The Greeks and Their Tragedies Are Good for Us

Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us | Simon Critchley | Pantheon

Reviewed by Matthew Bianco

With friends like Simon Critchley, Greek tragedy may not need enemies. It may even turn out to have fewer enemies than Critchley himself imagines in his new book, Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us. He is certainly looking for a fight, though, as he labors to defend tragedy in an age-old dispute.

The Argument He Is Joining

History teems with dialog about the value of poetry: Socrates, for one, banned the poets from his ideal city, replacing them with scholars of math and science, claiming that those subjects raise a student's mind to a higher level of perception. Aristotle, Plotinus, and many others since, have defended the poets, some even taking on Socrates directly. And now Simon Crichtley enters that great conversation.

When Socrates banished all poets from his city, he seems to have meant Homer specifically, but also likely included Greek playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. As the conversation continued over the centuries, the interlocutors began to use the term “poets” more inclusively and “poetry” came to be known as “story,” referring to a range of works including fictional or semi-fictional histories, plays, poems, stories, or novels. Definitions of “poetry” and “poet” thus became an important area of contention within this particular debate.

Socrates’ argument for banning the poets has less to do with the utility of their work and more to do with the morality of it. Stories should not be used in the education of a city's people, he claimed, especially its children, because these stories fail in two ways. First, they often misrepresent the Good: They make the gods look fickle (as when Homer gives us a Zeus who goes from supporting the Greeks to supporting the Trojans in the Iliad); they make the heroes look weak (as when Homer gives us an Achilles dishonoring Hector's body); they promote the dishonorable (as when Euripides gives us “the wailings of Electra”) or minimize the honorable (as when Homer presents Hades as a place to fear in the Odyssey). For, as Socrates would argue, the city ought to be a place where the citizens fear God, love one another, and do the right thing.

Furthermore, they fail to accurately represent truth. For Socrates, the craftsman who makes tables knows the idea—the essential form—of a table as it exists in the mind of God, then he constructs that table for use in our world. The artist, however, does not know the table as it exists in God's mind. He only knows the craftsman's product. So, when the artist constructs a table in pictures (painting) or in words (poetry), he is constructing a less accurate copy (his work) of a copy (the craftsman's work) of the actual thing (God's idea). With respect to tables, this is probably not a big deal. When, however, one is trying to understand justice or goodness or mercy, the copy of a copy can be utterly undependable. How can one be educated in justice if the representations through which we are to learn about justice are undependable?

The debate, then, offers us three streams: Socrates is right, so how do we educate children apart from stories? Socrates is mostly wrong, but we must make sure we aren't using bad stories. Or Socrates is completely wrong, and thus we can use any stories because stories don't actually teach us in any meaningful way.

Critchley's Contributions

For his part, Simon Critchley is most interested in defending tragic drama from Socrates, but he frustrates, almost immediately, because of his blunt transparency. He is swimming in the third stream and, tragedies aside, has a point to make: “One of the axes I will be grinding in this book is a critique of the very idea of moral psychology and the attempted moralization of the psyche that is at work in philosophy and in much else besides, especially Christianity” (emphasis in “original”). He wants it to be clear: “Theater is not just about ideas. Nor is it about a message of any kind.... It is rather about being permitted, allowing oneself to be permitted, to enter what Peter Brook called 'the empty space'”. Socrates is wrong: There are no ideas (even copies of ideas) presented in tragedies from which we can learn. Tragedy has no ideas, no message. It is just empty space.

The bulk of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is an argument with philosophy, with Socrates and Aristotle especially. Socrates becomes for Critchley what Homer is for Socrates in the Republic. And here another frustration arises. Though trained in philosophy, Critchley—who admits he was never very good at Greek—appears to read Plato's Socratic dialogues very haphazardly. In one instance, after describing Socrates' banishment of the poets from the city, he declares:

Socrates then makes the apparent concession that poetry might be welcomed back into the just city if an argument can be made for it. But this argument for poetry, Socrates insists, must not itself be poetic, but must be stated “without meter” (607d), namely in the rational prose of philosophical dialogue.


Oddly, that is not at all what Socrates said, though Critchley conveniently uses quotation marks and gives reference to the section number of the Republic wherein this rule is supposedly given. In fact, every translator I checked translates the passage in a way that sounds something like this one, by C.D.C. Reeve:

Nonetheless, if the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises....Therefore, isn't it just that such poetry should return from exile when it has successfully defended itself, whether in lyric or any other meter? ...Then we'll allow its defenders, who aren't poets themselves but lovers of poetry, to speak in prose on its behalf and to show that it not only gives pleasure but is beneficial both to constitutions and to human life. (607c-d)


The gist of Socrates' point is that poetry can defend itself and return from exile if it can offer a defense for itself, an apology. That defense can be offered by the poets in verse. However, if a lover of poetry who is not a poet himself would like, he too can offer a defense (in prose if necessary).

Yet as frustrating as Critchley is in his arguments with Socrates and Aristotle, he offers much in defense of tragedy (even if I find myself swimming with one leg in the first stream and another in the second).

Tragedy—especially ancient tragedy—is important, he claims, because “when the ancients speak, they do not merely tell us about themselves. They tell us about us.” Tragedy gives us a sight that is more than physical, as the blinding of Oedipus gave him a sight he had not previously had. The “lies” or “fictions” that these stories or plays tell become the means for “the acquisition of wisdom through deception, through an emotionally psychotropic experience that generates a powerful emotion.”

Tragedy, as it wrestles with competing claims for justice and the inscrutable motivations of distant gods, gives the human participant (actor or audience) an awareness and sense for ambiguity. Critchley, in fact, sees this as the starting point, the grounds, for the ultimate disagreement between Socrates and the poets. “It is this ambiguity that philosophy, in the person of Socrates and all the way to Husserl and Heidegger, cannot bear. For philosophy, ambiguity is a sign of crisis that has to be arrested....For tragedy, that crisis is life and has to be lived as such.”

This is very likely an untrue understanding of Socrates' views of philosophy and ambiguity. Socrates almost never ends a dialogue with a strict, unambiguous answer. Socrates may believe that there is a universal, objective truth to be known and that it is the business of the philosopher to discover it, but he does not see this as a simple task and is happy to live with the ambiguity. In fact, as he attests of himself with great regularity in the dialogues, “All I know is that I know nothing.”

The dialectic of the Socratic or Platonic philosophy amounts to living in and through the ambiguities of our world and our life. And, insofar as Critchley has made the case that tragedy helps us to navigate the ambiguous waters of life, he has made a case for tragedy, one that may even override Socrates' objections in the Republic. But, we do not have to pretend that the acceptance of tragedy into education necessitates the rejection of philosophy. That is a case that has not yet been made.


Matthew Bianco is a curriculum developer, speaker, and teacher with the CiRCE Institute, a classical education non-profit. He is a senior editor of FORMA Journal.

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