The Importance of Tragedy to Political Thought: The Case of Ancient Athens

The topic of the politics of tragedy is not an unknown or new one, but it is certainly one that should get more attention.  Even the classic works on that topic have some limitations.  Walter Benjamin’s book of the 1920s, The Origin of German Tragic Drama,despite the historical and political knowledge it incorporates, is not that political.  The focus is very much on the consciousness of the prince in the early modern era, who is aware of living in a world where religious, traditionalist and sacral traditions of all kinds have weakened, so that his position rests on force without much legitimising context.  Political struggles and the more concrete aspects of early modern politics are lacking.  Of course work has been done on this since, but more could be done to build a general historical-political account of tragedy, embedded in the history of political concepts, and the impact of historical event son political thought.

Going back to Ancient Athens, what do the tragedies tell us about politics?  The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, strongly suggest that politics, like life of a psychologically and socially functional kind, is one the verge of collapse.  A horror underlies human life that there is suffering with no purpose, that divine forces have no justice guiding them, that bad luck outside our control can pollute us and destroy us, that humans are always in danger of being driven by uncontrolled and destructive passions.  We can think of politics not in the rather optimistic sense of Plato and Aristotle, according to which reason can guide politics whether through the rule of guardians, or of citizens with the virtues of good rulers, but in the tragic sense in which institutions and rulers can fall prey to extremes of bad fortune, bad judgement and uncontrolled passion.  There is a limit to the rationality of politics and even the most rational of leaders.  Good institutions and a good methods of forming political elites certainly minimise damage from these factors, but they cannot eliminate the possibility of terrorism, state terror in reaction to terrorism.  The history of the United States was changed by one man who shot John F. Kennedy (as far as I can see only conspiracy obsessives believe there was a broader network behind Lee Harvey Oswald) , in ways we can never know.  

Going back to Ancient tragedy, there is no direct equivalent to modern terrorism, though Oedipus does kill King Laius at the cross roads in a fit of passion, which is not completely justified even by his own account of events, but does not stop him becoming King of Thebes and then polluting the city.  A series of act so justifiable vengeance comes close to destroying Argos in the Orestean Trilogy.  Politics is the attempt to resist power collapsing into such horrors.

Some famous brief remarks by Hegel concerning Antigone, established the idea that tragedy is concerned with conflict between different kinds of law, human and divine.  That establishes a way of thinking of tragedy as a model for value pluralism, which may lead to irreconcilable conflict.  Even beyond that we should think of the tragic way that politics must generate its own extreme opposition, which cannot tolerate the coercive powers of even the most legal and liberal state.  Even such a state is resting on the threat of force, and on the possibility that violence will exceed the laws which supposedly both legitimise and control it.  Police mistakenşy shoot people using poor judgement generating the desire for vengeful violence, and resistance to all institutions.  

Interests in power drive politics in ancient tragedy, always dressed up in sacral and legal forms of legitimacy, so that the two are in constant extreme tensions.  Even the gods who ultimately sanction the state, and state violence, become objects of hatred and anger in Ion, where a rape of a  human by Apollo sets up a series of traumas.  This pattern occurs in other forms in other dramas, and keeps confirming that even the most sacralised forms of power behind laws and governmental authority, becomes the object of extreme passions of hatred and violence.  That applies to the state that the tragedians took as the model of law and good government, as well as the natural centre and leader of the Greek world, Athens.  These matters should be at the heart of political thought, not its margins. 

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