Greek tragedy and political theory

Greek tragedy and political theory. Edited by Euben, J. Peter Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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Title Greek tragedy and political theory
Place of Publication Berkeley
Publisher University of California Press
Publication year 1986
Sub-type Other
Open Access Status
ISBN 0520055721 (alk. paper)
0520055845 (pbk. : alk. paper)
Language eng
Editor Euben, J. Peter
Total number of pages 315
Formatted Abstract/Summary


Political philosophy is tragic thought. . . . Without a dramatic sense of fate and mutability no rational intelligence would turn to this . . . subject.

—Judith Shklar on the occasion of the death of Hannah Arendt

Three related developments are responsible for my interest in editing a volume on the subject of Greek tragedy and political theory. The first is the crisis of American culture. I have no intention of rehearsing what is by now well known, and better said by others, except to note the obvious: as people, and as a people, we seem more confused than usual about what is worth cultivating, caring for, and nourishing. The second development is a parallel crisis in political theory. From one point of view the proliferation of journals and panels at professional conferences is a sign of political theory's vitality, as the preoccupation with method is indicative of its philosophical or scientific maturity. But from another point of view this proliferation simply replicates the division of labor and esoteric expertise that characterizes both the university and society in general; and the preoccupation with method has isolated theorists from politics. What makes all this ironic is that the great paradigmatic theorists aspired to integrate human activities, relationships, and beliefs into a theoretical whole so as to repair, reform, or transform a political whole.

A third development is a recent shift in the interpretation of classical texts and culture. Somewhere Goethe writes of classical Greece as a magic mirror in which, when living men and women gaze seeking the image of a culture long dead, they see not unreturning ghosts but the half-veiled face of their own destiny. What we now see in that mirror is Nietzsche.

For whatever reasons—the trauma of the newly past Holocaust and the threat of a new, nuclear one, the disappointment of revolutionary hopes (including those of the 1960s), the relentless brutality of "small" wars, the increasing centralization of the state and bureaucratization of society, the erosion of permanent ties of place and person, the corruption of our institutions and the blatant failures of our foreign policy—we read tragedy differently than previous generations. For those no longer enamored of technological utopias, less sure that history means progress and that more is better, and more aware of the finitude of our power and powers, the image of classical Greece is less one of serenity, proportion, and rationality than of turbulence, dissonance, and an ambivalent morality that plagues action and passion. As Charles Segal argues in his essay in this volume, it is the darkness tragedy contains and discloses that increasingly fascinates contemporary critics and readers. They find in it both the hidden patterns of contemporary life that the conscious mind is largely unwilling or unable to face, and the resources to explore "beneath the surface of [their] own highly rationalized, desacralized, excessively technologized culture." As this language suggests, the new interpretation of tragedy invigorates and gives depth to the pessimism of such modern social theorists as Max Weber (as evident in the concluding page of the Protestant Ethic), Jacques Ellul, the Frankfurt School, and Michel Foucault. Bernard Knox gives an example of this shift in sensibility. Reviewing the Fagles translation of the Oresteia, he notes that an earlier generation read the trilogy as the triumph of civilization over the darkly mysterious forces of a sinister primitivism. For that generation the promise of wisdom born of suffering, the triumph of an ultimately benevolent Zeus, the joint human and divine consecration of a just Athens, in which all conflicting forces and principles were accorded due place and honor, seemed to mirror their achievements. But we are no longer so sure of ourselves, and so we read and watch Greek tragedy differently. Knox recalls a performance of The Eumenides in which the audience was roused to a high pitch of emotions, not by the plea of extenuating circumstances, or Orestes' acquittal of murder, but by the Furies' warning, "There is a time when terror helps," which Athene echoes: "Never / banish terror from the gates" (699). It is no wonder that Brian Vickers concludes his chapter on the trilogy by observing, "Reading the Oresteia makes one afraid for one's life."   .................................

Keyword Political plays, Greek -- History and criticism
Politics and literature -- Greece
Greek drama (Tragedy) -- History and criticism
Politics in literature
Drama in Greek Tragedies, to ca 500. Social aspects
Q-Index Code AX
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Unknown

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Created: Fri, 23 May 2014, 14:24:47 EST by Ms Christine Heslehurst on behalf of Scholarly Communication and Digitisation Service