Greek Tragedy as a Challenge to Modernism: A Depth Psychological Perspective

By Kardaun, Maria S. | PSYART, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Greek Tragedy as a Challenge to Modernism: A Depth Psychological Perspective

Kardaun, Maria S., PSYART


Far from being a recent invention, depth psychological thinking already features extensively in classical Greek mythology, more specifically in the stage plays of the great Athenian tragedians of the fifth century BCE. In this century large parts of Greek civilization had embarked on a process of rapid modernization, and the tragedians seem to have felt the need to give their artistic comments on these developments. Their (implicit) analysis of how the human mind works is depth psychological in all but name. The paper focuses on the Pre-Socratic world view in general, and on the tragic notion of hybris in particular. Finally it aims to show the underlying depth psychological structure of Aeschylus' Oresteia.


The story of the classical Greek hero Oedipus is all too well-known. Even though he manages to outsmart the Sphinx, in the end he cannot be described as a successful heroic figure. The same can be said for so many other mythological heroes, and not just the Greek ones; for mythology is characteristically none too generous in providing us with happy endings.

However, in this article we will confine ourselves to some telling examples taken from Greek mythology. There are plenty of ill-fated storylines to choose from: for example, there is the great bronze-age hero Jason, who managed to seize the Golden Fleece but ended up losing everything because of his foolishness and arrogance. Or the Athenian founding father Theseus, for that matter, who greatly improved the lives of his fellow citizens by saving them from the Minotaur and other nasty characters, such as Sinis the Pine-Bender and Procrustes the Stretcher (the latter perhaps being an early symbol of primitive, pointless standardization: in order to make his victims fit some arbitrary measure, Procrustes would either overstretch their bodies or chop their legs off). In his younger years Theseus was a succesful eliminator of monsters, bringing nothing but peace, harmony and order. Yet, as time went by, he was unable to stop brutality, monstrosity and chaos from entering his city again, and his career went downhill. Or we might elaborate on the powerful Mycenean king Agamemnon, who was an effective war leader, but who also had an unpleasant habit of systematically offending and neglecting the feelings of everyone around him. After ten years of war and on the very day of his triumphant return, tragically, though not altogether surprisingly, he was killed by his wife Clytaemnestra and her lover.

Whether they feature in ancient tales by Homer, Hesiod et al., or in the somewhat later legendry of Greek tragedy, most heroes of classical mythology are clearly not to be envied. With the exception perhaps of Ulysses, the central character of Homer's Odyssey, hardly any of these heroes is portrayed as having had a good life. My paper will attempt to formulate a depth psychological answer to the question as to why this should be.

I hope to make clear that the general worldview seen in Greek mythology, and particularly in Greek tragedy, was very different from our current, (post)modern perspective. The Pre-Socratic Greeks had much less faith in the power of consciousness and rational decision making than we tend to have nowadays. In their view every human achievement, however splendid, always had its downside. They considered that as part of the human condition, and there was no getting round it. For every success you somehow had to pay the price.1

These ideas were all tied up with their polytheistic religion. The Greek gods were a jealous bunch of quarreling deities who tended to begrudge each other their respective successes. For human beings this meant that fulfilling the wishes of one god or goddess could easily cause them to forsake their duty towards other divine figures (not to mention the social problems they might encounter while obeying a particular deity). Life was full of contradictory moral commands, and the more you tried to conform to one particular good, the more likely you were to neglect your other responsibilities and end up being punished.

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Greek Tragedy as a Challenge to Modernism: A Depth Psychological Perspective


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