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Aristotle and His Modern Critics: The Use of Tragedy in the Nontragic Vision.

Is there a place for the tragic vision in an orderly scheme of things? This is the question that Patrick Madigan asks in an interesting essay that explores not only the place of tragedy and comedy in human experience, but also the place of the opening that tragedy represents in the Aristotelian system. He argues that Aristotle's view of being, if rightly understood, can accept and even embrace the tragic vision, and moreover that the perspective on human experience laid open by tragedy can lead to a more complete understanding of ourselves and the world we try to come to terms with. He argues that it is only in the dreadful character of tragic experience that we can be shocked out of a complacent "doxalogical slumber" into the genuinely self-critical examination required for the attainment of theoretical knowledge.

Madigan begins with a treatment of comedy, the place of which in the progress toward understanding is more straightforward. In comedy we find the low character chafing against constraints that we all find irritating from time to time. Because of his character, the protagonist represents no threat to the morality of the audience, and his antics can provide a welcome relief for our own feelings of frustration and anxiety. When he suffers some relatively minor penalty for his trangression, we are chastened along with him for our own sympathy with his act, thereby resolving the whole business (by means of reason) into something that in the end reaffirms our commitment, both practical and theoretical, to virtue. Focusing as it does on the mundane, the constraints, irritations, and pleasures of the ordinariness of things, comedy becomes "a kind of secular sacrament, spontaneously developed and intuitively reached for, virtually a gift from the gods extended perhaps out of compassion and compensation to minister to our derivative, creaturely condition. . . . It can set us back on our feet and give us new lease on life--on practical life, where the majority of our living must take place" (p. 71).

In tragedy on the other hand, the protagonist, and through him, we ourselves, initiate and carry through a quite different rebellion. Confronted by an injustice in the fundamental scheme of things, he refuses to submit, testing his own self-worth against the gods themselves. This draws us into the unfamiliar territory of a "blasphemous theology," forcing us to consider the possibility of a world in which nothing makes sense, where the gods themselves have lost track of the orderliness upon which our usual vision of ourselves, our projects, and our hopes depends. If we cannot count upon the justice of the gods, what hope is there for finding a stable meaning behind the shifting play of appearances? Must we surrender ourselves to the notion that there is no such meaning, that even the gods are in the end lost in a universe mindlessly shifting from one position to another, our occasional attempts at establishing order no more significant than the paths of the anthill beneath our feet?

One response to tragedy is just this, and it is this modern response that Madigan wants to call into question. The tradition that develops through Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to contemporary writers such as Walter Kaufman (and perhaps many if not all of the deconstructionist critics, though these are not the focus of Madigan's concern) takes the tragic vision as representing a fundamental truth about the human condition, a truth that earlier philosophy turned away from in weakness and horror. It is only in accepting and even embracing this vision, these new critics would have us believe, that we can become fully ourselves. We realize what freedom we have in a recognition of the hopelessness of our situation, as we rise in defiance against the irrational mechanism of a cosmos careering away from us out of control, wherein indeed the very notion of control is to be seen as nothing more than a cowardly turning away from the truth that there is no ultimate meaning to be uncovered.

Against this view, Madigan suggests that the tragic vision can actually lead us to a fuller comprehension of a nontragic worldview. We find in the tragic hero and his travails simply another logical possibility, and one that we must indeed confront if we are to become fully ourselves. But this need not drive us to an embrace of the irrational; we might instead, having had this tragic vision presented to us for our contemplation, choose to open ourselves to the continuing attempt to know what the Aristotelian project proposes as our highest and most natural goal. Far from turning his face away from the truth that tragedy represents, Aristotle, in Madigan's characterization, empirically justifies its importance as something that can (and in fact did, in the audiences he observed) contribute meaningfully to this larger project through the dialectical tension that it forces us to resolve.

The dialectical tension that Madigan points to here is of course something that Hegel is greatly interested in, and I think that my Hegelian friends might raise (with some justice) a question about why Madigan is inclined to neglect the Hegelian analysis altogether. While Madigan does not pretend to be offering a comprehensive treatment of various reactions to the tragic vision, Hegel does seem to be notably excluded from a treatment that nonetheless draws upon some of his insights (or that at least makes similar claims). But I do not want to accuse Madigan of illegitimately neglecting Hegel, since I do not think that he is offering only another version of the Hegelian analysis in his essay. In fact, I think that he might well claim that Hegel, caught in what is referred to here and there as a "Parmenidean" vision, falls prey to what Madigan sees as Plato's mistake in being too ready simply to dismiss the tragic vision as misbegotten, or to resolve it too neatly as nothing more than a dark dream from which reason rightly wakes us. The opening that Madigan hints at in the nature of God is I think reflected by his understanding of the continuing place of tragedy in human experience. Given this, he could go on to argue that the tension and dynamic of the tragic vision cannot be subsumed--as it ultimately must be by the Hegelian Absolute--into a univocal and thoroughly integrated Being. The Parmenidean "dousing" of becoming may be overcome in tragedy, and it is this in fact that represents tragedy's contribution to understanding.

I may be moving well beyond Madigan's intentions here, however. I would like to see more of the ontology that lies behind his defense of tragedy's place in the scheme of things, and rather wish that he had provided some more direct comment about this in his book. This notwithstanding, I recommend this book as an intelligent and useful counterpoint to what seems to me an increasingly prevalent and uncritical celebration of the dark side of the tragic vision. It is, after all, only by contrast with some meaningfully "nontragic" vision that a tragic vision can find any logical place or significance.
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Author:Martine, Brian John
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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