Democracy in an Age of Tragedy: Democracy, Tragedy and Paradox

Critical Horizons 11 (2):289-313 (2010)
Abstract
Democracy and tragedy captured a delicate poise in ancient Athens. While many today perceive democracy as a finite, unquestionable and almost procedural form of governance that glorifies equality and liberty for their own sake, the Athenians saw it as so much more. Beyond the burgeoning equality and liberty, which were but fronts for a deeper goal, finitude, unimpeachability and procedural norms were constantly contradicted by boundlessness, subversion and disarray. In such a world, where certainty and immortality were luxuries beyond the reach of humankind, tragedy gave comfort and inspired greatness. Before the disciplinary segregation and the delimiting of the poetic and artistic, tragic art dramatized the paradox of existence in a most political manner. The purpose of this paper is to explicitly highlight the crucial links that existed between democracy and tragedy during their formative years in ancient Athens. What was it about democracy that necessarily incited and depended upon the ascendency of tragedy during the time of the Athenian city-state? And why and how did a peculiar institution such as Athenian tragedy play so central a role in the democratic polis of Athens?
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