Series of lectures in Institute of Philosophy: “Personhood, law & literature. Humane philosophy and the idea of the tragic”

Department of Philosophy of Culture
Institute of Philosophy, Warsaw University
invites for the series of lectures and seminars:

Personhood, law & literature.
Humane philosophy and the idea of the tragic.

(part of the “The Humane Philosophy Project”)

Lecturers / Coordinators:

  • dr. Jonathan Price
    (Blackfriars Hall-Oxford University, University of Leiden Law School)
  • dr. Przemysław Bursztyka (Institute of Philosophy, Warsaw University)
  • mgr Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode (Institute of Philosophy, Warsaw University)

The aim of the course is to provide an analysis of the human condition in the light of the ancient category of the tragic. In this perspective the human being appears as a fragile structure whose existence is essentially determined by the constant and dramatic necessity of choosing between competing systems of values, as well as by being split between different or even contradictory legal, cultural and ontological orders. The course will attempt to answer the question how the idea of human personhood (or individuality – in a more modern idiom) arises out of these contradictions as well as from the confrontation with the general idea of law. The course will be divided into two parts. The first one will be an extensive analysis of Aeschylus’ tragedy Oresteia. The second part will be the investigation of the modern variation of the ancient theme by means of analysis of Franz Kafka’s novels The Trial and The Castle. In this way the analysis of different dimensions of the phenomenon of the tragic will be essentially connected with the reflection on the different forms of expression of the phenomenon.

Place: Institute of Philosophy, room 4 (ground floor)
Schedule: 24.04; 06.05; 22.05; 30.05; 05.06
Hours (of every meeting): 17:00 – 20:00

(coordinator dr. Jonathan Price)
Reading Oresteia by Aeschylus

In a series of six English-language seminars and lectures you will be exposed to tragedy, which may be one of the most abused words in modern language. Almost any bad event can be called “tragic”, and this locution frequently occurs in every-day speech. However the contemporary usage of the word has obscured the richer, original denotation and connotations of the tragic. It is not simply about bad things happening to someone. It involves the competition of two (or more) good things, one of which must prevail. As in the film Sophie’s Choice, the tragedy is not that one of her children must die, it is that she is forced to choose which of them is to live and, thus by necessity, which of them is to be killed. Duty to society weighed against duty to family; divine command against human desires; honour versus virtue: these and other competing goods are the preconditions of tragedy. As they play against one another, terrible things often happen, and wretched things are done.

The ancient Greeks were masters at imagining such circumstances. Around 2500 years ago, they captured hundreds of tragic stories in thousands of poetical plays. In Athens, these plays were performed in the annual theatrical competition. Unfortunately, not many of the thousands of plays survive for us to read. What has survived is not only considered as the beginning of Western theatre but it is also – along with Homer and the extant Greek comedies – the beginning of the Western literary tradition. Moreover, the literature of this period provides insight into the proto-legal philosophy and proto-moral philosophy that was to flower fully a few generations later in the life and works of inter alia Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

In this series of lectures and seminars, we shall read The Oresteia, the most famous cycle of tragedies in history – and perhaps the most influential – with an eye towards what it can reveal about Athenian understandings of personhood, law and the social function of poetical literature. Before the series terminates we should understand something of the ancient Greek’s notions of those three topics. It is also a goal of the series to ask and attempt to answer what relation these early understandings have to our contemporary ideas about the same topics. During the series of lectures and seminars, time will be taken to deal with the question in a contemporary context.

Theme of each meeting:
Lecture and seminar nr. 1 Agamemnon, pt. 1 of The Oresteia.
Theme: Greek theatre and the performative aspects of personhood

The first lecture and seminar will introduce the world that Aeschylus presents in The Oresteia. The text as a piece of literature, which was originally experienced as a dramatic performance, will be connected to the concept of the person. Persons, too, have a performative and representational aspect. The performative aspect involves all that the person can say or do privately or publically. The representational aspect involves the ways in which human persons can be constructed or recognized socially, legally, philosophically, religiously and culturally. Agamemnon will serve as the person par excellence in this study.

Lecture and seminar nr. 2 The Libation Bearers, pt. 2 of The Oresteia.
Theme: determinism & personal moral responsibility

The second lecture and seminar will take seriously the deterministic character of Orestes’ predicament. He, like many modern humans, would seem to find himself in a place without the possibility realistically to do otherwise than to kill his mother. However, in the world of the Greeks matricide should result in the death penalty, being one of the most morally reprehensible and legally pursuable deeds in antiquity. Part of the freedom of persons, morally and legally, is not being inevitably bound by necessity. Is personhood possibly where some forms of determinism reign? Can we speak about gradations of personhood in the way we may speak about gradations of moral responsibility? Or is ‘person’ an either/or concept (i.e. either a person or a thing)? Are there different ways we may answer those questions when speaking about legal persons, philosophical persons, our own personhood, or regarding characters in literature (fictitious persons)? Orestes will serve as the ‘person in question’ for this philosophical enquiry.

Lecture and seminar nr. 3 The Kindly Ones, pt. 3 of The Oresteia. Shame and Necessity.
Theme: public legality and private morality

Contemporary ideas of a ‘right to privacy’ follow after a long train of conceptual development of the rights and duties of persons. There is an assumption that our public and private existence are divisible into spheres of life and action: in public the law is sovereign; in private the individual person is sovereign. Such an assumption was not shared by the ancients, although some intimations of that assumption do emerge during the trial of Orestes in the third play of The Oresteia. The broad division of public law and private law, and both of them from any necessary connection to private moral considerations, is hinted at in the outcome of Orestes’ case. He killed his mother ‘not without justice’ – a puzzling phrase in the context in which it is presented. The question becomes: Whose justice is relevant? And why? The Oresteia provides us with one solution to competing visions of justice – the Athenian settlement of the Areopagus and publically-promulgated law, a jury system, all bearing some deference to the gods. What other possibilities may there be to reconcile the seemingly conflicting demands of justice that this play presents us with?

(coordinators dr Przemysław Bursztyka, mgr Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode)

Reading The Trial and The Castle by Franz Kafka

The second part of the seminar will be the attempt to provide a possible modern answer to the same problem, namely that of the tragic character of human existence. What kind of modification – if any – the ancient category undergoes in modernity? Is it still useful in order to describe the complex character of human reality? It is often said that it is not the adequate category to describe the intellectual and spiritual climate of the highly individualised modern culture.  The ancient concept of the tragic derives its sense and depth from the immanent localization of human affairs in the wider context of society or polis and from their essential reference to the higher, divine order. That means, human actions and sense of personality appears within and on the basis of the broader context of dynamic and conflicting relations between the acting agent and the external overwhelmed forces. As Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet – while characterizing the Greek tragedy – aptly put it: “The same character appears now as an agent, the cause and source of his actions, and now as acted upon, engulfed in a force that is beyond him and sweeps him away”. If we realize that modern individuals derive the meaning of their being and individuality much more from the free act of self-assertion than from external points of reference, that in this era the ultimate sense of being human is absolute lawgiving autonomy the very possibility of application of the category of the tragic appears as truly questionable. If we supplement this description with some critical remarks on modernity in general as the dark times of destruction of the public sphere on the one hand and of religious disenchantment on the other hand, as the times when the sense of social interactions disappears together with the premonition of the divine transcendence the tragic can be determined as an old-fashioned, worn and useless category. Moreover, the historical end of tragedy – the specific medium for the tragic themes and motifs – casts another shadow on the timeliness of our problem. On the other hand, some critics not only defend the possibility of adequate usage of the category but even admit that it is only now that the phenomenon of the tragic can be observed and analyzed in its full potentiality. In this perspective modernity together with some meaningful change of accents led, in fact, to the universalization of the ancient theme. The split of the self being at the same time a subjective structure of self-foundation and an object of external and anonymous forces which tend to deprive modern individuals of their freedom, the tension between the real and the imaginary, the painful incongruity between moral autonomy and desire, the dialectic contradiction between the ideas of law and justice, the problematic character of the idea of law itself  are but a few most meaningful indications of the tragic inscribed into the modern condition.

It seems that Franz Kafka’s writings give us the brilliant opportunity to re-think the category of the tragic within the horizon of modernity. During the series of four seminars we will analyse two of  Kafka’s novels – The Trial and The Castle. The themes of our special concern will be (among others):

– the paradoxical character of the tragic subject in modernity;
– the status and nature of law –  its objective, formal and imaginative character;
– the origins of authority;
– the dialectics of the relation: subjectivity-law-authority;
– the moral autonomy of individual and the limits of freedom;
– the phenomenon of guilt – its existential and legal sense.

Reading materials:

Part I

  • Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Hugh Lloyd-Jones (translator), University of California Press. ISBN: 978-0520083288;  or:
  • Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Hugh Lloyd-Jones (translator), Gerald Duckworth & Co. ISBN: 978-0715616833.
  • Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity,. University of California Press, second edition (2008). ISBN: 978-0520256439.

Part II

  • Franz Kafka, The Trial
  • Franz Kafka, The Castle
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