On Greek Tragedy

"On Greek Tragedy," in The Great Ideas Today, 102-143. Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1980. Reprinted in The Argument of the Action, 2000.


Of all literary forms, tragedy and comedy alone seem to make a natural pair. They are natural in that they designate something not merely in letters but in life, and they are a part in that, taken together, they seem to comprehend the whole of life, not just some aspect of it. We recognize as much when we speak of “the tragedy and comedy of life,” which is a phrase as old as Plato. At the same time, tragedy seems to raise a claim that by itself it is the truth of life. Aristophanic comedy, at any rate, is parasitic on tragedy, and Plato suggested that the artful tragic poet is a comic poet as well, but not the other way round. Yet tragedy’s claim to be the truth of human life does not mean that this truth is wholly sad. As we know, there is also gaiety in human life, which is neither outweighed nor subsumed by its sadness: we laugh at least as much as we weep. It would be a severe moralist who would trace all our laughter to pain. While tears are the natural ground of tragedy, from which tragedy can never wholly cut itself loose, tears by themselves seem to be inadequate as a sign for the whole of human life. Tears, one might say, have to become synechdochal if they are to signify so much; and they cannot become synecdochal unless they are informed by art. “The tragic sense of life” stands in need to tragic poetry.