Critchley successfully reminds his reader that the tragic is philosophical, if not in the way that Socrates intended, and that it may be possible to take “seriously the form of thinking that we find in tragedy, and the experience of partial agency, limited autonomy, deep traumatic affect, agonistic conflict, gender confusion, political complexity and moral ambiguity that it presents.”
To live is to encounter the tragic — a reality shot through with utter strife, and covered in complete darkness. Despite our best attempts, we are not going to get out of it. For philosophers to overlook, sugarcoat, or rationalize this fact is to deny something essential about who we are and what we might become, both intentionally but also in spite of ourselves. According to Critchley, “tragic philosophers” accept a “somber realism” about a world “defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed, and entirely without the capacity for redemption.” So let us learn to “take things hard” in the right way. This, I believe, is the central thread in this complex, entangling book.
Tragedy, the Greeks and Us consists of 61 chapters — yes, chapters — organized in four principal sections: Tragedy, Sophistry, Plato, and Aristotle. A reader expecting a coherent thesis developed in the traditional way will be rather disappointed. In Critchley’s defense, tragedy itself never feigned coherence. I’d like to think that Critchley is after a book akin to Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts, a collection of loosely related vignettes, which cast light and shadow, in exactly the right proportion, on the ambiguous nature of the creative life. At many points in his book, Critchley manages something like this in reference to the nature of tragedy.
It is tempting to think that tragedy refers to any bad thing that might confront an individual. My brother once inadvertently pushed a large oak stump over on his best friend, nearly crushing her skull. Is this tragedy? No, Critchley says — not according to the Greeks. At its core, tragedy turns neither on mere accident nor on human depravity, but rather on moral ambiguity, which is far more vexing than the actions of any villain or form of accident. In tragedy, according to Critchley, the “right is always on both sides and invariably also wrong. Justice is conflict […] which means that justice is divided.” He also argues, quite persuasively, that tragedy entails the experience of human fallibility, “ontological limitedness,” and “partial agency.” Thankfully, Critchley largely unpacks this philosophical jargon.
As humans, we are actors, charged with acting in a bewildering world. And when we do, we tend to err, often grievously — a tendency that stems from the inescapable limitations of being mortal. We fail to see the consequences of our actions, but more importantly, we remain opaque to ourselves. This blindness and fallibility wouldn’t be quite so painful if it weren’t for our rational capacities that seem — and just seem — able to make sense of everything. It looks like we are in control, and we apparently are, until we invariably aren’t. And then it appears that we never fully were. And this unexpected realization is enough to warrant “taking things hard.”
Bringing this contentious reality to life on stage, as the Greeks did in tragedy, has always been a subversive act. It brings the expression of grief, which has traditionally been cordoned off in the private realm, into the public and elicits lamentation in an audience who might otherwise remain calm. The wailing and rending of garments presented by figures such as Electra, Cassandra, and Hecuba encourage onlookers to participate in their fever-pitched suffering. That wouldn’t be a particular problem save for the fact that the men, who have always run the polis, from Euripides’s day to our own, aren’t supposed to “act like women.” This, among other reasons, is why Plato suggests that the tragedian must be expelled from the republic.
Tragedy’s disruption of what Critchley calls “the proper economy of sexual difference in the city” only deepens as characters like Antigone take the stage, and it becomes clear that the war that underwrites tragedy is usually a war of the sexes. Following Judith Butler, Critchley notes that Antigone, “far from representing some pure idea of ‘the feminine’ […] represents the instability, porosity, and fragility of gender identity and the utterly contingent character of social relations and kinship structures.” And just because Antigone shows us that gender identities, social relations, and kinship structures — the essential facets of every Greek tragedy — are porous and contingent in no way means that we are at liberty to control them.
In tragedy, knowledge is not always, often, or ever power. In Critchley’s words, Antigone’s story “doesn’t mean that we are somehow free of the Oedipal structures that characterize tragedy. We are still prisoners of the family, even a queer family.” The disruption in this, and all human affairs, will continue — and this may be the abiding message that the Greeks, through the birth of tragedy, will continue to offer us.
In Critchley’s reading of the dialogues, “excessive grief and lamentation […] never gets anyone anywhere. What should be cultivated instead […] is the capacity for deliberation (bouleusis) which is subject to the activity of logos and the calculating rational part of the soul.”
But what of the excesses of life, its lubricity and shiftiness that can never be rationally calculated? What of its monstrosity and the disgust it elicits? Philosophy, traditionally understood, has painfully little to say and places a gag order on anyone who might attempt to give voice to the unspeakable. The silence, however, speaks volumes. There is something to gag. There is something violent, and therefore ironic, about Plato’s cool insistence on remaining rational.
Critchley is at his most incisive when his criticism of ancient thinkers speaks, at least indirectly, to the contemporary discipline of philosophy. “At the core of philosophy,” Critchley writes in his assessment of Plato, “lies affect regulation, the rational ordering of emotion. Do we not glimpse here the cold, obsessional core of the philosophical personality?” I think so. What could philosophy be if it shook its cold, obsessional core? It might lose the semblance of security against the turbulent world, but it should be strong enough to face and express the disruption of being alive.
John Kaag is the 2019 Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute and is professor and chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is also the author of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.