DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

5. Germany

In the mid-eighteenth century, Johann Christoph Gottsched led a movement aiming to bring a strict and pedantic version of neoclassic French tragic theory and practice, along the lines of Boileau, to Germany. Tragedy carried literary prestige, but the forms prescribed by the rules were increasingly felt to be forced and unnatural, the elevated diction to be stilted, and the practice of éloignement – the distancing of characters and their actions from the audience in status, time and place – to be remote from most people’s experience. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing gradually acknowledged the need to change the forms. His Miss Sara Sampson has been called the first really ‘modern’ tragedy; it is written in prose, with fictional (rather than historical) characters from the lower fringe of the nobility, and has a contemporary setting. His Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767–8)articulated later ideas about tragedy, notably that the hero should not be admired but pitied, and that tragedy should enhance the audience’s moral awareness through this pity.

Friedrich Schiller’s views (see Schiller, J.C.F. §2) on tragedy grew out of Kantian metaphysics. The ‘play impulse’ unifies the phenomenal world (of determinism) with the noumenal world (of free choice). The tragic hero is not simply determined by physical forces, but challenged by suffering to choose freely what is morally right. Schiller thought that neoclassic French tragedy erred by overemphasizing reason: to be truly effective tragedy must strike a balance between reason and passion. Both Schiller and Goethe wrote so-called ‘bourgeois tragedies’, spurning the requirement that tragedy should portray persons of noble birth.

A precursor to Hegel, August Schlegel saw as essential to tragedy the conflict between our aspirations to know both the (noumenal) infinite and our own (phenomenal) finite existence. Our pleasure derives from the affirmation of human striving for something beyond ourselves, even though we suffer in the effort. Goethe’s Faust could be considered tragedy on this account. Hegel himself transformed tragic theory by focusing on conflict and by de-emphasizing the role of suffering, emotion, pleasure and purgation. Conflicts arise between parents and children, or between the family and the state or ruler, because of one-sidedness: each party ignores the rights of the other. Tragedies can end with a peaceful reconciliation, at which the tragic hero submits to a course of action that he has previously fundamentally opposed. In these resolutions, what is justified on each side is preserved. Among his examples are the Eumenides, where claims of contending powers are adjusted, and Oedipus Coloneus, where Oedipus accepts as just the exile which is his fate. Thus, Hegel’s dialectical notion of tragedy looks to the (rational) reconciliation of conflicting ethical claims, in contrast with the ancient concept which saw people as victims of unpredictable, irrational forces.

Arthur Schopenhauer (§§4–6) borrowed from Buddhist philosophy the idea of nirvana – the state of release from the compulsions of human will and desire. In Schopenhauer’s writings, will is a blind, irrational cosmic force and its unceasing demands are responsible for all the suffering in the world. The essence of tragedy is suffering, and not action and conflict, as Hegel proposed. The greatest tragedies show the resignation and surrender of the will, including the will to live. It is not replaced by a will to die, he adds, but by disinterested pleasure in the momentary release from ‘the penal servitude of willing’.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) portrayed two forces at work in human nature. The Apollonian force is calm, orderly, structured, harmonious, rational. It exemplifies the glory of the individual and the wisdom of the ancient Greek maxim, ‘Know thyself.’ The Dionysian force is, by contrast, intoxicated, irrational, aggressive, disorderly, destructive, wilful. The tragic hero represents the Apollonian side, and the chorus – where the individual disappears – the Dionysian. The hero is annihilated, but in this destruction of the individual there exists an affirmation of (Dionysian) life in a cosmic sense. Nietzsche thus rejected Schopenhauer’s resignation to fate and instead championed the joyful identification with nature, no longer limited by concerns for self (see Nietzsche, F.).

Citing this article:
Feagin, Susan L.. Germany. Tragedy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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