The Role of Greek Tragedy in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur

Article excerpt

Paul Ricoeur has shown a remarkable willingness to receive philosophical instruction from literature. He cites and discusses works of poetry and fiction quite often, using them to illustrate claims, to provide telling formulations of problems, and even to help mount philosophical arguments.1 And while Ricoeur is willing to be instructed by all sorts of literary works, he makes particular use of Greek tragedy. He has given extensive discussions of tragedy at all stages of his career, and he has insisted that these discussions serve an important philosophical function.2 Far from being mere ornamentation, Ricoeur's discussions of tragedy are part of his philosophical work. But what kind of part are they? What philosophical role do they play?

The aim of this essay is to illuminate Ricoeur's use of Greek tragedy. I want to look closely at several of his readings of tragedy, in order to show how he uses tragedy as a particularly valuable way of articulating and defending philosophical claims. I will argue that, despite the different texts and contexts in which these readings appear, Ricoeur has a unified view of tragedy's philosophical function. Tragedy illustrates the conflicts that occur within rationality. It shows how reason frequently demands several incompatible things of us, and it offers instruction in how to respond to conflicts of this sort.3 Further, I argue that Ricoeur's approach to tragedy should be seen as an alternative to the dominant one among philosophers: namely, Hegel's. Whereas Hegel sees tragic wisdom as a recognition of the need to move beyond tragic conflicts, Ricoeur conceives of it as wholly immanent to the tragic itself.

The rest of this essay falls into five parts. First, I briefly describe Hegel's view of the uses to which tragedy is appropriately put by the philosopher. I pay particular attention to the way Hegel illustrates these claims through his discussion of Antigone. Next, I explain how Ricoeur first develops an alternative to Hegel's approach in The Symbolism of Evil, an alternative he illustrates with a discussion of Aeschylus' play Prometheus Bound. The next section examines another of Ricoeur's engagements with tragedy: his discussion of Oedipus Rex in Freud and Philosophy. The fourth section explores what is perhaps Ricoeur's most ambitious attempt to find philosophical instruction in tragedy: his reading of Antigone in Oneself as Another. The fifth and final section draws some general conclusions about the significance of tragedy for Ricoeur's philosophical work. Taken together, Ricoeur's engagements with tragedy are a formidable statement about what philosophers should and should not expect reason to accomplish. They also amount to a powerful assessment of the relation between philosophy and literature.

Hegel on the Philosophical Function of Tragedy

Hegel is well-known for making a number of philosophical remarks about tragedy.4 He is perhaps less well-known for taking advantage of the philosophical uses of tragedy. Yet Hegel does put tragedy to philosophical use. He not only discusses tragic plays, but frequently suggests that he is doing so in order to make a larger philosophical point. But what kind of point? What philosophical function is served by Hegel's engagements with tragedy? As a rule, Hegel uses tragedy to illustrate the limitations of a certain stage in the evolution of spirit. Understanding these limitations is crucial, given the dialectical nature of Hegel's thought. After all, what drives spirit's dialectical development is the fact that each stage in this development is a partial and incomplete appearance of spirit, an appearance that, because of internal limitations, necessarily gives rise to another, richer one. If we wish to understand why one stage of a dialectical development follows another, we must understand the limitations of the earlier stage. Tragedy offers a particularly valuable way of doing so.

Perhaps the best-known example of this approach is Hegel's discussion of ancient Greek ethical life. …