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The Renaissance of Tragedy And the Tragic Sense of Law

Research proposal

Proposedly tragedy could be an important spiritual medicine or pharmakon against the treats of political religion as described on the homepage. This would imply that Faith in Democracy would necessitate a certain tragic sense. Without this tragic sense of law and politics democracy would be in danger of succumbing to religiously informed forces of totalitarianism that undercut democracy and democratic legitimacy. This complexity of thoughts needs and deserves further reflection.


Analysis of tragedy from antiquity to the present is of fundamental importance to the aesthetics of law and politics. What knowledge can we gain from tragedy? What knowledge of politics and law can we obtain from tragedy that must necessarily elude us without the tragic perspective? In what way does this change the way we think about law and politics?

The uniqueness of tragedy is one of the foremost pillars of our culture. Besides the Socratic philosophical tradition, the art and concept of tragedy is ancient Greece’s most vital spiritual contribution to the Western tradition. However, these two Greek pillars conflict. There is an ancient strive between them: ever since antiquity there has been a battle between tragedy and philosophy. Tragedy was in many ways against philosophy, as philosophy has been against tragedy.


According to Plato truth is separated from opinion and illusion by the logical principle of non-contradiction. True insight and pure knowledge transcend the illogical perception of the senses: the disorder, the changeability and the insoluble paradoxes of mere appearances. True wisdom opens up to the clean and unambiguous separation of good and evil and of truth and falsehood. Plato’s banishment of impure tragedy, which is concerned only with ‘appearances of appearances’ (Pol. 602b), is meant to safeguard the pure and unchangeable truth of philosophical knowledge. Tragedy causes the self-contradictions of our lower knowledge faculties to take on a supreme weight and importance. The clear and necessary distinctions between justice and injustice that can be known only by reason tend to evaporate through the devastating influence of art, poetry and tragedy. Tragedians are gardeners who let their garden be overgrown with wild and exotic plants. Tragedy breeds wild feelings that should be disciplined and ‘weeded’.

In tragedy the gods are unreliable, changeable and self-contradictory beings. They are causing strife and confusion. In reality however (Plato says) the gods are always the same, bound as they are to their necessary truths, they are only responsible for good things not for bad things. (379b) This is why Plato censures the intrusion of the art of tragedy from the polis and from the art of politics. Man should be as unchangeable as the rational gods. Transformed by reason, he should remain well above the disturbances and perturbations of his desires, sufferings and emotions. He should be insensitive and opposed to the tears and lamentations of tragic heroes (Antigone). He should not be tempted by tragedy into the flourishing and letting go of his feelings. Tragedy has a bad influence causing unclarity and ambiguity, instead of harvesting pure rationality and well-ordered polis. This form of art is like ‘a foul woman having intercourse with a foul man, engendering foul offspring.’ (603b)

Socratism in history

Once this Platonic history of philosophy is acknowledged, it is easy to see that a reaffirmation (by philosophy) of tragedy comes down to nothing less than philosophical suicide. Plato and tragedy imply a radically different cosmology. After tragedy was banished by Plato Aristotle could safely reintroduce it to the polis, but only as an innocent and irrelevant realm of art, as moral lesson and as pleasurable entertainment. After Plato philosophy could well afford to basically ignore tragedy.

In modern times, in Descartes and Kant tragedy is first completely absent. It was Hegel who reintroduced the existence and development of genuine contradictions in a reality full of negativities. Being one-sided and estranged from ‘the absolute’ (Geist), tragic deeds in them themselves engender contradictions and represent tragic guilt. For Hegel the contending parties and what they stand for (family and state) are both equally justified. Although in tragedy (Hegel refers to Antigone) the tragic individual is sacrificed, the final outcome of tragic negativity is absolute justice, in which the previous oppositions are surpassed and retained at the same time. All’s well that ends well, Hegel seems to be saying. Besides tragic conflict a tragedy must have the necessary reconciliation (Versöhnung) in which all tragic ambiguities and negativities are resolved. ‘Erst in der gleichen Unterwerfung beider Seiten ist das absolute Recht vollbracht.‘ (PhG 337)

Since Hegel’s interpretation and again under the strong influence of tragic literature (Dostojewski), philosophy could no longer disregard or ‘exorcize’ tragedy. Nietzsche especially acknowledged the tragic sense of life, but with his famous input, the challenge and problem of harmonization again came to the fore, as is all too clear from both Heidegger and Derrida. Although it is not always recognized as such, contemporary philosophy is littered and tormented with the problem of tragedy. Acknowledging that the one cannot stand without the other, can there be some sort of reconciliation between the two?

Tragedy represents the fundamental and disturbing experience that the cosmos and human life are subject to dark and elusive forces which lie outside the governance of reason or justice. Irreducible ambiguities and contradictions direct our world. Our rational means of understanding this cosmos produce only so many ‘castles in the sky’: bulwarks of fantasy meant to defend us against the threatening worlds of tragedy. The tragic sense of life is also at a great distance from most modern worldviews, governed as they are by rational values such as justice, transparency and intelligibility. The deep belief of modern politics in a predictable, controllable and perfectible world, our faith in deliberation and reason, contradicts the Greek insight that many private and public dimensions of life are fundamentally beyond our insight and control. To ignore this or (which comes down to doing the same) to try to domesticate tragedy in a harmonious worldview is potentially dangerous, for individuals as well as for communities. We need to cope with tragedy, although this certainly implies that we have to let go many of our most treasured thoughts and intuitions. 

This tragic worldview was expressed in the great tragedies of Greek antiquity: first and foremost by those of The Great Three: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (although, according to Nietzsche, the last one is supposed to have succumbed to a ‘aesthetic socratism’ in which tragedy proper is already on the wane). After the golden age of tragedy ended, tragedy barely survived within the tragic worldview in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which was not always recognized as such (see Georg Steiner et al.). Different factors, both political, philosophical and theological, brought on the ever-decreasing importance of tragic modes of thought in modern times. But as indicated, since Hegel philosophy has seen a remarkable renaissance of the tragic legacy. At a time of unbridled belief in the possibilities of thought, science, politics and technology, the ancient Greeks have been of unique value in calling to mind the dangers involved in suppressing those aspects of human life that defy the authority of reason and reasonable deliberation. Especially through Nietzsche’s extremely important The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) the tragic sense of life has again inspired artists, thinkers and scholars to cast-off the dogma’s and inflexibilities of reason.

Philosophy more and more gave up its obsession with a beautiful conception of truth that ignores and endangers life. It has sought to find knowledge and justice in the irrational, paradoxical and abysmal dimensions of life. Fiat vita pereat veritas. Instead of: ‘Let the truth be done and let life perish’ (Fiat veritas, pereat vita). Applied to justice this means: Fiat mundus, pereat justitia. Instead of: Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (‘Let justice be done, and let the world perish’).

The aesthetics of law and politics

This brings us closer to the particularities of the research proposal at hand. The aesthetics of law entails a philosophical inquiry into the art of jurisprudence and lawgiving: an inquiry into the implications of tragedy. In respect to this field of inquiry, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy has been largely ignored. This work implicates that since Socrates’ ‘emancipation’ of the Apollonian from the Dionysian element the art of politics and law has been founded almost exclusively on (non-mystical) logic and scientific knowledge. This tradition of nihilistic ‘socratism’, developed into natural law (stoicism) and culminated eventually in legalism and positivism: ideologies that have subdued the acknowledgement of tragic cosmology, mysticism, life and creativity. Nietzsche’s book is a glorification of ambiguity and creativity that are both personified in Dionysus: tragedy is a channel for embracing the whole of life in all its contradictions and ambiguities; for a life that finds legitimacy in creativity and aesthetics.

In line with Nietzsche’s thoughts, we propose to explore the prospective of a postmodern ‘rebirth of tragic sense of law’. Although a definitive reconciliation of tragedy and philosophy is unattainable, philosophy should aim to accept and adopt the essence of tragedy as it transcends traditional metaphysics.

This is the research program that we obtained through Nietzsche’s provocations: might art (tragedy) be a necessary correlative and supplement to the science of law and politics? (BT 14)

In difference to Nietzsche’s atheism, our project designates this rebirth to develop also from out of the spirit of Christianity. The thoughts of religious philosophers like Kierkegaard, Unamuno, Buber, Berdyaev, Shestov, Levinas and Tillich typically resound a tragic sense which is strongly affiliated with the Nietzschean concept of tragedy. Their biblical personalism also inspires (or so it seems) towards an indispensable tragic view to the rule of law. Benjamin, Schmitt, Heidegger and Gadamer are other very interesting representatives of the tragic tradition. Potentially, this tradition fuels a creative ethics and an artistic excellence that is of vital essence, not only to ethics but also to democracy, lawgiving and adjudication. Tragedy in this sense seems to represent an important source of political legitimacy and authority.

This proposed line of research would argue that further exploration of the aesthetic dimensions of politics and jurisprudence (their theoretical development and practical deployment) can very much benefit from tragic literature an poetry, tragic thought, from the tragic theology of Christianity as well as from ‘the religious turn’ in postmodern philosophy.

Concrete projects and intended output

  1. Lectures on the art and philosophy of the tragic sense of law: from 21/9/2018 onwards. Keynote speaker: professor Ineke Sluiter.
  2. Book proposal on The Tragic Sense of Law, to be discussed at a symposium or expert meeting to be held in October 2018.

Further reading

Slootweg T.J.M. (2016), Over de esthetica van het recht. Tragedie en christendom, Tijdschrift voor Religie, Recht en Beleid 7(3): 54-70.

Dr. Timo Slootweg, ‘Over de esthetica van het recht’, TvRRB 2016-3, p. 55-71


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Dr. T.J.M. (Timo) Slootweg Assistant Professor, Philosophy of Law