G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel on Tragedy

hegelHegel on Tragedy edited by Anne and Henry Paolucci

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1962 anthology edited by Anne and Henry Paolucci collects writings on literature (not just tragedy) from across the German philosopher’s career. It is mainly comprised of relevant excerpts from the Lectures on Aesthetics, a multi-volume posthumous production begun in 1835 and assembled from teaching notes by a student of Hegel’s. The Lectures on Aesthetics, like the similarly posthumous and pedagogical 1837 Lectures on the Philosophy of History, also excerpted in this volume, are somewhat easier to read than the type of prose conjured up by the very name “Hegel”—prose in which the contentions and metamorphoses of inscrutable abstractions are muffled under a dense fabric of complex syntax. The Paoluccis treat us to some of this prose, too, with a 60-page excerpt from The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel’s acknowledged philosophical masterpiece, but the comparatively—only comparatively—friendlier Aesthetics predominates in this volume.

What did Hegel think of tragedy? As with any philosopher, to answer such a specific question, we have to first understand what he thought of everything else. Metaphysics, ethics, politics, aesthetics—each is a facet of the totality. And while I fear misstating or traducing a philosophy so complex in itself and even more complex in the literary treatment Hegel gives it, I maintain that people who are not professional scholars of philosophy should be able to garner some intelligible concepts from texts as broadly influential as these. As I am always telling my students, a classic is not a book we are obligated to like, but it is a book we are obligated to read, because it has made our world. So what did Hegel think, first about everything, and then about tragedy?

Hegel thought that human history was the progressive realization of reason. That is, all those moral and intellectual virtues a thinker like Plato would locate in some sphere beyond full human ken, Hegel finds in humanity’s activities, especially as those activities’ agents—human beings—become more and more aware of themselves as the bearers of “ethical substance.” We come to recognize ourselves as creators of the good in politics, the true in philosophy, the beautiful in art—and, in a sense, these ideals don’t truly exist until we bring them into the clear light of reality and free thought.

Aesthetics proves key to this philosophy, because the high points of our development toward freedom (qua recognition of ourselves as agents of the idea) coincide with what Hegel sees as the three main modes of art, and their three geographical loci, that have predominated so far in history.

The first type of art he calls symbolic and associates with the cultures of the East. Here the human mind tries to create monuments that stand in for—that evoke or gesture toward—the vast spiritual powers to which it feels united in nature. Architecture is the dominant symbolic art, and its merit is to represent a recognition of some need to actualize spirit in material form. Its fault, though, is that the soul at this stage feels an immediate union with spirit in nature and so is unable to progress to a higher development of spirit as separated from and master of nature. The symbolic artist, therefore, never becomes the free creator of the embodied (rather than symbolically and therefore vaguely summoned) idea.

This transformation into art proper, art as free creation of beauty, only occurs in the next phase, that of the classical, associated with ancient Greece. The characteristic classical art is sculpture. The sculptor creates a material product that does not symbolize but rather realizes in a representation of ideal human forms the actual lineaments of spiritual beauty. Art is religion in Greece, because in Greek art the human spirit literally stands free on earth in its splendor. This development would seem to be a culmination, an apotheosis, and Hegel can scarcely stop himself from presenting it as a utopia.

But the problem with the classical, however much Hegel reveres it, is that its wedding of idea to reality, its religion of art, is finally too neat and static—is almost too clear to be true. Where is the leftover surplus of interiority, the troubled depth in the self, to seek ever more and better forms of expression and realization? Where, again, is the potential for change, even for the types of violent rupture that advance society by shaking forth spiritual forces whose unity in nature can only model social stasis?

Such an inward surplus is only expressed in romantic art, associated with modern northwestern Europe and best exemplified in the highest form of art, poetry. Poetry is the highest form of art because it makes the least concession to nature and is therefore the most human, which is to say the most spiritual. Other forms of art use natural materials like wood or stone, but poetry uses only a humanly-constructed system of meanings to express human thoughts.

The highest form of poetry is the tragic. Tragedy first brings Greek classicism to its climax in the implicitly proto-romantic Aeschylus and Sophocles, whose warring characters embody partial ethical aspects of the universal spirit—family vs. state, for instance, in Antigone, Hegel’s paradigmatic tragedy—until spirit reasserts itself as classical unity in the mutual destruction of these “one-sided” avatars. Tragedy reaches its next height in the modern period, particularly in Shakespeare, whose characters, if not always ethical embodiments, nevertheless possess an almost wild freedom to create their own lives out of the superabundance of their profound inner selves—characters, that is, who embody not this or that ethical value, but freedom as such, even where (as in the criminal Macbeth or the ineffectual Hamlet) ethics seem notably absent.

The previous seven paragraphs demonstrate the difficulty of writing about Hegel. You can try to gloss his key concepts in your own words, but something or everything gets lost in the attempt. This is without even considering that I read Hegel in translation, and that moreover the translations in Hegel on Tragedy were done by many hands. Nevertheless, the language I encountered throughout this almost 400-page collection was consistent across translators and was not quite English, and I gather the translators were bringing it over from a language not quite German. Hegel is like a modernist poet, whose universe and idiom is his own, a poet who makes a strange sense and even provides irreplaceable thoughts and feelings when we submerge ourselves in him, but whose work, like a dream, is hard to explain when we emerge from it.

Such obscurity is a dangerous way to write political philosophy or history, which Hegel’s theory, as an avowed theory of everything, also is. For instance, though Marx is supposed to have de-idealized Hegel, to have stood him on his head, I don’t think Hegel left Marx much to do. The insistence that ideas are nothing if they are not realized, that the beautiful soul who stays above the fray of social conflict is contemptible, that progress only occurs through a violent rupture in society, that the state is ideally the repository of universal values—all these foundations of communist militancy are, for good or ill, there in the master. Then again, these concepts are articulated so abstractly in Hegel’s presentation that they might also be read—that have been read—as the foundations of liberal imperialism or of fascist nationalism. Hence the development of left and right Hegelianisms, and the still-unresolved political disputes that rage under the thinker’s name.

When Hegel leaves Eastern cultures in the vague and stagnant slough of symbolism, does his implicit disparagement provide a warrant for imperialism or even genocide? (Note that Hegel predates “whiteness”—for him, the East includes even most of Europe outside classical Greece and modern Germany; in his spiritual geography, southern Europe is just the northwest of the Orient.) Or was he, as some of my own teachers believe, an unrecognized prophet of anti-imperialism and anti-racism, inspired by global insurgencies, proleptically dismissive of scientistic distinctions within the human race, a tireless champion of universal agency?

When Hegel sees Antigone as the prototype of the revolutionary, because she asserts against the powers of the state the suppressed and chthonic “nether powers” of the family under female command, the family as womb of the free individual, does he mount one of the most feminist or one of the most misogynist arguments ever made in political philosophy? Or is it rather a case of another mysterious phenomenon he discusses, that of the identity of opposites, so that we should both praise and fear woman for her necessary but destructive disruption of all settled orders? Here I will give you what I have so far withheld so as not to cow my own exposition, a lengthy sample of his prose for you to judge for yourself, from Baillie’s translation of the The Phenomenology of Spirit:

Human law, then, in its universal mode of existence is the community, in its efficient operation in general is the manhood of the community, in its actual efficient operation is government. It has its being, its process, and its subsistence by consuming and absorbing into itself the separatist action of the household gods (Penates), the individualization into insular independent families which are under the management of womankind, and by keeping them dissolved in the fluent continuum of its own nature. The family at the same time, however, is in general its element, the individual consciousness its universal operative basis. Since the community gets itself subsistence only by breaking in upon family happiness, and dissolving [individual] self-consciousness into the universal, it creates its enemy for itself within its own gates, creates it in what it suppresses, and what is at the same time essential to it—womankind in general. Womankind—the everlasting irony in the life of the community—changes by intrigue the universal purpose of government into a private end, transforms its universal activity into a work of this or that specific individual, and perverts the universal property of the state into a possession and ornament for the family. Woman in this way turns to ridicule the grave wisdom of maturity, which, being dead to all particular aims, to private pleasure, personal satisfaction, and actual activity as well, thinks of, and is concerned for, merely what is universal; she makes this wisdom the laughing-stock of raw and wanton youth, and object of derision and scorn, unworthy of their enthusiasm. She asserts that it is everywhere the force of youth that really counts; she upholds this as of primary significance; extols a son as one who is lord and master of the mother who has borne him; a brother as one in whom the sister finds a man on a level with herself; a youth as one though whom the daughter, deprived of her dependence (on the family unity), acquires the satisfaction and the dignity of wifehood.

I hope you see how this can be read in several different and incompatible ways. For Hegel the extoller of universal law as embodied in the state, woman is a calamitous element representing the irrationality of particular attachments and nature worship; for Hegel the philosopher of freedom, woman is the very matrix of individuality whose realization as civil freedom is all that the state pragmatically exists to do; for Hegel the believer in evolution by fundamental conflict, the thinker for whom every fall is a fortunate one, woman the revolutionary and bearer of revolution is the very engine of history. This is, as I said, radical feminism and total misogyny all at once, raised to an almost cosmic level.

Such conundrums make Hegel in his own odd way an exciting and seductive (if immensely frustrating) writer, even as they render him an unreliable guide to subsequent political theorists and actors, who seem doomed to prove his overall system correct by living out its elements in a partiality destined eventually to be engulfed like tragic actors by universal justice—hence, perhaps, the fall of the left-Hegelian wall in Berlin or the miring of the right-Hegelian invaders in Vietnam or Iraq.

Speaking of irony, how is it that a writer who praises clarity, who condemns occult mysteries, who believes that whatever lies hidden in nature must be dragged out into the light of reason, himself used a language most readers regard as somewhere between murk and mysticism and which is always ambiguous even at its clearest? What I love about the above passage nevertheless is its revelation that Hegel’s whole system is inspired by and based on Antigone, just as Freud’s will later rely on Oedipus. Can philosophy and the so-called social sciences create any knowledge that is not merely the deadening codification of poets’ tropes?

Political disputes and stylistic criticisms notwithstanding, what living ideas can we derive from Hegel’s theory of tragedy? The most useful is the claim that a true drama must contain a conflict between genuine goods that cannot be realized or celebrated at the same time or in the same place and thus become mutually exclusive. And “goods” is not meant moralistically, as Hegel reveals when he praises Macbeth, a particularly challenging play for a theory of tragedy based on Antigone: unlike Antigone and Creon, Macbeth has no moral good on his side—he’s a murderer without justification—but he does show a grandeur of spirit as he meets his ineluctable fate that invites our sympathy and identification, our pity and terror.

That this concept of goods-in-conflict might be regarded almost as an aesthetic law is suggested by the evolution of popular fiction over the last century. When a popular genre “grows up,” doesn’t it do so by abandoning good-vs.-evil structures and introducing instead moral complexity in both heroes and villains, as in the development of hard-boiled/noir detective fiction, the revisionist Western film, or the Dark Age superhero comic book? Such examples are probably not what Hegel had in mind, but they do bear out his doctrine, at least in general.

But serious writers know this “law” almost by instinct; they don’t have to wait for Hegel to tell them about it. Which returns us to the question of philosophy’s worth—especially official, academic philosophy, which Hegel’s was—to anyone but the professional scholar. I don’t go as far as Clive James or Steve Donoghue or Steven Augustine (who amusingly upbraids me by name!) in dismissing the whole enterprise, largely because speculative philosophy can provide psychedelic pleasures unavailable in most other forms of writing, transports to other styles of thought that often prove clarifying when we get back to earth.[1] If you have a taste for it, it can be very fun to read.

The great philosopher sometimes even seems akin to the great poet, coining memorable formulations and creating powerful concepts. But, if the laity is permitted to weigh in, I suspect only Plato, who wrote philosophy as a kind of closet drama or proto-novel replete with vital characters and concrete settings and monologues of rapturous prose-poetry, truly merits this distinction. The rest, like Hegel, walk in the poet’s wake—plod after a figure who has long ago taken flight.


[1] If I have been defending the honor of the poets against the philosophers in this piece, let me digress for a moment to defend the poets and the philosophers against the scientific clerisy that would supplant—or has supplanted—us both. I saw a Tweet the other day—isn’t that how all the best arguments start?—making fun of “people in the humanities [who] decide what’s true by reading some books and seeing what vibes the most.” And if the last few weeks have taught me anything, it’s that I should have been a public health expert. Instead of vibing all these years, I might have learned how to produce 752 different charts in a public emergency modeling projected death totals that range from two to two billion based on what numbers I choose to include and how I scale the axes. And I do understand that such experts are coming up against the complexity of the phenomena they’re tasked with charting, so these contradictory conclusions are not exactly their fault. But I will not pretend that facts have any worth (or are even minimally intelligible) without concepts, that numbers can’t be as arbitrary and rhetorical as words, or that any discourse but that of the humanities can tell us what to conclude morally and politically from the data. And these scientific experts—not the poets, not the philosophers—are the ones who currently have the ear (and the funding) of the actual powers that get to decide whether we laypeople live or die and whether or not we deserve any freedoms at all.


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  1. “Instead of vibing all these years, I might have learned how to produce 752 different charts in a public emergency modeling projected death totals that range from two to two billion based on what numbers I choose to include and how I scale the axes.”

    Deriving (from that extremely-suggestive observation) a template useful for resisting our self-described owners would be the kind of Practical Philosophy I would be more than willing to PayPal, John! A ThinkTank staffed by Practical Philosophers would be just the thing.

  2. I love the footnote. Badiou once claimed that the whole history of philosophy could be well-summarized by measuring in sum the ratio of poetic to mathematical elements which make up single philosophical works. Does Hegel have a ratio, here? He comes across as an inspired poet in your review, rather than an elegant mathematician. I think Plato had a nice balance. Not that balance is what’s best.

    • Thank you! You would have to ask a philosopher, but I’d say that since, for Hegel, both subject and object are in constant motion, mathematics in the Platonic (or do I mean Pythagorean?—ask a philosopher!) sense is not possible. Being the philosopher of the modern, one who speaks often of the everyday prose of the world vs. the distillation of poetry, maybe Hegel is neither mathematician nor poet but a novelist, or the abstract of a novelist. The Phenomenology has been described as a bildungsroman, not of this or that character, but of human spirit per se.

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