From the moderator of The New York Times philosophy blog "The Stone," a book that argues that if we want to understand ourselves we have to go back to theater, to the stage of our lives
Tragedy presents a world of conflict and troubling emotion, a world where private and public lives collide and collapse. A world where morality is ambiguous and the powerful humiliate and destroy the powerless. A world where justice always seems to be on both sides of a conflict and sugarcoated words serve as cover for clandestine operations of violence. A world rather like our own.
The ancient Greeks hold a mirror up to us, in which we see all the desolation and delusion of our lives but also the terrifying beauty and intensity of existence. This is not a time for consolation prizes and the fatuous banalities of the self-help industry and pop philosophy.
Tragedy allows us to glimpse, in its harsh and unforgiving glare, the burning core of our aliveness. If we give ourselves the chance to look at tragedy, we might see further and more clearly.
New School philosophy professor Critchley (What We Think About When We Think About Soccer) takes on ancient Greek tragedy's philosophical implications in this dense, demanding study. A self-described "non-classicist," Critchley finds in the classical form a bracing alternative to his own discipline. If philosophy is rational and sensible, then tragedy plays are ambiguous, "giving voice to what is contradictory about us... and what is limited about us." Informing readers unfamiliar with classical literature that in ancient Greek plays "tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part," he points to the "highest exemplar of tragedy," Sophocles' Oedipus the King, in which the protagonist, seeking to defy a prophecy that he will commit patricide and incest, unknowingly commits both. In this way, the play shows how "we both know and don't know at one and the same time," and how free will allows people to follow a preordained fate. These aren't easy ideas, and this book is not one to be read casually. In his acknowledgments, Critchley writes of initially exploring his ideas in lectures and conversations, an exploratory process evident throughout this intelligent, rigorous book. Dedicated readers will have the sense of being at a thoughtful scholar's side as he works through an intractable intellectual problem.