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Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy Stephen Houlgate Tragedy and Aesthetic Individuality Tragic drama, for Aristotle, reveals the vulnerability of human virtue. It shows how human beings can go wrong, even if they are “like ourselves” and of basically good (if not excellent) character.1 For Hegel, by contrast, such drama shows us the tragedy inherent in situations that are specific to art. Of course, human life outside art can take on a form meant for art alone and thereby also give rise to tragedy. Such tragedy will not, however, be an irreducible feature of human life as such, but will result from aestheticizing life. Tragic drama thus teaches us not that tragedy is unavoidable , but that it stems from confusing life with art.2 Art, like religion and philosophy, is for Hegel a form of “absolute spirit” in which we articulate for ourselves what we understand to be the true nature of being and of human freedom in particular. Art’s task, however , is not to present the truth in general concepts or doctrines of faith; it entails (among other things) rendering visible to our eyes and our imagination what it is to be a free individual.3 Sculpture presents individual gods and mortals standing alone—calm and sublime (PKA 172). Poetry, by contrast, depicts a whole world dominated by “individual independence ”: the world of the hero (VA 1:236–37/A 1:179–80). Such a world does not lack families and political communities (or “states”). Nevertheless , it is in what Hegel calls a “stateless condition,” since public interests are upheld not by settled laws and institutions, but by heroic individuals conspicuous for their strength and independence of character.4 The world of the hero is not best suited to guaranteeing human freedom and prosperity in real life; but it is the world best suited to art— especially poetry—because in it freedom is given concrete individual embodiment. It is in such a world, however, that tragedy arises. Tragedy in the fullest sense is thus generated not merely by the finitude of things or by historical conflict, but by human life that is governed by the ideal of heroic individuality.5 Indeed, tragic art reveals the intrinsic limits of heroic, individual freedom. It shows that the ideal freedom portrayed in art is in 146 fact a partial expression of freedom which, for all its magnificence, tragically destroys itself. Tragic art, in other words, calls into question art’s own aesthetic ideal. Greek Tragedy In Greek tragedy, Hegel maintains, heroic individuals are motivated not just by personal passions, such as ambition or jealousy, but by an ethical interest or “pathos.” Such ethical interests, which justify the individuals’ actions, are drawn from what Hegel calls “the circle of substantial and independently justified powers” that govern the human will. They include “family love between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters; political life also, the patriotism of the citizens, the will of the ruler; and religion existent not as a piety that renounces action . . . but, on the contrary, as an active grasp and furtherance of actual interests and circumstances” (VA 3:521–23/A 2:1194–96). These interests are not only deemed by individuals to be valid; they are “justified and rational in themselves ” because they are “essential needs of the human heart, the inherently necessary aims of action . . . and precisely therefore the universal, eternal, powers of spiritual existence” (VA 1:286/A 1:220). The state and the family in particular, Hegel argues, are “the purest powers” governing action in tragic drama. The conflict between them explored in Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes and Sophocles’ Antigone thus constitutes “a subject valid for every epoch, whose presentation, despite all national differences, continues to excite our lively human and artistic sympathy.”6 (One should remember, however, that the state enters into tragic conflict with the family as a political community held together not by settled law and institutions, but by heroic individuals such as Eteocles or Creon.) The fact that these ethical interests are essential to human freedom explains why they are associated by the Greeks with their gods. Greek tragic heroes are motivated both by an ethical pathos and by a religious reverence for the gods, and the conflicts that arise in tragic drama between ethically motivated individuals are also presented as conflicts between the gods themselves—gods who objectify for the tragic characters and for the Greek audience “people’s own customs, their ethical life, the rights they...


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