A History of Ancient Philosophy: From the Beginnings to Augustine

By Karsten Friis Johansen | Go to book overview

9

TRAGEDY AND VIEW OF HISTORY

In his Poetics (Aristot. Poet. 1451 b 5) Aristotle says that poetry is more philosophical and hence loftier than the writing of history; for poetry-tragedy-deals with what might happen, because it is possible or probable, which is to say universal, history with what has happened, the particular. Most likely not very many human beings will find themselves in such extreme conflicts as Oedipus or Antigone. But the tragic hero is a human being who is larger than life-size; he has a particular character, and it must, as Aristotle says, be probable or necessary that he acts as he does as he is struck down by a fate greater than himself. The action of a tragedy takes place on the mythical, supra-human level, but the hero's feelings and passions must be universally understandable and must therefore appeal to all. When Aristotle compared poetry or tragedy to the writing of history, he probably never thought of an absolute contrast, for history is not exclusively an accidental chain of events. To both Aristotle and the Greeks in general, history harbours a meaning behind the general sequence of events, which it is the historian's task to disclose. Like the epic poet the historian has a tale to tell; the tale has a moral point to make, and it is notable that historical writing was considered a literary genre in Antiquity.

The philosopher seeks to argue or convince about some truth; the epic poet and his heir, the historian, tell of events; the tragic poet presents an action. Behind the myth lies the tragic poet's real 'subject', always something moral and religious; it may to modern eyes be political, but if so, it is raised above the mundane and hence has no specific target. To this extent the tragic poet continues in the poetic tradition, but he never speaks in his own name, as does for example Solon or Theognis. He cannot be identified with his characters, nor can one simply read his 'message' in the general reflections of the chorus. It is his task to present a conflict and pose a problem in an action, and it would be to misunderstand tragedy as a genre if one were to read it as a theory that might just as well have been formulated philosophically. Nor can one speak of the tragic mode, for the three great tragic poets, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, are too different for that; each of the tragedians has his own moral and religious universe, which finds expression in the tragic conflict. Tragedy conveys ideas and therefore belongs not only in literature but also indirectly in the history of philosophy. Tragedy circles around one question that was only later to be taken up directly by philosophers: man's place in a world he does not master, his responsibility

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A History of Ancient Philosophy: From the Beginnings to Augustine
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Presocratic Philosophy 9
  • 1 - Myth, Poetry and Philosophy 11
  • 2 - Ionian Natural Philosophy 20
  • 3 - Heraclitus 29
  • 4 - The Pythagoreans 36
  • 5 - The Eleatics 45
  • 6 - Post-Parmenidean Natural Philosophy 59
  • 7 - Medical Science 79
  • Part II - The Great Century of Athens 83
  • 8 - Pericles' Athens 85
  • 9 - Tragedy and View of History 88
  • 10 - The Sophists 99
  • 11 - Socrates 118
  • Part III - Plato 137
  • 12 - Life, Works and Position 139
  • 13 - What is Virtue? Can Virtue Be Taught? 160
  • 14 - Idea and Man 173
  • 15 - The Good Constitution of State and Man 198
  • 16 - The Late Dialogues: Knowledge and Being 213
  • 17 - The Late Dialogues: Nature, Man and Society 236
  • 18 - Plato and the Early Academy 254
  • Part IV - Aristotle 267
  • 19 - Life, Works and Position 269
  • 20 - Logic and Theory of Science 293
  • 21 - Natural Philosophy and Psychology 316
  • 22 - Metaphysics and Theology 343
  • 23 - Ethics and Politics 366
  • 24 - Rhetoric and Poetics 392
  • 25 - The Early Peripatetics 400
  • Part V - Hellenistic Philosophy 405
  • 26 - Science and Philosophy 407
  • 27 - Epicurus 423
  • 28 - Early Stoicism 442
  • 29 - Scepticism 471
  • 30 - Greece and Rome 484
  • Part VI - Late Antiquity 499
  • 31 - Imperial Rome 501
  • 32 - Plotinus 532
  • 33 - Late Neoplatonism 556
  • 34 - Early Christian Thought 569
  • 35 - Augustine 588
  • Abbreviations General 625
  • Bibliography 639
  • Index 663
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