J G Finlayson. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 37, Issue 3. July 1999.
This article has two related aims: to expound and defend Hegel’s theory of the tragic; and to clarify Hegel’s concept of reconciliation. These two aims are related in that a widespread, but misleading, conception of the tragic and a common, but mistaken, understanding of Hegel’s concept of reconciliation can seem to offer mutual support. According to the misleading conception, the tragic consists in the defeat of human lives and projects that arises from irresolvable conflict. Goethe is the most notable exponent of this view. In 1824 Goethe writes that “everything tragic rests on irresolvable opposition. As soon as resolution enters or becomes possible the tragic vanishes.” ‘The mistaken understanding of Hegel’s concept of reconciliation is that it consists in a triumphal and wholly affirmative resolution of contradiction through the attainment of harmony. It is easy to see how the two views support one another. For Hegel presents the tragic as a dialectic of conflict and reconciliation in human action, a dialectic in which the moment of reconciliation is ineliminable. So, if one conceives reconciliation as an harmonious resolution of conflict and one also subscribes to Goethe’s view that the tragic rests on irreconcilable opposition, one is not likely to take Hegel’s theory of the tragic very seriously. If, however, we keep in mind what Hegel means by ‘reconciliation,’ then we can begin both to understand and to defend his theory of the tragic.
Tragedy and the Tragic
Let us begin with a preliminary delineation and defense of the concept of the tragic. Hegel does not have a theory of tragedy, he has a theory of the tragic. A theory of tragedy would be genre-specific, a theory about tragedies, the works of theater and not the pitiable and terrifying events they represent. Aristotle’s Poetics is a theory of tragedy. It is a theory about the composition of tragic poems, about their parts and their function. One can call a theory of tragedy loosely an ‘aesthetic’ theory, to the extent that it is a theory of the experience of a work of tragedy, indeed for the ancient Greeks, an experience not just of beholding but of participating in the performance of a tragedy. By contrast, a theory of the tragic is not a theory about tragedies. It is not genre specific, for not only tragedies are tragic. And neither is it an ‘aesthetic’ theory about the experience of a work of tragedy. Rather, it is a theory about what makes a work of theater into a tragedy, about what it is to be a tragedy. True, the essence of tragedy has to do with experience, but it has to do primarily with the experience of the tragic hero, not the experience of the actor or the spectator.
Furthermore, whereas a theory of tragedy tells us something about tragedies, a theory of the tragic tells us something about human experience, human actions and the ethical-life of a community in which the actions are played out. The tragic arises from the way in which institutions, customs, and practices within which we become what we are, shape our actions on the one hand, and take shape through our actions on the other. Hence the question of the tragic enjoys a certain priority over the question of tragedy. The works of theater we call tragedies exist because of the tragic, not vice versa.
There is another reason why we should grant that the question of the tragic as such is interesting and relevant. Tragedy is not a vague term; historically at least the matter of classification has been settled. It is not as if, in significant instances, it is impossible to decide whether a work of ancient drama is or is not a tragedy. Lebeck may argue, rather unconvincingly that the trial scene in the Eumenides is a parody of Athenian litigation; but she does not dispute that it is a tragedy. Steiner may claim that “tragedies end badly,” in flagrant disregard of the evidence, (the Eumenides of Aeschylus, and Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus), but he stops short of concluding that they are therefore not tragedies. He claims instead, wrongly, that the latter are exceptional. There is no better reply to such a claim than Kaufmann’s: “Tragedies, alas, are not what they are supposed to be.” If there is agreement as to which plays are tragedies, if not as to how they are supposed to end, then we are entitled to ask after those features in virtue of which they are taken to be tragedies and this is just what a theory of the tragic thematizes.
These are some of the reasons why the question of the tragic deserves serious consideration. Despite these reasons some commentators find the very idea that there is common to tragedies, something tragic, a tragic essence, inherently reductive and thus objectionable. The objectors are certainly right to maintain that reading Greek tragedy is a formidable enough task on its own, without burdening that reading with a philosophical theory of the tragic. But then, a philosophical theory of the tragic like Hegel’s is not supposed to relieve us of the labor of textual interpretation. Reading tragedy and theorizing the tragic are two distinct but complementary modes of inquiry. None of the objectors provide reasons why we should abandon the theory of the tragic. One cannot, simply by pointing to the details of particular tragedies, which the theory of the tragic fails adequately to capture, thereby invalidate that theory. We do not demand that a theory of modernist architecture give a complete and adequate account of the significance of each building which is to count as a work of modernist architecture. And even if one could show that a theory failed to illuminate important works of the genre, that would at most show that it was a flawed theory of modernist architecture, not that the very idea of such a theory was misplaced.
Hegel’s Dialectic of the Tragic
I Having, I hope, allayed some initial qualms about the very idea of a theory of the tragic, I shall first give a tentative definition of Hegel’s conception of the tragic and then analyze its two moments. We have seen that Hegel’s theory is less an ‘aesthetic’ theory about works of drama than it is an ethical and metaphysical theory about those aspects of human experience which tragedies make salient. We could say that for Hegel the theory of the tragic expounds an ethical truth. This does not mean just that the theory corresponds to some fact or that it forms part of some coherent set of beliefs. Hegel has a very particular notion of truth: truth emerges, roughly speaking, in the process in which a partial or inconsistent viewpoint breaks down internally and is subsequently reconstituted in a new and different form on the basis of the insight into its partiality or inconsistency. Hegel calls this process ‘experience.’ This is not the place to treat Hegel’s concept of experience, but we should note that it is neither an empiricist conception of ‘experience,’ which designates what comes to me through the senses, nor a Kantian conception, whereby experience is produced through the operation of the categories of the understanding on the manifold of sensibility-the two accounts which have shaped ‘aesthetics’ from its inception. By contrast, for Hegel experience is a dynamic and thoroughly socially mediated process; all experience presupposes a world that is shared. With these two caveats in mind, we can say that Hegel’s theory of the tragic expounds an ethical truth by demonstrating how an ethical agent reaches a new stage of self-understanding on the basis of the experience of mutual conflict and reconciliation with others arising from the attempted realization of his or her incomplete aims. For the purposes of exposition below I shall treat the moments of conflict and reconciliation separately, although these are not supposed to be discrete events, but part of one and the same dialectic.
Hegel’s conception of the tragic begins in conflict. The thought that I want to oppose is that, if it issues in reconciliation, then by definition what Hegel conceives as conflict cannot be deep enough to be genuinely tragic. This thought rests on Goethe’s view that reconciliation is fundamentally untragic. Against this, I want to claim that the fact that Hegel’s conception of tragic conflict squares both with Aristotle’s understanding of tragic action and with the two ancient tragedies he takes to be exemplary-Sophocles’ Antigone and Aeschylus’ Eumenides-is good grounds on which to claim that it is genuinely tragic.
In the Lectures on Aesthetics Hegel contends that an “individual action realizes its purpose or character” in such a way that, for the individual agent, the action is completely determinate. In other words, the agent decides upon the significance of his or her action in isolation from the social context within which alone the action has a determinate meaning. Since the action is one-sided and isolated it “necessarily raises up the opposed pathos and precipitates an inexorable conflict.” (15, 523)
The original essence of the tragic [Das ursprnglich Tragische] consists in the fact that, within such a collision each side of the opposition considered for itself is justified, whilst on the other hand, they are both only able to carry forth the true, positive content of their purpose or character as a negation and infringement of the other. Thus in and because of their ethical life each is ensnared in guilt [Schuld-responsibility]. (ibid.)
The idea that stands at the center of Hegel’s theory of the tragic is that an action precipitates a collision between two rights. The significance of this claim is twofold: ancient tragedy is not primarily about a character and his or her fate; and the collision is one between rights, that is, both parties can claim justification for their actions. Here I shall focus on the first claim, in the following section I discuss the second.
Hegel’s claim about the centrality of action is congruent with Aristotle’s account of tragic action, in particular, with his account of the change of fortune [(…)] and reversal [(…)] in the tragic plot. This proximity with Aristotle is often ignored by critics of Hegel, who have concentrated on the supposed differences between the latter’s psychological theory of tragic emotion, and Hegel’s philosophical theory of tragic action. Yet in the Poetics it is Aristotle who emphasizes the centrality of tragic action. He states that what gives rise to the emotions of pity and terror which combine to produce the catharsis is the “structure of the incidents”[(…)]. Therefore, he argues, it is “the incidents and the plot that constitute the end of tragedy.” One must not get things back to front. Aristotle does not claim that the structure of the events is important in virtue of the emotions of pity and fear to which it gives rise, because these in turn produce the effect of catharsis. Tragic action is itself the end or telos of tragedy and, as Aristotle reminds us, “the end is the most important part of all.”
The trouble is that the term ‘action’ can refer equally to the incidents and the plot, or to two structural features thereof, the change in fortune (metabasis) and the reversal (peripeteia). Yet for Aristotle the latter, the peripeteia, is the determining feature of tragic action. To see why this is so we should remember that Aristotle claims that tragedy is “the imitation of an action and of a life, not of a human being” (5oa15) and that action, [(…), from the (…)] denotes a telic action, performed for the sake of some purpose or good. The tragic mimesis represents a human action aiming at some good. Now, Aristotle also tells us that the only genuinely tragic change of fortune consists in a “transformation from good fortune to misfortune”[(…) (…)]. Obviously the hero or heroine does not intend to be plunged into misfortune but rather aims at some good. So this transformation is not itself the praxis which tragedy imitates. Rather, the agent is plunged into misfortune because of an error of judgment, because of a mistake in an action aiming at some good. The truly tragic agent, Aristotle writes,
is one who is neither superior to us, with respect to virtue and justice, nor is precipitated into misfortune because of vice and wickedness, but because of some error of judgment.
The metabasis denotes the extended action or course of events, in which a human being commits some all too human error of judgment which plunges her from good fortune into misfortune. The peripeteia, by contrast, picks out the particular act within the extended dramatic action on which the change of fortune turns.
To appreciate the importance of this distinction we must turn to the following disputed line of the Poetics.
Reversal is an unexpected transformation of actions (performed for a particular purpose) into their opposite, according to probability and necessity. The essence of the tragic consists in a reversal between the intended goal of an intentional act and its unintended outcome; and not, as indicated by Bywater’s translation—”A peripety is an unexpected transformation of one state of things within the play to its opposite …”—the transformation between a condition of happiness and a condition of unhappiness. That blurs Aristotle’s distinction between reversal and transformation. Correctly understood, this passage makes clear the extent of Hegel’s debt to Aristotle. Hegel’s formulation of the tragic implicitly acknowledges the fulcral role of the peripeteia in the tragic dialectic, the individual act aiming at some good which unexpectedly and yet ‘according to probability and necessity’ turns into its opposite. The individual’s action intends under certain circumstances to realize a purpose or character, which … because he isolates himself one-sidedly in a determinacy he regards as complete, necessarily raises an opposing pathos against itself and thereby precipitates an inexorable conflict. (15, 523) Hegel is clearly not referring to the extended action of the drama. His claim is that the tragic dialectic unfolds from the individual act performed by the agent. In addition Hegel specifies that the unexpectedness and necessity of the ensuing transformation results from the one-sidedness of the purpose or character that is expressed through the action.
We have to be careful not to smuggle the idea of character deficiency into the idea of one-sidedness. The ‘error’ here lies in the individual act on which the drama turns. It should not be attributed to the flawed character of the hero. Hegel insists that the action which precipitates the conflict is the realization of character (15, 523), not the effect of an imperfect character. This is true to the Greek understanding of ethos which has the sense of a habituated disposition to act which the agent exemplifies and not to the modern sense of character, the source of idiosyncrasy, spontaneity and close associate of the will. As Vernant argues, just as the Greeks did not consider the artisan who produces works through his poieisis to be the true author, but someone who merely embodied matter in some pre-existent form, so in practical action “neither the individual nor his internal life have acquired enough consistency and autonomy to constitute the subject at the center of the decision from which his action emanates. Vernant is right to point out that for the Greeks responsibility does not flow from a spontaneous mental or reflective act of will, but from the actions themselves and the (even unforeseeable) consequences they bring. In the same spirit Hegel does not blame Antigone’s fate on her stubbornness in ignoring Creon’s edict, nor Agamemnon’s demise on his ruthlessly pragmatic decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in the interests of the Argive fleet. Rather in these cases the tragic dialectic arises from the singlemindedness of their act, their wholehearted pursuit of one aim. These respective aims are not wrong in themselves; they are both aims which the protagonist cannot but embrace. Agamemnon is the commander of the Argive fleet, beset by ill-winds; Antigone the pious sister of Polynices. What makes the act peripatetic and hence tragic is the failure to fix the meaning of the act from the standpoint of the agent. For the meaning of the act and the identity of the agent are constituted in relation to only one of several ethical powers. According to Hegel these powers, the family, religion and the polis (in the narrow sense of political offices and institutions) form the ethical-life of the polis (in the wide sense of political community) as an ensemble, not individually. Since there is no underlying rational order or recognized hierarchy to this ensemble of powers, it creates multiple, shifting, now overlapping, now discrepant allegiances. In this context, under certain circumstances an action can precipitate an ethical conflict between the different gods or powers of ethical life. Such acts disrupt the equilibrium of the ethical-life of the polis.
According to Hegel’s theory of the tragic, the tragic dialectic is set in train by a peripatetic act that rebounds upon the agent as a conflict between ethical powers. The act is in error, but the error flows from the failure to equilibrate the act with the ensemble of ethical powers rather than from a prior character defect. I have suggested that there is considerable agreement on the nature and function of tragic action between Hegel and Aristotle. If the tragic collision was built in fatalistically to the dramatic run of events, rather than ensuing with unexpected necessity from the deed of the hero, then the plot would command at best the pathos of innocent suffering. Hegel remarks that the external and contingent feelings of pity and fear can be generated by any “sad [traurige] story, a tale of misfortune qua misfortune”; whereas truly tragic pity and fear are internal and necessary, and are generated only when the character collides with the consequences of his or her own deed (15, 525-6). Hegel’s theory of the tragic rules out the possibility that tragic fate could simply befall the heroine, without her in any way bringing it upon herself. This view, which prevails in common parlance, does not so much devalue the tragic as lose it from view. For, as Hegel and the young Nietzsche clearly saw, the tragic is notjust a Trauerspiel or mourning play but also a Festspiel, a celebration of human praxis and human life.
Hegel’s analysis of tragic action shows that it is constitutive of the tragic that the agent be, at least in part, responsible for her own downfall. His subsequent, more disputed claim is that there is a moment of affirmation in the recognition that she is implicated by her own act in the fate that befalls her. The difficulty is how to do justice to this affirmative moment without losing sight of the negative or, to put the matter in a more Hegelian way, how to reconcile conflict and reconciliation without simply dissolving the former in the latter and losing sight of the tragic.
It is commonly held that Hegel does not surmount the difficulty but succumbs to it. Thus Otto Poggeler argues that “a dialectical-teleological thinking infiltrates Hegel’s relation to Greek tragedy” and that the Christian-theological tropes in his thought loosen his grasp on the tragic. Poggeler does not think, however, that the very concept of reconciliation is a travesty of the tragic, rather he argues that the mature Hegel loses sight of the gravity and unpredictability of Greek tragedy. Other commentators, including most notably Jacques Derrida, Martha Nussbaum and Bernard Williams, are less nuanced in their appreciation of Hegel’s position, and consequently less sparing in their criticism. Their chief criticisms are leveled at what is alleged to be Hegel’s conciliatory misconception of the tragic.
In my view most of these criticisms are made plausible by an uncharitable, and in important respects mistaken, understanding of Hegel’s position. First, they reduce Hegel’s project of reconciliation to an exercise in Christian apologetics. Second, they charge that Hegel’s notion of reconciliation implies the resolution of all conflict into harmony. Third, assuming the Goethean conception of the tragic which Hegel challenges, they conclude that therefore reconciliation is inimical to the tragic. It is a moot point how ‘Christian’ Hegel’s philosophy is. Certainly, there are speculative-theological resonances in Hegel’s conception of Versohnung. Equally, Hegel’s attitude to religion is both appropriative and critical; the religious conciousness, whilst complete in content, is formally deficient and always in need of further explanation. Anyway, the question of the propriety of Hegel’s conception of the tragic does not stand or fall with his attitude to Christianity. In his maturity Hegel is as concerned to point out the dissimilarities, as he is the uncanny proximity, between the conceptions of reconciliation proper to ancient tragedy on the one hand and Lutheran theology on the other. At (15, 523) he distinguishes between Christian reconciliation-a “transfiguration of the soul” which washes away “actuality and deeds” by transcending them-and the transfiguration of Oedipus which shapes “the conflict and transgressions of ethical powers into the unity and harmony of this ethical content.” With regard to Hegel’s concept of reconciliation it is a mistake to see it as a state of harmony and absence of conflict. Whatever Hegel might appear to say in the broad strokes of his lectures on world history, religion, and art, it is in the fine-grained detail of his published works that the real meaning of his terms emerges, and the latter leaves us in no doubt; reconciliation is not a harmonious redemption of suffering. Hegelian reconciliation refers to a resolution of conflict through the continuance of conflict; there persists an essential moment of negativity. Take, for instance, Hegel’s remark on contradiction in the Science of Logic.
Speculative thinking consists solely in the fact that thought holds fast contradiction, and in it, its own self, but does not allow itself to be dominated by it as in ordinary thinking, where its determinations are resolved by contradiction only into other determinations or into nothing. (6, 76)
However far removed it may be from truth-functional logic, the thought that a contradiction can be overcome by being preserved under another description, is clearly central to Hegel’s understanding of reconciliation. Finally, it cannot be assumed that Hegel simply imposes his philosophy of reconciliation on recalcitrant evidence. For, as Poggeler concedes, the culmination of Oedipus at Colonus and the third stasimon and the exodos of Aeschylus’ Eumenides which I examine in more detail below, are compelling evidence that the language of reconciliation is not foreign to Greek tragedy.
In my view Hegel develops a conception of what I call ‘reflective’ reconciliation that allows him to marry the two opposed elements of conflict and reconciliation in a single dialectic that does not dissolve the latter into the former. However he is not consistent in his use of the term and often has recourse to a different conception, that I call ‘metaphysical reconciliation,’ which has its origins in his earlier work and which has a more emphatically affirmative tone.
Unlike most of Hegel’s critics I think there is something to be said for the notion of tragic reconciliation. In the Lectures on Aesthetics the following obscure but important passage occurs.
In general we can say … that the proper theme of original tragedy is the divine [das Gotttiche]. But not the divine insofar as it makes up the content of religious consciousness as such, but insofar as it enters into the world, into individual action, and yet in this actuality neither loses its substantial character, nor sees itself transformed into its opposite. In this form the spiritual substance of willing and expediting is the ethical. (15, 522)
But what is meant by ‘the divine’ and what is its relation to ‘the ethical’? On one level what enters peripatetically into the human world of action are the commands and advice of the Gods, whose real, practical role in Greek life through the consultation of oracles, etc., is not to be forgotten. But as Hegel reminds us in the Phenomenology the consulting of oracles is notoriously unreliable: “the ravings of Priestesses … are not the ways in which truth appears, but warning signs of deception, of imprudence, of the singularity and contingency of knowledge.” (3, 53; Miller 447.) In differentiating the divine from “the content of religious consciousness,” Hegel dissociates the divine from superstitious beliefs in Gods and demons, beliefs which certainly abounded among the ancient Greeks. Tragedy thematizes the divine “as it enters into individual action” in a different sense. The divine here captures something of the sense of Herkleitus’ saying, (…), (a man’s character is his fate). The thought is that the dispositions and actions of a human being and what befalls him are closely interrelated. The divine that enters into human action is self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is divinely ordained by the delphic inscription (…), but tragic self-knowledge is not divinely given but must be discovered for oneself, through the experience of one’s actions and their consequences.
Structurally ‘the divine’ takes the form of a Hegel-logical self-relation which in the Science of Logic is developed under the heading of reflection-intoself [Reflexion-in-sich]. (6, 34-5; Miller 2 407-8.) Roughly speaking, the relation of reflection-into-self is a sublation of two false conceptions of the relation of identity and difference. The dialectic consists in three moments, positedness, reflectedness and reflection-into-self. The first moment is the “positedness” of an individual, according to which, “the determinateness has established and infinitely fixed itself through the relation-to-self.” The identity of each relatum is given prior to, and jointly constitutes, the relation of difference between them. The second moment is that of “reflectedness.” Here the relation to other defines and determines the relatum. In itself the relatum is nothing but its relation to the other. Thirdly, there is “reflection-into-self” which unites positedness and reflectedness in a relation in which “the determinateness of reflection is the relation to its otherness within itself.” The ‘divine’ truth is that the identities of the relata are separate from, and yet constituted by, their differential relation one to another.
Hegel’s interpretation of the figure of Antigone makes the relation of reflection-into-itself a little more concrete. We have seen that Antigone is singleminded in the pursuit of her aim to bury Polynices, which arises from her wholehearted and exclusive identification with the ‘ethical power’ of the family and the gods which preside over it. But, Hegel insists, Antigone is not only a protegee of the Theban polis; she is also the daughter of Oedipus and Haemon’s fiancee. She is thus beholden to her uncle and should have recognized his authority, both political and familial, and obeyed his edict. Her apparently external relation to her uncle is already part of what she is. Conversely, Creon is a father and a husband and Antigone is his niece and potential daughter-in-law. So he should have respected the sanctity of familial relations and not condemned Antigone.
Thus there is immanent to both Antigone and Creon, exactly that against which each turns, so that each is gripped and shattered by something intrinsic to their own sphere of existence. (15, 549)
On the view I have outlined so far the three moments, positedness, reflectedness, and reflection-into-self, correspond to the one-sided purpose of the peripatetic act, the opposing pathos raised by it, and the reconciliation which consists in the mutual recognition of their relation to the other within themselves. So much for the breakdown of the moments; how is the transition between conflict and reconciliation accomplished in a single dialectic? The conflict that erupts from Antigone’s peripatetic act of defiance inflicts terrible suffering on her. This suffering forces upon her an awareness of her reflectedness or relation to Creon. Reflective reconciliation arises with her recognition that her disproportionate suffering results in part from her own action, that her fate follows ‘according to probability and necessity’ from her deeds. It is notjust that her suffering brings the depth of the conflict to her notice, but rather that the acceptance of her implication in the very origins of the conflict transforms it. The conflict is transformed, but not dissolved. It is transformed because she accepts responsibility for her actions; it is not dissolved for she does not accept blame and ask for forgiveness. After all, what makes this a tragic conflict is its necessity; the fact that it could not have been otherwise. The necessity of tragic conflict consists in the fact that she had good reason to act as she did, and likewise so did Creon. But in acting on her reasons, Antigone cannot recognize the reasons that Creon has for opposing her act. Equally her antagonist does not acknowledge her reasons for acting.
What makes this a genuinely tragic conflict is the reciprocity of mutually conflicting rights. The parties do not give up their original reasons for acting. They stand by them. The conflict persists to the extent that their original reasons for acting remain undefeated. What changes, however, is the appreciation by both that their original reasons for acting were not absolutely valid, but only appeared so, because they had been insulated from all other considerations. This does not mean that the two now have better reason to act otherwise than they did then, but that they now appreciate the enormous costs of their single-minded pursuit of their purpose. At the same time each one’s original reason for acting is made more substantial and concrete by virtue of being recognized as valid, retrospectively, by the other.
I use the term reflective reconciliation to refer both to the process in which a human agent reaches this self-knowledge by living through the consequences of her actions, and to the state of self-knowledge thus achieved. The term reconciliation is appropriate because each antagonist comes to a recognition of the legitimacy of the other’s action as well as asserting her own. It is reflective because the self-awareness is reached through reflecting on one’s own actions and their consequences, and because of the structural analogy between tragic reconciliation and reflection-into-self.
If Hegel thinks of tragic reconciliation, as the unfolding dialectic of reflection into-self, through which humans come to a ‘divine’ self-knowledge, which they did not start out with, he also uses ‘reconciliation’ in a different and stronger sense. He claims that ‘the divine’ which emerges through human action, “neither loses its substantial character in this actuality, nor sees itself transformed into its opposite.” (15, 522) Here he distinguishes ‘the divine’ by its substantive character from the peripatetic quality of human praxis, which is liable to be transformed into its opposite. Human action is just the vehicle for unchanging divine actuality. The term “actuality,” of course, refers not to mere existence, but to the existence of customs, practices and institutions for demonstrably good reasons, reasons which when generally accepted exert a stabilizing force and maintain them in their existence. Hegel claims that “in this form, [i.e., in the form of actuality] the spiritual substance of willing and achieving is the ethical” (15, 522). It is not just that a new and more complete understanding of oneself and one’s ‘ethical’ relations to others enters into the world through human action, but “actuality” itself, i.e., good customs, practices, and institutions, which persist for good and demonstrable reasons. We can call the awareness of the way in which individual actions give rise to lasting good practices and institutions ‘metaphysical reconciliation.’ I use the term metaphysical because Hegel is making a claim about “ethical substance.” (15, 527, 534) The term reconciliation is appropriate because the person who achieves this insight into emergent actuality, comes to appreciate the good reasons for the existence of these practices and thereby to embrace his social world.
Clearly reflective and metaphysical reconciliation are, if not different things entirely, then different types of one thing. In reflective reconciliation two subjects come reciprocally to recognize each other’s reasons for acting as valid, and two ethical powers are reconciled, through their being given their due. There is an alteration in the subject’s self-understanding. The subject replaces the lost immediate harmony of ethical powers with a reflective equilibrium by simply acknowledging a complex interrelation that always already obtained. Metaphysical reconciliation is the (awareness of the) emergence of rational institutions and practices which give all ethical powers their due: here the ensemble of ethical powers is rationally reordered. Hegel speaks of the “countenance of eternal justice” (15, 536), which arises through the one-sided action of individuals; he speaks of the necessity of the tragic fate of individuals as “the appearance of absolute reason” (15, 547), and of “the eternally substantial, which proceeds victoriously . by presenting the positive … that (the conflicting individuals willed) as that which is to be preserved in its affirmative and no longer dirempt, mediation.” (15, 527). In short, reflective reconciliation denotes a process that culminates in a change of awareness, metaphysical reconciliation one that culminates in an awareness of substantial social and political change for the better.
The problem is that it is not clear how the dialectic of tragic conflict can lead to a metaphysical reconciliation, although Hegel claims that it does (15, 526) even in the Antigone. It is one thing to claim that the experience of tragic conflict can lead to an altered awareness of oneself and one’s relation to others in the way described above, but it is quite another to argue that it thus “produces” [herstellt] “the substance and unity of ethical life” (15, 525). Reflection can lead to an insight into the complex nature of Antigone’s identifications and allegiances; it can even alter her single-minded identification with or allegiance to one ethical power. In this sense reflection modifies the conflict, the description of the peripatetic deed which precipitated it, and the immediate harmony of the ensemble of ethical powers in the midst of which the deed is done. But none of this implies that the deed “produces” a substantive ethical order.
The point I am making is a delicate one. I have defended a view I find implicit in Hegel’s remarks on tragedy, that there can be a single dialectic of tragic conflict and reflective reconciliation. It is prima facie much harder to see how there can be a single dialectic of tragic conflict and metaphysical reconciliation, for the good reason that it is hard to see how an individual act can “produce” a new ethical order. My thesis is not that reflective reconciliation can and metaphysical reconciliation cannot be tragic. That argument runs up against the same counter-evidence as the Goethian conception of tragedy: the theme of (metaphysical) reconciliation that figures so prominently in Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy. Whatever ambiguities there are in Hegel’s conception of reconciliation, whatever difficulties we have in fitting metaphysical reconciliation into the dialectic of tragic action, undeniably one of the things ancient tragedy is about is the emergence of a new ethical (in Hegel’s sense, i.e., social and political) order.
In making this distinction between reflective and metaphysical reconciliation I am not taking sides on the difficult question of whether Hegel is a foundationalist or an anti-foundationalist or, to use the lingua franca of the Frankfurt School, a metaphysical or post-metaphysical thinker. For what it’s worth, my strong opinion is that Hegel has a metaphysics and that he is, insofar as the term is appropriate, a “foundationalist.” On the one hand, I am skeptical of the claim sometimes made that Hegel dialectically overcomes the hard and fast opposition between foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. This view is tempting given that Hegel seems to have both a correspondence model of truth (truth is the correspondence of reality and concept, 7, 773 & 202) and a coherence model (“the true is the whole” 3, 24). The trouble here is that any overcoming of the distinction between foundationalism and antifoundationalism in Hegel’s sense of Aufhebung is liable to look more foundationalist than not. On the other hand, to call Hegel an anti-foundationalist on the strength of his arguments against naturalism misses the vital point that nature is not the only candidate for a foundation. In my view any antifoundationalist interpretation of Hegel is bound either to ignore or inadequately to explain what is absolute about absolute spirit.
For this latter reason I am wary of Christoph Mencke’s recent attempt to redeem a “post-metaphysical concept of the tragic” in Hegel’s reading of tragedy from the “anti-tragic metaphysics of reconciliation” in his philosophy of history. As an interpretation of Hegel it strikes me as anachronistic. Besides the question of whether or not Habermas is right to claim that all legitimate knowledge henceforth ought to be post-metaphysical, i.e., whether or not a conception of the tragic need be post-metaphysical in his sense, there is the question of whether or not it can be. Personally I am doubtful. Although Hegel’s philosophy of the tragic is certainly historical, and in a way critical, it just cannot, without hermeneutic violence, be made to fit the relevant canons of proceduralism and pragmatism and thus does not qualify as post-metaphysical. The limits of such an approach are to be seen in Mencke’s insistence that a “postmetaphysical” concept of the tragic be equally post-reconciliation. This simply assumes the truth of Goethe’s view of the tragic, which Hegel rightly challenges. My distinction between reflective and metaphysical reconciliation is more hermeneutically sensitive than Mencke’s distinction between a bad metaphysical conception of reconciliationism and a kosher post-metaphysical conception of the tragic. My aim is to defend Hegel’s plausible understanding of the phenomenon of the tragic as a dialectic of conflict and reconciliation and yet allow that Hegel slides between a weaker and a stronger sense of reconciliation.
Hegel and Ancient Tragedy
I shall now examine briefly how Hegel’s theory of the tragic informs his disputed, and to an extent mistaken, readings of the Antigone by Sophocles and the Eumenides by Aeschylus. These two tragedies above all others occupy a central place in Hegel’s intellectual development, in his mature understanding of objective spirit, and in his conception of tragic poetry.
Hegel’s Reading of the Anti One
In Hegel’s view, both Antigone and Creon begin from a one-sided and false belief that their act is fully justified and that the other’s is unjustified. By insisting on performing burial rights for her brother Polynices, Antigone asserts the validity of family custom, regardless of the validity of the law of the Theban city-state (or, at least, of Creon’s edict). Creon, on the other hand, asserts the validity of Theban law (or of his edict) in the interest of the order of the Theban city-state, regardless of family custom. As a protege of Thebes and the fiancee of Haemon, Antigone fails to recognize the authority of Creon’s decree and the exigencies of the polis. For his part, Creon as a “father and husband” fails to recognize the sanctity of familial right. Both are right and both do wrong.
The collision between the two highest moral powers is enacted in plastic fashion in that absolute exemplum of tragedy, Antigone … Creon is not a tyrant, but an ethical power just as much as Antigone. Creon is not wrong; he claims … that, the law of the state, the authority of government should be preserved, and that punishment follows its transgression. Both these sides realize only one of the ethical powers, has only one of these as its content. This is the one-sidedness, and the meaning of eternal justice, is that both do wrong because they are one-sided, and thus both do right. (17, 133)
There are two points in Hegel’s reading of the Antigone which have in especial degree incensed commentators. The first is the claim that Creon can claim some justification for his edict and is not a wholly compromised figure. The second is Hegel’s insistence that Antigone eventually acknowledges her wrongdoing. If both these claims are true then Hegel is indeed right to claim about the Antigone that “everything in this tragedy is consistent,” consistent, that is, with the unfolding of the logic of reflection-into-self (14, 60). George Steiner, in many ways a sympathetic and perceptive reader of Hegel, offers a typical criticism of Hegel’s reading of the Antigone. It is “deceptively brutal,” because it imposes the reconciliation required by his “whole logic of the positivity of negation” on a story that resists this interpretation. Hegel’s critics are certainly right to claim that there is no metaphysical reconciliation in the Antigone. Is it then plausible to claim that, through the acknowledgment of her error, and the attainment of a more complete self-understanding at the point of her impending suicide, Antigone reflectively reconciles herself to Creon and the Theban polis?
If there is to be a reflective reconciliation Antigone must acknowledge that she is ‘guilty’ of having made an error of judgment, namely the error of failing to acknowledge her civil and familial obligation to heed Creon’s edict. If she is in error, then she must have an obligation to recognize Creon’s edict, which implies that the edict must be legitimate and worthy of her recognition. Is Antigone in error? Is she obliged to heed Creon? Does she recognize this? These, not Hegel’s judgment of Antigone’s character, are the decisive questions. Kitto’s one-line criticism, “where the blemish is there, only Hegel can tell us” does not dispose of Hegel’s reading, because Antigone’s character is not in question. Even a person of unblemished character like Antigone, who Hegel elsewhere calls “the heavenly Antigone the most resplendent figure ever to have appeared on earth” (18, 509), can make an error of judgment. Steiner makes the same mistake. He thinks that there is a tension between Hegel’s encomium to Antigone on the one hand, and his claim that “Creon is not unjust,” and that “tragic heroes are equally guilty and innocent” (15, 545) on the other. But, as we have seen, human actions can ensnare one in tragic responsibility even where they do not express a prior imperfection in character. It is not Antigone’s character, but her actions that are in question. The first two questions, whether Antigone’s act of defiance against Creon’s edict contains an error of judgment and whether she is obliged to obey Creon, are hard to decide. The balance of the events may tend to suggest that the error indeed lies with Creon who has wrongly sentenced her to death; that the Gods have allowed Antigone to perish through no fault of her own, and then wreak revenge on Creon. For Creon recants after hearing Teiresias’ prophesy, if only out of fear, but does so too late to save Antigone and subsequently suffers the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice, his son and wife. The final question, whether Antigone recognizes her error, is slightly more clear-cut. Hegel famously claims that Antigone embraces her fate, by acknowledging her tragic responsibility. However his notorious citation of Antigone’s words in the Phenomenology: “Because we suffer, we acknowledge that we have erred” ( 3, 348) excises the all important conditional clause. His fuller and more accurate citation in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy includes this clause: “If this be pleasing to the Gods, we acknowledge, that, since we suffer, we have erred” (18, 509), but still omits the following, concluding sentence: “If, however, the error lies with my judges, I could wish them no fuller measure of evil than they do, unjustly, to me.” Antigone does not avow her guilt. She only allows that in suffering, i.e., after her death, she may become conscious of the fact that she was in error. Hence she allows the possibility that Creon will turn out to have been justified. Antigone does not proclaim her innocence either; rather she claims that, if Creon is the one who is guilty of making an error, then he is acting unjustly by entombing her. Still Antigone does not go so far as to acknowledge her error, she only goes so far as to acknowledge her human fallibility, that she is either in the right or wrong. With respect to her fallibility she judges herself. With respect to her guilt or innocence, Antigone leaves the question for the Gods to decide. Hegel’s judgment, that she is equally right and wrong, is therefore wrong. Antigone falls short of explicitly admitting her error. Hence she is not reflectively reconciled to her fate while she is alive.
Hegel’s Reading of the Eumenides
Hegel’s tendentious reading of the end of Sophocles’ Antigone poses no special difficulties for a defense of his conception of the tragic. I endorse the wellestablished, but too often ignored, thesis that Hegel’s theory of the tragic is modeled on his reading of Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy, rather than the Antigone as is commonly supposed. If the thesis is correct it helps explain not only his misreading of the end of the Antigone and his emphasis on tragic reconciliation, but also his tendency to elide the reflective with metaphysical reconciliation.
Several pieces of evidence speak for this thesis. First, most of the references to tragedy in Hegel’s early works are to the Eumenides. Besides explicit references (I, 389), the very structure of the concept of ‘fate’ in the long fragment of 1798, which Nohl entitled the Spirit of Christianity and its Fate, is modeled on the role played by the fates or (…) in Aeschylus’ drama. The essay on Natural Law written in 1802 refers to the Eumenides as the “tragedy which is eternally played out in the ethical.” Hegel claims here that tragedy
Defined … for the ethical realm, is the issue of that litigation between the Eumenides (as powers of the law in the sphere of difference, and Apollo (the God of indifferent light) over Orestes, conducted before the organized ethical order, the people of Athens. (2, 495)
Second, what is distinctive about Hegel’s conception of the tragic is his claim about the ineliminability of the moment of reconciliation, a reconciliation based on the mutual acknowledgment that the tragic collision occurs between two equally justified ethical powers. While the Antigone may or may not ultimately be about a collision of two equally justified ethical powers, the Eumenides makes this into an explicit theme, witness line 461 of the Libation Bearers, “War god collides with war god, right with right.” Third, as Bremer points out, the fact that Hegel presents his theory of the tragic as a kind of learning process, beginning with one-sided action and culminating in an insight won through conflict, suffering and loss, can be seen as a speculative unfolding of the refrain of (…), acting, suffering, learning, in the Agamemnon and the Libation Bearers. Fourth, the Eumenides culminates in a celebration of the emergence of the new institutional order of justice and law. The resolution of the conflict between the Erinyes and Orestes is a metaphysical reconciliation thematizing the emergence of actuality through human action. Athena institutes the Court of the Areopagus “for all time,” (483-5) to try by jury homicide cases which have hitherto been summarily punished “by penalties prescribed by divine sanction,” and to be the “symbol of a new social order.” The role that the notion of AI plays in the culminating scenes of the Eumenides is reflected in the parallels Hegel draws between tragic reconciliation and the awareness of justice at the institutional level.
Above mere terror and tragic compassion, stands the feeling of reconciliation, which tragedy offers up in the countenance of eternal justice. (15, 526)
Steiner’s hypothesis that the young Hegel bases the ‘tragedy in the ethical realm’ on the Eumenides, but from the Phenomenology of Spirit onwards models his tragic dialectic on the collision between Creon and Antigone, does not fit the evidence. In the Phenomenology ethical-life is thematized twice, at the beginning of the section entitled “Spirit” and again in “Religion as a Form of Art” in the middle of the following section, “Religion,” and whereas the Antigone figures prominently in the former, the Eumenides figures in the latter. Its occurrence is no less significant for being brief.
The two sides of consciousness, which have in actuality no separate individuality of their own, receive, in the element of representation, their own respective shape: the one that of the prophetic God, the other, that of the Erinyes, who keep themselves concealed. In part, each have equal honor, but again, the shape assumed by the substance, Zeus, is the necessity of the relation of each to the other. (3, 540; Miller 1 448-9)
Steiner is right to see a marked difference between Hegel’s earlier and his later theory of the tragic. But the difference is not explained by a change of model from the Eumenides to the Antigone. The difference resides in the fact that, up until the 1802 ‘Natural Law’ essay, the “ethical nature” in which the tragedy is played out is implacably opposed to the realm of law. From the Phenomenology of 1807 onwards, however, Hegel conceives the tragic as a dialectic in which the human law of justice and social order at first collides with and then is reconciled with the demonic law of nature. Hence the mature theory of the tragic is more, not less, Aeschylean.
True, the hypothesis about the Aeschylean inspiration of Hegel’s theory of the tragic leaves the gap between reflective and metaphysical reconciliation unbridged. But the original worry was that the whole notion of reconciliation was a piece of Christian-theological optimism which simply did not fit in with what is left to us of the jigsaw picture of Greek tragedy. That worry is misplaced. Reflective reconciliation follows from Hegel’s conception of tragic conflict, a conception that is corroborated by Aristotle’s remarks on tragic action. Further, Hegel is right that metaphysical reconciliation, the insight into emergent actuality won through the experience of tragic suffering and loss, is a part of our incomplete picture of ancient tragedy, even if it remains unclear how this insight results from tragic conflict.
Hegel’s reading of the denouement of the Eumenides is also interestingly mistaken, though much less frequently noted. In the Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel describes the denouement of the Eumenides as an “objective reconciliation” since the reconciliation between Orestes and the Furies is accomplished by a third person, Athena.
The votes of the Areopagus are equal, it is Athena, the goddess, the living Athens represented according to its substance, who adds the white stone which acquits Orestes, but who promises both the Eumenides and Apollo equally altars and honor. (15, 550) I do not want to get into the issue of the vote of Athena, whether she casts the metaphorical thirteenth stone which breaks the tie, as Hegel claims here, or adds the twelfth to make it. Much depends on how one interprets Athena’s actions-whether Orestes is condemned by his peers, the human jurors, and acquitted because of the intervention of the goddess, or whether the jurors are equally for and against Orestes, and Athena’s vote represents the Athenian custom of resolving equal decisions in favor of the defendant. Rather, I want to focus on how the “objective reconciliation” is supposed to take place. For Hegel implies that the reconciliation is brought about by the judgment of Athena, through an act of justice which reconciles the conflict through the force of good reason. Yet Athena’s reason for voting with Orestes is less than convincing. Apollo’s final argument is that it was more blameworthy for Clytemnestra to kill her husband than for Orestes to kill his Mother, since the mother is not the true parent [ZonE)g], but only the ‘nurse’ (…) of the father’s child. (658-9) Athena casts her vote in favor of Orestes with the following words:
No mother bore me. The male I commend in all things-except for marriage-with all my heart, and am strongly on the father’s side. (736-8)
Even if we follow Thomson’s view that this argument, which states the Pythagorean doctrine of paternity, is offered in all seriousness and is not the parody of Athenian litigation that Lebeck suggests, it is far from the “appearance of eternal justice” (15, 526). Certainly the Erinyes see no reason in it. After Athena delivers her judgment, the Erinyes are so far from being reconciled to the new social order that they threaten to bring plague and pestilence to Athens.
O you younger gods, you have ridden down
the ancient laws and wrested them away from my grasp
And I in wretched dishonour am heavy with wrath
against this land. Woe to it!
In return for my grief I discharge from my heart poison,
poison that drops on the earth
unendurably; and from it
a blight speeding over the earth-O justice, justice
killing leaves and killing children
will cover the country with sores fatal to humans.49 (778-792)
Athena leaves herself, to put it mildly, a taxing task of persuasion to convince the Erinyes to take their place in the new social order as the welldisposed Eumenides. Over the following 138 lines she demonstrates her mastery of the political art of persuasion, which does not stop short of outright flattery and the barefaced threat of force, in order to appease the Furies and to cajole them into accepting her judgment.
It is not so much Hegel’s claim that there is an “objective reconciliation” at the end of the Eumenides that is questionable. There is one. Through divine intervention Athens becomes a home to the Erinyes who are inaugurated as the (…), (1041) the “Awful Goddesses” on the Areopagus, who, tradition had it, presided over the court. “That is their part in the new order, which is not new in the sense that it supersedes the old, but in the sense that in it the conflicts of the old are blended and reconciled, the fusion of opposites in the mean.” Within the new order the goddesses will have the role of inspiring fear and respect for the authority of the law. What is wrong is Hegel’s assumption about how this reconciliation is achieved. In Aeschylus’ drama the reconciliation is not caused by Athena’s lawful judgment and the universal recognition of its soundness. Only the exercise of Athena’s considerable powers of persuasion manages to effect a reconciliation. It is as if Aeschylus is telling us that justice, reason, and lawfulness are not established facts that need merely be recognized for what they are by an act of theoretical contemplation but ongoing practical tasks within the new social order, and reconciliation between the different ethical powers, between citizens and their new institutions is not a state already attained but an ongoing process.
Hegel and Modern Tragedy
A puzzling question remains. Hegel’s theory of the tragic is a theory about historical experience, human action and its relation to an ethical community. But this experience and this community is not ours, nor Hegel’s for that matter. So what makes the tragic relevant to the present (ours or Hegel’s)? After all Hegel is above all a theorist of modernity, not of antiquity, heeding his own dictum that “to comprehend what is, is the task of philosophy” (7, 26; Nisbet 21). According to Hegel, the tragic is not a relic of a bygone age; it stands in a defining relation to the experience of modern life. What is this relation?
One answer that has been given to this question is that Hegel is a pantragist. The tragic reveals a timeless truth about the human condition. This label may fit the young Nietzsche, who sees in the tragic a transfigured glimpse into the nihilism of human existence, but not Hegel. For all his talk of “eternal justice” Hegel’s theory is historical through and through. Even metaphysical reconciliation consists in the historical awareness of the historical genesis of social institutions that consciously embody the principle of eternal justice. Another is that Hegel sees an analogy between the passing of the age of tragedy and his own era. As he famously observes in the Phenomenology, “ours is an age of birth and of transition to a new era” (3, 18; Miller 1, 6). In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History he makes the following observation, immediately after the section on ‘The Downfall of the Greek Spirit’:
Napoleon, in a conversation he once had with Goethe on the nature of tragedy, expressed the opinion that modern tragedy essentially differed from ancient tragedy, in that we no longer have a Fate to which human beings are subjected, and that Politics now occupies the place of ancient Fate. Politics must therefore be used as the modern form of Fate in Tragedy-as the irresistible power of circumstance to which individuality must bend. (12, 339; Sibree 278)
As a comment on tragedy this remark is difficult to interpret: not least because the conception of ancient tragic Fate offered here, the crushing of an individual by an overwhelming and external power, is one that Hegel (along with Aristotle) explicitly rejects as a mere traurige Geschichte, at best Trauerspiel but not Tragodie. (15, 526; see part 2 above). As a critical comment on Rome, Hegel sees a certain truth in the remark. For Hegel takes a dim view of Rome, an all-powerful state which subsumes the “abstract universal personhood” of its subjects under its all-conquering purposes, thus making “a sacrificial victim of the individual in its ethical life” (12, 339; Sibree 278). World-historically speaking, the decline of the “spiritual artwork” of Greek ethical life or schone Sittlichkeit is not itself a tragedy but a mere Trauerspiel. So, although it is true that the age of tragedy and Hegel’s own were both times of ferment, in the absence of a modern equivalent for schone Sittlichkeit, the analogy alone fails to explain the relevance of the tragic to the present.
For the same reasons, there cannot be an underlying historical continuity of experience between antiquity and modernity, which explains the relevance of the tragic. Apart from his early works, written in the quick of his experiences at the Stift in Tubingen, Hegel does not think it possible or desirable for modern social life to return to or model itself on the schone Sittlichkeit of the polis. Rather he sees schone Sittlichkeit as an irretrievable cultural and spiritual high-point in an ongoing process of development. The main difference between antiquity and modernity is that the “right of the subject’s particularity to find satisfaction or … the right of subjective freedom” has taken root in and transformed the nature of modern ethical life (PR 124 R). In modernity a higher degree of reflectiveness characterizes individual experience and action, and there is no route back to the immediate, unreflective harmony of schone Sittlichkeit. So the relevance of the tragic does not rest on the timeless truths it reveals about the human condition, or on an historical parallel, or on the continuity of historical experience. Rather, Hegel’s theory of the tragic relates to the historical present insofar as it provides a genetic explanation of modern subjectivity and a criticism of the homelessness of the subject in modern ethical-life. Its actuality consists in its ability to thematize the enormous cost of the modest yet indispensable gains in reflectiveness and freedom that characterize modern living. The tragic makes manifest what we have had to sacrifice in order to become who we are. This is not quite to agree with those who claim that Hegel’s vision of modernity is essentially post-tragic. If this were straightforwardly the case, then there would be nothing to say about modern tragedy. But what Hegel in fact has to say about modern tragedy suggests that modernity, if not fertile ground for tragedy, is nonetheless not inimical to it. Modern tragedy represents both a continuance and transformation of ancient tragedy.
Hegel claims that the difference between the two forms of tragedy is made salient by the function of the chorus. In ancient tragedy the chorus represents “ethical substance … the fertile soil from which individuals grow skyward like the flowers and great trees of their own native earth” (15, 541). It represents a community not held together by “legally binding laws of state or fixed religious doctrines” but an informal and unreflected “immediate vibrant actuality.” Though aware of its origins in the rituals of Dionysus worship, Hegel, unlike Nietzsche, contends that the chorus reaches its full significance when it comes to belong “essentially to the dramatic action itself, and is so necessary to it, that the decline of tragedy is shown chiefly by the deterioration of the choruses.” The members of the chorus themselves do not act, but neither do they merely look on. The chorus puts the one-sided deed of the hero in the context of the whole ethical life of the community. They give the action, understood as a peripatetic deed that severs itself from “the undirempted consciousness of life and the divine” (15, 543), its tragic meaning. In a neat analogy he compares two relations, the relation of the chorus or “spiritual scene” to the individual agent, with the relation of the temple to the statue of the god it surrounded.
In our times however the statues stand in the open air without such a background, of which modern tragedy has no need, since its actions rest not on this substantial ground, but on the subjective will and character on the one hand and the apparently external contingency of situations and circumstances on the other. (15, 542)
In modern tragedy the one-sidedness of the purpose of the tragic action flows from the character and will of the individual agent, and not from that agent’s immediate identification with one of the ensemble of ethical powers. In other words, where ancient tragic deeds are always from one perspective ethically right, divinely commanded or foretold, modern tragic deeds are required only by the right of subjective particularity, they merely are true to character. As a consequence modern tragic deeds lack necessity. Whatever particular interest or purpose moves an agent to action, say, personal love, revenge, or ambition, is an appropriate subject of modern tragedy, even if this purpose be unethical or criminal. However the real content of modern tragedy will always remain the chosenness of that interest or purpose, the authenticity or sincerity of its pursuit.
In an obscure passage of the Phenomenology Hegel compares Hamlet, the modern tragic hero, favorably with the trusting, unquestioning Orestes. Hamlet is “purer … more prudent and thorough” than Orestes and demands more proof of the rightness of his actions, for he knows “that his knowing is one-sided, his law only the law of his character” (3, 538; Miller 1 447). Hamlet is consciously aware of both the burdens and the limitations of modern subjectivity. Indeed it is his unsatisfiable “search for objective certainty in his fine and righteous temperament” that paralyzes him from acting and leads him, despite his reflections, blindly to follow “external circumstances” (14, 208). Where in ancient tragedies the tragic conflict is between two equally justified ethical powers, in its modern variant the conflict is between two equally unjustified contingencies: the particularity of character and purposes on the one hand and external happenstance on the other. Thus modern tragedy thematizes the “fragility of all earthly concerns … and the fate of finitude 5, 566). In this ethical void there can be no question of a metaphysical reconciliation.
However, there is a kind of reflective reconciliation proper to modern tragedy. It consists in our unfulfilled demand that the world be such as to allow “beautiful characters” to satisfy their chosen purposes, and further in our (the spectators’) recognition that their downfall, their inability to bend to circumstances, is part of their character. In ancient tragedy reflective reconciliation was supposed to lead to the recognition of one’s own responsibility through the recognition of the other’s right. In modern tragedy this pathway to reconciliation is not available. The conflict is not between two rights but between two contingencies, character and circumstance. Instead the modern tragic hero or heroine leads us (if they are not also led themselves) to an acknowledgment of the finitude and fragility of their existence and of the particularity of their purposes. Thus a kind of reconciliation is achieved, scarcely affirmative at all, but one which preserves in modern tragedy a vestige of the tragic. In his description of the end of Romeo and Juliet, Hegel captures this vestige of the tragic in a characteristically speculative formulation.
This woe, however, that befalls us, is a merely painful reconciliation, an unhappy happiness in misfortune [eine ungluckselige Seeligkeit im Ungluck]. (15, 567)
Even in these vestiges of the tragic in modern drama Hegel clings to his thesis of the ineliminability of reconciliation. There apart, the trajectory of modernity is towards Trauerspiel, the meaningless and undeserved suffering of noble individuals, and towards comedy, laughter in the face of the Gods.