What does Hegel see in Ancient Tragedy?

In Hegel Ancient tragedy means Athenian tragedy.   This is partly because Athens was the unique source of Ancient Greek tragedy.  It is partly because Hegel ignores the tragedies of Seneca, the most obvious Roman achievement in tragedy.  For Hegel, satire dominates Roman poetry.  There are scholars who argue that Seneca’s plays were written more for private recital than public performance, and I’m not aware of many attempts, in fact no attempts, to stage Seneca in recent years.  Nevertheless Seneca is a major write and he wrote tragedies.  This overlooking of Seneca largely comes to Hegel’s need to see tragedy as a Greek problem of tension between natural/divine and civil law, which he sees as resolved in Roman law.  Sophocles’ Antigone gets a special role for Hegel as the play that shows the extremism of that tension.  It could be countered that such a polarisation is cured in some Greek tragedies.  Aeschlus’ Oresteia trilogy, which Hegel does discuss, does suggest that the Athenian court, Areopagus resolves such a tension, through Aeschylus’ suggestion that the court originates in a judgement of Orestes for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, who had murdered her husband, Orestes’ father.  There is a reconciliation in which the furies avenging Clytemnestra become the kindly ones.  In large degree the conflict is about divine law, in conflicting commitments to different family members.  Politics does enter into the play, since the motivation of Orestes’ is partly to stop Clytemnestra, and her lover, ruling Argos (Mycenae).  

Hegel also sees in Ancient Greek literature a struggle against the east, by which he seems to mean a struggle against tyranny and against a state-society with no inner distinctions between individuals and spheres.  It is a struggle against oneness.  It’s not clear how this could apply to the beginning of Greek literature in Homer since the war against Troy culminates in the absolute destruction of Troy by Greeks, and Troy is not portrayed as ruled by a despot, or as ıunduly unified in oneness.  It’s main characters are often considered more sympathetic than the Greek characters in the Iliad.  The plays of Athens could be considered in the context of Greek struggle with Persia, but we could just as well consider them in the light of Athenian struggle with Sparta.  We could also consider them in the light of Athenian ambitions to place as much of Greece under its control as possible, which does not seem to fit Hegel’s schema at all.  

Hegel’s view of tragedy is of what is essentially concerned with struggle between different subjective points of view, but also as what situates subjectivity in universality, through the chorus.  These ways of framing tragedy pull in different directions.  If there is a conflict of subjective positions what guarantees that the chorus is universal and not just another moment in the conflicts of particular points of view.  Any claim to universality should surely take all points of view in the play into account.  

Hegel was not sympathetic to agonistic aspect of ancient Greek states, that is the way that contests and proofs of personal excellence were at the centre of the culture.  We could see the legal culture of ancient Athens in that light as well.  It’s difficult for him to understand the ways in which law could operate within a contestatory agonistic culture, and not only as what rises above the agon.  The tensions of tragedy can never be given the highest place in Hegel.  Elements of the Philosophy of Right makes it clear why that is so.  

 

 

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