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  • Vision and Knowledge in Greek Tragedy*
  • Chiara Thumiger (bio)

It is to be expected that the problematization of seeing features importantly in theater, especially so in tragedy, since it emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge and the process of human ‘learning’ from experience.1 First, the sense of sight is central to human existence and is, at the same time, a characteristically close and remote experience. As Robert Michaels (1986, 303) explains, “Seeing is immediate, personal; it carries conviction … Vision is also the most distant, the least inner of perceptions. We can touch, smell, feel and even hear the inside of our body, but never see it.” Seeing is ‘biologically’ the most self-evident and forceful of the senses, as well as the most readily loaded with metaphorical meaning, whereby physical sight becomes an image for reflective knowledge in its various forms.2

Second, seeing engages with theatricality (the specific type of seeing that is proper to a theatrical audience as they watch the show). A play is a performed spectacle, as much as a literary text. The themes of vision and knowledge interact, therefore, with the conventions and the medium of theater itself.3

Third, the problem of seeing and appearances as epistemologically charged has great relevance within Athenian culture in the second half of the fifth century. The Sophistic movement (exemplified notably in Protagoras and Gorgias) focused on the problem of defining knowledge and the way it is gained. Plato’s late work Theaetetus (ca. 369 BCE) illustrates vividly the extent of the debate: in the first part of the dialogue (142A—158E) the Platonic Socrates explores Protagoras’s doctrine of knowledge and sensible perception, refuting the Sophist’s statement that “Man is the measure of all things.”4 Socrates focuses on the ambiguity of the senses and on the importance of his own mission to dispel the false ideas about knowledge spread by the Sophists, opposing ‘image’ and ‘imposture’ to the ‘real’:

So great, then, is the importance of midwives; but their function is less important than mine. For women do not, like my patients, bring forth at one time real children [] and at another mere images [] which are difficult to distinguish from the real … The greatest thing about my art is this, that it can test in every way whether the mind of the young man is bringing forth a mere image, an imposture [] or a real and genuine offspring.

(Tht. 150B—C) [End Page 223]

Gorgias of Leontini is also known to have been concerned with the reliability of appearances in building knowledge in his lost work On Not Being. Sextus Empiricus’s account (Against the Logicians 1.65—87) summarizes the content of the treatise along three points: “First, that there is nothing; second, even if there is [something], it is not apprehensible by a human being; third, that even if it is apprehensible, it is still not expressible or explainable to the next person.”

This evidence points at a rich philosophical debate initiated in the fifth century, at first dominated by the philosophy of Parmenides, continued in the second half of the century by the Sophists, and then reformulated by Plato in his later dialogues (Theaetetus, Parmenides, Sophist). In this debate the unknowability of reality and the incommunicability of knowledge between subjects are crucial.5 Knowledge as originating in the senses is questioned, and a definition of ‘real knowledge’ and ‘real being’ is sought.

The motif of the reliability of seeing and vision in tragedy has to be understood within this cultural milieu. In this article I explore how the issue of vision and knowledge emerge in Greek drama in the second half of the fifth century. I will follow a working division into three ‘levels’: the subject as viewer, the world as object of viewing, and flawed viewers and unclear sights. These correspond to different approaches to the fundamental epistemological topic—the reliability of sensory perception and the communicability of knowledge. Although they are simultaneously present in the cultural reflection of the period (and they are, indeed, three crucial components of the cognitive experience of viewing), I propose that they also reflect a development in the history of philosophical thought. The emphasis on...


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pp. 223-245
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