The Birth of Tragedy--Out of the Needs of Democracy

by Jonathan Shay, MD, PhD
Tufts Medical School Department of Psychiatry
DVA Outpatient Clinic
Boston, MA 02114
E-mail: jshay@world.std.com

With apologies to Nietzsche for the play on his famous title, I propose that the theater of ancient Athens acquired its distinctive character in response to the social and psychological requirements of a democracy whose only franchise-holders were current or former soldiers. My argument is simple: Athenian theater was created and performed by combat veterans for an audience of combat veterans; they did this to enable returning soldiers to function together in a democratic polity.

I am a psychiatrist who works with Vietnam veterans who suffer from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Over a period of years I have observed that unhealed combat trauma disables the basic social and cognitive capacities required for democratic participation:

Vietnam combat veterans with PTSD represent around one thousandth of the current American population. Loss of their participation in the democratic process is sad, but hardly threatens the process itself. But what would happen in a democracy where every citizen was a soldier or former soldier and warfare was more or less constant, as was the case in ancient Athens? It is difficult for us to imagine just how highly militarized Athenian society was. The city was engaged on six fronts during the year that Aeschylus produced the Oresteia. (1)

I have argued elsewhere that the process of healing from combat trauma lies fundamentally in communalizing it. This paper presents the conjecture that the ancient Athenians re-integrated their returning warriors through recurring participation in the rituals of the theater.

The military background of the Athenian theater's finest practitioners is textbook knowledge. Aeschylus fought at Marathon, where his brother was killed; he was also a combatant at the battles of Salamis and possibly Artemisium and Plataea. Sophocles was elected general at least twice. According to Aristotle, every adult male citizen has had military training and service. Graduation from training took place in the city theater. (2)

The now-famous tragedies and comedies were performed during the annual Athenian civic/religious festival called the City Dionysia. The festival antedated Aeschylus' birth by no more than a quarter century. According to Winkler, the audience for tragedies and comedies sat in the semicircular theater by tribe--which is to say, by military unit--in wedge-shaped sectors, in order of decreasing military rank from front to back. This seating arrangement, as Winkler explains, reflects the tribal basis of Athenian military organization: 'The layout of the auditorium formed...a kind of map of the civic corporation, with all its tensions and balances.'(3) Performances took place in daylight. Members of the audience could see and hear each other's reactions to the plays.

The city's military preparedness was advertised by the ten generals (one per tribe) who offered ceremonial libations at the beginning of the performances. (4) Those festivals were the occasion for elaborate symbolic play on themes of proper and improper behavior, in which the principal component of proper male citizenship was military. (5)

Winkler has argued that the same young soldiers who had recently done close-order drill in the theater made up the chorus for the tragedies. (6) I find this significant because of the social and ethical positions that the chorus frequently took in Athenian tragedy. The chorus was the voice of nomos (social morality, convention, 'what's right') in the play--most vividly perhaps in Aeschylus' plays. Unlike the principal actors who portray the powerful, the chorus represented the powerless: 'slave women, prisoners of war, old men--who will certainly be implicated in the effects of unwise, headstrong, or ignorant action on the part of the principals.' (7)

Thus the chorus in Athenian tragedy comprised the polis' innocent nineteen-year-olds who had not yet seen heavy, prolonged combat in foreign places. Pumped up, and with their young men's hormones roaring, they chant words of the settled moral consensus of their community and of cautious piety. They speak these lines to their elders who have, perhaps recently, returned from war carrying all its damages. The combat veterans in the audience watch their younger, innocent selves and hear them voice the nomos that combat experience has thrown into radical doubt.

The principals in tragedy were mature men, already veterans, unlike the chorus. Their words and deeds, as contrasted with those of the chorus, are almost always transgressive at key moments of the tragedy. What was a necessary survival skill or a soldier's task in war is a transgression in civil society. This has always been true in the narrow sense that after return home, killing once again becomes homicide, foraging becomes theft, and incendiarism, arson. But in the broadest sense, learning 'the paradoxical logic of war' (8) overturns every nomos. Survival in war trains or selects men for the skills to ignore, deflect, pervert, and circumvent orders, rules, and standard operating procedures.

The reason for this lies in the nature of war against a human enemy, who is diligently inferring the soldier's nomos in order to turn it into a death trap for him. The soldier returning to a democracy must find some way to restore nomos. This perspective helps us interpret the distinctive features of Athenian tragedy which I have mentioned above. And the cynical, raunchy, irreverent, outrageous, transgressive character of the Athenian comedies which survive is well-suited to the combat veteran's sense of humor.

With all its obvious blemishes, such as slavery and the disenfranchisement of women and native-born descendants of resident aliens, Athens actually was a democracy for its male citizens. Aristotle regarded tragic theater as uniquely suited to educate the citizen public, the demos. (9) His explanation in the Poetics of how tragedy serves this function is as obscure as it is famous: 'A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action...in a dramatic...form, with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.' (10) Can Aristotle truly recommend democratic education by catharsis, by the administration of a laxative, so as to create a citizenry that is purged of pity, of compassion?

The key to the problem lies in how we understand the Greek word katharsis. Three meanings of katharsis are relevant here: 1) religious purification of of a ritual taint and expiation of a religious sin; 2) medicinal purgation of something unhealthy, poisonous, or impure; 3) mental clarification, removing obstacles to understanding, the psychological equivalent of producing clear water from muddy water. All three of these meanings circulated in Aristotle's time and would have been known to him. (11)

For an audience of veterans of more or less recent combat, more or less brutal betrayals, losses, and protracted periods of berserking, all three of these meanings of katharsis are appropriate. For some it was purification from a sense of taint; for some it was the purgative 'gotta get it outta me;' for some it was feeling these emotions clearly, to the roots of their being. Aristotle welcomed these multiple meanings, I believe, and intentionally allowed them to stand, because of his awareness of the mixed nature of the Athenian audience for tragedy. Phobos for one's self and eleos (which is really more compassion than pity) for one's deeply loved comrade are close to the heart of the combat soldier's experience. The emotions of rage, grief, and guilt are closely intertwined with them.

The veteran bearing unhealed combat trauma cannot function politically in a democracy, for the reasons sketched out above. Surrounded by combat-proven comrades seated around him in the theater, he could feel safe enough to take in what he could take in. My conjecture is that the distinctive character of Athenian theater arose from the political need to purify, purge, and reclarify civic understanding to its returning soldiers, so they could again fulfill the roles of citizens of a democracy.

The ancient Athenians had a distinctive therapy of purification, healing, and reintegration of returning soldiers that was undertaken as a whole political community. Theater was this community's primary means of reintegrating the returning veteran into the social sphere as Citizen. As Martha Nussbaum has observed, both in the Poetics and in the Politics Aristotle gives tragedy a place of honor in the education of young citizens. (12) What I have drawn attention to here is the role of tragedy in re-education for those same citizens as they returned again and again--from war.

NOTES: (1) See Charles Fornara, Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War. The connection between tragedy and democracy has been noted many times before, as summarized in J. Peter Euben's Introduction to his Greek Tragedy and Political Theory, University of California Press, 1986.

(2) Aristotle, Constitution of Athens Section 42. Translated by F.G. Kenyon. In Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton 1992), 2367f.

(3) John J. Winkler, 'The Ephebes' Song: Tragoidia and Polis.' In John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, eds., Nothing to Do with Dionysos? (Princeton 1990) 38f. I am grateful to Stephen Glass for pointing out that the archaeological and literary evidence for the physical layout of the fifth-century Athenian theater and the way people were seated are nowhere near as clear as Winkler's account leaves us feeling.

(4) Ibid. p. 41 note 65.

(5) Ibid. p. 20.

(6) In addition to Aristotle's account, Winkler cites an ancient fragment: 'For choral dancing was practically like a troop review...and a display not only of precision marching [eutaxia] in general but more particularly of physical preparedness,' ibid. p. 51. Choral dancing was accompanied by the aulos, which was also the instrument used both in infantry marches and in naval drill.

(7) Ibid. p. 43.

(8) Edward N. Luttwak invents this phrase in Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge, MA, 1987.

(9) Stephen G. Salkever, 'Tragedy and the education of the Demos,' in J. Peter Euben, ed, Greek Tragedy and Political Theory (Berkeley 1986) pp. 274-303.

(10) Poetics 1448b, translated by I. Bywater.

(11) For the history of explanations given for Aristotle's use of this word see Leon Golden, Aristotle on Tragic and Comic Mimesis, American Philological Association, American Classical Studies, Number 29, pp 5-39. Also Salkever op.cit. pp. 292f, and Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge 1986) pp. 388-91.

(12) See Martha Nussbaum, op. cit. p. 378 note 1 and Salkever, op. cit.

Jonathan Shay
E-mail: jshay@world.std.com

(Jonathan Shay is the author of Achilles in Vietnam. He is currently working on a book using the Odyssey to clarify the obstacles to a soldier's homecoming and the stories of Vietnam veterans' homecomings to interpret the Odyssey.)