Plato Among the Poets

Plato Among the Poets February 28, 2017

Helmut Kuhn begins his 1941 article on “true tragedy” by noting the chronological proximity of Plato and Sophocles: “When Sophocles died, Plato had just come of age. So the question naturally arises whether the chronological succession is historically significant. Can we discover a line of development leading from Aeschylus and Sophocles to Plato? Is tragedy among the logical antecedents of Platonic philosophy?”

Kuhn thinks the answer is Yes, and argues that “the two creations as subserving a common cause, the philosopher making a fresh start where the tragedians had left off. The enterprise in which they were successively engaged will be viewed (a) as the working out of an antithetical vision of reality, (b) as a solution to the problem of suffering and evil, and (c) as a deepening of the human self-consciousness.”

Regarding the first, he suggests that the notion of a “basic antagonism” in the world arises first in tragedy and comes to expression in Plato: “In this formative process tragedy and Platonic philosophy mark successive stages, and it is difficult to conceive the second without the first. The tragic antithesis of protagonist and antagonist reappears transfigured in Plato’s dialogues as the struggle of Socrates against the Sophists, or as the duality of Divine Reason and Necessity.” Philosophy offers a “successful clarification of problems that baffled the tragic poets,” but at the same times “brings up new problems insoluble to Plato, which revealed their full import only to the thinkers of the Christian era, especially to St. Augustine.”

The problem of suffering and evil is also common to philosophy and tragedy. In fact, Kuhn argues, Plato’s objections to poetry focus on tragedy’s inadequate treatment of the problem of suffering. Tragedians “dabble, Plato thinks, in the philosopher’s business, and he sets out to supplant their faulty tragedy with a poetry of his own, the ‘truest tragedy.’ Plato’s hostility to the tragedians is that of a competitor and successor.”

These two developments in tragedy, and then in philosophy, bring issues of human agency to the forefront. Neither the tragic poets nor Plato are satisfied with Agamemnon’s excuse in the Iliad: “It is not I that am the cause, but Zeus and Destiny and Erinys that walk in darkness who put blind fury into my heart.” Tragic heroes raise this defense, but do not rest in it, and in Plato “the gods made me do it” is “definitively banned.” Thus, “The increasing sense of responsibility corresponds to the deepening of man’s perplexity when confronted with the choice. Orestes’ question ‘What shall I do?’ and Socrates’ problem ‘What is the good?’ mark consecutive stages in the growth of the self-consciousness of the human agent.”

Kuhn argues that these three common themes are part of a unified development that raises human self-consciousness: “Only after the first steps were taken toward rationalizing the idea of a universal antagonism did it become possible to raise the problem of suffering in unequivocal terms; and the same clarification brought man face to face with himself as the author of his deeds. . . . Awakening from his mythic slumber, man begins to realize what it means to be a human agent. On the other hand, we may look upon the same facts as illustrating a timeless antagonism, and view tragedy and philosophy as alternative ways of dealing with the problem of suffering.”

(Kuhn, “The True Tragedy: On the Relationship between Greek Tragedy and Plato, I,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 52 [1941]: pp. 1-40).

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