Hegel’s Conception of Tragedy

Robert R. Williams

in Tragedy, Recognition, and the Death of God

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780199656059
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191744846 | DOI:
Hegel’s Conception of Tragedy

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This chapter examines Hegel’s concept of tragedy from his Early Theological Writings, through the Phenomenology of Spirit to his Lectures on Aesthetics. Through the action of the tragic hero the main institutions of ethical life, the family and the state, come into conflict. In Hegel’s view the essence of tragedy is conflict, not a moral conflict between right and wrong, but a conflict between legitimate rights and institutions. Such conflict moves the unmovable, i.e., the norms and institutions of ethical life, threatening them with destruction. Such conflict arises out of the false consciousness of the tragic hero, who, convinced of his own rectitude, embodies a stubborn fixity of will that issues in one-sided action that both violates another legitimate right and plunges the hero into self-contradiction. S/he refuses to recognize what, if s/he were true to her/himself, s/he should honor. Like Aristotle Hegel believes in tragic resolution. In Hegel’s view the tragic resolution demands that the hero yield, give a little, recognize what s/he refuses, enlarge her perspective. If s/he yields, the drama does not have to end tragically; but if s/he refuses to yield, then the hero is destroyed by the very powers s/he refuses to recognize. The tragic resolution is constituted by a fundamental contrast: on the one hand, we are shattered by the destruction of one who is noble and excellent, but on the other we are fundamentally reconciled to this destruction because a conflict and loss of essential institutions that hold everything together would be even more unbearable. Hegel agrees with Nietzsche that the destruction of the hero, whose one-sided action threatens to destroy ethical life, is necessary, and is a healing, not as a fusion with primal being but rather the upholding of the essential rights and institutions of ethical life, the one as counterbalanced by the other.

Keywords: recognition; ethical life; tragic conflict; moral conflict; action; self-contradiction; tragic resolution

Chapter.  12388 words. 

Subjects: History of Western Philosophy

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