Campbell Corner Language Exchange


 Tragedy in the Philosophical Age of the Greeks: Aristotle's Reply to Nietzsche [1]

Michael Davis

Of Aristotle's writings none has had more staying power than the Poetics. It has been commented on by scholars too numerous to name and even more impressively by the likes of Averrroes and Avicenna (even though they seem to have had at best a very unclear idea of what a tragedy was[2]), Racine and Corneille, Lessing and Goethe, Milton and Samuel Johnson.[3] All this interest is rather queer given the subject matter of the book. The Poetics is about tragedy.[4] But Greek tragedy is very unlike our drama. To mention only a few of its exotic characteristics, it is performed by at most three actors playing multiple roles, wearing masks, accompanied by a chorus that is both a character in the play and a spectator of it, alternating between song and dialogue, before audiences of up to 30,000 people. The chorus sings using one dialect and speaks in another. The very complicated poetic meter is based not on stress but on the length of syllables. Since Greek language was accented tonally, choral odes when sung must have been particularly difficult to understand. How were the tones of the individual words combined with the tones of the tunes? So by our standards it was strange. But did it not endure for a long time? Not really--the great age of Greek tragedy lasts for less than one hundred years. In this it seems much less impressive than the novel. Greek tragedy pretty much spans the life of one man--Sophocles (and also, by the way, the life of Athenian democracy). But was it not at least very widespread? Again, not really. It was imitated of course, but tragedy is predominantly an Athenian phenomenon, restricted in large measure to the area of Greece called Attica--hence Attic tragedy. All of the Greek plays we now possess were originally performed in one theater--the theater of Dionysus on the slope of the Acropolis. Why then should we be concerned with a book written 2400 years ago about a literary form practiced for only a hundred years in a single theater in a city more or less the size of Peoria?

Friedrich Nietzsche. He is, of course, not the only modern thinker to have paid special attention to tragedy--one need only think of his immediate predecessors, of Hegel and Schopenhauer. Still, Nietzsche devoted a whole book to tragedy and obviously thought it terribly important. And ever since it was first published in 1872, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music has had an enduring effect on how we understand not only tragedy as a literary genre but how we understand culture and our own condition. It is, for example, not at all surprising that its key terms, the Apollinian and the Dionysian, should have been appropriated by a recent ethnography on Samoan culture. [5] For Nietzsche, the Apollinian and Dionysian are present not only in all art but virtually constitute human nature--one pointing to our striving to individuate ourselves, the other to our will to self-annihilation. We long at once to establish our apartness from the whole and to close the gap between ourselves and the whole. These two drives look to be altogether at odds, yet the fully human life requires their simultaneous satisfaction. Nietzsche's formula for tragedy--Apollinian form, Dionysian content--fulfills this demand; in tragedy, we affirm ourselves in our symbolic negation of ourselves. In the first edition of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche calls the satisfaction we derive from tragedy "metaphysical solace." By 1886 he no longer likes the term and speaks instead of a "pessimism of strength." But regardless of its issue, the tragic clearly cannot be understood as a solely theatrical phenomenon, for Nietzsche surely does not mean that when our Apollinian and Dionysian drives are out of balance, we should attend a play--a dose of tragedy as a sort of miracle drug for our Ur-ailment. Tragedy applies finally not to the stage but to a whole culture; accordingly, Nietzsche once characterized the period of pre-Socratic philosophy as "the tragic age of the Greeks."

Tragedy thus characterizes a golden age from which we in the West have declined. The cause of this decline--Nietzsche first places the blame on Euripides and then on Socrates--is the optimism characteristic of rational questioning. For Nietzsche, Socrates' identification of virtue with knowledge points to a deep error; the view that for every question there must be an answer leaves unquestioned the intelligibility of the whole. With the failure to raise this question, human beings fail to confront the truth of their situation in the world. Nietzsche's Socrates might be said to pave the way for the view that Oedipus should have sought counseling and that, with the proper legal help, Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon might have arranged an amicable separation. On the surface, at least, Nietzsche's great praise of tragedy is therefore inseparable from an attack on rationality. In making tragedy the alternative to philosophy Nietzsche seems to agree with Plato about the existence of an "ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry" (Republic 607b-c) while disagreeing about which side one ought to take. With Aristotle, on the other hand, the disagreement seems complete, for in telling us that "poetry is more philosophic and more serious than history" (Poetics 1451b5-6) and in giving tragedy the salutary moral function of the katharsis of pity and fear in its audience, Aristotle appears to call into question the "ancient quarrel" itself. For Nietzsche, this is simply a decadent optimism, no longer even aware that there is an alternative; thus tamed, tragedy ceases to be terrible, which is to say that it ceases to be tragedy. Nietzsche's charge, then, seems to be that in misunderstanding the relation between tragedy and reason, Aristotle deeply misunderstands the very structure of human life.[6] We shall see.

The first words, and traditional title, of the Poetics are peri poiętikęs--concerning the art of whatever it is that the verb poiein means. Ordinarily poiein would mean "to do," especially in the sense of "to make." It is faire or machen. Then it gets a narrower meaning as well--to make poetry. So peri poiętikęs means "concerning the art of poetry." Aristotle will argue that tragedy is paradigmatic for poetry, and so the book about poetry can be primarily about its most perfect manifestation. Yet there is considerably more at stake. At the very end of chapter three, in his discussion of the history of comedy and tragedy, Aristotle remarks that the Dorians lay claim to having originated both, citing their names as signs.

And they [claim to call] poiein by the name dran, but they claim the Athenians call it by the name prattein. (1448b1-2) [7]

From dran, to do, comes drama, meaning first something done and then our drama. Now, while this seems scarcely more than a footnote, by using poiein as the middle term to connect the other two, in the context of the Poetics Aristotle invites us to consider poiein and prattein as synonyms. Should we accept his invitation we would have to retranslate the title of Aristotle's most frequently read little book. Peri poiętikęs would mean Concerning the Art of Action. The sort of acting actors do would share something fundamental with all action; poetry would somehow be at the center of human life.

There is circumstantial evidence to support such a view of the Poetics. If all human action seems to aim at some good, and if the existence of instrumental goods points toward a good for the sake of which we choose all the others, and if there is a science of this highest good, and if as Aristotle says this is political science (I've simply summarized the first paragraph of the Nicomachean Ethics), then one would expect poetry and politics to be very closely linked. They are. Aristotle's Politics ends with an account of music, and especially poetry, as both the means for educating human beings to be good citizens and the goal for which they are educated.

There is also more elaborate evidence. In Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, courage or manliness (andreia) is said to be the proper mean with regard to the passions fear and confidence. However since fear can be understood as an anticipation of bad things generally, lest courage be thought somehow equivalent to all of virtue, the particular fear with which it deals must be specified. As the most terrible fear is of death, this must be what concerns courage--but not all death. Courage comes into play where it is possible for us to exercise choice. It is therefore most of all concerned with facing death in war.

To make this point Aristotle compares drowning at sea with fighting a battle. The comparison recalls Iliad XXI where Achilles fights with a river--called Xanthus by the gods and by us, and Scamander by Achilles and the Trojans. Achilles laments the possibility that he might die in this ignominious way (toughing it out with a river). To us who are aware that he is fighting with a god, his fate does not look so disgraceful. Aristotle knows, of course, that it is possible to be courageous in a hurricane, but thinks such courage is understood metaphorically. The paradigm is always fighting in battle. The account of the specific moral virtues, therefore, begins with courage because courage is a model for how to deal with all fear understood as anticipation of the bad, and so for how to deal with the bad generally. Aristotle focuses on a situation in which we have a choice so as to provide a model for behaving as though we always had a choice. Accordingly, Achilles is not simply the most courageous but the model for virtue altogether.

The hardest problem for Aristotle's account of courage is that, while the moral virtues are supposed to make us happy, courage is frequently rather unpleasant and can easily make us dead. Why, then, do the brave risk their lives? Aristotle says it is for the sake of the kalon--the noble or beautiful. But this kalon end is clearly not present in the activity itself. Neither killing nor being killed is by itself beautiful. We must look elsewhere than the dead bodies fouling the Scamander to see Achilles' devotion to the kalon. The brave, presenting an image to themselves of their actions as completed, look at their deeds as others will look at them, and so reap the benefits of honor even before honor has been granted. The present action becomes kalon insofar as it is made complete through reflection or imagination. The brave, therefore, do what they do, not because it is good, but because they can say "it is good." This is what the kalon means.[8]

Atypically, Aristotle goes out of his way in the Ethics to discuss the spurious forms of courage as well as the genuine. The highest of these is political courage; its goal is honor. For examples Aristotle quotes Hektor and Diomedes worrying about what will be said of them if they do not fight. But just what is it which differentiates this from acting "for the sake of the kalon?" If courage always means courage in war, then it will always manifest itself in a political context. Cities make war; individuals do not. But if courage is a virtue, it ought to be something which transcends any particular polis. This is just the problem of Achilles. Apart from the polis he cannot show his virtue, but once he returns to the fighting, his motives are necessarily obscure. Does he do it for Patroklos, for the Greeks, for honor, for immortality? Courage is in principle invisible, for one cannot see it apart from a political context, which is to say apart from the ulterior motives for action attributed to the political man.

The most startling thing about the account of courage in the Nicomachean Ethics is that Aristotle uses almost exclusively fictional examples--Achilles, Hektor, Diomedes, etc. Without poetry there is virtually no possibility of seeing that element that makes courage what it is. The brave do not risk their lives out of a greater fear, or shame, or confidence owing to superior experience. And yet from the act itself it is impossible to tell the difference between these spurious forms of courage and the real thing. We need the whole story, and only poetry gives it to us. Poetry lets us see inside human beings so that we can celebrate their devotion to the kalon. This points us back to the earlier account of the metaphorical character of courage in a storm at sea. In a way, all courage is metaphorical. Even Achilles is playing a rôle; he knows his fate, and is therefore the paradigm of the courageous man. Like all brave men, he wants "to die like Achilles." Poetry makes it possible to experience our action as whole before it is whole. This wholeness then becomes a part of the experience itself. Or rather, since the conjunction does not really occur temporally, poetry constitutes the experience. In the case of courage what would be essentially painful is transformed into something "pleasant."[9] And insofar as courage represents all moral virtue here, poetry would be the necessary condition for moral virtue generally.

One can go one step further. Aristotle begins the Poetics by addressing two apparently different issues--the eidę or species of the art of poetry and their powers and how to put a poem together out of its parts.

Concerning both poiętikę [the art of poetry, making, doing] itself and the forms [eidę] of it, what power each has, and how one should put plots together if the poięsis [poem, thing made, thing done] is to hold beautifully, and further from how many and from what sort of parts it is, and similarly also concerning everything else belonging to the same inquiry, let us speak, beginning according to nature first from the first things. Now epic poetry [epopoiia] and the making [poięsis] of tragedy, and further comedy and the art of making dithyrambs [dithurambopoiętikę], and most of the art of the flute and of the kithara all happen to be in general [to sunolon] imitations.

Aristotle is conducting a class at once in fiction writing and in literary criticism. An account of the art of making involves an analysis--a taking apart--of the ways things are put together (of course the pieces out of which something is put together are not necessarily the same as the pieces of our understanding of how it is put together). Directly after the methodological remark in which he announces his intention to begin from the first things, Aristotle lists various forms of imitation. Presumably imitations are the first things from which Aristotle will make his beginning. But as always derivative from what they imitate, they are queer beginning points. For poetry the first things apparently are second things; the evidence is the immediate sequel.

But they differ from one another in three ways--either by imitating in different things, different things, or differently and not the same way.

There is an ambiguity in the Greek. To mimeisthai hetera certainly means to imitate different things and to mimeisthai heterôs to imitate differently, but the accusative neuter plural of an adjective can also be adverbial.[10] If we were to take hetera here as the equivalent of heterôs, beneath the admittedly more obvious, conventional, and sensible reading, Aristotle would be suggesting that what is imitated is somehow the same as how it is imitated. That how something is imitated is always the real object of imitation seems crazy until one recognizes that imitating the act of imitation itself would mean depicting the peculiarly human element of action.

Insofar as all human action is always already an imitation of action, it is in its very nature poetic. This places the beginning of Aristotle's famous definition of tragedy--that tragedy is an imitation of action--in a new light.[11] The Poetics is about two things: poięsis understood as poetry, or imitation of action, and poięsis understood as action, which is also imitation of action. It is the distinctive feature of human action, that whenever we choose what to do, we imagine an action for ourselves as though we were inspecting it from the outside.[12] Intentions are nothing more than imagined actions, internalizings of the external. All action, as poetic, is therefore imitation of action.

But what does this perplexing formulation mean? The issue is really the same as arises, say, for Freudian psychology. Why are we inclined to try to understand ourselves in terms of what happened to us when we were very young? The events of our youth seem to be formative because they have a sort of purity--they are so remote and even get thought of sometimes as prenatal. These events are meant on the one hand to be experiences and so real, but at the same time perfect types or forms and so formative. The power of Freudian psychology for us has to do with its attempt to understand experience in terms of a more purified experience--that is, with its attempt to understand experience poetically. But, of course, if all experience is of this kind, how could there ever have been a primal experience? My current behavior might be understood as Oedipal, but the initial "Oedipal" reaction cannot be understood as Oedipal. That is the reason why it is characterized by way of a poetic reference--i.e. by reference to the behavior of an adult. A grown man is understood in terms of a primordial event experienced as a child who is, in turn, only intelligible in terms of a myth about a grown man. In what sense, then, can we ever discuss first reactions? On the one hand, we cannot understand our experience by way of some primal experience because what determines our experience cannot be one of our experiences. On the other hand, we do not seem to be able to understand our experience in any other way.

However plausible this connection between poetry and action, it does seem funny for tragedy to serve as the model for all human action. Just to state the obvious, all human action is not sad. The full account of what we are to make of the turn to tragedy would be an odyssey requiring an interpretation of the whole of the Poetics. Fortunately, however, there is a shortcut that hints at what is at stake. The two meanings of poięsis--doing and poetry--are related much as talking and singing, walking and dancing, acting and acting. Human doing is double--it has a self-conscious part and an unself-conscious part. We are rational animals. Poetry, connected to the self-conscious character of action (it is through imitation, Aristotle says, that we say "this is that"), at the same time manifests the doubleness of human action within itself. Aristotle turns to drama because, more than narrative poetry, it reflects the distinction between doing and looking at doing--between acting and reflecting. On the one hand drama must attempt to convince its audience of the reality of its action; on the other hand it must always remain acting--actors always imply spectators. Or, as George Burns once said, "The most important thing about acting is honesty; if you can fake that you've got it made." Tragedy is the highest form of poetry because it most embodies this doubleness. Now "plot is the first principle and like the soul of tragedy" (1450a38-39); the two principles governing plot--the likely and the necessary--point back to the distinction between the perspective of the actor and that of the spectator. A character makes choices in order to make certain consequences likely; he assumes his freedom. What actually happens in the play seems so perfectly intelligible to the spectator as to seem to have been necessary. By virtue of its structure, tragic plot accentuates the tension between spectator and actor. The best tragedies involve what Aristotle calls reversal (peripateia) and recognition (anagnôrisis). They are so to speak the soul of plot. Now, if poetry is paradigmatic for action, and drama for poetry--and if tragedy is the most complete form of drama, plot the soul of tragedy, and reversal and recognition the core of plot--then by looking at Aristotle's treatment of recognition and reversal, we ought to be able to learn something about why tragedy is singled out as the model for human action and thought.

Reversal is defined in Chapter 11 of the Poetics.

And reversal is the change of the things acted/done to the opposite, as was said, and this, just as we say, according to the likely or necessary. (1452a22-24)

Aristotle's example is from Oedipus Tyrannus. A messenger has just come from Corinth with the "good news" that the king, Polybus, whom Oedipus believes to be his father, has died. Oedipus expresses some doubts about returning since he had originally fled Corinth because of an oracle that had also concerned his future intercourse with his mother, and Merope, Polybus' wife, is still alive. This messenger, never given a name or even a pronoun by Aristotle,

coming so as to cheer Oedipus and to release him from his fear regarding his mother, making clear who he was, he did [epoięsen] the opposite. (1452a25-26)

The "he" is ambiguous here. Does it refer to Oedipus or to the messenger? Still, as disclosing Oedipus' identity proves to require disclosing the messenger's identity, the ambiguity seems to make no difference. In either case the good news proves bad. Intending to free Oedipus from the fear of parricide and incest, the messenger reveals that it was he who had originally brought the baby Oedipus to Polybus and Merope. The result is "a change to the opposite."

Now, it is clear that reversal involves some violation of expectation. But whose? Since, as Aristotle indicates, the reversal need not coincide with any recognition within the play, the expectations cannot be those of characters in the play. The Oedipus would not be affected dramatically were the messenger to leave before he discovered that his good news backfired. At the same time, since the turn of events involves not so much a change as a reinterpretation of what has already occurred, some recognition seems necessary. Reversal must, therefore, be our recognition as an audience that what we thought to be is not what we thought it to be.

The account of recognition begins with a reference to its etymology:

And recognition (anagnôrisis), just as the name signifies, is a change from ignorance (agnoia) to knowledge (gnôsis), either to friendship or to enmity of those being defined with regard to good fortune or ill fortune. (1152a29-32)

Recognition is an-agnorisis, a privation of ignorance. But we might also understand its etymology as ana-gnorisis--knowing back or re-cognizing. Since the very same syllables give us two quite different etymologies, it is not so obvious what "the name signifies." Now, when the sort of ambiguity exemplified in Aristotle's language here arises within a play, the conditions are present for recognition.[13] A prior confusion is discovered in a way that alters the action of the play. Recognition is thus the awareness within the play, i.e., a character's awareness, that parallels the audience's awareness of a reversal.

Aristotle says that recognition is most beautiful when it coincides with reversal--when the discovery within the play comes to be at the same time as the discovery outside the play, or when the act of understanding and the action itself are somehow one.[14] He describes the recognition which "especially belongs to plot and especially to action" as the "one having been said" (1452a36-38). Now, presumably this means the most beautiful kind, i.e. where recognition and reversal coincide. At the same time, certain recognitions occur when a character comes to understand the significance of things that he has previously said. Oedipus does this sort of thing all the time. He promises to pursue the murderer of Laius as though Laius were his father (264-266). And he begins Oedipus Tyrannus by addressing those assembled around him as tekna Kadmou--children of Kadmus. Oedipus treats them as though they were his children; because he does not know that he is by birth a Theban, he does not realize that he too is a child of Kadmus, the legendary founder of Thebes, that those under his care as king may be like children, but they are also his brothers and sisters, his fellow citizens. For Oedipus, really recognizing who he is would involve discovering the significance of "what has been said." The beauty of Aristotle's claim that the best recognition is "the aforesaid" or, more literally, "the one having been said" is that it is an example of itself.

A plot in which events simply followed one another predictably, i.e. in which the likely turned out to be the necessary, in which, for example, an army of superior strength attacked an enemy and won, would contain pathos but not reversal or recognition. Reversal makes an audience reflect on the necessity of action that at first seems unlikely, for example, that in Sophocles' Trachiniae Deianira's attempt to make Herakles love her should end by killing him. Recognition introduces inference into the play so that reflection on the likelihood and necessity of the action becomes a part of the action and so has further consequences within the play itself. The turning point in Oedipus Tyrannus is Oedipus' discovery of who he is.[15] This sort of action--in which coming to knowledge is decisive--is, not surprisingly, especially revealing of human beings, the rational animals.

If plot means a change of fortune, and the best change involves the coincidence of reversal and recognition, in which direction ought the change to occur? It would be, says Aristotle, miaron--polluted or disgusting--were a man who is epieikęs (decent, meet, equitable) to move from good to bad fortune. Now, in Nicomachean Ethics V Aristotle gives an account of epieikeia as a virtue more just than justice itself because it corrects the necessary imprecision of law as general. Justice involves general rules and so inevitably makes errors (hamartęmata) because it never perfectly fits particular circumstances. Equity always shows up as the correction of the sort of error rooted not in obvious weakness or vice but in pursuing goodness too rigidly. Epieikeia is therefore morality which is at the same time critical of moral idealism.[16] To show someone with such moderate expectations moving from good to ill fortune would, according to Aristotle, be shocking. On the other hand, to show the wicked moving from bad to good fortune would arouse neither pity nor fear but righteous indignation. Tragedy is apparently not meant to cause utter despair of goodness in the world. It is also not especially tragic to show the fortunes of the villainous change from good to bad. Such a plot might encourage philanthropeia--a sense of solidarity with humanity (insofar as justice prevails), but it would result neither in pity (the villain gets what he deserves) nor in fear (the one who suffers is not like us). Tragedy, then, does not simply support morality and subverts moral naivete.[17] That tragedy is no simple morality play is signaled by the change in Aristotle's language. The "good" man--previously spoudaios or earnest (1448a2)--now becomes the epieikęs--the man aware of the impossibility of perfect justice.

What remains then is what lies in between the epieikęs and the bad man.

Such a one is he distinguished neither in virtue and justice nor changing to ill fortune on account of badness and wickedness, but because of some error of one of those being in great repute [with a great opinion] and good fortune such as Oedipus, Thyestes, and renowned men of such families. (1453a7-12)

The subjects of tragedy are those who are thought to be great. Are they also those who have great opinions? Their error (hamartia) seems to have to do with being too little aware of the fuzziness of moral principles--too little epieikęs. In one way such men are not virtuous; in another they are too virtuous.[18]

According to Chapter 13 the change in plot must move from good to ill fortune. Curiously Aristotle seems to reverse himself in the followi ng chapter. As actions may be done with or without knowledge, there are four possibilities for the action in tragedy. A character may intend to do something knowing what he is doing, but because of some accident not do it--this is not really drama. A character may intend to do something knowing what he is doing and do it--this is the case of Medea. A character may do something without intending to have done it and then discover what he has done--this is the case of Oedipus. Finally, a character may intend to do something, discover that he did not really know what he was doing and not do it--this is the case of Iphigeneia. Aristotle calls the last the best (1454a4). But how can it be best for Iphigeneia not to kill her brother, that is, for the play to have a happy ending, when tragedy requires a change from good to ill fortune?

Aristotle's language here is revealing. What the ancients did (poiein) as well as what Euripides did (poiein) in the Medea was to make the doing (prattein) come to be with knowledge. Sophocles makes Oedipus do (prattein) terrible things in ignorance and then discover it. The "best" form is characterized as intending to do (poiein) and then, discovering, not to do (poiein) it. Now, up to this point Aristotle had been using poiein to refer to the activity of the poet and prattein to apply to the activity of the character. Leaving this distinction in tact, what he calls best here would not be an action within the play, but rather the action of the poet.

Let us see if we can put some of these issues together. Reversal is an event in a play that leads the spectator to reflect on the events of the play. Recognition introduces this sort of reflection into the play as a piece of the action. By introducing the epieikęs Aristotle pointed to a kind of virtue, the highest kind, which is only possible as a reflection on the imperfection of virtue. But why is this highest man not the subject of the highest form of poetic imitation? Poetry could never present the highest virtue if the highest, like epieikeia, necessarily takes the form of a reflection on the imperfection of the "best." No action could ever reveal the virtue which always takes the form of a reflection on action. Insofar as a poet wished to "present" the best he would have to present an action that causes reflection (i.e. reversal) rather than presenting the reflection itself (recognition). And insofar as human action approaches its best, the actor would have to present to himself an action that causes reflection. The activity of the epieikęs is something like literary criticism; it consists in seeing where others have gone wrong.

Still, Aristotle certainly says that the best plot, and so the best tragedy, combines reversal and recognition--it makes reflection an action. Tragedy thus distinguishes itself from other forms of poetry by making the poetic character of human action thematic. However, to present in action a successful reflection on action (epieikeia) would not arouse wonder and so not lead to reflection; it would be too pat, and so essentially invisible. The goal of tragedy is the stimulation of pity and fear because reflection is stimulated only by failure--"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." There is no wonder without some appearance of discrepancy. Therefore, the options for combining reversal and recognition seem to be these. The poet can either show the failure of genuine epieikeia which does not seem possible since epieikeia consists in the ability to foresee the ways in which one cannot expect virtue to be manifest in the world. Or, he can show the failure of spurious reflection. This is in fact what occurs when reversal becomes recognition. Tragic recognition will always in some sense be false recognition. It must be subject to a higher order reversal in order to stimulate wonder. Oedipus thinks that he knows who he is, but when he takes the pin of Jocasta's brooch, stabs himself in his eyesockets (arthra) and orders himself set out on Mt. Kithairon, he is simply reproducing what his father did to him as a baby, pinning his joints (arthra) and ordering that he be abandoned on Mt. Kithairon.[19] If he really knew "who he was" Oedipus would not once again be attempting to take his fate into his own hands, to become his own father. Blinding himself was not an altogether humble thing to do. He still has not learned that he too is one of the tekna of Kadmus. However, had he learned who he was, we would have been unable to learn who he was. Character, perhaps the true object of imitation in tragedy, is invisible except through plot.[20] For this reason, in his ranking of the various forms of recognition in Chapter 16, Aristotle finds particular fault with that sort which is willed by the poet. When a character simply reveals who he is, the meaning of the recognition is altogether hidden from view.[21] The epieikęs can express his knowledge even to himself only by articulating what would happen to him were he not to know. Oedipus could only have expressed wisdom by writing his own tragedy.

To be a rational animal does not mean what it seems to mean. It does not mean that there is a battle within us sometimes won by our good part and sometimes won by our bad part. This would make us monsters. The mixture within us is more intimate. As the tragic formula indicates, we learn through suffering or undergoing (pathei mathos); there is something irrational about our rationality. Accordingly, Aristotle's examples of the best forms of recognition all involve inferences (sullogismoi) that turn out to be paralogisms. Tragedy has as its goal making visible the most important thing about human beings, which as essentially invisible, cannot be shown as it really is. The action that poetizes the world cannot be shown in poetry. Imitation can only be imitated by showing what it is an imitation of; it must always hide behind its object. It is indeed the first thing, but it must always appear as a second thing.

It is the plot alone which differentiates one tragedy from another, and what constitutes plot is desis (complication, involvement, binding, raveling) and lusis (denouement, resolution, loosening, unraveling). Desis includes the action from the beginning or archę (which frequently includes events prior to the beginning of the play) up to the extreme point (eschaton) where the weaving together of the events of the plot stops and things begin to unravel. The lusis is all the rest from the archę of the change until the end (telos) of the play. Now there is no question that Aristotle means us first to take this account linearly or temporally. There is a part of any tragedy in which things are put together and a part in which they are taken apart. At the same time, the key terms of the account all allow for another interpretation. Suppose archę means not temporal beginning but first principle, telos not temporal end but purpose, eschaton not temporal or spatial extreme but utmost, and, most important, lusis not denouement but resolution understood as something like ana-lysis. For this last there is evidence internal to the Poetics where Aristotle uses lusis to mean solution or resolution (1460b6, 1461b24) and luein to mean to solve or resolve (1460b22).[22] Now, if lusis meant analysis or interpretation here, Aristotle would be saying that tragedies ought to supply there own analyses.

This would explain the emphasis in the sequel on the fact that poets are often quite good at desis (that's what it means to be a poet--to make up stories or put together plots) but less frequently good at lusis. This is Aristotle's version of what Socrates says of the poets (Apology 22c)--that "they say many beautiful things but know nothing of what they say." Poets, ordinarily good at the part of poiętikę which involves putting the parts of a poem together, are not as a rule so good at the other part--analysis of poems according to their eidę. Tragedy is a crucial exception to this rule, for in tragedy part of the plot is lusis, an analysis of its action. Tragedy is distinct in being simultaneously synthetic or genetic-- desis, and analytic or eidetic--lusis. On one level, then, the movement from desis to lusis is simply linear--there is a point in the play where things begin to unwind. On another level desis and lusis are the same. Once Oedipus utters his first words, O tekna kadmou, the meaning of his incest has already been revealed; he is the father who does not know himself to be a brother. Tragedy is something like a metaphorical analysis of metaphor in which events function simultaneously as parts of a play and principles of its analysis. Things which look at first accidental, in retrospect become absolutely necessary. Lusis in its deepest sense is not a part of the plot but a second sailing--a rereading that makes visible what was implicit from the outset but could never have been seen without first having been missed.

Tragedy is especially revealing of human action because it not only tells a story that is significant or meaningful, but also makes the fact that the story can be meaningful a part of the story it tells. Pathei mathos, the lesson of tragedy, is at the same time the structure both of human action and of human thought. Human action is imitation of action because thinking is always rethinking. Aristotle can define human beings as at once rational animals, political animals and imitative animals because in the end the three are the same. In human action as in tragedy everything depends upon the intention of the actor. But that intention cannot be shown directly--it has to be revealed through action. When a poet tries to introduce intention directly it looks arbitrary and cannot be distinguished from chance. The true deus ex machina, the god in the machine, is therefore the human soul; it disappears as soon as one makes it visible. Ironically, the significance of our actions becomes visible only by reversing what we thought their significance to be. But that of course requires the initial assumption that one can see significance without reversal. You have to assume that you can see someone's character in order to see his action. This is what allows you to have your impression of the action reversed as the tragic plot turns on itself so that you can "see" the character in question. We must assume Oedipus innocent in order to understand his true guilt. Blundering would seem to be the fundamental character of human action and thought.

If thought, and so human action, is essentially poetic in its need to put in place and time what cannot appear in place and time does that mean it is essentially tragic? That is, if the recognition of tragedy is always spurious recognition, doesn't that mean we are essentially incapable of getting hold of ourselves? It does and it doesn't. Tragedy depicts tragic action, but it is not itself tragic, for if we recognize ourselves in the spurious character of Oedipus' recognition we are not simply in the position of Oedipus.

That Aristotle understands this to be true of tragedy is clear from the great compliment he pays it by imitating it. The Poetics is a very playful book. In the middle of his discussion of tragic error, Aristotle muses about whether those who criticize Euripides "err" (1453a8-23).[23] And in a remarkable tour de finesse digresses abruptly in Chapter 12 to discuss the chorus; the digression proves to be an example of how the chorus works in tragedy. Having introduced reversal and recognition, Aristotle moves without explanation to a short chapter on the parts of tragedy. So out of place does chapter 12 seem that many editors have suggested moving it (beginning with Heinsius in the 17th century), and many others (e.g. Butcher and Else) do not accept it as genuine. The chapter is certainly queer; at first glance, its list of parts--prologue, episode, exode, parodos, stasimon and commos--seems connected to nothing else in the Poetics. Upon reflection, however, one notices that each part is defined in terms of its relation to the chorus. Now the chorus has a funny function in tragedy. It is a character insofar as what it says grows out of the plot--to understand the famous chorus in Antigone about man as the being most deinos of all (simultaneously most canny and uncanny), one must understand to what the chorus responds by making this claim. At the same time the chorus reflects and comments on the action of the plot, and so talks directly to the audience. The role of the chorus therefore allows it to participate on the levels of both reversal and recognition. The chorus is then in a way the defining feature of tragedy--Nietzsche notwithstanding, the spectator within the drama. It is especially meet that Aristotle should discuss it in a "digression." Chapter 12 of the Poetics functions just like a stasimon; because it seems only marginally connected to what surrounds it, a choral ode looks like a reflection on what comes before and after. It is both still within the dramatic time of the play and at the same time atemporal. This chorus has as its content the centrality of the chorus for tragedy and so sheds light on what is at stake in the discussion of recognition and reversal which surrounds it.

In this and countless other ways the Poetics is a clever imitation of tragedy. Aristotle announced in his very first sentence that poiętikę would involve putting together synthetic and analytic accounts. It is not surprising then that his book should admit of being read on two levels. It is about tragedy, but it is also about human action. The first is its desis, the latter its lusis. (One might be tempted to say the Poetics is two books--a palimpsest, and Umberto Eco erred; the famous "second book" of the Poetics did not perish in a fire in an unknown abbey in the fall of 1327.)

On the one hand, then, Nietzsche did not err. For Aristotle, the "ancient difference between philosophy and poetry" must finally give way to a deeper kinship--"the lover of myth is somehow also a philosopher."[24] The animal by nature mimetic is the same as the animal by nature rational.[25] Yet Nietzsche does seem to have erred in underestimating Aristotle's grasp of the intimacy of the relation between the rational and the irrational, for Aristotle did not so much rationalize poetry as see how the poetic was a necessary moment of reason. Much to our surprise, in this the sober Aristotle is not so far from the somewhat less sober Nietzsche. Despite its Dionysian content, The Birth of Tragedy is a work of markedly Apollinian form.[26] Nietzsche several times makes clear that the book was intended not simply as a paean, whether to music, poetry, or Richard Wagner, but rather as itself a new kind of philosophy.

In this sense I have the right to understand myself as the first tragic philosopher--that means the most extreme opposite and antipode of a pessimistic philosopher. Before me, this transformation of the Dionysian into a philosophical pathos did not exist: there was a lack of tragic wisdom.[27]

What might the general character of this tragic philosophy be? Sixteen years after its initial publication, The Birth of Tragedy was republished with a revised title--The Birth of Tragedy, Or: Hellenism and Pessimism--and a new introduction called "An Attempt at Self-Criticism" (apparently Nietzsche was unsure of the success of his criticism). Werner Dannhauser has pointed out a curious feature of the new introduction. Fewer than ten pages long, it nevertheless, contains more than seventy question marks--thirty-one in the first of its seven sections.[28] This is not accidental; in the first sentence Nietzsche calls The Birth of Tragedy a fragwürdiges, or questionable, book that deals with a question of the first rank. He goes on to speak of questions and question marks at least fourteen times--thrice in this first sentence alone. Nietzsche, for whom inquiry, science, and reason, seem such questionable enterprises thus begins an inquiry into the meaning of his own book.

Now, a question is a kind of longing--an expression of a need. This is connected to the other strand of the argument at the outset of the "Attempt at Self-Criticism"--an account of the birth of The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche tells us that he started work on the book when he was a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War. At the time of the Peace Treaty of Versailles, he completed the final version "while at peace with himself" but convalescing from a disease contracted during the war. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche calls attention to the disparity between the conditions under which the book was begun, the battle of Wörth, its subject matter, the Dionysian, and the strange neutrality and detachment that makes it seem so untimely.[29] Nietzsche is in the middle of a war "troubled and yet untroubled."[30] He is governed by necessity and yet reflective--but not about his immediate situation. What is the question that preoccupies this musing soldier? If art always originates out of some need, and if the Greeks were the healthy people, why should they have had art at all? Moreover, why that form of art, tragedy, that seems to concentrate on the ugly? Nietzsche seems to have been able to begin to answer this question because of the ambiguity of his own situation. He is needy (he is ill and at war) and yet not (he is curiously detached). Now, this all has something to do with that state of mind in which it is possible to ask any question. To question is not simply to respond mechanically to a perceived need, for to ask for the answer to a puzzle that is not of immediate concern requires a certain confidence and overabundance. Could Nietzsche mean for the act of questioning to serve as a model for what he will call the "pessimism of strength" that characterizes tragedy?

If art grows out of some need and is always meant to combat some doubt about the value of life--a pessimism, then mustn't the Greeks too have been unhealthy? Nietzsche suggests an alternative. Perhaps the suffering to which Greek art was a response was one of overabundance. Such art would not be a compensating optimism that projects a better life but a celebration of suffering--ultimately tragedy--as the condition of the deepest life. But, if the model for tragedy is the question, isn't the more obvious offshoot of questioning the optimism that anticipates an answer? And isn't this the science that undermines the very possibility of tragedy--it tells us that the answer to the problem of Oedipus is counseling? Such questioning would be a flight from pessimism--its result, that cheerfulness that is for Nietzsche a sign of decay. It is striking that science should make its first appearance in The Birth of Tragedy as an obstacle to truth. One might say, then, that the act of questioning involves a certain pessimism, or neediness, as well as a certain strength, for asking a question means acknowledging that an answer is not immediately available. The consequence is a longing to know that ironically, or perhaps tragically, tempts us to replace uncertainty of the question with the certitude of the answer. This is the importance of the famous phrase in which Nietzsche characterizes the goal of The Birth of Tragedy: "to see science from the point of view of the artist but art from the point of view of life" (SC.2). While itself derivative from the fundamental act of questioning, science nevertheless no longer questions fundamentally, for it takes the act of questioning itself for granted. The problem is that a verb, wissen, gets itself transformed into a noun, Wissenschaft.

When The Birth of Tragedy was first published, it was controversial--certainly not Wissenschaft. Nietzsche tells us that in the time between the first edition and his self-criticism the book became "proven" and "has satisfied (genuggetan hat) 'the best men of the time'" (SC.2). But in this it resembles "the Socratism of morality, the dialectic, satisfaction (Genügsamkeit), and cheerfulness of the theoretical man" that killed tragedy (SC.1). Now, Nietzsche says, he finds the book disagreeable--a set piece. Yet in finding it disagreeable, he recognizes the strangeness of the question it asked and in a way renews this question. The goal of the book is "to see science from the point of view of the artist but art from the point of view of life." Science cannot ground the question of science because, as directed toward answers, it is not sufficiently in awe of its own activity. The question of science, then, according to Nietzsche, can only be asked from the point of view of the Kunstler--the artist or producer. To see what is involved in the posing of a question, one must look at the questioner, not the question; otherwise one will not see the need out of which the question was born. As an artifact--something made, even science requires a motive. Seeing science in this way will lead us to attempt to find a general answer to the question of why it is that artists make art. In so doing, we will attempt to understand life as such. Nietzsche's question amounts to asking what in general lies underneath our attempt to get at the truth in general.

"To see science from the point of view of the artist but art from the point of view of life" is a project that suggests that art is what mediates between living, on the one hand, and thinking, on the other. Art involves making an alternative world and so makes it possible to judge this world. It thus makes science possible. But why this judging? This question leads us to life. Art is the distinctive feature of human life both in terms of doing and in terms of thinking. The mimetic animal is the rational animal.

Nietzsche's criticism of his own book at first seems simple: "It should have sung this 'new soul'--and not spoken" (SC.3). He should have spoken as a poet or at least as a philologist. The problem was that there was a problem. That is, The Birth of Tragedy was born of need and not abundance. Accordingly, it was not Greek; what it said was at odds with how it said it. Yet, that its form is thus at odds with its content makes it look suspiciously like what it is describing--Greek tragedy. It is an account of the tragic death of tragedy--tragic because growing out of the very nature of tragedy itself. Once accepted, however, this tragedy ceases to be tragic. Accordingly, Nietzsche criticizes The Birth of Tragedy for being too rational, and so for being not rational enough--lacking in "logical cleanness" (SC.3). Just as science is too rational, hence too unquestioning, hence too little rational, The Birth of Tragedy was too rational, hence too complacent, hence insufficiently rational. Nietzsche criticizes himself for appearing to be a misologist; he ought to have appeared to be a philologist--reveling in what logos makes possible rather than bewailing what it makes impossible.

The issue of the book is the Dionysian, but there is something of the act of questioning as opposed to its results that is connected to the god, Dionysus. In asking "What is Dionysian?" (SC.4), Nietzsche asked after the essence of the chaotic; he turned a name, Dionysus, into a noun, "the Dionysian." One "who knows" gave an answer and therewith threatened to undermine what gives rise to questions. What Nietzsche did thus threatens to undermine what gave rise to questioning and inspired speech; he ought instead to have given an account of questioning that did not undermine questioning. This was why he was preoccupied with tragedy. Tragedy is a form of answer which as pessimism preserves the question. Yet, that Nietzsche acknowledges his failure shows how difficult this task is.

Sixteen years after publishing The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche returns to his answer and expresses dissatisfaction. By now undermining the answer he once gave, he rejuvenates his original question and therewith gives new life to his previous answer. He thus attempts to restore to The Birth of Tragedy its tragic status. His is an attempt at self-criticism that he hopes will fail insofar as it succeeds, for only by keeping the question alive in the answer it generates can the answer remain an answer. The Birth of Tragedy both describes and itself exemplifies a pessimism of strength that provides metaphysical comfort in the face of the flux of being. This is why we can only learn through suffering; pathei mathos is for Nietzsche no less than for Aristotle the formula for human thought. In apparently thinking he had surpassed Aristotle, Nietzsche seems in his idiosyncratic way rather to have reconstructed from the decayed tradition of Platonic and Aristotelian "rationalism" Aristotle's understanding of the dependence of philosophy on poetry. Their serious differences notwithstanding, for both Aristotle and Nietzsche human reason is a funny thing, insofar as its misuse seems to be the necessary condition for its use. Acknowledging this oddity of human nature may in one way or another be the mark of every genuine philosopher.



[1]. Of the following argument, much of the part concerned with Aristotle appears in my The Poetry of Philosophy: On Aristotle's Poetics and has been reproduced here with the permission of St. Augustine's Press. *

[2]. Although they do not seem to have possessed any tragedies, their commentaries are filled with interesting remarks. Still, Aristotle's account alone was not enough for Avicenna to recognize that tragedy was more than "the praise meant for a living or dead person."*

[3] . See Averroes, Middle Commentary on Aristotle's Poetics, C. Butterworth, trans. (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2000); Dahiyat, I.M., Avicenna's Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle: A Critical Study with and Annotated Translation, (Leyden: Brill, 1974); Corneille, Pierre, "Discours de la Tragédie" in Théatre complet, vol. 1, (Paris: Garnier, 1971) , 33-56; Racine, Jean, Preface to Phčdre, (Paris: Larousse, 1965); Lessing, G.E., Hamburgische Dramaturgie, Nrs. 73-83 in Werke, vols. 6-7, (Leipzig: Bibliographische Institut, 1911); Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Nachlese zu Aristotelische Poetik in Goethe the Critic, introduction and notes by G.F. Semnos, revised and completed by C.V. Bock (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960), 60-63; Milton, John, Preface to Samson Agonistes in Poetical Works, (New York: American News Company, no date); and Boswell, James, Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934)*

[4]. The general, but not universal, view is that there were originally two books to the Poetics, one on tragedy and a second on comedy. In our text, recovered about 1500, there is no account of comedy.*

[5] . See Shore, Bradd, Sala'Iliua: A Samoan Mystery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).*

[6] . See Menscliches, Allzumenschliches, section 212 where Nietzsche praised Plato for having understood the unsettling character of tragedy while criticizing Aristotle for having thought it has a calming effect through a purgation of pity and fear. In a later section (264) Nietzsche criticizes Aristotle as ingenious and clever, but unable to differentiate between cleverness and boredom. For Nietzsche's criticism of Aristotle on catharsis see Götzen-Dämmerung, "Was Ich den Alten verdanke," section 5; the criticism is quoted in the section on The Birth of Tragedy in Ecce Homo.*

[7] . All translations of the Poetics are my own and are of the Greek text of D.W. Lucas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).*

[8]. Compare this to the first book of the Politics where our natures as political animals are traced to our natures as the animals with logos--speech or reason. We are not political simply because we seek good things; we are political because we seek what we understand to be good. This is the difference between a polis and a beehive.*

[9]. This is not unlike what occurs in tragedy. See Poetics 1448b10-20.*

[10]. Aristotle goes out of his way to indicate the adverbial use of the accusative in the last words of the sentence--kai me ton auton tropon.*

[11]. See Poetics, Chapter 6.*

[12]. It therefore looks like a product or something made--a poem. As Aristotle's account of imitation in chapter 4 indicates, mimęsis has a peculiar doubleness to it. It means both the action of imitating--the mimicking we do from childhood--and the product of imitating--the poem or painting which results from representing.*

[13]. Consider Herakles' reinterpretation of the meaning Zeus' promise that he would not die at the hands of anything living (Trachiniae 1157-1178)--he first takes it to mean he will not die, but later understands it to mean he will be killed by the poison from the blood of the dead centaur Nessus.*

[14]. It is worth noting that Aristotle does not say that the discovery is the same discovery.*

[15]. It is surely no accident that the "moment" at which Oedipus learns "who he is" should be so fuzzy. Directly after the messenger tells him he is not the son of Polybus, Oedipus seems as concerned that Jocasta will think him ill born as he is that he is in fact the son of Laius (1062-63).*

[16]. See Ronna Burger's "Ethical Reflection and Righteous Indignation: Nemesis in the Nicomachean Ethics" in Aristotle's Ethics: Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy Vol. IV, John Anton and Antony Preus eds., (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991) *

[17]. Accordingly, Aristotle is silent about the plot in which the good man's fortune alters from ill to good.*

[18]. This is born out by Aristotle's examples--Alkmeon and Orestes killed their mothers, but to avenge their fathers; Oedipus seeks to become master of his own fate, but to avoid the necessity to kill his father and marry his mother; Meleager is killed by his mother after accidentally killing his uncles; Thyestes, brother of Atreus, seduced Atreus' wife, and, to punish him, Atreus feeds him his children; Telephon is punished for accidentally killing his uncles. These cases seem to point to conflicting moral issues which do not admit of straightforward solution.*

[19]. See Seth Benardete, Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, in Ancients and Moderns, New York, 1964, pp. 1-15. *

[20]. Notice how the long awaited discussion of character in Chapter 15 quickly gets derailed and turns into a discussion of plot. This movement perfectly mirrors the dependence of character on plot, of the inside on the outside.*

[21]. On the importance of seeing for tragedy see Chapter 17.*

[22]. lusis appears, before having been defined, in Chapter 15 (1454a37) where Aristotle indicates that it ought to come out of the plot itself and not be generated "from the machine."*

[23]. In fact these men who err (hamartanousin) make the error that occurs within tragedy. They demand that justice prevail in the world. And if Euripides appears to be the "most tragic" of the poets, perhaps it is because he does what he ought to do even when the end does not follow from his plot. That is, Euripides' action in writing as he writes, his uniform adherence to a rule, has the makings of tragedy.*

[24] . Metaphysics, 982b18-19*

[25] . See Poetics 1448b5-6, Nicomachean Ethics 1098a, and Politics 1253a.*

[26] . See Werner Dannhauser, Nietzsche's View of Socrates (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 49, 59-60.*

[27] . Ecce Homo, "Die Geburt der Tragödie," section 3. All translations of Nietzsche are my own and follow the German text of Karl Schlecta, Friedrich Nietzsche: Werke in Drei Bänden (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1966).*

[28] . Werner Dannhauser, Nietzsche's View of Socrates (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 77.*

[29] . See Ecce Homo, "Die Geburt der Tragödie," section 1.*

[30] . "Attempt at Self-Criticism," section 1--hereafter SC, with the section number following.*