Art and Morality

By José Luis Bermúdez; Sebastian Gardner | Go to book overview

Chapter 12

Tragedy, morality and metaphysics

Sebastian Gardner

Thought about the relation between tragedy and morality may be divided into two schools. The one, which dominates writing on tragedy, assumes a fundamental compatibility between tragedy and morality. The connection allows of various formulations. It may be held that the experience of tragedy is constituted by moral appraisal, that the telos of tragedy converges with moral ends, or simply that there is at least nothing in the experience of tragedy which disturbs the outlook of morality. The other line of thought, which again comes in different formulations, is that there is on the contrary a dissociation or discrepancy, or in stronger terms, a mutual antagonism, between tragedy and morality. My aim in this chapter is to explore one form of the latter view.

The association of tragedy with morality has a long and highly distinguished history. Among theoretical writings favouring tragedy's moral significance we find, after Aristotle's oblique account of the relation, a long and unified tradition stretching from Horace, up over the hiatus of medieval culture, to the eighteenth century. Attempts to extract from Aristotle's Poetics an explicit account of the moral significance of tragedy abound in Renaissance humanism. 1 The Horatian view of tragedy as pleasing moral instruction 2 is taken up in Sir Phillip Sidney's theory of tragedy as effecting the highest species of morally purposeful imitation, 3 and echoed in Thomas

1 See, for example, the extracts from Giambattista Giraldi and Lorenzo Giacomini in Michael J. Sidnell ed., Sources of Dramatic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), vol. 1, Plato to Congreve, pp. 123-4, 125, 173-4; and from Bernardino Daniello and Antonio Sebastiano (Minturno) in Barrett H. Clark ed., European Theories of the Drama (New York: Crown, 1965), pp. 40-5. This moral-Aristotelian tradition extends as far as the eighteenth century: see the extracts from Pietro Metastasio in Sidnell ed., Sources of Dramatic Theory, vol. 2, Voltaire to Hugo, pp. 32-4.

2 See Ars Poetica, in Horace on the Art of Poetry, ed. Edward Henry Blakeney (London: Scholartis, 1928), 309sqq., 333sqq., 390sqq.

3 'Therefore poetry is an art of imitation […] with this end, to teach and delight […] the final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls […] can be capable of' (An Apology for Poetry (1595), ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973), pp. 101-2). Tragedy is 'so excellent a representation of whatsoever is most worthy to be learned' (op. cit., p. 118).

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