Like Mozart and his librettists, many German writers and philosophers were drawn to the Enlightenment by virtue of its liberating potential, but they were also frightened by the threat to order it posed. German intellectuals sought to benefit from the Enlightenment but also to tame it, and sought to do so within a politically fragmented Germany ruled for the most part by conservative aristocrats. For both reasons they turned to lost traditions, which they sought to discover and bring back to life. This was manifest first and most importantly in the German obsession with ancient Greece but also in the Grimm brothers' turn to folk culture in the hope of recapturing wisdom from the past, the search for the Aryan prototype for Christianity by religious scholars and philologists, the proliferation of stories, poetry and frescoes based on the medieval Nibelungenlied, Wagner's appropriation of the Edda for the theme of his Ring Cycle and Nietzsche's invocation of the Persian Zarathustra for his culminating philosophical work.2 For nineteenth century Germans, myths were templates for building national identities that would transcend regional, religious and class differences.
For those who turned to Greece, the polis, but especially Athens, was imagined as a model for a creative and progressive German nation. Nostalgia for imagined pasts was a continent-wide phenomenon, as intellectuals everywhere sought to cope with the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars and later, of industrialization.3 The deeply-felt German affinity for a highly idealized Greece must also be understood as a response to Germany’s late political, economic and cultural development and the sense of inferiority it engendered. In practice, the turn to Golden Age Greece would have profoundly negative consequences for Germany’s political development.
Early modern Europe was largely ignorant of ancient Greece. The burning of the library in Alexandria (417 BCE) destroyed much literature, including many Greek tragedies that remain lost. We have only seven of Sophocles 123 known plays. Greek writings came back to Europe via the Arabs, and often in Arabic translation. Making use of these texts, the Renaissance revived an interest in tragedy. The first staging of Sophocles’ Oedipus took place in 1585 in Vicenza.4 Monteverdi wrote his two operas with Greek mythological story lines in the first half of the seventeenth century. Opera was intended to reproduce tragedy on the questionable assumption that tragic characters sang their lines.5 Chapman, and later Pope, produced good Engliish translations of Homer and by the nineteenth century translating Homer had become something of a national pastime. Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides was central to his philosophical development. But it was not until the nineteenth century that Greek texts become a core component of the English university curriculum.6
In the United States, there was a general interest in Athens beginning in the late eighteenth century, much of it connected to the country’s experiment with democracy. If the Pilgrims envisaged their colony as the new Jerusalem, democrats understood America to be the new Athens. This belief was reflected in place names and in the Greek Revival in architecture. The founding fathers were nevertheless more influenced by Rome and English writings and political practices. They rejected the Athenian model because they opposed direct democracy, and thought the experience of a small city state not very relevant to the vast expanse of the Thirteen Colonies. Following British practice, Latin and Greek nevertheless became an important subjects in the educational system.7
In Germany, Graecophilia reached a level unequaled anywhere else. The first German translations of Homer appeared in the second half of the eighteenth century. The poet and playwright Hölderlin authored widely read translations of Sophocles in the early nineteenth century. The Germans were unique in their efforts to rejuvenate tragedy, not as a genre, but as a means of nourishing ethical and political sensibilities appropriate to the time. This project had its roots in Kant but really began with the publication in 1795 of Schelling’s Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism. Tragedy became the vehicle by which a succession of German philosophers, among them Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Benjamin and Arendt sought to probe such questions as the meaning of history, the nature and foundation of ethics, the role of Germany, and often, the relationships among the three.
A more popular fascination with Greece spread in Germany. It fed on a highly idealized understanding of that culture and its artistic creations as the product of an era in which thought and feeling, and reason and expression were in harmony. This image of Greece was propagated by Johann Winckelmann, Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich August Wolff, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Schleiermacher. They envisaged Greek art and literature as the foundation of Bildung, by came to signify education and self-improvement in its broadest sense. In 1792, Humboldt, a humanist and civil servant, wrote to Greek philologist Friedrich August Wolf that "no other people combined such simplicity and naturalness with so much culture, and no other possessed such persevering energy and sensitivity for every impression."8 Many Germans of his and the next generation sought to discover themselves through their intimate involvement with Greek culture. This project of Menscheit in Altertum was expected to overcome social divisions and unite Germans by encouraging them to understand themselves in terms of the totality of their faculties rather than as members of a particular class or estate.9 The fascination with Greece -- especially in Prussia and Protestant Germany -- continued through the nineteenth century, despite efforts by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt to debunk the highly romanticized understanding that had taken root. It reached its zenith with Friedrich Schliemann’s possible discovery of Troy in 1871, which captured the imagination of the entire country, and was taken as further evidence of Germany’s scientific preeminence.10 Philhellenism was initially the preserve of the elite, but was gradually diffused through the population by the educational system. It became a defining feature of middle class intellectuals [Bildungsbürgertum] and considered part of the national patrimony. As philhellenism spread and became linked to state institutions it became more conventional and conservative in its aims. By mid-century it was something of a tyrannical trope, whose supporters used their control of the educational system and cultural institutions to marginalize critics and maintain their hegemonic position.11
Germans were different from British and Americans in their fascination with tragedy and the degree to which it and ancient Athens became central to their efforts to construct a national identity. Following the post-Napoleonic political repression in Prussia, ancient Greece also became the foundation on which alienated intellectuals attempted to construct an alternative cultural identity. In this chapter, I ask why Germans became so fascinated with Greece, and Greek tragedy in particular. I examine the political consequences of this involvement for Germany and Europe. In doing so, I distinguish philosophers from publicists, as their motives and influence, while they overlap considerably, are best analyzed separately. With the philosophers, the consequences of their thought are diverse and cross-cutting. On the positive side, the development of German philosophy and its progression from Kant through Heidegger, and beyond to Gadamer, Benjamin, Arendt, Habermas represents one of the great intellectual achievements of the modern era. This philosophical edifice may nevertheless have had negative political consequences for Germany. It provided the intellectual justification for what German historians refer to as the special path [Sonderweg] of Germany’s political development in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries and subsequently helped to alienate German intellectuals from the Weimar Republic. The German fascination with tragedy illustrates one of the most powerful truths of this ancient genre. Greek playwrights knew that the world is bigger than we are, that its dynamics will always remain to a large degree opaque and that the consequences of our actions are accordingly unpredictable. Like Oedipus, we never know when we are at a critical crossroads, or when actions, whose consequences appear transparent, will produce outcomes diametrically opposed to those intended. It is no stretch of the imagination to read the German fascination with tragedy as a tragedy.
In considering the unfortunate and unintended consequences of Germany’s intellectual trajectory in the nineteenth century, I want to disassociate myself from those scholars and critics who have launched a broader critique against modernity. Leo Strauss, a conservative political theorist, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and postmodernist philosopher and literary theorist Jean François Lyotard, attribute the worst political horrors of the twentieth century to the Enlightenment and its unqualified faith in reason. Such a sweeping accusation reflects the ideological assumptions of these authors more than it represents any reasoned argument. It exaggerates the triumph of reason over tradition and superstition and ignores the many benefits of reason, including modern science and medicine, economic development and the gradual spread of racial, religious and gender tolerance.
My argument is different and, I hope, more nuanced. Some of the Germans in question, most notably Kant, are prominently associated with the Enlightenment but also with the emerging counter-Enlightenment. Others, like Schelling and Hölderlin, are considered leading figures of the counter-Enlightenment.12 The Enlightenment elevated reason as the source of all knowledge and science as its most perfect expression. History, art, poetry and the world of feeling were deeply suspect and dismissed as props of the church and aristocracy.13 Voltaire, following a line of argument that stretched back to Plato, condemned poetry as a form of dangerous “figurative” language.14 The counter-Enlightenment portrayed reason as a pernicious force that divided man from nature and sought to reverse this trend by restoring respect for feeling and art as its principal form of expression. Some of its principal advocates envisaged art as providing an absolute standard of beauty and the basis for the individual cultivation of the self. For Kant, the experience of beauty is one in which imagination is harmonized with understanding without the intervention or constraint of concepts, including those concerning the moral good.15
Much of the German philosophical enterprise from Kant on must be understood as a reaction to science and the skepticism and materialism it encouraged. Schelling, Fichte and Hegel refused to concede that everything outside of science was mere poetry and a lesser form of knowledge. Inspired by Rousseau and Jacobi, Novalis lauds “feeling” as a mode of consciousness distinct from conceptual knowledge and suggests that the negation of reflection can put us on the path to being.16 Many of these philosophers and writers rejected the emerging model of science as the benchmark for knowledge, developed the alternative conception of Geisteswissenschaft -- which became the “Humanities” or “interpretative sciences” of the English speaking world. They sought to provide philosophical foundations for it as well as appropriate standards for its evaluation. This was a goal of Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Schiller’s essay on “Aesthetic Education of Man” and a major theme of Hegel’s Phenomenology.17 “Only when philosophy and metaphysics got into crisis in relation to the cognitive claims of the sciences,” Hans-George Gadamer observes, did philosophers have the incentive to “discover again their proximity to poetry which they had denied since Plato.”18
I am not the first to see a dark side to German philosophical idealism. German cultural historians – most notably Fritz Stern -- see a connection between German idealism and the later success of fascism. German idealism drew on earlier esthetic ideals and moral concerns. It emphasized the cultivation of Innerlichkeit [inner development] and did not encourage political participation or even concern with political issues and outcomes.19 Germany’s intellectual elite “tended to become estranged from reality and disdainful of it. It lost the power to deal with practical matters in practical terms."20 Fritz Ringer maintains that German universities fanned this sense of idealistic insulation and with it, an opposition to change on the grounds that it represented a moral decline.21 Several generations of generally apolitical Germans expressed alarm over the economic and social changes associated with modernity, among them Thomas Mann, Ernst Troeltsch, Friedrich Naumann and Christian Morgenstern. For some Germans, this sense of alienation helped to nourish an anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic right-wing discourse.22 The negative consequences of German idealism are all the more poignant when we recognize the extraordinary intellectual contribution of German idealism and its offshoots. The influence of German idealism has been so profound and influential in how we have come to think about the modern world that it is almost impossible to imagine ourselves and our world in its absence.
The great innovator and founder of the Idealist tradition was Kant, who straddled the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. He employed reason in the form of powerful, logical arguments to demonstrate its inability to understand our relation to the universal, which he thought human beings nevertheless struggled to comprehend. However, he also attributed great power to beauty and nature and their ability to shape the self through their apprehension by non-reflexive means; the intuition and creativity they inspired could lead to understandings inaccessible to the theoretical sciences. Reason and feeling, two parts of the self, could be brought into harmony and provide a firm basis for morality. This belief was based on the more fundamental assumption of an isomorphism between man and nature and, as the Critique of Judgment suggested, a purposive principle in nature. Kant and his successors struggled to find new foundations for ethics, sought them in human drives and capabilities that went beyond logical inquiry, brought nature and beauty back into the purview of philosophy, and provided a novel way of understanding the Greeks and Western history more generally. Marxism, Freudian psychiatry and existentialism are direct outgrowths of German idealism or dependent on them in important ways.
As my subject is complex, I adopt a layered approach. Each layer captures one reason for German interest in Greek tragedy and ancient Greece more generally. I begin with philosophy as an ethical project, then explore political motivations, and finally explain the turn to tragedy with reference to Germany’s situation as a late cultural developer. These three layers might also be conceived as concentric circles. The inner most circle encompasses a small group of literary figures and philosophers and their recondite ethical concerns. The next circle out includes the wider class of German intellectuals and the roles they aspired to play in the states in which they resided, but above all in Prussia. The outermost circle situates Germany in Europe and considers its comparative position. All three are connected by the theme of tragedy and the efforts of intellectuals to construct identities for themselves and their states considered appropriate to the rapidly modernizing world of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Analysis at these three levels helps to explain the appearance in Germany of idealism and its implications for Germany's political development. It also encourages thoughts about the relationship between agency and structure in the construction of identity. The German turn to tragedy, I argue, was in the first instance a response to a philosophical-ethical problem, and the work of agency. In the absence of Kant, German idealism might have been stillborn, or certainly would not have developed in the manner it did. Even without Kant, German writers and thinkers, reacting to the French Revolution and its aftermath, would have been drawn to the counter-Enlightenment and its rejection of reason as a more appropriate guide for human behavior and social relations. Some German historians consider their country’s political development unique and a deviation from the pattern established by Britain, France and the countries of northwest Europe. There are many reasons for wariness about the “Sonderweg” thesis, among them the dubious assumption that there was a single pattern followed by Germany’s neighbors.23 In A Cultural Theory of International Relations, I argue that there was a pattern to which Germany conformed, that scholars have missed because they have compared Germany to the countries of Western Europe. If we look east instead, it is apparent that the rejection of Western values by many intellectuals was a typical response of late developers, a situation Germany shared with Russia and Japan.24 So it might be argued that the general direction taken by German philosophy, was a predictable response to a specific political-economic condition. Agency nevertheless played an important role, giving German philosophy its specific content and giving rise to a particular Weltanschauung. German intellectuals confronted choices that were in no way predetermined by circumstances. Different German intellectuals made different choices, and had more of them made the right choices the German tragedy might have been averted.
THE GREEKS AND PHILOSOPHY
Like almost everything else in modern German thought, theorizing about tragedy developed in response to Kant. The Königsberg philosopher never mentioned the word tragedy, but made it imperative for his successors to tackle the subject. His work pointed to the end of the philosophy of the metaphysical and made tragedy appear an appropriate vehicle for reflection. Subsequent German philosophers envisaged tragedy as a means of overcoming metaphysics, understanding the course of history and preparing the way for cultural revolution. These philosophers also theorized about tragedy itself and sought to evaluate it as an art form. Hegel, for whom tragedy was central, wrote about it in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807) and Lectures on Fine Art (1823-29).
Art versus Philosophy: Kant’s philosophical project was above all a response to Humean skepticism. He sought to provide an alternative foundation for ethics that did not rely on telos or natural law. His starting point was the assumption that it was impossible for us to cognize our relation to the universal, but we could grasp our moral need for understanding. Human nature compels us to seek universals. We find them through faith, which is reason’s form of moral thinking and allows us to affirm that which is real but inaccessible to theoretical cognition. Kant effectively challenged a philosophical tradition that had dominated Western thought since Plato had substituted philosophy for literature as the appropriate vehicle for exploring the human condition. Kant restored literature’s role, giving it coequal status with philosophy.
Kant's successors sought to build on his belief about the isomorphism between the world and the self by providing firmer foundations for the noumenal self and its relationship to the empirical world. The attempt to overcome Kantian dualism – noumenal and empirical selves -- led some philosophers and writers to aesthetics in the hope it would serve as an effective bridge between the worlds of spirit and matter. Novalis and Hölderlin took this road, as did Schelling and Hegel – all of whom were fellow students at the Tübingen Stift [theological seminary].25 Hölderlin and Novalis imagined a level of being prior to consciousness in which subject and object are not yet divided. This level of being was not accessible to consciousness, only to art. Artistic genius, which they thought arose directly from our being, was therefore the true route to knowledge. Kant emphasized the role of genius in this connection in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.26 Art opens up a realm to us that is unavailable to reflection.
Hegel alone among the German philosophers would resist this move, insisting that only abstract reflection can generate moral truths. Hegel reversed Kant, who had defined freedom and its limitations in terms of the self's rational understanding of the noumenal world. For Hegel, it was the empirical world that provided this guidance. In his imagined polis, ethical life [Sittlichkeit] arose from civic interaction because the Greek world was still naïve in the sense that it was not darkened by the shadows of individual self-reflection in search of meaning and identity.27
Schelling and Kierkegaard followed Kant’s lead, as did Nietzsche and Heidegger. Schelling’s Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795) – which precede Hegel’s first major publication by a decade – reintroduced tragic art into the philosophical discourse. Schelling describes tragedy as the highest form of art and suggests that philosophy can be transformed through engagement with it. His System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), speaks of philosophy flowing back into the supreme art of poesy.28 Nietzsche would use the same trope in the Birth of Tragedy (1872), where he wrote that "Philosophy, which was born and nurtured by poesy in the childhood of science, and which accompanied all those sciences and brought them into maturity and completion in their sundry individual streams, now flows back into the universal ocean of poesy, whence they all originated.”29 His approach to tragedy stands in sharp contrast to W. A. Schlegel and the British classicist George Grote, both of whom linked tragedy to democratic politics.30
Kant’s turn to literature occurred within his broader engagement with problem of judgment, specifically ethical judgment. He describes art as an expression of the “free play” inherent in our nature. Here Kant takes a cue from Aristotle, who understood art as a natural impulse and source of learning. For Aristotle, however, art is defined by its mimetic character; it is an imitation and distillation of real life experience, although it also draws on other natural impulses like harmony and rhythm.31 For Kant, as for Aristotle, art is education in the most fundamental sense, and something only accessible to ethical beings. Kant was nevertheless committed to renegotiating the relationship of the truths generated by art and science. This required the liberation of the imagination from any rules governing particular art forms. To reveal truths about the world art must go beyond mimesis to poisēs, the act of creation itself.32 Despite their many differences, Hölderlin, Hegel and Nietzsche follow Kant in their recognition of the force of art in human affairs. They do not envisage writing, style, performance, pictorial images and rhythm as recherché academic concerns, but as a fundamental concern of philosophy. Art and language are media in their own right, that exist beyond and independent of concepts. They are -- and here I must resort to the kind of tortured language that pervades German philosophy -- the idiom of the idiom that eludes capture by concepts. Art and language have the ability to speak to us directly. They can lead us to new understandings of the world rather than merely express known realities.33
Kant's successors understood that philosophy and its concepts were embedded in language. It encouraged the turn to art as an alernative to language but also the search for a new language for philosophy. Schelling developed the notion of Bildungstrieb, the impulse to make art. Hölderlin, who declared that “man is born for art,” initiated this move with his translations of Sophocles, Greek poetry and an attempt to write his own tragedy.34 He sought to follow the poetic imperative in the hope that it would reveal the deepest possibilities of language and thereby enable the rebirth of ethical human beings. Hölderlin aspired to reconstruct the German language to make it more like Greek, and to speak and write it with the syntax, word order and sensibility of that language. Although German idealism rejected mimesis, Hölderlin engaged in what can only be described as a kind of linguistic mimesis, and struggled to bring out the “oriental” character of Greek life in his written work.35
Romanticism made artistic creation the vehicle of self-discovery, and the artist the model human being. In 1788, Friedrich Schiller published “Die Götter Greichenlands” [The Gods of Greece], which quickly become one of his most influential poems. It contrasted the allegedly happy, harmonious and beautiful world of the Greeks with the somber, materialist and anti-creative spirit of the present day.36 In this poem and other writings Schiller propounded the idea of self-realization through the aesthetic; life and form must come together in the beauty of the living form [lebende Gestalt].37 “If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice,” he wrote, “he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom.”38 In 1798, Friedrich Schlegel made a similar plea: "One has tried for so long to apply mathematics to music and painting; now try it the other way around."39 For both writers, and German idealists more generally, the relationship of the subject to the world is better mediated by feelings than concepts.
This project finds it most forceful statement in the writings of Nietzsche, where it became the basis for his radical critique of Christianity and science. As is well known, Nietzsche posits a sharp opposition between the Apollonian art of sculpture and the non-plastic Dionysian art of music. The world of the intellect is Apollonian, and, he insists, has dominated Western philosophy and culture since the time of Socrates. For the Apollonian, everything must be intelligible to be beautiful. Nietzsche held the triumph of the Apollonian responsible for the ills of Western culture. It spawned science, defined as “the belief in the explicability of nature and in knowledge as a panacea.” Science and reason are “seductive distractions” that solidified knowledge into constraining concepts that stifle creativity. The Enlightenment and nineteenth century had greatly accelerated this process. For Nietzsche, the task of art is to interrogate and undermine all perspectives to keep them from hardening into life-restricting concepts. He advocates a project of liberation to distance oneself from the dominant values of the age, and with it a self-cancelation [selbstaufhebung] of morals to attempt to regain the instinct of life. He urges readers to “frolic in images” and recognize that creative life consists of replacing one set of metaphors and illusions with another. Whereas Aristotle understood art as an imitation of nature, for Nietzsche, it is “a metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it to overcome it.” Tragic art in particular, creates and destroys its own illusions. In doing so, it destroys old dreams and makes way for new ones.40
Nietzsche, like Kant and Schelling, understood that not all knowledge is accessible to reason. The highest forms of wisdom, he maintained, are achieved by intuition, seeing and feeling. This is what makes art and music so important. Language and the concepts its spawns can never capture the cosmic symbolism of music because language itself is a symbol. It can have superficial contact with music -- words can describe its structure, rhythm, instrumentation and evolution -- but cannot disclose its innermost heart. That speaks to us directly, unmediated by language.41 Intelligence beyond the intelligible finds expression in emotions, communal solidarity and “oneness” with nature, all made possible by Dionysian ecstasy. Dionysian art convinces us of the joy of existence, and we come to this realization by grasping the truth that lies behind its representation. “We must have art,” Nietzsche implored, “lest we perish of the truth” – by which he means the sterile truths of philosophy. Perhaps for this reason, Nietzsche judged his own efforts to discover and convey wisdom to have failed. “How sad,” he lamented, “that I did not attempt to say what I had to say as a poet.”42
Beauty and Suffering: German philosophy’s interest in tragedy as art was inseparable from its conception of beauty. Here too Kant is central because he foregrounded the importance for beauty and its relationship to ethics. Kant conceived of beauty as the non-conceptual representation of a sensus communis. His successors went beyond him in rejecting bourgeois conceptions of beauty. Art should not be pleasing and soothing, but arresting and disquieting, like Greek tragedy. Hegel, whom Heidegger called the last Greek, conceived of beauty as a finite glimmer of the infinite.43 For Rilke, bourgeois beauty was stifling. It was “nothing but the beginning of the terror that threatens to destroy us.”44 The emphasis on the darker side of beauty reaches its apotheosis in Nietzsche, who was initially drawn to Wagner because of the latter’s use of dissonance in his music. In Birth of Tragedy (1872), whose first edition was dedicated to the Bayreuth composer, he called for the withdrawal of the beautiful from consideration in art.
To nineteenth century ears, musical dissonance was generally painful, which provided another link to tragedy. Pain is a central feature of tragedy, and knowledge, as the chorus in Agamemnon affirms, is won through suffering.45 Aristotle was also the first to theorize about this connection. He argues in his Poetics that tragedy communicates knowledge by simultaneously evoking fear and pity. This emotional state can bring about a catharsis: a purge of the soul that restores its balance. Catharsis is a greatly diluted form of praxis, something akin to an inoculation that gives us immunity by infecting us with a mild and tolerable form of a pathogen. For Aristotle, the quintessential cathartic moment in tragedy comes when we see ourselves as the blind Oedipus.46
Hölderlin is the first German to pick up on this theme. He declared true pain inspiring and tragedy the highest art form because it celebrated suffering. Tragedy brings us knowledge more through affect than reason, and emotions that take us outside of ourselves. Hölderlin cryptically observes that Oedipus “has an eye too many perhaps.”47 His extra eye is presumably his extraordinary intellect that enables him to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, and every other riddle, including that of his identity. His intellect is also his undoing. Only after he becomes blind, does Oedipus learn from suffering and ultimately able to see and understand in ways he could not when he had two eyes. Blindness was a time-honored trope in Greek culture and literature. The Greeks associated light with life, and blindness with death. Blindness is also associated with wisdom. Perhaps for this reason, Homer is always represented as blind, and the only person who can see in the underworld is the blind prophet Teresias.
Tragedy and Freedom: Tragedy reveals the power of destiny which in turn points to a new conception of freedom. Tragedies teach us that we live in a world not of our making, one we cannot control, but to which we are ultimately answerable. Schelling thought tragedy offered insight into how human beings can confront the seeming contradiction between freedom and necessity. His Tenth Letter opens with the observation that mortals succumb to the power of the world but do not do so without a struggle. Like Oedipus, we must be punished for our struggle against destiny, but that punishment brings recognition of our freedom. “It was by allowing tragedy to struggle against the superior power of fate that Greek tragedy honored freedom.” By trying to escape his fate and accepting his punishment when he inevitably fails, man “demonstrates his freedom precisely through the loss of this freedom.”48
Schelling, Hegel and Nietzsche are all convinced that tragic art can teach us something essential about our position in a world larger and more complex than any we can conceive. The quest for understanding is essential because modernity demands new conceptions of self. The Enlightenment and Romanticism inspired the goal of autonomous individuals who seek to express their inner selves; people who have thoughts and feelings that distinguish them from others. It widened the already existing tension between the individual and the group. However, solitude and solidarity on the one hand, and self-expression and group identification on the other, are not mutually exclusive binaries. One of the overarching goals of German philosophy was to elaborate this truth, and its protagonists turned to tragedy because of its ability to frame and present it so effectively.
History and Ethics: Beginning with Hölderlin, German philosophers considered themselves to be living in an age of intellectual and ethical crisis. They attributed this crisis to the failure of metaphysics, which for over two millennia had been the philosophical basis of Western civilization. Humean skepticism proved the last nail in the coffin of Christian metaphysics, and the Kantian project was at its core an attempt to find a new foundation for ethics based on reason and sentiment.49 Kant’s German successors were in awe of his philosophical innovation, but saw problems with his attempted solution. They sought better answers and turned to tragedy for their framework.
Destiny was critical to their proposed solutions. Greek tragedies are driven by destiny, but it is the destiny of individual human beings that lie hidden within them. Oedipus is once again the paradigmatic case. His fate is obvious to us at the outset, in due course to those around him, and finally, to himself. Warned of his destiny as a young man, he uses his impressive physical and emotional powers to prevent it, and by virtue of his agency, brings this terrible prophecy to fruition. The Germans depart from the Greeks in conceiving of destiny in collective terms. It is not individuals, but history that reveals the collective destiny of a people as it unfolds. Hegel and Nietzsche employ tragedy in a double sense: to make sense of history, and through this understanding, to provide a new foundation for ethics. Their starting point is classical Greece, the last historical moment before philosophy and metaphysics became the dominant intellectual framework.
Hume and Gibbon -- typical representatives of the Enlightenment -- scorned history as a record of folly, although they became deeply engaged in its writing . Kant, by contrast, approached history with reverence because he read it as the story of humanity’s struggles to uplift itself morally. Hegel followed Kant and was drawn to tragedy as a model for thinking about historical development. In it he found hidden dynamics that moved social interactions at every level of analysis. He reasoned that history was driven by the same dialectic of conflict and recognition, and came to understand it as the efforts of the spirit to recognize its individuality, by comprehending the universality in terms of which it could come to know and differentiate itself. Like Schelling, he considered history tragic in its inexorability. Central to its development is the tragic moment, which always takes the form of a confrontation with death in which the truth is summoned or revealed. In such crises, the spirit faces the pure singularity exposed by death, and comes to recognize itself and its potentialities.50
Nietzsche interprets tragedy’s relationship to history differently. His starting point is his well-known distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian. There is a perpetual struggle between the Dionysian drive for self-forgetfulness and the Apollonian one toward self-individuation. Classical Greece was unique in its willingness to recognize, even celebrate, the irresolvable conflict between these drives, and the suffering it causes. Nietzsche interprets tragedy in terms of them. The drama is the Apollonian concretization of the Dionysian chorus. The choral parts are the “womb” of the dialogue, while the dialogue represents “dream images” of the chorus. Tragedy gives citizens the opportunity to look into their own lives. Dreams are conversations of the soul, while quotidian life is a mere fiction from which art struggles to awaken us. Nietzsche accuses Euripides and Plato of replacing dreams with logic. The triumph of reason in the form of philosophy was responsible for the death of tragedy. Thinking man now suppresses his Dionysian impulses and mistakenly believes that nature is explicable and that knowledge of it can make human beings masters of their own fate. Nietzsche saw the Enlightenment and Hegel as the ultimate and most dehumanizing expressions of this philosophy.51
To renew ourselves, we need to break the hold of the past over the present. We must eliminate the “slave morality” of Plato and Christianity. Traditional lives must be rejected along with traditional philosophy. Nietzsche looked to German music to provide a Dionysian beginning for the rebirth of tragedy. He had what can only be described as a mystical belief in the power of the German spirit if it could be unshackled. He nevertheless recognized that people do not want to be separated from their illusions. We cherish illusions that protect us from the realization that our lives are meaningless. Morality is real in the sense that it helps to make us the kind of people we are, but it nevertheless rests on indefensible foundations.52
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche insists that “The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity; time and again they rekindle the dozing passions – every ordered society puts the passions to sleep.”53 He envisages nihilism as a positive force, absolutely necessary to sweep away the existing order. He also sees it as destined by history. Because the land “is eventually exhausted and the ploughshares of evil must come time and again.”54 God is dead, and people will come to recognize this truth. When they do, politics, religion and morality – the building blocks of Western civilization – will crumble. People will have to find new way of life [Gewohnung], discover new answers to new questions and develop new philosophies.
Greece as Inkblot: It is readily apparent that the Greece the Germans idealized is not a Greece that ever existed. It is a world they desperately wanted to bring into being and by doing so make Germany the modern Athens. Fichte was not alone in defining this project as the means by which Germany could gain honor in the modern world. There was no single image of this idealized Greece; multiple and cross-cutting depictions were advanced by German writers. Enlightenment-inspired reformers like Winckelmann and Humboldt conjured up a rational, ordered society that would enable human being to discover their full intellectual and artistic potential. There was a darker, "oriental" Greece, first invoked by Hölderlin, and later elaborated historically by Jacob Burckhardt. It was not a land of Enlightenment values, but a world of intense conflict, where constructive and liberating forces struggled with destructive and tyrannical ones, all within the confines of the family and polis. As Greece was generally assumed to have given birth to Western civilization, the strangeness of this darker formulation suggested – and it was intended to – the extent to which we are strangers to ourselves.