The Philosophy of History

History and Tragedy

How is history different than tragedy? Or, is the historical perspective of looking at the world different than the tragic perspective? Do historians such as Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, Tacitus, Polybius, and Machiavelli conceive the deep structure of the world differently than say Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides?

There are the obvious differences. Tragedy takes its stories from myth. History takes its stories from great battles where eyewitness or documentary accounts exist. History covers many lifetimes spread over a long duration. Tragedy covers the events of a single day. History professes to be an impartial account. Tragedy professes to be highly biased to create the most emotional effect. History is obligated to explain the past. Tragedy is under no obligation to explain itself: ‘the rest is silence’ says Iago.

The Ludic Theory of Tragedy

What I’ve been working on while writing the book Paying Melpomene’s Price is to develop a ludic theory of tragedy. ‘Ludic’ as in ‘related to a game’. Tragedy is a game. A game of death. A high stakes game where gamblers play at the no limits tables. They make wagers for the sorts of things money can’t buy: honour, vengeance, a crown, and so on. They don’t ante up with money, but with flesh and blood. When they lose, it’s possible to see how highly intangible things are valued. But what makes them lose? The unexpected. When Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill comes: that is the unexpected. To me, there is something mischievous in the soul of tragedy that makes it so that forecasting, projections, and strategy come to naught. It’s like the best laid plans of mice and men. That the unexpected always throws down the best laid plans is a fundamental constant in the world of tragedy. This is the one characteristic that really defines tragedy.

History is About the Expected, Not the Unexpected

A Visual Representation of History

A Visual Representation of History

The very act of writing history involves taking thousands of possibly related (but possibly unrelated) events and fashioning a narrative out of it. By creating a narrative where there previously was not a narrative, order is ascribed to events: e.g. because happened followed. Or, to take an example from Townbee, Sinic civilization started on the Yellow River and not the Yangtse because the harder conditions on the Yellow River stimulated the ‘challenge and response’ inclination in that race. He ascribes how Hellenic civilization flourished on the craggy rock of Athens instead of the fertile fields of Boeotia to the same ‘challenge and response’ initiative. Of course, if the challenge is too severe as was the case when Irish settlers came to the Appalachians, instead of ‘rising to the challenge’, they would instead devolve to a lower level of culture. By hypothesizing that there is a ‘challenge and response’ initiative and finding a host of examples to support it, Townbee makes a narrative out of the birth of civilizations. A colonist of the future, having read Townbee, could expect good results from a piece of undiscovered land that was fertile, but not overly so. All this goes to say that history makes things predictable. Or so it argues.

There are different ways in which history makes things predictable. Taken together, these different ways constitutes the philosophy of history or the belief that there are patterns in the seemingly random flow of events. On a day to day level, events are like Brownian motion: random collisions with heat but no design. But in the months, years, and decades, a hidden design emerges.

There can be moral patterns. ‘And if thou wilt walk before me’, says the Lord, ‘then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever’. With this, the pattern is set in and 2 Kings: the legacy of kings is that they either ‘do evil ‘ or ‘do right’ in the sight of the Lord. There are ramifications for both. Those who ‘do evil’ risk cutting off the people from the Holy Land; those who ‘do right’ preserve the kingdom. The Roman historian Livy also shapes moral patterns into history. For him, thrift and plain living go hand in hand with noble deeds while avarice and luxury lead to sensual excess. Noble deed grow Roman power. Sensual excess brings down the state. Though Livy writes history, he provides so many instances where this is true that the reader could not be blamed for thinking that the pattern extends into the future, if not for all time.

There can be cultural patterns. Herodotus writes of an ancient enmity between East and West. They stole Io; we abducted Europa. We stole Medea; they abducted Helen. It kicks up a notch when we burn Troy to avenge Helen’s abduction. Next the East strikes back under Xerxes in the Persian Wars. Could the Gulf War in the 20th century be part of the same retributive chain going back to Io and Europa? If you’re into history and inclined to see patterns in events, you may be inclined to answer in the affirmative.

There can be constitutional patterns. Take Polybius’ theory of constitutions. When monarchy gets tired it gives way to oligarchy. In turn when oligarchy tires of itself it turns into democracy. Then when democracy becomes too much, a monarch has to seize power to right the ship of state. And then the cycle perpetuates itself. Again. And again.

The histories of Livy, Herodotus, Polybius, and others contain cyclical philosophies of history. There can also be linear views of history. Marx’ hypothesis that history leads up to the proletariat revolution is a linear philosophy of history. Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ is another linear view (though he lived for so long after writing ‘The End of History’ he had to add another addendum). In addition to secular views, one can also find religious linear philosophies of history, i.e. for Jews, history is a long march to the coming of the Messiah.

What to make of all that? First: history likes patterns. Second: because there are patterns, its easy for the mind to extend them into the future. Therefore, history believes that one can make projections into the future based on past performance. Projections have a high degree of success in history. Otherwise, what would be the point?

But tragedy on the other hand posits that patterns are illusory. The patterns just exist to get the high stakes gamblers (i.e. the hero of tragedy) to wager all-in. Once the hero wagers all-in, the unexpected happens which causes him to lose everything. In this way, by looking at how these two genres deal with expectation, it is possible to understand how differently they see the world. It is because they see the world differently that the genres of tragedy and history initially arose. History is for those who see patterns. Tragedy is for those who see the danger of patterns that could unexpectedly change at any second.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have done my quota of Doing Melpomene’s Work today.