The Symbiosis of Democracy and Tragedy: Lost Lessons from Ancient Greece

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Democracy and tragedy were intrinsically linked during the time of the Athenian city-state. But though vital at the time, this symbiosis is largely forgotten today. We address this puzzling silence. What was it about democracy that encouraged, even needed, the ascendancy of tragedy? Why did the mass performances of tragedy play so central a role in the democratic polis of Athens? We address these questions not as historians or philologists, but as scholars of contemporary international relations. Our hope, in particular, is to uncover whether the Greek experiment, radical and short-lived as it was, can provide us with clues about how to extend democracy to the global realm, which increasingly shapes people's lives but so far lacks mechanisms for democratic participation and accountability. We explore how the paradoxical plots that lie at the heart of tragedies remind us — as they did the Greeks — that no order is ever complete or void of contradictions; that democracy is not about complete control but about recognising the limits of politics and dealing with the forces of chaos and change. We illustrate the issues at stake — along with their relevance for contemporary international relations — through tragedy's so-called multivocal form, which brought into the public realm a multitude of voices and issues that could not otherwise be heard in democratic deliberations.


School of Arts

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Journal Article

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