In 1872 Friedrich Nietzsche published his first and only major work in classical philology, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik.1 Although Ulrich Wilamowitz-Moellendorff savaged the book,2 it became, to quote Walter Kaufmann, “one of the most suggestive and influential studies of tragedy ever written.”3 Nietzsche’s ideas on the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, as well as on the baleful influence of Euripides and Socrates, still merit consideration today. At the same time, his portrayal of Richard Wagner as a new Aeschylus remains an instructive example of misguided hero-worship.
Daniel Greenspan’s monograph The Passion of Infinity: Kierkegaard, Aristotle and the Rebirth of Tragedy, a revision of his Ph.D. dissertation at Villanova University,4 covers much of the same ground as Nietzsche’s seminal work. The book is an inquiry into the nature and fate of the Attic theatre. Rather than focusing on Socrates and Wagner, however, Greenspan asks whether the relationship between Aristotle and Kierkegaard is as close as some scholars believe. The philosophers’ views on tragedy are Greenspan’s litmus test, and he finds them to be very much at odds on the subject.
Greenspan’s touchstone is Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. Here, in the wake of unintentional patricide and incest, the mortal and the divine meet in tragic conflict to produce a “third wisdom”: the awful light of Phoebus’ sun exposes the complete inadequacy of human securities (pp. 28-37). Greenspan explains that the blind prophet Teiresias and the self-blinded king Oedipus embody the new awareness, which has uncertainty at its core (pp. 14, 28, 37).
Greenspan observes that Oedipus presents a problem for rationalistic philosophers like Aristotle (pp. 114-115). He is not lawless, insane, or vicious — “a mere ritual purification” would serve to absolve him of his crimes (p. 23) — but, nonetheless, he experiences a dreadful fall. In one of the murkier sections of the book, Greenspan argues that Aristotle viewed Oedipus’ tragedy as an aesthetic revelation of reason in a seemingly irrational disaster (p. 89). He envisioned a soul with two parts: a personal psuchê tied to the body, and an impersonal nous wedded to reason. When the latter carried the day, eudaimonia, “well being,” was the result (pp. 128ff.). Hence, where Nietzsche saw Euripides and Socrates as the killers of tragedy, Greenspan suggests that Aristotle not only participated in the murder, but also helped hide the body (cf. pp. 70-71).
Next, Greenspan turns to the Golden Age of Denmark and Kierkegaard’s philosophy. While classical Greeks may have feared a sudden eruption of the divine into mortal life, Kierkegaard believed that modern Europeans suffered from a subjective autonomy manifest in feelings of total guilt (pp. 146, 148, 188, 190). For him, reason and society were obstacles, for they offered false justification and ineffective protection. Only a shattering encounter with the omnipresent yet unthinkable Christian God could redeem humanity (pp. 152ff.). Greenspan thus maintains that Kierkegaard’s notion of tragedy shaded towards the Sophoclean (p. 172). Indeed, the Dane rejected the Delphic maxim of mêden agan and the corresponding Aristotelian view of the accomplished life as the ultimate telos. Rather, he stressed the role of the passions in human rebirth. In Greenspan’s words, “Greece needed a Saint Paul, apparently, and then a Kierkegaard, to finish the job tragedy had started” (p. 234).
To flesh out this position, Greenspan examines Kierkegaard’s archetypal Biblical figures as well as his various personae. Among the former, Abraham looms large. Unlike Agamemnon, whose sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, has a clear end, the patriarch’s charge to kill his son, Isaac, is completely absurd (p. 197). Also exemplary is Job’s continued devotion to God in the face of staggering loss (p. 241). Kierkegaard emphasizes both men’s surrender to the Divine, and their consequent experience of grace and mercy (p. 287). Thus, in his hands, “philosophy ends in a ‘repetition’ of the tragedy it originally suppressed” (p. 285).
As may be judged from the preceding remarks, The Passion of Infinity is as much about nineteenth-century philosophy as it is about classical drama. In fact, Greenspan’s desire to compare ancient and modern thought may engender a flaw in his otherwise excellent study: a partial vision of Attic tragedy. Could not the Oedipus Tyrannus, among other plays, be experienced as a demonstration of the utter futility of immoderate striving? What is one to make of the ominous counsel in Oedipus at Colonus that the best thing for man is to have never been born, and the second best is to die quickly (1410-1413)?5 Here, there is no “third wisdom,” no redemption, only the endless round of dikê, hubris, and nemesis. In such a cosmos, is not the Delphic injunction of “nothing in excess” entirely appropriate? So the chorus in Oedipus at Colonus proclaims: “Whoever it is that seeks to have// a greater share of life,// letting moderation slip out of his thoughts,// I count him a fool, a persistent fool” (1394-1396, cf. 646-647).
In the same vein, we may wonder whether Abraham’s fate is truly tragic. God does order the patriarch to sacrifice his child, but the old man does not display the arrogance of an Oedipus or bewail his fate like an Antigone. Even more importantly, he never suffers the trauma of divine wrath. At the last moment, an angel prevents the killing, blesses Abraham for his obedience, and repeats God’s promise of offspring “as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17, cf. 17:1-8). Is this story really the consummation of Sophocles’ tragic art? Does Abraham, the anti-type of Agamemnon, actually reflect the outlook that produced Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis ?
To go on in this fashion would be easy, but also unfair, for The Passion of Infinity is largely concerned with the link between Aristotle and Kierkegaard. Greenspan does an admirable job of demonstrating that, while the Dane may have used his predecessor’s categories, he rejected his rationalistic philosophy. Suffice it to say that the author may have been better served by a less definitive reading of Attic drama. Today, only a small fraction of the tragedies of the fifth century survive. We may attempt to understand the messages of the extant plays, but should not trace them back to an overarching moral that dovetails with modern Existentialism. From a Greek perspective, Kierkegaard may have radically misunderstood tragedy as Judeo-Christian romance. He may have been no more a modern Sophocles than Wagner was a new Aeschylus.
1.Leipzig: E. W. Fritzsch, 1872.
2. Zukunftsphilologie! (Berlin: Gebrüder Bornträger, 1872); Zukunftsphilologie: Zweites Stück (Berlin: Gebrüder Bornträger, 1873).
3.Introduction to The Birth of Tragedy (New York: Vintage, 1967), 3.
4.”Kierkegaard and the Rebirth of Tragedy: Philosophy, Poetry and the Problem of the Irrational” (2006).
5. Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, trans. D. Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).