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Reviewed by:
  • Hegel et la tragédie grecque
  • Henry Southgate
Martin Thibodeau. Hegel et la tragédie grecque. Aesthetica. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011. Pp. 240. Paper, €16.

Despite Hegel’s infamous contention that art is a “thing of the past,” a way station on the road to absolute idealism, in this book Martin Thibodeau attempts to show how Hegel’s reflections on Greek tragedy not only develop in tandem with his philosophical system, but also contribute to its development. This ambitious interpretive goal is motivated in part by Thibodeau’s concern to exhibit the abiding philosophical relevance of key Hegelian concepts to the resolution of the “acute and profound crisis that affects the modern Western world” (29). This crisis—now well into its third century—is none other than man’s alienation from himself, society, and political institutions. And its resolution, schematically at least, lies in the proper relation of concepts—e.g. universal and particular, identity and difference, necessity and contingency—that are made manifest in the tragic personages of Orestes, Oedipus, and Antigone.

Hegel’s developing apprehension of these concepts via his study of Greek tragedy is the core subject matter of Thibodeau’s study. That development follows a trajectory familiar to scholars: in his youth, Hegel, like his co-seminarians Hölderlin and Schelling, found in the Greek polis a “model” society and an accord between mortals and gods, which stood in stark contrast to the godless, divided world of late eighteenth-century Europe (119; cf. 126–27). By the writing of the Phenomenology of Spirit (1806/7), however, this notion had lost its hold on Hegel. He came to realize not only that we moderns could not be Greeks, but that the Greeks themselves could not be either—they could not live as a “beautiful totality” (119) because the tensions inherent between their secular and religious norms made stable and harmonious social relations impossible. That, for the mature Hegel, is what Antigone paradigmatically reveals.

For all that, Hegel’s esteem for Greek society remains a constant throughout his thought, and Thibodeau succeeds in showing this, albeit in spite of himself. Through his study of Hegel’s early works, The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate and The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law—to which the first and chapters of his book are devoted, respectively—Thibodeau lucidly presents how Hegel found in Greek tragedy a depiction of a world in which individuals felt themselves to be at one with nature, their fellow men, and the gods because they took themselves to be first of all determined by that network of relations; i.e. they saw themselves as parts of an organic whole. Now this ideal of unity with the whole is one that Hegel certainly never abandons, even if, as Thibodeau rightly observes, he comes to believe that modernity’s problems must be solved in terms of the post-Kantian conception of the individual as autonomous subject that is modernity’s “very principle” (119; cf. 126–27). The task, for Hegel, from his early days on, is to show that such individualism is compatible with an ideal of social holism, because the individual is, in the final analysis, always already [End Page 301] conditioned, but not determined, by the whole set of normative and material relations given in society. This idea—that there can be holism without a thoroughgoing determination of the individual because the individual preserves himself in the face of the universal whole that he reciprocally determines—is what is missing from the Greek conception of “ethical life,” where the individual, and, emblematically, the tragic hero, is “above all a character, a pathos determined by the law to which he naturally belongs” (169).

Regrettably, this idea is also somewhat missing from Thibodeau’s presentation, as his recurring treatment of Hegel’s discussion of the paired concepts of tragic destiny and guilt makes clear. The holistic outlook of Greek society is accompanied by a wider and more severe conception of responsibility or guilt (Schuld), of which the tragic fate marks the most shocking instance. The conception is that, because all of life constitutes a unity, any assault on life, any transgression—even unintentional...


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pp. 301-302
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