Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us
Simon Critchley
Profile Books
322pp
Hardback, £16.99, ebook, £14.99

The dramatic events that unfold and are played out on the ancient Greek stage offer food for thought for the viewer both in Classical Athens and in the present day. Questions such as 'What is the right thing to do?' spring to mind in the course of dramatic conflict and resulting dilemmas; this is where philosophy comes into play.

Simon Critchley is a self-professed non-Classicist tackling Classical themes. He is Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and series moderator of the New York Times' philosophy column, solemnly entitled 'The Stones', and his previous publications include The Book of Dead. Here, he brings a philosopher's inquiring mind to the world of Greek tragedy, offering a fresh approach to this much-written-about subject.

Developed from a lecture course started with philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, whose own works, such as Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, make use of models from tragedy. Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us explores the relationship between tragedy and philosophy, and encourages us to unravel the philosophical concepts woven into tragedy. We should, for instance, pay attention to weighty themes such as shame, the tension between knowing and not knowing, grief and rage, sympathy, justice, and the power of imitation and persuasion. Moral ambiguity looms large. Also of great importance to tragedy is the question of agency and action: to what extent are our characters autonomous when it is the gods who decree their destinies? How much are they acted upon? Critchley's energetic and passionate new book addresses these thorny quesions.

As well as the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (according to Aristotle, the most tragic of the tragedians), Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us discusses relevant Greek philosophers, notably the Sophist Gorgias, Plato and Aristotle.

There are links, we are told, between the antithetical language of Gorgias and Euripides, whose Helen in The Trojan Women uses Gorgiastic reasoning to show what may seem the weaker is the stronger, and to argue her own innocence. For Plato, Critchley draws heavily from the Republic and investigates the concept of mimesis (imitation). As for Aristotle, his Poetics provide much useful material, including his views on catharsis and on comedy.

But we don't encounter only ancient Greek writers and thinkers. Critchley also explores ideas put forward by modern figures like Schelling, Hegel and Nietzsche. Philosophical engagement with ancient Greek drama focuses on philosophical conundrums, particularly on the subject of moral ambiguity and, through the many questions posed throughout this book, Critchley encourages the reader to join in.

Lucia Marchini

 

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