view. In 1824 Goethe writes that “everything tragic rests on irresolvable opposition. As soon as resolution enters or becomes possible the tragic vanishes.”1 The mistaken understanding of Hegel’s concept of reconciliation is that it consists in a triumphal and wholly affirmative resolution of contradiction through the attainment of harmony. It is easy to see how the two views support one another. For Hegel presents the tragic as a dialectic of conflict and reconciliation in human action, a dialectic in which the moment of reconciliation is ineliminable. So, if one conceives reconciliation as an harmonious resolution of conflict and one also subscribes to Goethe’s view that the tragic rests on irreconcilable opposition, one is not likely to take Hegel’s theory of the tragic very seriously. If, however, we keep in mind what Hegel means by ‘reconciliation, ’ then we can begin both to understand and to defend his theory of the tragic. [End Page 493]


Let us begin with a preliminary delineation and defense of the concept of the tragic. Hegel does not have a theory of tragedy, he has a theory of the tragic. A theory of tragedy would be genre-specific, a theory about tragedies, the works of theater and not the pitiable and terrifying events they represent.2 Aristotle’s Poetics is a theory of tragedy. It is a theory about the composition of tragic poems, about their parts and their function. One can call a theory of tragedy loosely an ‘aesthetic’ theory, to the extent that it is a theory of the experience of a work of tragedy, indeed for the ancient Greeks, an experience not just of beholding but of participating in the performance of a tragedy. By contrast, a theory of the tragic is not a theory about tragedies. It is not genre specific, for not only tragedies are tragic. And neither is it an ‘aesthetic’ theory about the experience of a work of tragedy. Rather, it is a theory about what makes a work of theater into a tragedy, about what it is to be a tragedy. True, the essence of tragedy has to do with experience, but it has to do primarily with the experience of the tragic hero, not the experience of the actor or the spectator.

Furthermore, whereas a theory of tragedy tells us something about tragedies, a theory of the tragic tells us something about human experience, human actions and the ethical-life of a community in which the actions are played out.3 The tragic arises from the way in which institutions, customs, and practices within which we become what we are, shape our actions on the one hand, and take shape through our actions on the other. Hence the question of the tragic enjoys a certain priority over the question of tragedy. The works of theater we call tragedies exist because of the tragic, not vice versa.

There is another reason why we should grant that the question of the tragic as such is interesting and relevant. Tragedy is not a vague term; historically at least the matter of classification has been settled. It is not as if, in significant instances, it is impossible to decide whether a work of ancient drama is or is not a tragedy. Lebeck may argue, rather unconvincingly that the trial scene in the Eumenides is a parody of Athenian litigation; but she does not dispute that it is a tragedy.4 Steiner may claim that “tragedies end badly,” in flagrant disregard of the evidence, (the Eumenides of Aeschylus, and Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Oedipus at...