Hegel and the Double Death of Tragedy

Art dies in some sense in Hegel in his own time.  Not in the sense that he claims there will be no more art, but in the sense he does not think it can have the kind of adequacy for presenting truth it had in the past.  The death of art in his time is tied up with a death of tragedy in his time, though not expressed very clearly.  He does express a death of tragedy in Ancient Greece in much more precise terms.

The death of tragedy in  Greece relates to the giving way of the Greek world to the Roman world in Hegel’s very schematic view of history.  If we look carefully at Hegel we can see that sweeping schematism does have detail that goes beyond the schema, not that Hegel ever abandons a tendency towards reductive schemas.  The death of tragedy is referred to the end of Greece, but on close inspection refers to a supposed failure of democracy in Athens. Rome is seen as less prone to a supposedly self-destructive democracy.  Hegel expresses that largely as the role of law in Rome including the idea of a legal persona.  He is less concerned with the form of sovereignty, but presumably regards the Roman republic as a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, in the manner of the two great thinker of Roman republicanism, Polybius and Cicero.  He presumably finds this more stable than democracy in Athens, and presumably also finds the revival of monarchy in the form of absolute power of the ‘Emperor’ (a purely military title at that time) more compatible with law and institutional stability than Athenian democracy.

I would not defend Hegel’s view, which was not at all unique to him.  Athenian democracy lasted a long time, long after the mockery of the city’s politics in the plays of Aristophanes, which Hegel sees as showing the decadence of the democracy we associate with Pericles though it long preceded him and lived on long after his death.  Hegel himself refers to the importance of legal institutions in Athens when he discusses the emergence of the court of  Areopagus in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy.   In Hegel’s view the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles show a world of pure ethics detached from the politics of Athens.  That is an ethics which is pure in the unreflective commitment of characters to ethical reactions which are part of the social world in which they live.  Such reactions lead to ethical ambiguity, for Hegel, because actions collide, and are explained by differing ethical references, which emerge in the process of conflicting actions, and in the process of discovering conflicts between immediate actions unguided by knowledge and ethical judgements in the light of knowledge.  Athenian tragedy even ends before it ends.  It ends most obviously in Aristophanes’ comedies which Hegel regards as essentially mockeries of democracy, and which Hegel thinks target tragedy of the time as not proper tragedy.  Hegel takes Euripides as the target bad tragedian.  He suggests that Euripides lets go of proper tragic form by allowing subjectivity and decision making, instead the complete universality in a national sense, combined with unreflective action, that Hegel thinks he finds in Aeschylus and Sophocles.  Tragedy also ends with Sophocles’ Antigone, which is the greatest of tragedies fır Hegel.  It is Antigone that takes the tension between instinctive ethics, identified as feminine, and civil, which is also the conflict between the family’s relation to the death of a member and state principles.

The Roman world of law gets beyond the polarisation of forms of law in Antigone, with the notion of the ‘persona’, legal personality, in its law codes.  There is an individuation in Rome, which avoids tragic conflict, since we just have relations between individuals under the sovereign legal power, rather than irresolvable conflicts.  Hegel seems to have overlooked conflict between individuals and that sovereign power, the state, or struggles which become political and violent in Roman history.  The justification is probably that underneath all that the Roman state recognised individuality in ways which prevent the kind of conflicts that emerge in Athenian tragedy.  A situation that Hegel finds bourgeois.  Hegel brusquely dismisses Seneca’s plays as failures, which may be true with regard to performance, but is not true with regard to reading, and possibly recital in Seneca’s own time.  Hegel is very dismissive of recitals of drama, it’s possible that this is directed at Seneca, but there is no clear suggestion of such a thing.

Tragedy other than that of the Ancient Greeks is a poor thing for Hegel.  He contrasts ancient and modern tragedy.  He finds them very different, and finds that only Shakespeare can measure up to the great Athenians.  Modern tragedy is weakened by the subjectivity and indecision of characters, along with the multiple life guiding concerns that emerge in plays and in the characters.  Only Shakespeare rises above this by totally investing his main characters with some defining quality.  Tragedies are referred to by Schiller and Goethe, with Goethe’s Faust the most highly ranked, though Faust might be considered a failure with regard to performance, it is certainly not staged very often, and it is not at all similar to Athenian tragedy.  Hegel sees German dramatic culture as marked by an undue wish to listen to the public and satisfy multiple interests and sympathies. Sympathy is something that Hegel regards as a very inferior response to tragedy if directed towards suffering rather than the principles of that character. France seems less prone to such an error, but nevertheless tragedy has died in a world of multiplying interests and goals.  Hegel is reacting to an increasingly bourgeois world, and a world of increasing legality.  Again law and bourgeois individualism are the end of tragedy, and in this case the end of art.

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