An Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: An Inevitable Tragedy Part 1

Learning from Ignorance


From its earliest beginnings in Greek Tragedy through its history to the modern day, drama has exerted a fascination for philosophical aesthetics. There have been times when drama has responded to this critique and times when it has blithely followed its own course. This series of articles aims to follow some of the continuities and the evolutions in drama - to give a selected overview of the interest that drama has held for aesthetics, whilst examining the idea of an aesthetic experience in the theatre.

1. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Why have Art? What is Theatre's Place?

2. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: An Inevitable Tragedy, Part 1

3. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: An Inevitable Tragedy, Part 2

4. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of Cruelty

5. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of the Absurd

6. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre

Greek Theatre at Taormina

It is largely by way of the protagonists as they are represented in the tragedies of Greek drama that the action unfolds, albeit determined by fate. It could be said that the characters assist, often unwittingly, in the inevitability of their own fate. In a sense these protagonists can learn nothing about their own characters – at least not in a way that can be of any help to them, and therefore the theatre is not instructive for the characters within it; either they are bound, internally, by the inevitability of fate or they are bound, representationally, by the inevitability of the dramatist’s pen.

For the audience, however, the theatre may be instructive, and what is revelatory in the drama (specifically in tragic drama) can reveal something otherwise unknown in themselves. Aristotle felt that “the structure of tragedy at its best” involved the sort of character whose fall into misery “will be due, not to depravity, but to some great error (hamartia)” (Poetics, p.48). The much-disputed term hamartia was interpreted as a moral flaw in the character, but that flaw is now much more widely interpreted as the character being in error. In relation to Sophocles’ plays specifically, Michelle Gellrich says:

"What produces the tragic effect is the ignorance (agnioia) that brings error" (Gellrich, 1988, p.35).

As demonstrated by Sophocles, it is argued here that the theatre reveals an inevitability in the progress of mankind, precisely because mankind is, to some extent, always ignorant and at fault.


Let us consider the question, ‘Why haven't we learnt everything?'

Insofar as the domain of science is concerned, this is relatively easy to answer: scientific discoveries, even when they are not hampered by prevailing ideologies, take enormous amounts of time-consuming labour to develop. Most importantly, there are few short-cuts on the road to these discoveries; a road that is linear demands the first mile to be travelled before the second mile is begun. Except for those parts of the humanities that are underpinned by scientific research, the answer to this question is not as obvious - the humanities are, broadly speaking, the study of ourselves. Therefore, after several thousand years, why haven't we learnt all there is to know? Even allowing for the changing nature of human thought, culture, and society, ought we not to have learnt enough to be able to retire these disciplines under the headings ‘completed’ or ‘solved’?

However, a problematic aspect of this question is that it implies that there is a single unitary truth waiting to be discovered or understood and that this truth exists in some way separately to the enquiring mind. Yet it seems reasonable to assert that any truth is partly predicated and, more importantly, constituted by this enquiry. What we come to understand is to be found in the nature of the process of understanding, and indeed in the processes of our failure to understand.

In Greek tragedy, there is often a single, unitary truth, but that truth is the province of the gods. There is often divergence and disagreement for human intelligence, even though it is, as Haemon says in Antigone, the gods who "endow a man with reason" (Sophocles, 764). Yet, however divinely endowed, human reason is imperfect:

"Whoever thinks that he alone possesses intelligence


spread them open - you will find them empty" (791-794).

He argues that it would of course be best if men were born infallible, but that is not the case. Early in the play, in a supreme paean to Man's indomitable ascendancy - checked only by death - the Chorus nonetheless remarks:

"Man the master, ingenious past all measure

past all dreams, the skills within his grasp -

he forges on, now to destruction

now again to greatness" (406-409).

However wondrous Man might be, he inevitably pursues his path without certainty, and the results of his endeavours have varying successes and failures. Not only does he not possess foreknowledge of events, but he cannot claim to know anything with any certainty. Yet, in Antigone, complete certainty is what impels the two central protagonists, Creon and Antigone, to collide. Neither has any doubt about the rightness of their argument; they are mirrored in the rigidity of their righteousness:

CREON: You alone, of all the people in Thebes

see things that way


...aren't you ashamed to differ so from them?

So disloyal!

ANTIGONE: Not ashamed for a moment

not to honour my brother, my own flesh and blood. (567-74)

This same uncompromising tone is used by Creon in the following passage:

ANTIGONE: No matter - Death longs for the same rights for all.

CREON: Never the same for the patriot and the traitor.

ANTIGONE: Who Creon, who on earth can say the ones below

don't find this pure and uncorrupt?

CREON: Never. Once an enemy, never a friend,

even after death. (584-589)

"Who on earth can say…?" asks Antigone, hinting at a human fallibility she does not recognise in herself. On the other hand, Creon knows better than everyone, and can second-guess the powers "below". Both Creon and Antigone are confident of their rightness, the former regarding civic law as preeminent, the latter believing family duty holds that preeminence. Antigone does not merely want to bury her brother, she believes she has a religious obligation to perform the funeral rights. Creon, however, believes honouring one he considers a traitor would undermine the state and its authority.

Antigone pouring a libation over her brother Polynices (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

When Haemon, in defence of Antigone challenges his father, he describes himself as, "combating your empty mindless judgements with a word" (845), to which Creon replies, "you'll suffer for your sermons, you and your empty wisdom!" Thus, each side of the argument considers not only that their argument is incontrovertible, but that the other side's argument is utterly without merit. Here, in extreme hyperbolic form is the nature of human understanding, and by extension, human enquiry. It is the nature of human thinking to take up contrary positions and to disagree. The saying, "In too much altercation, the truth is lost," (Publilius Syrus, Macrobius Saturnalia ii. 7.11.) can be matched by the idea that where there is no altercation, the truth is not found. Arguably much of the history of the humanities is composed of diverging opinions and even irreconcilable differences.

It is interesting that in an article entitled Disagreement in Philosophy, where Herman Capellan takes issue with the notion that philosophy is especially disputatious, he does not so much argue that there is no disagreement in philosophy, but that there is no more disagreement in philosophy than in any other similar discipline.

To argue the point somewhat ad absurdum, one could reason that philosophy might have come to a satisfactory conclusion long ago if everyone had agreed, say, with everything that Anaximander had said. If everyone agrees, everyone is satisfied, and there can be no further need to prolong the discussion that is Philosophy. Of course, the absurdity here is that the sensitive mind will be aware of its own inconsistencies, and any conclusion will become challenged by something not previously thought of or observed. Nonetheless, were human beings extremely eager to agree with one another, it would seem likely that a number of humanity subjects would not have progressed very far. Thus, it is through disagreement that progress is made and disagreement is not possible without a measure of ignorance. Progress is tied to ignorance, therefore one may say that gaining knowledge is unlikely without the contradictions that ignorance creates.

As established, in Aristotle’s view, for progress to occur in Greek theatre, contradictorily, a degree of ignorance is often required. In parallel, when discovery takes place, this often leads to failure. With Sophocles - in Antigone and Oedipus the King particularly - the truth known to the gods, when it becomes known to men, results in tragedy or rather, is their tragedy realised. This is an inevitable and necessary progression, which is necessary since, whilst the truth remains either hidden or unacknowledged, this erroneousness is manifested in the outside world in the form of corruption or disease; placing an intolerable pressure on the commonwealth and its rulers.

For Aristotle, this alteration is largely described in the terms Peripateia (reversal) and Anagnorisis (discovery). Essentially for Aristotle, "the structure of tragedy at its best should be complex" (Aristotle p.48), which he defines as a change of fortune coming about as a result of a probable or necessary discovery or reversal. His exemplar for this is Oedipus, where the change is in the form of discovery, from ignorance to knowledge, leading to the reversal of Oedipus' fortune.

Hegel's notion of Kollision follows these Aristotelian ideas when he discusses Greek tragedy, which he couches in terms of conflict and regenerative strife. The conflict for Hegel is between principles of equal ethical substance, being both equally justified and at fault. However, as Michelle Gellrich observes in Tragedy and Theory, "tragedy appears as an exemplary artistic expression of a process at work in the larger historical field", that is to say "the necessary collisions attending to the incarnation of Geist in world history are also central to the advanced artistic forms of determinate Spirit" (Gellrich, 1988, p.35). One can extend this comparison to include the Hegelian dialectic: the notion of thought evolving through the process of a thesis, an idea being challenged by an antithesis, a conflicting idea, and finally being resolved synthetically to produce the next 'higher' idea.

Some commentators find this absolute equivalence - as expressed by Hegel - in the two sides of the conflict, problematic. If their rightness is so perfectly balanced, it is hard to see how conflict can arise in the first place (for more on this, see Bungay, 1984, p.152-3). For our purposes, it is the disagreement of the evolutionary progress of those values that interests us, and for that to happen there must be interaction. When Antigone says to Ismene, "Your wisdom appealed to one world - mine another" (628), this is a stalling point: their two positions do not speak to each other. Even if two previously irreconcilable positions can be brought together by the inevitability of fate or by divine agency, the confrontation must have points of contact where the two positions meet.

Equally, having direct knowledge of the whole truth - the province of the gods and, to an extent, seers and prophets - is not possible either, nor would it be desirable. Tiresias, who 'sees' in his blindness, says in Oedipus, "How terrible - to see the truth/when the truth is only pain to him who sees!" (Sophocles, 359-60)

Oedipus is sure that he knows all there is to know. He curses Laius’ murderer "with my full knowledge" (286), but he is his own father's murderer and so he curses from complete ignorance. It is this ignorance that drives him inexorably toward the truth. Because he has no knowledge of his guilt, nothing restrains his relentless pursuit of 'discovery'.

The blind Oedipus

A consistent image in the play is the contrast between sight and ignorance, and blindness with knowledge. As we have seen, it is blind Tiresias who knows the truth, and when at last Oedipus learns the truth about himself the Chorus says:

"I tell you the truth, you gave me life

my breath leapt up in you

and now you bring down night upon my eyes" (1348-50).

Immediately after, we learn that Oedipus has blinded himself. Moments later, he speaks of the sight he used to have:

"Seeing nothing, children/knowing nothing" (1624-5).

Ironically, he has said of his father's murder "I'll start again - I'll bring it all to light myself!" (150).

The seeing man, albeit one as perspicacious as Oedipus, capable of solving the riddle of the Sphinx, lives also in the darkness of ignorance: mankind dwells simultaneously in the light and in the dark. Yet, when blindness comes, it is in effect the result of enlightenment. One might say that a person is now able to 'see' the darkness. Just as it is often remarked that the wise person can recognise the limits of his knowledge - in other words, understand how much they do not know - here the darkness represents revelation and enlightenment.

It could be argued that there can be no or little progress in human thought without an acknowledgement of ignorance. A denial of ignorance has the same effect, remarked upon above, as overeager agreement where the progress of ideas will be slow. However, in general, Mankind is less keen to acknowledge his ignorance than his knowledge. It is interesting to note that in 1854, when James Ferrier coined the word ‘epistemology’ in English, he also introduced the word ‘agnoiology’ - the study of ignorance. Yet, in the libraries of the world, there are miles of shelving devoted to epistemology, but scarcely a volume devoted to agnoiology (Andrew Bennett's Ignorance: Literature and Agnoiology is a lonely exception).

Tragedy, especially Greek tragedy, recognises the essential importance of ignorance and the overcoming of ignorance. The gods punish the know-it-alls for their ignorance. Drama in this sense is heuristic in nature. As we have seen, it can not only represent a character coming to understand, but it can also exemplify the processes of understanding. Indeed, in asserting that art brings before consciousness explicitly significant spiritual content, Hegel claims, "Art was, in fact, the first instructress of peoples" (Hegel, 1993, p.56).


Aristotle. (1965). On the Art of Poetry. Aristotle Horace Longinus: Classical Literary Criticism. Penguin Classics.

Gellrich, M. (1988).Tragedy and Theory: The Problem of Conflict since Aristotle. Princeton University Press.

Sophocles. (1982). Antigone. The Three Theban Plays. Penguin Classics.

Cappelen, H.W. (2017). Progress And Disagreement in Philosophy: An Optimistic Perspective. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology. (D'Oro and Overgaard, Eds.). CUP.

Bungay, S. (1984) Beauty and Truth: A Study of Hegel's Aesthetics. Oxford University Press.

Sophocles (1982) Oedipus the King. The Three Theban Plays. Penguin Classics.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1993). Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Penguin.

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Oliver Nicholson

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