PHIL 104
Philosophy and Tragedy Spring 2020
Division II
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Class Details

Tragedy and philosophy were two of the finest achievements of classical Athenian civilization, and each attempts to reveal to the reader something fundamental about our shared human condition. The worldview that underlies classical tragedy, however, seems markedly different from the one that we find in classical philosophy. While Plato and Aristotle differ on many points, they share the belief that the cosmos and the human place within it can be understood by rational means. Furthermore, they share the conviction that the most important components of a successful life are within the control of the individual human being. The picture that we find in the works of the tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides is markedly different. The tragedians emphasize the ways in which the cosmos and our role in it resists any attempt to be understood, and emphasize the ways in which the success or failure of our lives often turns on things completely beyond our control. The view of the tragedians can lead to a thoroughgoing nihilism according to which –the best thing of all [for a human being] is never to have born-but the next best thing is to die soon (Aristotle’s Eudemus as quoted in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy; see also Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus).” Despite these rather grim pronouncements, tragic drama has continued to fascinate and educate generations. Furthermore, philosophers have continued to revisit the existential questions vividly raised by Greek tragedy. In this course, we will examine a number of Greek tragedies and philosophical writing on tragedy and the tragic. We will read the Oresteia and Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Theban Cycle, and the Hippolytus, Bacchae and Philoctetes by Euripides. As we read through these plays, we will also examine a number of philosophical works about tragedy. We will begin with Aristotle’s Poetics and will continue with Hume’s Of Tragedy, Hegel’s various writings on tragedy, and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. If possible, we will arrange to see a live performance of a Greek tragedy.
The Class: Format: tutorial
Limit: 10
Expected: 10
Class#: 3983
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: five papers, five responses and a final paper in multiple drafts; each week one student will write a paper responding to the week's readings and the other student will write a response to that paper
Prerequisites: none; this tutorial is an appropriate first course in PHIL
Enrollment Preferences: first-year students
Distributions: Division II

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