Aristotle and Moral Realism

By Robert Heinaman | Go to book overview

Tragedy, reason and pity: a reply to Jonathan Lear

STEPHEN HALLIWELL

Since I cannot hope to examine all the strands of argument in Jonathan Lear's fascinating paper, I intend principally to address myself to his central concern with the potential challenge posed to philosophical reason by the nature of tragedy. I shall follow his own procedure to the extent of offering first a few remarks on Plato, before considering some of the ethical implications of Aristotle's perspective on tragedy. About Lear's contention that Aristotle uses tragedy to test, and in some sense to validate, the limits of his concept of practical reason, I shall say a little in the later part of my comments. But my reaction to that complex point is necessarily guided, and will be chiefly communicated, by the modifications that I shall propose to the details of Lear's case. Most of my commentary will consist of respectful dissent from Lear's position; I hope that this will at any rate promote some clarification of what is at stake in this important area.

Why have philosophers so often interested themselves in tragedy? In the context of ancient Greek culture, at least, the necessary beginning of an answer to this question is the observation that philosophy and tragedy were, or could be perceived as, rivals -- rival claimants to the deepest insights into, perhaps even the ultimate truth about, the human condition. As seen from philosophy's point of view, this rivalry was of a peculiarly threatening kind. It was not just that tragedy could be thought of as expressing one (or maybe more than one) alternative vision of human experience. There is a sense in which tragedy presented such potent and disturbing images of the field of this experience that it might, if taken with the fullest seriousness, crack the very foundations, the essential rationality, of philosophy itself. While philosophers might seek to establish that man is a political animal, or has an immortal soul, or requires virtue for real happiness, tragedy was capable of enacting for its audiences, and making them emotionally absorb, the idea that man is a tragic creature and that happiness is unattainable. There might be, and indeed have been, philosophers who could concur with this idea. But neither Plato nor Aristotle belongs in that category. For them, there was a fundamental choice of strategy in the face of tragic drama's cultural influence: they could

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