ECLA Guest Lecture: Stephen Houlgate on Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy

ECLA GUEST LECTURE Stephen Houlgate on Hegel's Theory of Tragedy
Stephen Houlgate

On Wednesday, December 10, the AY students had the opportunity to attend a lecture on Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy given by Stephen Houlgate of the University of Warwick. The lecture not only addressed issues discussed during the AY core course, but it also incorporated topics that were of interest to students taking the electives on Philosophy of Greek Tragedy and Greek Polis in Hegelian Perspective.

The first topic beginning the lecture was the Hegelian definition of tragedy. Houlgate introduced Hegel’s views by saying that according to Hegel, the origin of tragedy lies in a human life that “is governed by the ideal of heroic individuality”. A widely accepted notion of tragedy historically has been that it is caused by an external force, sometimes referred to as fate, which has an immense governing power over human lives and actions. However, for Hegel, tragic fate is self-imposed, a result of the convictions and beliefs of the tragic hero.

When discussing and comparing Greek to modern tragedy, it is relevant to make a clear distinction between the motives and the traits that make the tragic hero truly tragic. For the Greeks, tragedy arises from the fact that the characters pursue their convictions, which are a direct result of their own ethical pathos, and which fail to meet the beliefs of the opposing side. This one-sidedness and insistence on one’s own rectitude, together with the strong determination to follow and practice incomplete justice as such, inevitably leads to the character being punished by the “other” side of justice, the one that is being ignored. Characters are both right and wrong at the same time, fuelling this conflicting position with a rigid pursuit of the individual right, thus making their fall the only way to restore the balance. Sophocles’ Antigone is taken as an example of the tragic outcome of the clash of two individuals who fervently believe that what they are doing cannot possibly be wrong. Creon has been seen by many as a tyrant; however, Hegel’s reading of the tragic traits of the play proposes that both Creon and Antigone are victims of their own blindness to see the justification of the other side’s claim. The tragedy is established in the fact that Creon and Antigone do “wrong in the very act of doing what is right”. Antigone does what is right for the family; Creon protects the law of the state. Oedipus Rex does not present a clear-cut strife between two ethical powers, but nevertheless contains the thread of pursuing one’s own pathos and being responsible for the tragic end. Hence, Hegel does not see as tragic the fact that Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. The tragic element for Hegel lies in Oedipus’ failure to recognize the unknown and unconscious and insistence on practicing the “right of the wide awake consciousness”. Therefore, Oedipus consciously seeks the truth which brings upon the uncovering of his own crimes.

Hegel analyzed modern tragedy mostly through the works of Shakespeare. The fundamental difference, Hegel claims, was the fact that the tragic heroes in modern drama are not led by a one-sided justifiable drive, but by motives that could be regarded as “personal passion”. Although these characters may be irresolute in the beginning, once they take action there is no force that could stop them. What makes such characters heroic is their brutal magnificence. The overlapping points with Greek tragedy are the facts that they are not passive victims of fate and that they are truly victims of themselves and their inability to “let go”. The difference between Greek and modern tragedy is in the experience they offer to the audience as tragic plays, in the sense that they have a different way of claiming that “justice has been served”. To Hegel, the downfall of Greek tragic characters is demanded by reason and justice, reconciliation is achieved with the fact that “the ethical powers which animated them (the characters) are accorded equal recognition and so reconciled”. Modern tragic justice revolves more around the axis of receiving the deserved punishment. A more complex reconciliation is possible only in the mind of the tragic figure, either by repenting or remaining unchanged to the very end.   

According to Hegel, tragic outcome can be avoided, as is in Goethe’s work Iphigenia auf Tauris. Some critics argue that here there is not any tragic element to begin with; to Hegel, though, the tragic element is the fact that Iphigenia entrusts her faith in the hands of a man who is unpredictable, building up a tension because of the fatal consequences that this act could have had. Nevertheless, everything is peacefully resolved owing to the fact that Iphigenia chooses to trust human nature.

Houlgate went on to explain that this should not be regarded as an optimistic reading of tragedy, but it should be understood as a possible reconciliation since it stems from Hegel’s theory of tragedy – that it comes from the actions of the individual and thus it can be resolved only by the thought and deeds of the individual.

The lecture concluded with a discussion, during which students and professors together tried to reach an agreement about how tragedy should be seen, and what is to be regarded as truly tragic. Plato’s Republic was also discussed, bearing in mind the fact that Plato considers tragedy as harmful to the individual’s soul.

Stephen Houlgate is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He is the author of "Hegel, Nietzsche and the Criticism of Metaphysics" (1986) and the editor of "Hegel and the Philosophy of Nature" (1998), "The Hegel Reader" (Blackwell, 1998), Hegel and the Arts (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007) and G.W.F. Hegel: Outlines of the Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). He was President of the Hegel Society of America from 1994 to 1996 and is currently editor of the Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain. After having written numerous articles concerning the philosophy of Hegel, as well as that of Kant and Nietzsche, his further interests include essays on Hegel's philosophy of action and on Kant's philosophy of history and an essay on Hegel's account of quantity in the Science of Logic intended for a collection of essays on the Logic to be published by Felix Meiner.  

By Elena Volkanovska (2009, Macedonia)

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