A Philosophical Look at the Merits of Tragedy
Many of the questions that philosophers have tried to answer over the years have revolved around human nature. What makes people do the things they do? How can we know what people are “really” like? How can we differentiate between “good” and “bad” people? Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Kathleen Eamon, and Euripides all explored questions of human nature. Freud did it in psychological work, Nietzsche in philosophical studies, Eamon and Kant in aesthetics and judgment, and Euripides in Greek tragic plays. Often, in these author’s works, we find that they focus on the more negative aspects of human nature, and on the way unpleasant situations affect human nature. Why all of this focus on unhappiness? Because we find that it is the tragedy, the unhappiness, and the darker side of humanity that reveals the most about us. Regardless of whether or not these authors were able to answer any questions about human nature, their work reveals this fascinating trend. However, rather than losing all hope for humanity in studying its most unpleasant side, these authors found that we often reveal our best traits when we have to deal with our worst sides and circumstances.
In The Dionysiac World View, a section of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche compares the ideals of the two Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo was a god of reason and rationality, while Dionysus was a god of passion and desire. Dionysus represented the dark, animalistic side of human nature, while Apollo represented the rational side that tried to control it. Apollo was predictable and handled matters with calculated justice and fairness, but Dionysus was irrational and acted on emotion, often without validly justifying his actions. “…The gods which this intoxication creates are good and evil, they resemble chance, they startle us by the sudden emergence of a plan in their actions, they are pitiless and without delight in beauty” (Nietzsche 126). Dionysus, god of wine, was this god of intoxication, and often acted unpredictably. Because of this, tragedy occurred when people crossed paths with Dionysus. “Looking at them turns the viewer to stone,” Nietzsche wrote of Dionysiac gods, “how is one to live with them?” (126). That question need not be asked of Apollo. Though perhaps he could be harsh at times, it could always be expected that he would act in fairness.
Situations with Apollo tell us nothing new about human nature, but people had to deal with Dionysus’ passions, and in doing so revealed something of themselves. Dionysus would force people to reveal their true nature by letting them become intoxicated, for intoxication was often a part of worshiping this god. However, after they came back to their senses, people would sometimes be horrified at the things they did and the way they behaved. “In the consciousness that follows his awakening from intoxication he sees the terrible and absurd aspects of human existence wherever he looks; it disgusts him. Now he understands the wisdom of the wood-god (Dionysus)” (Nietzsche 129-130). Dionysus forced them to see their worst sides, and it was not pleasant. The reason for this was that Dionysus recognized that if people suppressed and denied their darker, more dangerous sides, they would never learn to deal with that side of human nature. We cannot escape that side of ourselves, and suppressing it will only lead to mistakes. For people to gain this wisdom, to reveal their true human nature, they had to cross paths with Dionysus and with tragedy.
A perfect example of this is the tale of Dionysus and Pentheus, in Euripides’ The Bacchae. This play is a tale of how Dionysus brought wisdom to people by means of a great tragedy. In the play, Dionysus came to the city of Thebes, where Pentheus was king. Pentheus represented an Apollonian worldview. He was strict, rational, and calculating, and refused to acknowledge his wild, passionate, desirous side. He also refused to recognize Dionysus as a god, even though they were cousins. Dionysus was angry that Pentheus would not acknowledge his deity, so he made Pentheus lose his clear head, dress as a woman, and go out to where the women of the city were worshiping the god in a state of intoxicated madness. There, Pentheus’ mother Agave tore him limb from limb, completely unaware that it was her own son. After she returned to the city, Dionysus allowed her to come back to her senses, and she realized what she’d done and was horrified by it.
First of all, this tragedy was a lesson to Pentheus, who in trying to deny his Dionysiac side went to the opposite extreme, and was too reliant on his human reason and rationality to see his fate coming. However, in all this tragedy, Agave and her father Cadmus realized something else about themselves. They saw that, although both their lives had been struck by this tragedy, they could still hold on to their human sense of morality. They could grieve, knowing the injustice of what had been done. This ability to really know and feel rightness and wrongness differentiated them, as humans, from the gods and the beasts. In her introduction to The Bacchae, Martha Nussbaum writes, “The play’s final scene between Cadmus and Agave does establish the human world as distinct from both the bestial and divine. What marks it off is, above all, pity. In the quality of their mutual compassion, in their shared grief over Pentheus’ corpse, Cadmus and Agave distinguish themselves from the god and assert themselves as ethical beings, restoring to their shattered lives a certain wholeness” (Nussbaum xl). Gods like Dionysus had no need for morals; they were above the reach of ethics and therefore Dionysus was able to do terrible things on a whim, with no justification, as he did to Pentheus. Beasts, on the other hand, lived only to survive and reproduce, and didn’t need to have any sense of morality. However, because Agave and Cadmus could recognize the wrongness of what has been done, they were set apart from other beings, and this too was a lesson they could learn only in tragedy. “Enacted in the tragic theater, proverbially a place of pity, fear, and grief, [The Bacchae] suggests to its audience that the tragic festival itself, and its emotions, are ways of affirming the bonds of a distinctively human political community, civilized and marked off from callousness” (Nussbaum xli). Tragedy, whether in theatrical representation or in actuality, brings humans together by forcing us to share our grief and to realize that we all share in the moral sense that allows us to feel rightness and wrongness.
Immanuel Kant and Kathleen Eamon, in their studies on aesthetics, found that one of the good things that comes of our need to deal with our darker sides is art. Good art often mirrors back at us our most unpleasant sides. This is often true of innocent or “naïve” art, for in order to appreciate the innocence and naivete we must recognize that we are neither of these things. “We were expecting the usual custom, the artificial utterance carefully aimed at creating a beautiful illusion—and lo! There is uncorrupted, innocent nature, which we did not at all expect to find… Here the beautiful but false illusion, which usually has great significance in our judgment, is suddenly transformed into nothing, so that, as it were, the rogue within ourselves is exposed…” Kant writes on page 335 of his Critique of Judgment. The “rogue within ourselves,” this darker side of humanity, becomes clear when we recognize and appreciate beauty in art with which to contrast it. In Eamon’s dissertation, which deals with aesthetics and Kant’s Critique of Judgment, she writes, “There is in the pleasure at naivete then also a moment of displeasure, since that expectation itself reveals the rogue within, which is to say the unsuitability of the author of our own beautiful illusions (of our sociability) to be revealed in the light of day. In other words, what we expect to find mirrored back at us in every lapse of convention is something not fit for viewing…” (Eamon 31). However, because we cannot escape from this “rogue within,” or our more unpleasant side, it is good that we can use art to recognize and deal with it. Art helps us to handle the most unpleasant aspects of our human nature, and in turn, these worst parts of ourselves help us to appreciate art by giving us something with which to contrast what is good, pure, and beautiful.
Freud also found that unpleasant things could reveal the truest human nature. His book Civilization and its Discontents is based entirely on this concept. In it, he examines human nature based on the argument that society is making us unhappy. “When we start considering this possibility, we come upon a contention which is so astonishing that we must dwell on it,” he writes on page 38. “This contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.” While he does realize that there is no chance of us returning to primitive conditions, and that we need society for many reasons anyway, this discontent reveals much about human nature that would not otherwise be revealed. For example, he writes of European travelers who happened upon the New World and its native people. “In consequence of insufficient observation and a mistaken view of their manners and customs, [the natives] appeared to Europeans to be leading a simple, happy life with few wants, a life such as was unattainable by their visitors with their superior civilization” (Freud 38-39). The Europeans’ unhappiness revealed their true desire for a different life than the one they led.
Freud also learned something about true human nature from people who had become neurotic. “It was discovered that a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideas, and it was inferred from this that the abolition or reduction of those demands would result in a return to possibilities of happiness” (Freud 39). In their unpleasant state, these people reveal their frustration with society’s expectations. Freud still recognized that society is a necessity that we could probably never escape from. “I should find it very understandable if someone were to point out the obligatory nature of the course of human civilization and were to say, for instance, that the tendencies to a restriction of sexual life or to the institution of a humanitarian ideal at the expense of natural selection were developmental trends which cannot be averted or turned aside and to which it is best for us to yield as though they were necessities of nature” (Freud 111). However, from the restrictions of society that make us unhappy, we learn much about ourselves that we might otherwise not have known, and in this way Freud found that our unhappiness can be valuable and worthy of study.
While they were working in very different fields of study, Nietzsche, Euripides, Kant, Eamon, and Freud all learned something very important about humanity. Though certain questions of what human nature really is may still go unanswered, they all found that tragedy and unhappiness reveal aspects of human nature that would otherwise never be seen. Sometimes the traits that are revealed are the most critical to what defines humans, what we really are at our core, what sets us apart from other beings. While it will never make tragic events and unhappy circumstances any better, perhaps people can be comforted by knowing that these things will help them discover something about themselves.