Tragedy and freewill in a pre-Socratic era

For the pre-Socratic authors, tragedy was a very simple thing. Homer, being the bridge between the archaic and the ancient, exemplified this tragedy. Tragedy for this group was mankind going against fate. Tragedy was man’s betting of his own ability (hubris) against what the gods knew to be the future. This is why tragedy has been such a powerful story over the ages, I would argue. It taps into this very old, perhaps even subconscious belief that things in the world are ordered and thus determined. Socrates railed against this because he believed that reason was the way out. Reason could make possible an out to tragedy through creative imagination. It was logic that allowed the person to image a different world where the fate wasn’t determined. This is why Nietzsche famously said that Socrates caused the death of tragedy.

But I would argue that he did this through asceticism. Socrates believed that the good life and the truth were one in the same. If you knew the truth, then the good life would follow. Thus, to sidestep fate Socrates seems to argue that one must strive for truth, realizing what the good life is and accepting it. In other words, philosophizing makes the order and the determined world understandable and thus reduces man’s willingness through hubris to go against it.

When we look at archaic tribes today, a version of this determined world still persists. The world is animated by characters (gods, demons, sprites, etc.) that somehow conspire against humans. The soothsayer is there not just to contain all of the information of the tribe, but to interpret the order. He tries to figure out what the future will bring. In his trances, he becomes a conduit of these spirits who know the future. For the tribes, he isn’t just a man, but a link to the order and world that only the spirits know.

First published Mar 19, 2011