Tragedy and evil From Hölderlin to Heidegger

Chapter 3
Tragedy and evil
From Hölderlin to Heidegger

Françoise Dastur

Tragedy, as we know, was first interpreted by Aristotle in his Poetics, but only from the point of view of its effects on the spectators and not from the viewpoint of what was represented in the drama itself. By defining tragedy as the imitation of an action which by giving life to fear and pity operates the katharsis, the purgation of these passions,1 Aristotle was the founder of a tradition which saw in tragedy a moral or a political medication. Nietzsche, in his first and provocative book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), has shown in a very convincing manner that considering tragedy from the viewpoint of the spectator and not from the viewpoint of the tragic actor or chorus comes in fact from tragedy itself in its development and decline. Nietzsche affirms that tragedy is born from the tragic chorus alone, which simply enacted the celebration of the god Dionysus. Later on, the need emerged to give an explicit representation of the god and to make him part of a drama. The result was the Greek tragedy as we know it, where the balance between the Dionysiac lyric of the chorus and the Apollinian dream world of the scene is maintained, as it is the case in Aeschylus’ tragedies and even in Sophocles’ ones. But in time dialogue replaced music and the chorus became less and less necessary, so that in Euripides’ plays its function is already forgotten.

For Nietzsche, the essence of tragedy was ‘destroyed’ through the abolition of the chorus and the insertion of dialectic in explanation of action, Socrates being ‘closely allied with the Euripidean hero who must justify his action through argument and counter argument’.2 In Euripides’ plays, the spectator himself, that is to say, the ordinary man, climbs on the scene,3 which means that tragedy is no longer considered as the reflection of life and nature in its full strength,4 but becomes only the mirror of the present social reality.5 Because he no longer sees in tragedy a metaphysical phenomenon, Euripides is for the young Nietzsche the proclaimer of the death sentence of tragedy itself. Nietzsche therefore left aside the Aristotelian viewpoint of the tragedy as katharsis in order to make room for another viewpoint, the Dionysian viewpoint, which allows to see in tragedy the very process of life and becoming in both its creative and destructive aspects.6 Nietzsche puts the emphasis on Aeschylus more than on Sophocles in order to show how the Greeks understood the relation of the human being to the divine. In his view, Aeschylus’ relation with the gods was a feeling of reciprocal dependence, which is what he tried to express in his tragedy Prometheus Bound. Prometheus believed that he could defy the gods and nature itself in stealing fire from them and giving it to the human beings. Fire is the most important element in the development of human culture and in Aeschylus’ view the fact that its mastery is given to the human beings is a sacrilege that Prometheus has to expiate.

A very important philosophical question is therefore raised here, the question of evil itself: the human being is bound to violate the law of nature and the law of the gods in order to survive, because, in opposition to the other living beings, he is deprived of natural weapons, so that he is in essence a criminal.7 Each human culture is caught in such a contradiction and this implies that the human being has necessarily to pay for this original crime with which human history begins. But for Nietzsche this Greek conception of evil and crime is different from the Christian conception of Adam’s original sin because it gives to the human being a dignity that is lacking in the biblical story of the origin of evil. The Greek hero voluntarily violates the law of the gods, whereas, in the Bible, Adam yields to temptation and disobeys God in a sheer passive way. In the Greek tragedy we find the idea of a crime which has been freely accomplished, as Schelling already explained in the last of his Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795).

Oedipus is for Schelling the tragic hero par excellence. Being a mortal destined by fatality to become a criminal, Oedipus tries, but in vain, to fight against the fate which was revealed to him by the oracle. He will therefore be punished for a crime which in fact he did not intend to perpetrate but which has nevertheless been accomplished through his hand. How could the Greek reason bear such a contradiction? This is the question raised by Schelling. In his answer, Schelling tries to show that Greek tragedy was a homage paid to human freedom. It was a great idea, he says, to voluntarily accept to be punished for an inevitable crime because it was a way to testify for the reality of human freedom through the very loss of it and to die in proclaiming the freedom of the will. The tragic hero is a being who does not accept to see in some of his actions the effect of destiny alone. He chooses to take the evil upon himself and to be responsible for all he has done, even for what he could not have been consciously doing, because it is the only way for him to have access to the level of an absolute freedom and to identify himself with the fatum. But he has to pay for it and the price is his life itself, so that, at the same time he gains an absolute freedom, he loses it.8

The same idea can be found in a small essay by Hölderlin, ‘The Significance of Tragedies’, where it is said that this significance can be understood most easily by way of paradox. The word ‘paradox’ is also to be found in a letter to his brother dated 4 June 1799 where Hölderlin explains that the artistic and formative drive which constitutes human culture is an authentic service done by human beings to nature. Because, he says, all the streams of human activity have their source in nature and go back to nature and because the human being can only develop the productive forces but not create the force in itself, he should never regard himself as a master and lord of nature.

In a previous letter to his friend Sinclair, dated 24 December 1798, Hölderlin wrote, ‘The first condition of all life and all organization is that no force is monarchical in heaven and on earth. Absolute monarchy suppresses itself everywhere because it is without object: in a strict sense there was never something like it.’9 And he goes on saying that absolute monarchy as well as pure a priori thinking is a nonsense because everything that exists is the result of subjective and objective elements, so that it is not possible to completely set apart what is particular and what is whole. The main idea is here that the unique totality – that which Hölderlin, as well as his schoolfellows Schelling and Hegel, named the hen kaipan – is always mixed with a particular point of view.

That is the reason why, in ‘The Significance of Tragedies’, Hölderlin says that ‘all original element appears not in original strength but, in fact, in its weakness, so that quite properly the light of life and the appearance belong to the weakness of every whole’.10 Every whole appears in a living point of view and all that exists is internally divided. Nature cannot appear in its original strength but needs art as something weaker than itself in order to appear. But in art, nature does not appear originally but through the mediation of a sign, i.e. the hero. As such a sign, the hero is insignificant and without effect (unbedeutend und wirkungslos), because he cannot do anything against fate and nature and because he will finally be destroyed by them. But when he declines, when, as Hölderlin says, the sign is equal to zero, ‘the original element, the hidden foundation of any nature, can also present itself’, which means that nature can properly present itself as the winner ‘in its most powerful gift’.11

For Hölderlin tragedy is a sacrifice through which the human being helps nature to appear as such, to come out of its original dissimulation, of what Heraclitus named its original krypthestai.12 But in order to do such a service to nature, the sign has to become equal to zero, which means that the hero has to die. The conflict of nature and culture is therefore what is represented in all tragedies, but it becomes the subject itself, the theme of the tragedy in The Death of Empedocles, the tragedy that Hölderlin wants to write but leaves unfinished in 1799.

In this period, Hölderlin sees in Empedocles the figure par excellence of hybris, presumption or excess, which is the only form of evil that the Greeks know. Empedocles hates culture, has only contempt for all particular occupations, is an open enemy of all one-sided existence, he suffers from all particular conditions just because they are particular, which means that he suffers from not being a God. He sees in time itself an evil and wants to be delivered from the law of succession in order to gain access to infinite life. The tragedy Hölderlin wants to write is therefore based on the human desire to go beyond the limits of human existence. Kant put the emphasis on the necessity for the human being to assume his own finitude. But he was also quite conscious that evil in a radical form dwells in the human being and he explained in his last book, Religion in the Limits of Reason Alone, that this ‘radical evil’ is nothing else than presumption and egoism, i.e. exactly what the Greeks named hybris.

Hölderlin was himself convinced that presumption is deeply rooted in the heart of man and he is conscious that it has become more and more developed in modernity. He explains in ‘The Ground of Empedocles’ that Empedocles’ time, which was a time very similar to modernity, i.e. a time when opposition between art and culture became more acute than ever, required a ‘sacrifice’, required that the individual perishes in order to restore the integrity of nature. So the need of the time was the sacrifice of the individual, because the danger was positivity, crystallization, freezing of life in dead structures, which is what Empedocles, who dies out of a desire to live like a god, fears above all. In his impatience Empedocles is the incarnation of the premature union with destiny which was only an apparent solution, because Empedocles, who, in all his presumption, wanted to be a god, was not able to understand that God is nothing else than time itself, as it will be clearly said in the Remarks on Sophocles.

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