Philosophy of Literary Judgement in Hegel III

(I’ve been out of Istanbul for the last 8 days, and have found it difficult to keep up with blogging. One thing I have been doing is correcting a conference paper for publication in proceedings. That relates to the 2012 Hegel Gesellschaft conference in Istanbul, which will be published as a yearbook in 2014, presumably by Oldenbourg Akademie Verlag, who have published previous proceedings. As publication is some way, I think it’s perfectly in order to post the paper in parts, which anyway lack the formatting, pagination, proofing and copy editing of what will be the published version. As it’s based on an oral presentation it’s simple and direct by the standards of philosophy papers. The paper is part of work on progress on Philosophy of Literary Judgement. It draws on blogging and teaching preparation, so is an example of interaction between different forms of academic communication)

What is usually regarded as the first moral theory in western philosophy emerges in the time of Sophocles and Euripides, in Plato and then in Aristotle. Plato draws on the the ideas of his teacher Socrates, and was also drawing on, and reacting to, the Sophists.   Though Hegel does not say so directly, his account suggests that tragedy belongs to the end of ethics in its pure state, in the moment in which moral theory is born. The idea of ethics as divine law preceding any deliberate reflection, or decision making, by humans is itself present in tragedy, but tragedy also questions it. Tragedy questions the existing customary ethical assumptions, in articulating them even if articulating them less clearly than in Plato or Aristotle. The moment of articulation is the moment of criticism, because it is the moment where the possibility of reflection on, and therefore criticism of principles becomes possible. To make assumptions and arguments explicit is to invite counter arguments, with other assumptions. So defending customary ethics is completely tangled up with its critique. Tragedy does not directly criticise customary ethics, but does express the uncertainty of traditional ethical assumptions, particularly with regard to conflict between assumptions, such as those of power and prudence in politics, individual intentions or crossing of boundaries as the basis for judging sin, or divine and state authority in law.

In Aesthetics I, Hegel sees Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as an expression of the way that customary ethics divides against itself (1226). Oedipus follows opportunities without reflection when he murders King Laius (not recognising him as his father) and marries Laius’s widow Jocasta (not recognising her as his mother).The completely natural way of life, which follows customary ethics spontaneously is shown to allow for sin, and therefore must divide against itself, as Hegel suggests in the Phenomenology. For Hegel tragedy is about conflicts of points of view which have gods beneath them.This is itself a reference to the way the Greek tragedies show gods, and the conflicts between gods, at the basis of terrible events in the life of the hero or a whole family. As we see in Oedipus, according to Hegel, the conflict can be between the natural and the less natural aspects of ethics, as described in the Phenomenology  that is between acting without thought and acting on reflection based on knowledge (§ 469, 283). Phenomenology § 469 refers clearly enough to Oedipus the King though not mentioning it directly, and shows much greater appreciation of ethical ambiguity in the play than in later brief remarks in Aesthetics I (188).

In The Phenomenology, that becomes the conflict between human and divine law in Antigone (§ 470, 284). Hegel may not have realised that Sophocles’ three Theban plays, Oedipus at Colonus in addition to the two just mentioned) were from separate trilogies written at different times, and only brought together because of the loss of all the other plays from those three trilogies. Hegel provides a back story to Antigone in his view of the development of Greek ethics before Socrates and the Sophists. It has very Viconian overtones, as do other passages in Hegel, but maybe by accident as Giambattista Vico (1984) is certainly not directly discussed by Hegel. The family buries its dead members, in a move which simultaneously affirms and contains the importance of the earth and of death, and any associated divine forces. The burial of the dead, and the ways the dead are preserved in memory are basic to the existence of the family, which is itself necessary for the existence of other ethical institutions. The starting point for Antigone is that Creon forbids everyone to mourn and bury the body of Polyneices who had attacked the city to take it from his brother. Antigone, brother to Polyneices, comes into conflict with Creon on this issue, and is condemned to be placed in a  tomb herself. This looks very connected with Hegel’s Phenomenology account of the relation between the family and its dead members, in which women are important. Women act as the guardians of the most material, elemental and customary aspects of ethics, and of the life of the family itself, a role in which the dead family members are protected from desire (presumably being eaten by animals or desecrated by humans).



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