Lecture Seven: Tragedy 7.1

7.1 Introduction


The self aims to master uncertainty, but this entails a paradox, which emerges along two dimensions, embodiment and consociation, in tension with one another. Due to embodiment, an individual is in a condition of need and precarity. This uncertainty cannot be faced, let alone mastered, without the help of others, and hence without some form of consociation. And yet, consociation creates new needs and makes the individual dependent on social structures that tend to hold one back from complete emancipation.

When a tension emerges between connected and yet conflicting elements, there are two basic strategies that can be attempted to alleviate or solve that tension. One strategy consists in distancing the components that generate the tension. By keeping them relatively apart, by finding the right distance or space to separate them, by preventing them from coming too close to one another, it might be possible to alleviate the problem. The limitation of this strategy emerges when the elements to be distanced are co-dependent in such a way that one can never be totally isolated from the other, unless both are abandoned together. Another strategy consists in subordinating the same components, by establishing one as dominant over the other. If the conflicting elements are posited in a hierarchical structure, the tension can be managed by means of restraint and subjugation. The issue with this strategy is again that if the conflicting elements are sufficiently interdependent, then the dominion of one element over the other could always be reversed or challenged. Distancing and subordinating are not necessarily mutually exclusive and can be combined to varying degrees. Nonetheless, they are sufficiently distinct to allow for a relatively independent treatment in terms of hermeneutic reconstruction of how they play within specific contexts.

In the last two lectures, we saw how the paradox of mastery is addressed by ancient Indian culture, thought, and practices. We can now add that the strategy of distancing seems the most relevant in this context. In Lecture Five, we encountered the ancient Vedic seer as a member of a relatively small-scale community. Fully immersed in the community’s system of meanings and values, the seer develops his poietic practice for the purpose of cultivating visions, which will deliver the knowledge and power needed for the whole community to thrive and negotiate with other agencies (gods, ancestors, and so on) that populate the cosmos. For as much as the seer is an integral component of his community, his visionary power is also something extraordinary, rare, and valuable, and not shared by everybody—meaning that it is also potentially alienating. The farther the seer pushes his vision (reaching towards the very beginnings of the world, for instance), the more unintelligible his words become and the farther he moves from the shared horizon of meanings that all members of the community share. Seers seek to become immortal, like gods, who are still actively involved in the community, and yet also set apart from it. Distance separates and weakens communal bounds, but in so doing it also weakens the very ground upon which the seer’s power rests. Moving towards greater light, the Vedic seer ends up appearing darker and more obscure.

In Lecture Six, we discussed some further developments that take place in ancient India, starting from the sixth century BCE. On the one hand, Vedic practices undergo a strong ritualization. The seer becomes a remote, legendary figure, replaced by the brahmin priest, a ritual specialist who knows how to perform the traditional rituals in the due manner. Right performance (orthopraxis) becomes key for mastering uncertainty, while visionary powers are left behind. However, a new soteriological model also emerges, according to which true mastery of uncertainty (now conceived of as true immortality) can be gained only by transcending all visions and reaching ‘that one’ who is beyond all contents of experience, all objects, all perceptions. By cultivating anaesthetic trance, the Upaniṣadic sage is someone devoted to directly knowing his ‘true Self’ (ātman), which is nothing but brahman, the universal principle behind all experience, pure intransitive awareness, undifferentiated, changeless, eternal. The problem with this model is that it threatens to undermine or devalue the whole of consociate life. The sage is devoted to ascetism and regards worldly life as inferior. The strategy of distancing scales up and becomes a plea for transcending the whole world of family and ordinary social life altogether. This is a challenge that will keep Indian culture busy in the attempt at finding some mediation or at adjudicating which of these ways of life is preferable.

In this and the next lecture, we turn to the ancient Greek world, focusing on roughly the same period, between the early sixth century up to the third century BCE approximately. Commonalities between ancient Indian and Greek cultures begin with the possibility of tracing the origin of both to common archaic ancestors, arguably linked with the prehistoric Indo-European tribes that spread both south-East towards the Indian subcontinent and north-West towards the European continent. Historians have documented how the development of ancient Greece took place not in isolation but through constant exchange and interplay with other cultures, both in the Middle East and farther East.[1] Our purpose here is not that of charting these interesting historical relationships. Rather, we shall investigate how the paradox of mastery discussed in the previous lectures can be seen at play in ancient Greek culture, and how in this context it is addressed by predominantly using the strategy of subordinating, rather than of distancing.

Our current working hypothesis is that the paradox of mastery is a structural feature that arises from the very broad idea of conceiving of the self as a device for mastering uncertainty. This entails that wherever selfhood is enacted, some form of the paradox will be (at least potentially) present or detectable. However, this broad hypothesis does not entail that the paradox should appear the same in any context. In fact, the opposite is more likely. Depending on the specific declensions that different cultures and communities develop, they will be led to conceptualize mastery and its paradox in different terms. After all, if the paradox depends on the tension between embodiment and consociation, since both variables are subject to historical variations and are indexed to historical circumstances, we should expect to observe historical diversity in the way this paradox surfaces in different times and places. To some extent, we already noticed by the end of Lecture Six that subordination seems to emerge in the solution offered by the Bhagavad-Gītā. Hence, there is no attempt here at making one strategy the exclusive province of one culture only. The point at stake is only to acknowledge that one strategy might become more prominent and even paradigmatic in a certain culture rather than in others, without entailing that its use might be exclusive, rigid, or homogeneous.[2]

The strategy of subordinating entails a contest between two poles (if not individual agents), in which one gains supremacy over the other. The active-passive dichotomy we encountered discussing Foucault’s account of self-mastery in Lecture Zero could be seen as one abstract way of conceptualizing the strategy of subordinating. The active pole is such because it is capable of subordinating the passive pole under its power and rendering it dependent on it (or at least restraining it in some way). The active principle dominates the passive one, in the same way a victorious hero dominates their rival, or one social group enslaves another. The crux of this strategy is that whatever is kept in a position of inferiority, passivity, enslavement, or subordination is, by definition, something that could escape that condition and subvert it. One can attempt at subordinating another only because the other could do the same and turn out to be the actual master. Even a subdued slave remains always a potential enemy.

In this lecture, we shall focus on three domains in which the strategy of subordination is fleshed out in ancient Greek culture: (i) the relationship between human individuals and communities with the gods; (ii) the relationship between human individuals within different social groups (the family kin and the broader political society in particular); (iii) the ontological relationship between all things that happen and exist.

  1. Among the classical studies on this front, see Martin Litchfield West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (1971); Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution. Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (1992); Id., Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis. Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge (2004). For an overview of the scholarly debate between Greek religion and its connections with the Near East, see F. S. Naiden, ‘Recent Study of Greek Religion in the Archaic through the Hellenistic Period’ (2013). For an overview of the historical evidence about continuous contacts in the ancient world between various cultures ranging from Greece to India, see Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (2002), chapter 1. McEvilley draws attention in particular to the importance of the Persian empire (especially between the mid-sixth century and the early fifth century BCE) in attracting to its courts both Greek and Indians workers, mercenaries, craftsmen, artists, and physicians, by facilitating potential contacts between seemingly distant cultures.
  2. We can claim that we observe different declensions of the same paradox if we can reasonably establish that the actors involved were struggling with the problem of mastering what they perceived to be a crucial manifestation of uncertainty, and if this struggle is cogently related with the two dimensions of embodiment and consociation in their mutual interlinkage and interplay. It will remain open for empirical investigation to assess the extent to which the difference pointed out across cultures might be more a matter of emphasis, priority, or relevance attributed to the same elements, rather than an actual lack of certain conceptualization. Perhaps both Indian and Greek cultures considered the paradox of mastery in terms of both distancing and subordinating, although they gave more priority to one or the other. If this is so, we could also investigate how much our own historically situated reconstruction of these cultures contributes to the way we carve up the differences we recognize. But since we can interpret ancient cultures (and even our own culture, for that matter) only from a situated point of view, there is no neutral standpoint from which we could dispassionately observe the past without shaping it to some extent. If it is our current historically situated standpoint that shapes our reconstruction (as inevitably it will do to some extent), this cannot be avoided, but only taken into account in weighing up our reconstruction.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.