kierkegaard on ancient and modern tragedy (2009)

What is Kierkegaard’s distinction between an ancient and a modern tragedy?

Tragedy is a common universal theme throughout our stories and plays. From ancient Greek tragedy such as Oedipus, to more contemporary tragedy such as Don Giovanni. In the opera Don Giovanni, Don Giovanni’s seducing of Elvira, whom abandoned the church to be with him, makes the play all to tragic when he leaves her; she had turned her back on her identity to be with him. It is more than just an unfortunate infatuation. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is not that they were just two unfortunate lovers, but the fact that their families’ rivalry emphasised the tragic notion which led ultimately to their death. It is these such tragedies that embarked Kierkegaard on a quest to explore and analyse the two different time periods, from that of ancient tragedy, to more modern tragedies.

When looking at ancient and modern tragedy, the Kierkegaard suggests that there is not an essential difference between the two; as tragedy seizes people with sadness, and however much the world has changed, the concept of tragic is essentially unchanged. Kierkegaard says:

“weeping still comes no less naturally to man”

“Kierkegaard, [1], Part 1, p.139

Rather than distinguishing specific differences between ancient and modern tragedy, Kierkegaard sets out to investigate how certain characteristics of ancient tragedy can be revealed in the modern.   

Kierkegaard’s distinction of ancient and modern tragedy comes in the form of Aristotle’s explanation of thought and character as being the source of action in tragedy. Aristotle says that not only are thought and character an influence in a person’s action, but so also is the intended outcome. This arrives at our distinction, in ancient tragedy we do not act from character alone, but from the outcome desired, which can be affected by external factors. The hero’s downfall, as Kierkegaard puts it, is not in the event of his own action, but also from numerous external forces. In modern tragedy however, the downfall of the hero is through predominately his own action.

“the hero stands and falls entirely on his own deeds”

“Kierkegaard, [1], Part 1, p.143

The ancient hero is subjected to categories which influence his action, such as state, kings, race, family and destiny. We have no such prevailing influences today, and thus the modern age holds the individual responsible for more, as the creator of his own life, with his own choices and decisions. Meaning, whatever pain occurs in his life, it is from his own doing, and therefore the tragedy of suffering has lost its tragic interest.

A further clear distinction in the ancient and modern tragedy, according to Kierkegaard, is the tragic hero’s guilt. The concept of guilt for Kierkegaard is so essential for a tragedy that without it a tragedy cannot take place:

“if the individual is entirely without guilt, the tragic interest is removed, for the tragic collision loses its power...  if on the other hand, he is guilty absolutely, he can no longer interest us tragically.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], Part 1, p.143

Kierkegaard relates this guilt to sorrow and pain. In ancient tragedy, the sorrow is deeper and the pain is less. In modern tragedy, the pain is greater and the sorrow is less. In clarifying this statement, Kierkegaard gives the example of a child looking at an old person suffering. The child doesn’t have enough experience and relation to feel the old man’s pain, but he feels sorrow for the man:

“(the child) hasn’t sufficient reflection to have a conception of sin and guilt..”

“Kierkegaard, [1], Part 1, p.147

In modern tragedy however, as Kierkegaard says, the pain is greater and the sorrow is less. Kierkegaard then switches roles in the example; when the old man sees the child suffer, the old man is clear about the pain the child feels, he has sufficient experience and relation to feel that pain, and as a result, the less profound the sorrow, Kierkegaard puts it:

“the more clear the conception of guilt, the greater the pain and the less profound the sorrow.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], Part 1, p.147

This arrives at our distinction; it is in a difference of felt emotion that separates ancient and modern tragedy. Modern tragedy tends to accentuate more pain and less sorrow, and ancient tragedy advertises less pain, but with that, comes more sorrow.

Going back to our first distinction of personal responsibility, the modern audience now is less inclined to accept tragedy on the basis of the hero himself being responsible for the tragic occurrence. As Kierkegaard says the maxim “heaven helps those who help themselves” is more often in the minds of today’s people. If something tragic occurs, then the tragic hero is responsible for it, and if he accepts this responsibility, he can move on to absolve the tragic event.

This suggests a few challenges with how tragedy is seen today in comparison to the ancient perspective. Firstly, as tragedy is a theme common throughout our literature and plays, how can this directly be invoked into an individual’s daily life? Is it any use to us now, or is it just simply a form of entertainment? Tragedy seems less significant to the modern man now than it did in ancient Greece. This is for two main reasons, as discussed earlier. First, from our acceptance of personal responsibility, and second, which stems from the former, our ability to resolve an unfortunate issue, with a minimisation of external influences.

Whatever the differences between ancient and modern, there must contain some similarities. A common grounding that Kierkegaard picks up on is the concept of group numbers and isolation. Gaining support through a large group number, such as an army, is one way to earn power and respect. Kierkegaard calls this a social exertion; an outward showing of the strength of a man through many.

“When David wanted to savour properly his power and glory, he had his people counted.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], Part 1, p.141

It is these numbers which reinforce a particular belief or objective. It is asserting oneself through the followers one has. This can be said of a rebellion, an imperial army, the size of our family, religion, and even through to our modern day Fortune 500 companies.

The main difference, when looking upon these group numbers in an ancient and modern context, is our level of responsibility taken over the desire to be recognised as the leader of the group. The leader has the recognised power, but with that comes the responsibility too; the responsibility to be the cause of a possible tragic downfall.

 “our age certainly has one peculiarity to a greater degree than Greece, namely that it is more melancholy and hence deeper in despair ... while everyone wants to rule, no one wants responsibility”

“Kierkegaard, [1], Part 1, p.141

Such responsibility is seen as a burden, far more people would opt for less power and thus less responsibility, than more power and more responsibility. And so thus, the modern leader is less commonplace, the level of responsibility is seemingly disproportionate and far outweighs the amount of gain.

It seems, however subtle, there are key distinctions between ancient and modern tragedy. Although our human capabilities and emotional responses have been changeless, as indeed emotions are truly synchronised to what it is to be a human, it is certainly true that our living environment and social structure has changed. The attitudes towards the kind of emotional response given according to the stimulus have changed. The human’s capability to make a more informed choice of his life is better, and rightly so, as knowledge becomes more accurate thanks to science and technology. By acknowledging these social changes and paradigm shifts in collaboration with ancient and modern tragedy, it only helps us understand why such changes have arisen. It helps us realise the level of growth modern society has got to, and the barriers collectively overcome throughout time.

 [1] Søren Kierkegaard                    Either/Or, Penguin Classics, 1992.