Review of “The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy” – Roche

pages 51-67 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Mark W. Roche is the Joyce Professor of German Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters from 1997 to 2008. He is the author of six books, including Tragedy and Comedy: A Systemic Study and a Critique of Hegel (1998) and Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (2004).

“The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy”

Roche’s essay is chapter 4 in A Companion to Tragedy, edited by Rebecca Bushnell.

According to Roche, Hegel’s theory of tragedy is, after Aristotle’s, the most studied and quoted. Unlike Nietzsche, Hegel never formulated his theory in one book. Hegel’s thoughts are scattered through his writings. For English readers, Anne and Henry Paolucci have collected all Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy (mainly from Phenomenology of Mind and Lectures on the Philosophy of History) in their useful book: Hegel on TragedyWhat did Hegel have to say on tragedy?

Tragedy arises, according to Hegel, when a hero courageously asserts a substantial and just position, but in doing so simultaneously violates a contrary and likewise just position and so falls prey to one-sidedness that is defined at one and the same time by greatness and by guilt.

Hegel’s position on tragedy, is, unsurprisingly, based on the famous Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. His thoughts on tragedy are really an extension of this theory of knowledge:

Each category or thesis reveals its one-sidedness and passes over into its antithesis, which is likewise recognized as one-sided, eventually giving way to synthesis, which both negates and preserves the earlier terms; the synthesis itself becomes absorbed in a larger process in which it, too, is recognized as partial, though at a higher and more complex level. This continual progression, whereby partial categories give way to their own internal contradictions, leads to an ever greater realization of reason, self-consciousness, and freedom.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Great?

  1. Most theories of tragedy focus on tragedy’s effect on the emotions. Only a handful focus on the structure of tragedy. Hegel, along with Hölderlin, Schelling, and Peter Szondi, examine the structure of tragedy, and explore how the hero’s flaw is intertwined with the hero’s greatness. Of course, Hegel’s theory also considers the emotional effect of tragedy, but as a secondary element of the exploration. According to Hegel, we feel not pity, but sympathy with the hero since, despite the fall, the hero is justified.
  2. Hegel’s emphasis on collision emphasizes how “it is the honour of these great characters to be culpable.” harmartia denotes a character flaw in Aristotle’s theory. Hegel’s “error mechanism” is more complex, as now the hero’s greatness and flaw are one and the same thing: “in fulfilling the good, the hero violates the good.”
  3. The focus on collision is inherently dramatic. Hegel’s theory invites critics to focus on the most dramatic moments in tragedy. This is what we want, since tragedy is naturally a dramatic art. Drama is to tragedy what sound is to music. Hegel’s theory is especially applicable to Goethe’s Faust (the collision between Faust and Mephistopheles) and other works which contain collisions such as Euripides’ Bacchae, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan.
  4. There are external collisions (e.g. Antigone versus Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone). But there can also be internal collisions where the same individual is aware of irreconcilable and just conditions within himself. Hamlet is such an example. Roche writes: “To elevate to tragic status Hamlet’s lack of will as a simple inability to act, the common view among Hegel’s contemporaries, is to transform tragedy into mere suffering. For Hegel the apparent weakness of Hamlet derives, rather, from the energy of his thought, which recognizes a conflict between the emotional need to act in the face of corruption and indecency and insight into the immoral nature of the contemplated action.”
  5. The collision of opposite forces–both justified–inspires philosophical reflection on the good. By presenting two alternatives, Hegel invites the spectator to weight the totality of the duties and obligations contained in either claim.
  6. Hegel’s theory draws attention to tragedy’s treatment of paradigm shifts in history. Collisions frequently dramatize tradition conflicting with innovation: case in point is Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where Athena represents the democratic process of trial by jury while the Furies represent the archaic system of “an eye for an eye” retributive justice. Hegel’s theory gave rise to the historical drama of Friedrich Hebbel which dramatizes one norm being pushed aside to make way for the new norm.

While Hegel doesn’t offer a theory of comedy, he “recognizes a shift from tragedy to comedy when what is substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Limited?

  1. While Hegel considers that the opposing forces in the tragic collision are equally justified, that is seldom the case. For example, even in Antigone, Hegel sympathizes more with Antigone’s “right.” That’s an interesting point, as there’ve been a few articles by classicists (who specialize in the ancient world) arguing that Sophocles and his audience would have gravitated more towards Creon. In their reading, Antigone goes too far in her obdurate persistence. The takeaway from this limitation is that there are very few pure Hegelian tragedies where both sides counterbalance equally in their claims.
  2. Hegel does not distinguish between external (e.g. Antigone versus Creon) and internal collisions (e.g. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”). Roche points out, however, that this is less a criticism than an expansion of Hegel’s theory. Roche breaks down internal collisions into a two major types: the tragedy of self-sacrifice where the hero does good knowing that suffering will be involved (Miller’s Crucible or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) and the tragedy of stubbornness where the hero will not yield (Sophocles’ Ajax). The tragedy of stubbornness is similar to what has been understood as a tragedy of character where the hero has too much of one virtue and not enough of another (e.g. in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann has too much honesty and fearlessness but a lack of prudence).
  3. Hegel’s critics dislike his insistence on an element of harmony in the resolution of tragedy. To moderns such as Marcuse, “The absolute tragic essence of the tragic tragedy is suffering without meaning.” If this is modernity, I am allergic to modernity. For me, the purpose of art is to instil meaning onto “unmeaning” reality; reality, as a concatenation of random events, lacks intrinsic meaning. Art puts reality into human terms. A good third to one-half of ancient tragedies end in reconciliation. Would Marcuse and moderns consider Aeschylus’ masterpiece The Oresteia (where the Furies are reconciled with the new order of Olympian gods) to be something other than a tragedy? Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, where Augustus is reconciled with the conspirators is another excellent example of a successful “resolution” play. Hegel is certainly right to insist on an element of resolution in tragedy. If I want suffering without meaning, I don’t need the theatre, I’d just watch the news.
  4. Roche finds a fourth criticism in Hegel’s failure to articulate clearly between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation. This is made more complicated in that the line between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation are blurred: Goethe’s Iphigenia and Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for example, can be considered to be tragedies, dramas of reconciliation, or both. At times Hegel seems to prefer a tragedy where the reconciliation comes organically (e.g. through the plot) and at other times Hegel disparages dramas of reconciliation.
  5. Critics such as Otto Pöggeler find fault with Hegel’s long run optimistic worldview: it is incompatible with the gravity of tragedy.
  6. Critics such as Johannes Volkelt finds fault with tragedy for portraying individuals rather than metaphysical ideals. Not sure why Roche would list this as a fault or limit of Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
  7. Last criticism is that Hegel’s theory applies only to a handful of plays: “Hegel’s typology of tragedy, brilliant though it is, appears to exclude all but a dozen or so world tragedies.” There you have it: Hegel’s theory is the one-trick pony of literary theory.

Hegel’s Theory versus the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

Let’s take Roche’s comments on Hegel’s theory and apply them to my theory of tragedy, called “risk theatre.” Risk theatre argues that risk (rather than a collision) is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out February 2019, so risk theatre is, compared to Hegel, an upstart contender.

The first thing Roche likes about Hegel’s theory is that it prioritizes investigating the structure of tragedy before it looks at tragedy’s emotional affect. So too risk theatre examines the structure of tragedy. In risk theatre, the central element of the structure is not a collision, but risk. Heroes, by taking on inordinate risk, trigger cataclysmic low-probability, high-consequence events. Tragedy dramatizes risk gone awry. In risk theatre, each dramatic act is also a gambling act.

Roche appreciates how Hegel weaves together the hero’s greatness and the hero’s flaw together. It is an advance on Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, or the tragic flaw. Risk theatre does away with the flaw altogether. In risk theatre, the hero’s bet is good. The odds are with the hero. Heroes are clever, after all. They play to win. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the hero will prevail. Tragedy, however, dramatizes the one time out of a hundred where the best-laid plan fails. Risk makes tragedy exciting. In risk theatre, instead of a flaw, an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event brings the hero down. In risk theatre Birnam Wood is always coming to high Dunsinane Hill. The “flaw” in risk theatre is chance: more things have happened than what the hero thought would happen.

Roche has high praise for Hegel’s theory of tragedy because collisions are inherently dramatic. Risk theatre would argue that risk is as inherently as dramatic as collisions. Richard Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid and Walter Tevis’ The Hustler, two novels which use the gambling analogy as a visual analogy of risk illustrate the dramatic qualities inherent in risk (both were also made into memorable movies with high powered casts including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). Risk theatre and Hegel’s theory enjoy a similar advantage in that their focal points are both inherently dramatic.

Risk theatre, like Hegel’s theory of tragedy, delineates a theory of comedy. For Hegel, tragedy shifts to comedy when the substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal. Risk theatre, predictably, looks at the relation between tragedy and comedy in terms of risk. Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. The difference? Tragedy dramatizes downside risk and comedy dramatizes upside risk.

In one way, risk theatre and Hegel’s theory have quite different limitations. While Roche identifies the limited applicability of Hegel’s theory as a drawback, risk theatre casts almost too wide a net by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy.” The saving grace is that risk theatre is interested in a specific type of risk: the all-in wager. To trigger the low-probability, high-consequence event, the hero has to go all-in.

With regard to an element or resolution or harmony in tragedy versus unmitigated suffering, risk theatre is agnostic. Risk theatre is built on the idea of opportunity cost. By pursuing one option, the next best option is foregone. Risk theatre is happy so long as the price is paid. If, after the price is paid, there is a resolution, that neither adds nor detracts from the tragedy. In Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, for example, Augustus sacrifices his authority to maintain law and order. Do they try to assassinate you?—reward the conspirators with consulships and join them together in powerful marriages. Augustus has paid the cost of preserving the Empire by showing clemency to the conspirators. The play ends in a group hug. Risk theatre, however, finds it a perfectly acceptable tragedy, as the resolution came at a high price. What risk theatre cannot stomach is a resolution that comes without paying the price: that is the stuff of comedy.

As to Hegel’s optimism, risk theatre is likewise optimistic. While Hegel sees progress through the dialectical process, risk theatre sees progress because the audience, having seen how unexpected low-probability events can have the highest consequences, leaves the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. Theatre dramatizes risk acts gone awry on the stage so that off the stage we learn to become more robust. After seeing tragedy, the audience learns off stage to have a plan B, learns to keep some powder dry, learns of the dangers of too concentrated a position.

Roche finds that a drawback of Hegel’s theory is its limited applicability to the great tragedies. Hegel’s theory works on a dozen or so plays. Risk theatre does not share this drawback. As long as you can construct the hero’s actions as a wager and something happens out of left field to upset this wager, risk theatre works. In some plays, it’s obvious. Macbeth is risk theatre’s paradigm play: Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown but all is lost when Birnam Wood unexpectedly comes to high Dunsinane Hill. Some plays, such as Miller’s Death of a Salesman, require a little more imagination, but, in hindsight, work quite well through a risk theatre read. According to risk theatre, Loman wagers his dignity on the American Dream. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when, contrary to expectation, Loman realizes his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. And some plays, such as King Lear, require a great deal of imagination, but reward you with a new take on an old play. According to risk theatre, Lear bets the well-being of the kingdom on his capacity to rule. It is a good bet: he has ruled wisely and made good decisions for many years. The unexpected event which derails his bet happens when senility overtakes him; he had not been counting on that. Risk theatre, unlike Hegel, is an infinitely plastic theory of drama, bounded only by the reader’s imagination.

There you have it: round one of a ten round battle royal: risk theatre versus the mighty Hegel!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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