The Role of Greek Tragedy in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur

By Piercey, Robert | Philosophy Today, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Role of Greek Tragedy in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur


Piercey, Robert, Philosophy Today


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Role of Greek Tragedy in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.