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Toward an Erotics of Tragedy

• Toward An Erotics of Tragedy 

Abstract: This book proposes a new approach to thinking about the aesthetic power and ethical significance of tragic drama. The book reconsiders Plato’s engagement with tragedy and argues that his insights into the art form have often been overlooked or misconstrued. We best understand Plato on tragedy, I propose, if we think in terms of the erotic, by which I mean the expansive sense of erôs often invoked by Plato’s Socrates when speaking about human motivation. I argue that for Plato the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” his Socrates alludes to in the Republic turns crucially on the question of erôs and on the nature and power of the beautiful (to kalon), which in Plato’s dialogues is the object par excellence of erotic desire. The apprehension of the beautiful, in other words, is portrayed in the dialogues as the fundamental orienting experience of the erotically striving human soul. What lies at the heart of Plato’s concern with tragedy, I argue, is the paradoxical phenomenon of tragic beauty, specifically as manifest in dramatic performance.

Toward an Erotics of Tragedy aims to compose a compelling account of tragedy that draws on insights from Plato and to consider the aesthetic and ethical implications of such an account. Building on recent developments in Plato studies and scholarship on ancient drama in performance, the book responds to contemporary debates in the philosophy of art and in moral psychology, including a consideration of current efforts to bring neuroscience to bear on the study of tragedy. The final chapter extends the discussion beyond tragic drama to consider how the approach proposed may help us to understand and grapple with the predominant art form of our time, the now ubiquitous “moving image.” The book makes specific contributions to the philosophy and criticism of tragedy, to the study of Plato, and to moral psychology. Taken as a whole, it aspires to contribute to the reconfiguration and renewal of what, in Susan Sontag’s memorable phrase, may be identified as “an erotics of art.”