Tragic Action, Tragic Judgment

“The specific revelatory quality of action and speech, the implicit manifestation of the agent and speaker, is so indissolubly tied to the living flux of acting and speaking that it can be represented and reified only through a kind of repetition, the imitation of mimesis, which according to Aristotle prevails in all arts but is actually appropriate only to drama.

— Hannah Arendt

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Hannah Arendt writes the above in The Human Condition, her work examining the major categories of human activity and human freedom. She later tantalizingly echoes these comments in The Life of the Mind, her incomplete work on thinking, willing, and judging, when she speaks of the challenge of making judgments about human life caught up in this ongoing ‘flux’.

“Human life, because it is marked by a beginning and an end,” she writes, “becomes whole, an entity in itself that can be subjected to judgment, only when it has ended in death; death not merely ends life, it also bestows upon it a silent completeness snatched from the hazardous flux to which all things human are subject.”[1] Here I would like to take these passages together to suggest a connection between Arendt’s understanding of what is demanded of judgment and her turn towards tragic drama in The Human Condition.

The idea that a life can only be judged once it is complete is traditionally the wisdom of Solon, the Athenian lawmaker. But this sentiment is found across classical thought, and famously reproduced by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics.[2] In the Ethics, Aristotle’s concern is to identify the conditions which give rise to eudaimonia (literally, being ‘well spirited’). This “lasting state of being,” as Arendt describes it, requires sound judgment and character: knowing how to identify and do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, without psychological friction. For Aristotle, the study of ethics is by definition a political science, depending on the presence of a moral, judging community. It is also an imperfect science. Living well, attaining eudaimonia, requires more than simply following the right rules. This is because “the accidents of fortune are many:” regardless of our intentions, we do not control the circumstances, or consequences, of our deeds.[3] When Aristotle speaks of ‘sound’ character he means a person who makes judgments while recognizing “that justice does not prevail in the world.”[4] A person might struggle to do everything right and nonetheless come to disaster. Aristotle therefore insists a life can only be called eudaimon in hindsight, viewed as a complete whole.

Arendt presents a parallel idea when she suggests in The Human Condition that no individual is the author of their own life story: “whatever the character and contents of the subsequent story may be, whether it is played in private or public life, whether it involves many or few actors,” she writes, “its full meaning can reveal itself only when it has ended.” Arendt similarly contrasts “the backward glance” of the historian who judges and describes the meaning of the “great, unending story” of human affairs with artistic “fabrication,” where the intellectual model or plan of the artist become “the light by which to judge the finished product” [HC 192]. She is deeply critical of attempts to substitute making as the model of political life or history for acting, where persons freely, and unpredictably, break and forge relationships, their words and deeds setting off new chains of events they cannot fully anticipate or control. She thus notes that “Because the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings, he is never merely a “doer” but always and at the same time a sufferer” [HC 190]. A political world shaped by this living flux of action, rather than an imposed order of ‘making,’ will always exceed the guidance available from fixed, unchanging criteria or abstract, universal laws. For Arendt, acting politically is never simply about applying the right rules.

But these accounts place the living actor in a pickle: How is one to make sound judgments about their own life, or the actions of others, while still caught up in that contingent and hazardous ‘flux’ of action? What orientation is appropriate for navigating this kind of reality? Or, in more Arendtian terms, how is one to think what they are doing? In her writings on judgment, Arendt frequently turns to Aristotle and Kant for answers to this question. She argues for an ‘enlarged mentality:’ learning to think from the plural perspectives of others about particular questions or objects appear to them; or about how one’s own actions might appear to others. But what does this learning entail? One answer, I propose, may be found by looking more closely at Arendt’s turn to Aristotle’s Poetics in her description of action.

Arendt approvingly cites Aristotle’s famous definition of plot as the “soul” of tragedy, where tragic plot is “the [imitation] of an action which is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude [… which] through the arousal of pity and fear [effects] the katharsis of such emotions” [ln1449b ]. She describes drama as “the political art par excellence” because it “is the only art whose sole subject is man in his relationship to others” [HC 188]. Drama, and especially tragedy, imitates how action goes on between different persons. But for Aristotle, imitation is not simply a form of entertainment. In The Poetics, Aristotle argues that “it is natural for everyone to take pleasure in imitations” because imitation is one powerful way that persons, especially children, learn [1448b5–20]. For Aristotle, we create artistic imitations of reality for the pleasure of knowing it better. Taking Aristotle seriously on this point, however, means that the tragic theater aims to imitate human action specifically for the sake of understanding the world.

What does tragedy help us understand? Watching tragedies, spectators see how the ‘action’ of a play develops between individuals, generating conflicts between obligations and identities, and running past any single person’s control despite an agent’s best intentions. In tragedy, disaster is frequently brought about due to a prideful overconfidence in one’s knowledge (consider Oedipus); or from a failure to acknowledge the perspectives and needs of others who share one’s world (consider Antigone). Here the political and moral laws and values which structured polis life were interrogated from plural positions, often by persons typically excluded from politics (consider The Bacchae, or Ion.) Peter J. Euben notes “theater provided a place and moment when citizen spectators could judge refracted versions of themselves on stage.”[5]

Tragedy, then, is a poetic “making” which enables judgment. The tragic poet transposes the ‘flux’ of unlimited events and happenings into a story about a complete action which can be grasped, spoken about, praised or blamed — but not in a detached, removed sense. As Stephen Halliwell comments, speaking of Aristotle’s Poetics, “the emotional experience of tragic poetry presupposes a strong sympathy which does not take the spectator or reader out of himself, but entails a deeper sense of the vulnerability of his own place in the world.” [6] Through this dual activity of imaginative sympathizing and judging, individual spectators were encouraged to relate to those on stage: to consider their own actions and lives in analogous terms, as objects of judgment. As Michael Davis puts it, “Poetry makes it possible to experience our action as a whole before it is whole.”[7] Tragedy provides tools for spectators to view their own lives, words and deeds, as they might appear completed before the judgment of others.

It is in this spirit, I suggest, that we can understand Arendt’s description of classical drama as the “political art par excellence.” Learning to view human action tragically coheres with the “enlarged mentality” which Arendt praises, where one considers their actions from the vantage of a common world, and where refusing to acknowledge the plural perspectives of others leads to an attenuated sense of reality, threatening political and moral disaster. Tragedy mimics the ways that action, and meaning, emerge between agents who cannot control the events they — or others — set into motion. But it also fosters an orientation towards the world that imbeds the actor more firmly into the hazardous, living flux of the world; one where actors are always doers and sufferers, their actions prone to failure in ways which might nonetheless be made meaningful. Such an orientation is necessary in a world where justice does not, on its own, prevail.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (New York: Harcourt Press, 1978), 164.

[2] Arendt’s treatment of this saying may be found in HC 192–3.

[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 1, Ln1100b23.

[4] Michael Davis, “Introduction” in Aristotle, Aristotle On Poetics; with Seth Benardete, trans. (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002) xxii; also Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 5, Ln1137b.

[5] Peter J. Euben, “Arendt’s Hellenism” in Dana Villa (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000), 159.

[6] Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 183.

[7] Davis, “Introduction, xv.

Elizabeth Barringer is the Klemens von Klemperer teaching fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

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The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Quote of the Week

A weekly quote from Hannah Arendt examined through the lens of a scholar.

The Hannah Arendt Center

Written by

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Quote of the Week

A weekly quote from Hannah Arendt examined through the lens of a scholar.

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