Tragedy, Dialogue, and Politics: Applying Tragedy’s Therapy to Russian Relations with the West

By Professor Nicolai N. Petro

When we refer to something as a tragedy, we typically mean that something bad has happened over which we have no control. It is precisely our powerlessness to change these circumstances that we deem  “tragic.”

For the ancient Greeks, however, tragedy is something that human beings create by virtue of their obtuseness. The gods set up the conditions of our existence, but it is our own pride and arrogance that lead us to make choices that give offense to others and that spark their desire for revenge. Tragedy is thus not fated. It is something we have the power to mitigate, once we recognize our own role in creating it.

The repetition of offense followed by revenge, followed by renewed offense, is called a tragic cycle. It repeats until it is broken, but this too is a choice that individuals must make. Therefore, understanding tragedy as the Greek did, rather than as we do now, restores human agency to politics.

Hence, my most succinct definition of tragedy is this: Tragedy results when, by trying to correct an injustice, we unwittingly perpetuate it.

The purpose of the performance of Greek tragedies was to teach citizens how to bring an end to chaos and restore order in their midst. Through the validation of the proper order of things (deon), the citizenry could be led away from hubris toward catharsis. This was accomplished through dialogue, reconciliation, and ultimately compassion, for unless Athenians could learn to share in the suffering of others, the circle of tragedy could never be brought to a close.

We Have Forgotten that Tragedy was Political Therapy

Tragedy’s most important function—to spark a dialogue among the citizenry on proper civic values and behavior—has been all but forgotten. Many social scientists today reject the tragic underpinnings of political realism. Even modern realists tend to see in tragedy only a reminder that politics can never result in anything but imperfect compromises. This has prevented us from appreciating tragedy’s therapeutic potential. The Greeks, by contrast, saw tragedy as a way to shape the character of Athenian citizens by demonstrating the proper content of a noble soul, and the type of actions that would be most beneficial to the community.

This difference between classical Greek tragedy and modern political realism has important implications. Political realists today generally pay too little attention to the social component of hamartia (error, misjudgment) and as a result rarely mention catharsis, which is crucial to the healing of society.[1]

The Role of Dialogue in Tragedy 

Classical Greek tragedy forces people to reflect on what is timeless about the human condition by setting itself the task of improving the moral character and judgment of the citizenry, and thus of the polis as a whole. It is this improvement of the whole political community, rather than just its individual components, that modern social science seems to have all but abandoned.

Many people, even some diplomats and politicians, no longer understand the actual purpose of dialogue. They think it means communicating one’s desires to another party. But a prison warden does that with his inmates. One of the most ancient meaning of the word logos  means “to gather together.” Some scholars argue that in English it is best rendered as “relationship.” In this vein we hear the opening words of the Gospel according to St. John in a new context: “In the beginning was the Relationship . . .”[2]

Dialogue differs from conversation, discussion, or debate by being more concerned about the relationship of the participants than it is about the topic at hand. Its proper objective is not the achievement of a momentary agreement, but a self-transformation that will allow this and future agreements to be honored by establishing a new relationship. It is, in William Isaacs’ words, a conversation with a center, not sides.[3]  

Classical Greek tragedy is thus, quintessentially, a series of dialogues in which we expose our own tragic flaws to ourselves. This exposure is meant to bring about catharsis—a purging of the soul that restores healthy perspective by removing toxic emotions and ambitions. It is therefore both improper and misleading to characterize the Obama administration’s “reset” as an attempt to foster dialogue. Drawing a distinction between technical agreements and values disagreements, as the authors of the reset did, is the exact opposite of true dialogue.

If tragedy results when social actors unwittingly perpetuate injustice through their efforts to abolish it, this implies that if the actors ever recognized what they were doing, and altered their behavior, the tragic cycle could be (temporarily) broken.

In Eumenides, the final play of his Oresteia trilogy, the Greek playwright Aeschylus lays out a strategy for accomplishing this. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: the protagonists must embrace a compassionate justice that extends to all, rather than a partial justice only for the few. It contains five steps:

      1) Anagnorisis, the loss of order in society must be recognized by all, so that it can be recreated through the combined efforts of the whole community;

     2) Catharsis, the purging of hatred, can begin when antagonists come to recognize themselves in their enemies; only then can confrontation give way to dialogue;

     3) Dialogue evokes compassion and forgiveness, the precursors to True Justice;

     4) True Justice allows for the creation of new, all-inclusive social institutions;

     5) Finally, social harmony is established when former enemies become stakeholders in the new social order by joining these new institutions, thereby completing the process of social transformation (metanoia).

Such a strategy offers the best hope of providing a lasting peace in two toxic environments—Ukraine and Russian-American relations.

Applying Tragedy’s Therapy to Ukraine

Like the Peloponnesian War, which Simon Critchley aptly describes as a “long suicide,” the crisis in Ukraine is a classic tragedy.[4] In describing it as such, I seek to highlight not only the cyclical nature of the internal conflict, but also to suggest a way out. 

If Ukrainian history is a cycle of mutual grievances rooted in the persistent attempts of its two distinctive political cultures—Galician and Maloross—to resolve once and for all the issue of who gets to define Ukrainian identity, then the resolution to this conflict lies in recognizing how this very effort to “fix” Ukraine is in fact perpetuating the tragic cycle.

For the current government there, nationalism seems to offer a speedy, albeit violent, remedy. The difficulty with any nationalistic remedy, however, is that it ultimately aggravates social tensions. For harmony to be restored, society must embrace a form of justice that is acceptable to all parties in conflict. This means giving the Other (Russophone) Ukraine a stake in the construction and preservation of society.

This is precisely what Ukrainian governments have failed to do for the past three decades. They have acted like the proverbial Greek goddesses, the Furies, driven by a sense of righteous vengeance, both against Russia and against their own Russophone citizens, who are routinely vilified as a “fifth column” for Russia inside Ukraine.[5] Breaking the tragic cycle will require that this so-called “fifth column” be given a meaningful stake in the social order.

Applying Tragedy’s Therapy to Russian Relations with the West

In international relations, true dialogue would imply a willingness to question the primacy of any world order, even the Liberal World Order. It also means abandoning the notion that the cultural values associated with that world order can be imposed by the West on the rest of the world. Pragmatically, however, one must acknowledge the tremendous fear of Western elites that this would result in the end of Western global dominance.

One way to overcome this fear might be to show Western elites how they could benefit from a more pluralistic world, and from cooperative global initiatives that are not predicated exclusively on Western leadership. For example, it might be argued that, by sharing the burden of maintaining order throughout the world with regional powers, the West could limit out-of-control defense spending (e.g., the Pentagon has never been successfully audited[6]) to the actual needs of defense, rather than to the unbridled costs of maintaining global leadership. This would free up enormous domestic resources during this time of prolonged global recession. Moreover, sharing the cost of global security would set a good example for global burden sharing in other vital areas, where it is long overdue, such as climate change and global disease control.

I am not at all sanguine that this will actually happen, either in Ukraine or in the West, but I feel that without clearly identifying the tragic reasons for our repeated failures, the chances of finding workable solution to such problems become even more remote.


Footnotes

[1] A good example is Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), which portrays Greek tragedy as a militaristic form of heroism that taught audiences to bravely defend the nation (by which they mean polis) against its enemies.

[2] William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (New York: Currency Books, 1999), cited on “ What is dialogue?” https://www2.clarku.edu/difficultdialogues/learn/index.cfm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us (New York: Vintage Books, 2020), p. 45.

[5] Former president Poroshenko set the tone for this: “Poroshenko rasskazal o pyatoi kolonne i atamanshchine” [Poroshenko spoke of the fifth column and the Hetmanate], Zerkalo nedeli,  January 22, 2018; “Na lbu ne napisano,” [It’s not written on one’s forehead], Fakty, March 26, 2018; “Poroshenko: Nam khvatit uma i sil, chtoby ‘pyataya kolonna’ i ne dumala podnyat golovu” [Poroshenko: We have enough brains and strength to prevent the ‘fifth column’ from even thinking of raising its head], Gordonua.com, August 24, 2017. President Zelensky has continued in the same vein, causally dismissing all critical Ukrainian media outlets as “allies of Russian policy.” See the full text of his New York Times interview of 19 December 2020 at https://www.president.gov.ua/news/intervyu-volodimira-zelenskogo-new-york-times-65705.

[6] Thomas Hedges, “The Pentagon has never been audited. That’s astonishing,” The Guardian (UK), March 20, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/20/pentagon-never-audited-astonishing-military-spending.

Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. This article was originally published on the American Committee for East West Accord as a transcript of remarks delivered during a Dec. 16, 2020 seminar at the Simone Weil Center.

*Painting: The Remorse of Orestes by Philippe-Auguste Hennequin

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