Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us
By Simon Critchley.
Vintage Books, 2020.
Paperback, 322 pages. $17.

Reviewed by Grant Havers

The day after the passing of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, Leo Strauss delivered a philosophical eulogy to his students, contrasting “the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant—this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.” The greatness of Churchill, having led a nation that stood alone against Hitler’s Germany in the perilous year 1940 (after the fall of France), was undeniable.

“The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power.” Yet the greatness of a statesman should not obscure profound failure as well. Strauss went on to remark: “No less enlightening is the lesson conveyed by Churchill’s failure which is too great to be called tragedy. I mean the fact that Churchill’s heroic action on behalf of human freedom against Hitler only contributed, through no fault of Churchill’s, to increase the threat to freedom which is posed by Stalin or his successors.”

Although Churchill was hardly culpable for the fact that the price of victory over Hitler’s Germany was Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Churchill’s courageous leadership against the Nazi menace had ultimately led to this dangerous reality. Strauss observed that the sheer magnitude of this bitter fate, which subjected millions of human beings to a tyranny that lasted over forty-five years, “is too great to be called tragedy.” Still, his remarks pointed to the meaning of tragedy, however inadequate that term was in understanding the new order that Germany’s defeat brought into being.

Few philosophers in the twentieth century have shown any serious interest in tragedy. Simon Critchley, who is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, is an exception. In his new study, Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us, Critchley invites his readers to think deeply about what tragedy is. He begins with this statement: “Tragedy shows what is perishable, what is fragile, and what is slow moving about us.” The ancient Greek understanding of tragedy, which is dramatically represented in the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, deserves our full attention. He adds:

Through its sudden reversals of fortune and rageful recognition of the truth of our origins, tragedy permits us to come face-to-face with what we do not know about ourselves but what makes those selves the things they are. Tragedy provokes what snags in our being, the snares and booby traps of the past that we blindly trip over in our relentless, stumbling, forward movement. This is what the ancients called “fate,” and it requires our complicity in order to come down on us.

Critchley is well aware that the contemporary mind is opposed to these notions. After all, the very spirit of modernity—its celebration of human freedom as well as control over nature—sharply resists talk of “fate,” “reversals of fortune,” and any other suggestion that we are not masters of our destiny. As the book’s title suggests, tragedy does not belong to a premodern age that lacked a proper (that is, modern) understanding of freedom. Although Critchley does not deny obvious historical differences between ancients and moderns, he refuses to believe that the Attic Greeks are an “exotic people” who have nothing to teach us. Notwithstanding the fact that “we will never be in the position of spectators in the theater in classical Athens,” we moderns need to close the temporal distance between us and the Greeks so that we can “reinvent the classics for our world and invent the ‘we’ that regards the plays.”

Why is this reinvention or rediscovery of tragedy necessary for today? According to Critchley, our modern age is unduly dominated by long-entrenched philosophical and religious traditions that downplay and even repudiate the existence of tragedy. Because philosophy since Plato is “committed to the idea and ideal of a noncontradictory psychic life,” it is bound to clash with tragedy, which gives “voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.” Ever since Plato banned the poets from the just city in The Republic, philosophy has waged unending war against tragedy. This war also targets democracy, given the fact that the theaters in which tragedies were performed delivered entertainment to the people. Whereas philosophy opposes contradiction and uncertainty, tragedy celebrates “ambiguity” as an inescapable fact of life.

“For philosophy, ambiguity is a sign of crisis that has to be arrested and avoided through an appeal to some higher, ideal transcendental source of meaning or intelligibility that can be a basis for political authority. For tragedy, that crisis is life and has to be lived as such.” According to Critchley’s interpretation of Plato, the true philosopher fears that this “ambiguity” represents a changeable “imitation” (mimesis) of a deeper reality. All this leads to confusion about justice, which can transform a democracy into a tyranny. Yet Platonism should not monopolize the meaning of philosophy. Instead, we ought to appreciate the philosophy embedded within tragedy, which offers “a bracing, skeptical realism that heavily qualifies what we think of as hope, but perhaps also deepens it into a form of courage.”

Critchley astutely shows that tragedy’s philosophy includes the key idea of reversal (peripeteia). Consistent with the metaphysics of cyclical time, roles are constantly reversed according to the changeable movement of fortune. The powerful are laid low while the lowly gain power. Euripides, the tragic playwright whom Critchley admires most, brilliantly brings out this pattern of reversal in his play The Trojan Women: “the apparent defeat of the Trojans is actually their victory, for they acted honorably in losing, whereas the Greeks behaved like beasts in winning the war.” Reversal is also the whole point of Aeschylus’s Oresteia: “In apparent defeat lies true victory. The weaker will destroy the stronger. Atreus will fall (which it does). Victory is defeat.” What is particularly tragic about this cycle of revenge, which victimizes all parties involved, is that neither human freedom nor rationality can do anything to stop it. The temptation to find an inspiring moral lesson from these conflicts will be disappointed as well, given the fact that tragedy reveals the moral ambiguity that “justice is conflict.” “The right is always on both sides and invariably also wrong.” Justice as conflict is also apparent in Sophocles’s Antigone, given Antigone’s valid desire to give her brother Polyneices a traditional burial and Creon’s equally legitimate denial of this right to a usurper.

As Critchley persuasively shows, if both sides to a conflict are equally right and wrong, then only the stronger party (typically fate) can break the deadlock. Philosophy or reason is of little help here. “Rationality abounds in tragedy, but it is not as if reason solves anything or brings anything to a final resolution.” Critchley also presents tragedy as the true voice of democracy, insisting that the real reason behind philosophy’s opposition to tragedy lies in the former’s hostility to the well-being of women and slaves. It is no accident, he avers, that tragedy “is often concerned with how highborn women become slaves, like Tecmessa in Sophocles’ Ajax, Cassandra in the Agamemnon, and Hecuba in The Trojan Women. This is a form of reversal, or peripeteia, that is not acknowledged by Aristotle.” Critchley concludes his book with the declaration that tragedy “is far from any form of cultural conservatism” and “is in no way traditional.”

Although Critchley is determined to bridge the gap between the ancients and moderns, he fails to demonstrate why the ancients never acted to improve the well-being of the powerless. While he is unconvinced that the Attic Greeks lacked a concept of the will, he never explains why it is only with the dawn of modernity, including the modern premise that human beings can willfully change the world, that slavery and inequality are no longer treated as inevitable or fated. Critchley engages in other forms of historical revisionism when he bizarrely claims that sophistry, which understands tragedy better than philosophy does, is “resolutely human all too human, and confines itself to human affairs and expresses not disbelief but simply skepticism about the gods.” Has he ever read Plato’s Euthyphro?

Critchley’s portrait of philosophy (in the Platonic sense) as serving the forces of reaction creates a larger problem for his analysis. His surgical distinction between democratic tragedy and elitist (Platonic) philosophy falls apart when one considers all the evidence for tragedy within the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Despite his insistence that Plato aims to eliminate all conflict, ambiguity, and contradiction, even a cursory reading of a Platonic dialogue reveals that the conflict between the philosophic few and the unphilosophic many never ends in reconciliation or resolution. Socrates’ questioning of popular conventions and mores, of course, led to his trial and execution. Near the end of Plato’s Apology, after the sentence of death has been passed, Socrates speculates that even in Hades he may cross-examine the souls of fallen heroes. It would be inconceivable for Socrates to hope, as modern philosophers since the Enlightenment often do, that the ignorance of the masses will be replaced with knowledge. (Socrates admits, after all, that he himself lacks this knowledge.) Doesn’t this sound rather tragic?

Critchley’s determination to separate Platonic philosophy from tragedy leads to other patently inaccurate judgments such as this. “The philosopher’s city, the just city described in the speeches of the Republic, is premised upon the elimination of all such contradictions and therefore requires the excision of tragedy.” Yet nothing in the Republic, not even Plato’s famous banishment of the tragic poets, justifies this conclusion. Ultimately, the perfectly just city is a “perfect impossibility,” as Allan Bloom puts it in his interpretive essay (to which Critchley refers) on the Republic, because there is no ideal way of mediating between the interests of the philosophical rulers and the non-philosophical ruled. The philosophers do not want to rule the many, and the many do not welcome the rule of the philosophers. In short, they disagree on what justice is. To quote Bloom again, this “union of philosophy and the city is a shotgun wedding,” a predicament that is hardly devoid of conflict and contradiction. One could even make a case for the presence of reversal in the Republic. In Book I, Socrates compels Thrasymachus to admit that no ruler can be knowingly unjust (including a tyrant who believes that “justice is the advantage of the stronger”). Yet in Book II, Socrates’ youthful interlocutors Glaucon and Adeimantus compel him to recognize that no ruler can be knowingly just (but only because of compulsion or lack of power). Contra Critchley, Plato also never suggests that reason can eliminate all conflict, given the fact that some souls are more imbalanced or ignorant than others.

Critchley also assumes without demonstration that Plato and Aristotle’s desire to “find a correspondence or likeness between the human and the divine” is free of tragedy. Yet Aristotle pointedly warns in his Nicomachean Ethics that the desire for friendship with God means the end of friendship with mortals:

In such cases it is not possible to define exactly up to what point friends can remain friends; for much can be taken away and friendship remain, but when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases. This is in fact the origin of the question whether friends really wish for their friends the greatest goods, e.g., that of being gods; since in that case their friends will no longer be friends to them, and therefore will not be good things for them [for friends are good things]. (1159a)

Besides misreading Plato and Aristotle, Critchley also unfairly portrays Christianity as a faith that naively attempts, like Platonism, a “moralization” of the psyche that replaces a tough-minded awareness of tragic suffering with a falsely reassuring expectation that everything will work out in the end.

Within Christianity and the other monotheisms, we cannot know the true nature of the divine, but we can have faith that God loves us and cares for us. The radicality of ancient Greek polytheism is that the gods do not love and care for us and indeed they did not even create us.… The gods do not exist in order to console or comfort human beings, but in order to bring to pass what we might not at all expect.

Although Critchley is briefly aware of the difference between knowledge and faith, he treats belief in God as if it is identical with certainty about God’s providential intent. Yet faith is precisely the opposite of certainty: believers believe in God’s love despite the overwhelming evidence against it in a fallen world. While he correctly observes that tragedy “does not comfort our fever like a warm blanket,” neither does faith. Critchley is certainly correct to point out that the tragic mind leaves no room for reconciliation between human beings, whose conflicting views of justice can lead to the downfall of all parties concerned. Yet the biblical hope for reconciliation is not identical to an expectation. The faith that God’s justice will prevail is not (or should not be) the same as a demand for a guarantee. To recall Churchill in 1940, his hope that Britain would prevail against the Third Reich was as far from a certainty as one could imagine at the time. As Eric Voegelin put it, “Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity.”

Perhaps the tragedy (!) of this work is the fact that the author does not fully pursue the implications of his most trenchant insights, particularly the nature of reversal as well as the inevitable conflicts and contradictions that haunt classical literature and philosophy. Despite his sincere efforts to bridge the gap between ancients and moderns, Critchley unintentionally reminds us of the vast historical distance between ancient fatalism and modern faith.  

Grant Havers is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University (Canada). He is the author of Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013).

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