Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On the Cult-Institution of Tragedy

Eric Voegelin notes that the Greeks regarded tragedy as a way of developing spiritual and cultural possibilities in the mind of their people.  In his Order and History, Volume II: The World of the Polis (Chapter 10, “Tragedy”), he writes: “From its very beginning the tragedy was established as a cult-institution of the people.”

This is what he means by a cult-institution of the people: “The truth of the tragedy is action itself, that is, action on the new, differentiated level of a movement in the soul that culminates in the decision (prohairesis) of a mature, responsible man. The newly discovered humanity of the soul expands into the realm of action. Tragedy as a form is the study of the human soul in the process of making decisions, while the single tragedies construct conditions and experimental situations, in which a fully developed, self-conscious soul is forced into action.”

Voegelin sees Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy as a sign that tragedy has now lost its cultural importance and it can be analyzed from a purely aesthetic angle:
The disintegration of tragedy is complete when we reach the standard treatise on the subject, the Poetics of Aristotle. Tragedy has become a literary genus, to be dissected with regard to its formal characteristics, its “parts.” It is the most important genus because of its formal complexity; he who understands tragedy has understood all other literary forms. As far as the substance and historical function of tragedy is concerned, however, there is barely an elusive hint in the Poetics; obviously the problem had moved for Aristotle entirely beyond his horizon of interests. The situation is illuminated by the famous definition of tragedy as "a representation of an action that is serious, coming to an end, and of a certain magnitude enriched by language of all kind, used appropriately in the various parts of the play—representing through action, not through narrative—and through pity and fear effecting catharsis of these and other emotions."
We also find a good analysis of the role of tragedy in Greek society in Voegelin's The New Science of Politics, Chapter II, "Representation and Truth." He writes, "The tragedy was a public cult—and a very expensive one. It presupposed as its audience a people who would follow the performance with a keen sense of tua res agitur."

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