Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hall, Edith. Review of Peter J. Ahrensdorf, GREEK TRAGEDY AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. NDPR (March 2010).

Ahrensdorf, Peter J. Greek Tragedy and Political Philosophy. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

This new study of the relationship between religious and political thought in Sophocles consists of three substantial chapters analysing the 'Theban plays', Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone respectively, framed by an Introduction and Conclusion. Ahrensdorf opens his study with the claim that, since the Enlightenment, political theory has tended to sideline the issue of religion. One way of countering this is to consider pre-modern thought about the relationship between religion and political enlightenment. Sophoclean tragedies, and in particular the 'Theban plays', offer a promising arena in which to conduct such an analysis. Ahrensdorf nails his colours to the mast at the beginning of the book: Sophoclean drama, in his view, is both deeply respectful of the power of religion and at the same time politically rationalist. In the Sophoclean world it is, basically, possible to be both respectful of divinity and a rational political agent. According to Ahrensdorf, Nietzsche was therefore quite mistaken in seeing in the Greek tragic hero (and especially in Oedipus) a figure of huge grandeur who only achieves his nobility and wisdom through accepting the utter chaos, mystery, and cruelty of the world, along with the human inability to comprehend the metaphysical forces which govern it. Ahrensdorf argues in his Introduction that the Nietzsche's reading has been predominant ever since the early 20th century, with scholars as diverse as Heidegger, Harold Bloom, Peter Euben and Arlene Saxonhouse acquiescing in Nietzsche's insistence on the anti-rationalism of the Sophoclean tragic hero. He identifies his own position as one that differs from what (he claims) is this post-Nietzschean scholarly consensus. His Sophocles is in fact not a critic of rationalism, but advocates, rather, a 'humane rationalism'. Its vehicle is a model of statesmanship that follows a middle way. It involves neither an extreme rationalism that excludes a religious perspective, nor an extreme anti-rationalism that excludes the power of reasoned argument and self-questioning. A good leader will do a great deal of Socratic inductive reasoning, but leave a substantial place for acknowledging the power of the divine and the unknowable in human life. . . .

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