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Reading, Writing, Thinking

Democracy & Tragedy

Mark Chou argues that the performance of tragedies helped establish democracy.

There are few today who would think to associate democracy with tragedy. With progress, yes. Freedom, perhaps. Maybe even with violence, sometimes. But tragedy, never. Yet for the ancient Athenians, to whom we attribute both the birth of democracy and the creation of tragedy as an art-form, democracy and tragedy shared intrinsic links. Born into a tragic world, democracy’s story in Athens unfolded much like the tragic tales it inspired and then ensconced within the Greek city-state.

The Birth of Democracy in Tragedy

Though of pre-democratic origins, tragic theatre emerged as an alternate site of democratic politics in the wake of Athens’ democratic revolution. So popular was tragedy that in the fifth century BCE alone, over a thousand tragedies were produced in Athens. Today we only possess a minute fraction of these: specifically, some thirty-two tragedies, which occupy a time-frame from 472 BCE (Aeschylus’s Persians) to 402 BCE (Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus). In fact, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are the only links we have to this ancient art form; so it is their dramas we look to when we explore how ancient dramatists reached back into the mythic past to recast Athens’ present and future. As storytellers and as political philosophers, the tragedians educated theatre audiences in issues of morality, politics, philosophy, and the arts. They structured their plots around conflicts, of law and nature, mortal and divine, male and female, family and the state, the inside and outside, partly in order to expose the argumentative nature of democracy. By depicting the outbreak and resolution of such conflicts, tragedians would teach their audience that life is ephemeral, and how knowledge of that in turn triggers a search for certainty and immortality that frequently induces arrogance, conflict and downfall.

As many as twenty thousand spectators from across the ancient world would converge in the theatre of the Dionysia to see these plays. As public events, Richard Ned Lebow writes that tragedies “almost certainly stimulated post-performance discussions among citizens about the issues that it raised on stage.” (The Tragic Vision of Politics, p.361.)

Take Suppliants, one of Aeschylus’s lesser-known plays. Believed to have been first staged around 463 BCE, it brought to the Athenian stage fifty fictional women. Having fled their homeland of Egypt, they plead for asylum in a democratic Greek city-state. These suppliants were outsiders in every sense of the word. Yet as women, and as foreigners, they were nevertheless determined to have a public face in a land where such a fundamental right was denied to all women and foreigners.

The core question posed by Suppliants, as Herbert Smyth recounts for us, is simple: “Is mercy due the suppliant when hospitality spells peril? Is neutrality [of judgement] possible when the choice lies between war and the recognition of the rights of the oppressed?” (Aeschylean Tragedy, pp.10-11.) Typically the question posed through Suppliants – let alone the answer which Aeschylus provided – would have been unfathomable for Athenian politics. Foreign women, indeed, women per se, had no voice in the democratic deliberations of Athens. They were invisible in the public realm.

Despite being lauded these days as an age of equality and freedom, Athens was no utopia. Sometimes we forget that the city which gave birth to the West’s first great democracy was also a hotbed of xenophobia, patriarchy, imperialism, and slavery. Democracy itself had severe limits. This is reflected in the fact that democracy extended only to citizens, which at the time excluded women, youths, slaves, and foreigners. Consequently, such individuals could not participate, vote, or rule in the polis [city-state]. A crucial function of tragedy was to give voice to these excluded individuals about the issues that mattered to them.

Tragedy – in this instance, Aeschylus’s Suppliants – often intervened directly in the unjust workings of the Athenian polis. Classical historians have noted that the plotline of Suppliants closely resembled the plight of the great Athenian democrat Themistocles, who was ostracised from Athens only years before Aeschylus’s tragedy was staged there. Themistocles was persecuted for his efforts to resist the resurgence of aristocratic rule in Athens. Having been expelled from Athens for his democratic beliefs, Themistocles received asylum from the neighbouring city of Argos – the city of Aeschylus’s Suppliants. Was Aeschylus, through his tragedy, trying to say something about these anti-democratic developments – something which Christian Meier writes “could hardly be aired before the Assembly without arousing suspicions of vested political interest”? (The Political Art of Greek Tragedy, p.3.) Irrespective of whether that was Aeschylus’s goal or not, we can see that his tragedy would have reminded the Athenians of the world which existed beyond their city walls, and of their democratic duty to embrace difference, dissent and openness – even when doing so might spell harm.

Antigone as a Political Allegory

Tragedy helped check the forces that were unleashed when Athens first became a democracy. It demonstrated anew the fragile balance between order and chaos that had emerged in the aftermath of the democratic revolution. By revealing to the polis that no single voice or way of life was absolute or wholly true, tragedy reminded audiences that even the greatest among them was not infallible.

This point was most clearly made in Sophocles’ famous tragedy Antigone, which was first staged in Athens around 442 BCE – a time of noteworthy Athenian greatness, or decadence, depending on the source. Pericles, the great Athenian democratic ruler, had initiated new policies which elevated political allegiance to the state above all else, including above the allegiances owed to individuals and to one’s family. All citizens were bound by this decree: bound to serve and follow the polis first and foremost. Against this political backdrop, Sophocles thrust Antigone onto the city’s stage, perhaps as a deft dramatisation of the newly emerging order in Periclean Athens.

Set in a mythic Thebes, Antigone revolves around the question of political supremacy. Unable to share and resolve their equal claims to the Theban throne, Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, meet sword-to-sword in a deadly battle that leads each to perish at the other’s hands.

Wishing to restore order, Creon, the new king of Thebes, and the uncle of Antigone, Eteocles and Polyneices, decrees that Eteocles, the brother who remained loyal to Thebes, is to be buried with full honours. On the other hand, the traitor Polyneices is to remain unburied, unmourned and unforgiven. He is dishonoured and damned, for burial is necessary for the dead to enter the Elysian fields. For Creon, a city cannot survive without order, so if Thebes is not to descend deeper into chaos, it must firmly entrench order and reprimand those who would threaten it, and the fate of Polyneices is to serve as an example. For his sister Antigone, though, this is no just law. Order is not man’s to dictate – least of all when it impugns the designs of the gods. Order at the expense of Polyneices’ soul and the favour of the gods is not just order at all.

For audiences in ancient Athens, the performance of Antigone – replete with its political allusions – must have provoked intense reflection and debate. In the first instance, some may have drawn analogies between the prominence of Creon in Thebes and the rising prominence of Pericles in Athens. Others may have seen the insidious nature of order when it is imposed upon the polis: for Haemon, Eurydice, Antigone, and even King Creon himself, the order embodied by Creon’s decree is the very order that would destroy them all. Deaf to the pleas of Antigone, deaf in fact to the whole of Thebes, Creon confidently, blindly, continues alone on his course, until destruction is unavoidable. Creon’s tragedy, Sophocles seems to be saying, was his inability to listen to others.

These insights, articulated on stage away from the pressures of everyday existence and the limitations of reality, urged audiences to reflect upon and empathise with each other’s imperfections. Inflected back into the polis, the ideas in tragedies reinforced democratic freedom both at the personal level of the psyche, and at the collective level, seeping into other democratic institutions and practices.

Tragedy and Democracy Today

Yet the symbiosis between democracy and tragedy, vital as it then was, has been politically devalued in modern times. At one level this is understandable. The world we inhabit, the political challenges we face, and the types of institutions we require to ensure the smooth functioning of our increasingly globalised society, are vastly different from the problems faced by the ancient Greeks. We think, act and live as humans separated by two-and-a-half millennia of historical development.

Still, even if we take these differences into account and ignore for one moment the temporal gulf that separates now from then, the allure of Classical Greece remains strong. Tragedy is still alive for the very reason that we are humans, and fundamentally, our human condition remains largely unchanged. And despite repeated proclamations that we are living in an age of unparalleled progress, equality and freedom, there exists a palpable sense of dread and doubt for us also. After two World Wars, Soviet gulags, the seemingly endless Cold War, the incessant natural disasters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (which seem so destructive to us simply because, to a degree, we no longer appreciate just how vulnerable we are); after September 11, the ‘War on Terror’, and now in the midst of recession and continuing financial uncertainty – we begrudgingly acknowledge that we share more than just a cultural heritage with the ancient Greeks. Although separated by centuries of change, our general condition is not so different: we are rational, sovereign agents often left with little or no choice as we are swept up by diverse overwhelming social and economic forces, which in previous times were epitomised by the gods and by fate. What’s more, in many cases, these realities have directly resulted from democratic processes.

Rita Felski writes that “Democracy, after all, does not guarantee happiness, but promises at best the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit that can all too easily result in disastrous judgements, Faustian over-reaching, or the agony of being torn apart by conflicting desires or values.” (Rethinking Tragedy, p.9.) The impossibility of having it all, mixed with the (false) promise of the idea of progress, are democratic double-binds. The ancient Greeks already knew this. They used their tragedies to help remind themselves that this is so.

Even as notions of democracy have come to enjoy almost universal appeal, democracy continues to face a raft of rather impervious obstacles. Key among them are the growing demands to expand democracy into the global realm – a domain lacking many of the institutions and procedures without which no democracy within a nation-state can effectively function. The lives of citizens around the world are increasingly influenced by forces that lie beyond sovereign borders, but many of the institutions that shape global politics, from international organizations to NGOs, are neither transparent nor accountable to a democratic constituency. The ensuing challenges are as novel as those faced by the ancient Athenians.

So although radical and short-lived, maybe Classical Greece’s democratic experience has something to teach us about the problems associated with both democratic excess and democratic expansion today. The Greeks’ experience is incisive because they founded democracy where no such ideas and practices previously existed. And what the ancient symbiosis between democracy and tragedy helps us to understand today, is that democracy was not only or even primarily about instituting equality, justice, and individual rights. Nor was it primarily about establishing a set of institutions and procedures that can entrench political participation and representation. Instead, what that ancient cultural symbiosis helps us to see today is something deeper about democracy, something that made democracy indispensable both to politics and to life: in dramatizing democracy, tragedy helped make democracy into an expansive worldview that encapsulated a distinct understanding of proper political governance, community life, and life more generally. It reminded the Athenians that order could not and should not be tyrannically imposed. Any good system of governance must never be premised solely on one idea or ideal to the exclusion of others. Democratic order, therefore, is necessary, to prevent oppression – even in the face of the possibility that order can be the source of oppression.

It is still too early to conceive how we could articulate and implement democracy in a global context lacking in the norms and institutionalized procedures of democratic debate, decision-making, and accountability. Transplanting nation-state-type democratic institutions, whose domestic purchase only emerged after centuries of struggle and development, to the global realm, may or may not be successful. But globally transplanting democratic ideals is an altogether different matter. Conversely, failure to engage culture at this level may lead to globally misrepresenting the nature, demands and dangers of democracy. In this regard, travelling back to antique Greece becomes a worthwhile political project, if only to highlight the worldview that brought democracy into existence for contemporary scholars and policy-makers wishing to do the same for a new theatre of operations.

When the Greeks expanded democracy to the courts, festivals, market places, and, of course, to the theatre, they soon heard voices beyond the official political purview. Individuals who would have otherwise remained invisible began to take centre stage, with their own daily struggles illustrated for all to see. Were we to do the same in terms of global culture, maybe we might find that our answers to the question “What has Athens to do with Washington [or London, Brussels, etc]?” are really much more open than we might think. In any case, it would be a good start.

© Dr Mark Chou 2013

Mark Chou is Lecturer in Politics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Democracy (Bloomsbury).

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