Germans and other Greeks: Tragedy and the Ethical Life by Dennis J. Schmidt
We all have had the experience of a book that we could not put down. This effort by Dennis J. Schmidt is in the category for me. Before I give some details on the book, let me begin with a little background. I first came across Schmidt as a reviser of the Joan Stambaugh’s translation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. When I received my copy I checked out the bio of Schmidt and found to my surprise that he teaches at my school, Penn State University, albeit at a different campus. Small world. Last year I attended a phenomenology conference at Duquesne University and Schmidt was one of the speakers. We got to talk and connected immediately. I like him so much I had to check Amazon to see if he had any books available. And that’s how I discovered Germans and other Greeks.
I begin with Schmidt’s style. He is a thinker in the Continental tradition, a tradition notorious for difficult and sometimes unreadable prose. Think of Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, to name but three. But Schmidt writes with unbelievable clarity. In fact, he is so smooth that one often forgets to concentrate on the material at hand. But you will be rewarded if you do focus. So let me tell you about the book.
The Germans are Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Holderlin, Nietzsche and Heidgger; the Greeks; Plato and Aristotle. And although the title says simply “tragedy,” the man at the center of the book is Sophocles, especially his Antigone and the Oedipus’ works.
Schmidt tells us that two, count ‘em, two sentences were the seeds that grew into this book. One from Hegel, who wrote, “the wounds of spirit heal and leave no scars behind.” (This reminded me of Rand’s line about the pain only going down so far.) The second is from Shakespeare; “Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars / And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day’.”
After 20 pages of preliminary material, chapter one deals with Plato and if we think of this book as a battle between philosophy and Greek tragedy, we know what happens to the poets in the Republic.
Chapter two, on Aristotle, is a close reading of the Poetics, with occasional use of other works by Aristotle when needed. One claim by Aristotle that resonates throughout the text his claim of, “art’s capacity to educate us about ethical life.” But at the end of the day, Aristotle says that art can beat philosophy in that particular. The Germans are split on that very topic.
Then something strange happens. Philosophers give up on the topic of tragedy. And for a long time! Not until 1795 will a problematic that exercised the great minds of Plato and Aristotle be thought worthy of philosophical exploration.
And the “credit” for this goes to Kant, at least indirectly. Schmidt relates the story behind this in the “Interlude: Kant and Schelling,” between chapters two and three. I’ll not spoil the fun you will have reading this Interlude, but I will say that Schelling floats the idea that maybe tragedy can teach us things that philosophy can’t. He here obviously departs from Aristotle.
But Hegel to the rescue. In chapter three we see him siding with Aristotle, no surprise there. Philosophy can’t be beat, neither by tragedy or religion.
Then we have chapter four on Holderlin. Since he is a poet, it may engender no shock to say that for him “the enigma of tragic experience is not a conceptual issue,” (163) as it is for the philosophers.
Nietzsche is the focus of chapter five and in a certain sense, he shares Holderlin’s sensibility. The conceptual nets of the hyper-rationalist Socrates brings about the death of tragedy. Perhaps it will be reborn in the spirit of (Wagner’s) music.
Chapter six deals with Heidegger, and I will simply reproduce its first paragraph. See if you like it as much as I.
“’Nietzsche hat mich kaputt gemacht’—Nietzsche did me in. Those are words that Heidegger never wrote, at least in any of the texts which have been published up to this point, but they are words that friends report he uttered frequently in the years after the Second World War. Often said without context, said enough to be a sort of litany over an extended period of time, those words would remain thoroughly enigmatic and a thorn in the side of one who would try to take up Heidegger’s thought. While it seems clear that no one single issue could be contained in that phrase, a good cause can be made to suggest that it is above all on the topic of tragedy tat Nietzsche will do Heidegger in—though it will never be entirely clear just what it could mean to be ‘done in.’”
In addition to the chapter length analysis of the thinkers listed above, Schmidt also provides nine translations, most of writings that have never been translated before. He does six by Holderlin, Schelling’s “Tenth Letter on Dogmatism and Criticism,” which was responsible, in part, for the resurrection of the topic of tragedy among the Germans, one by Heidegger, of which more in due course, and “The Earliest System-Program of German Idealism.” He provides both Holderlin’s and Heidegger’s translation of the Choral Ode from Antigone.
To reveal how much we owe to the translators, I will close with three translation of the opening line of the Choral Ode. In addition the two Schimdt provides, I also provide one from the Great Books of the Western World by Richard Jebb. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess which belongs to whom
πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
Wonders are many; and none more wonderful than man.
Much is monstrous. But nothing more monstrous than man.
The uncanny is many-sided; nothing, however, looms larger than the human in strangeness.