Tragedy and the Limits of Pessimism in Ancient and Modern Realist Political Thought

Jak cytować

Humphries, Carl. 2020. „Tragedy and the Limits of Pessimism in Ancient and Modern Realist Political Thought”. In Gremium. Studia Nad Historią, Kulturą I Polityką, nr 14 (grudzień), 223-35.


This article explores the question of what we might discover about the nature and significance of contemporary forms of so-called “political realism” – particularly with regard to their relationship to pessimism – from a philosophical consideration of Ancient Greek tragedy on the one hand, and of such supposed ancient precursors of this way of thinking about ethical and/or political matters as Thucydides on the other. The principal thesis put forward here will be that Greek tragedy can prompt us to notice a revealing equivocation within the thinking of prominent recent and contemporary exponents of such realism, connected with what, in practice, it means to withhold assent from forms of morality-centred optimism on the grounds that they are perceived to be dogmatic or speculative. Such political realism, I conclude, when thus formulated, implicitly involves elements that are dogmatically pessimistic, even when expressly aspiring to be anti-dogmatic themselves. In order to clarify the significance of this equivocation, I draw a parallel with some issues that have emerged in the context of the reception of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.


Benjamin W., Theses on the Philosophy of History, [in:] Illuminations, ed. H. Arendt, New York 1969, pp. 253-264.
Carter D., The Politics of Greek Tragedy, Bristol 2007.
Conant J., Throwing Away the Top of the Ladder, “The Yale Review” 1991, vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 328–64.
Diamond C., The Realistic Spirit. Wittgenstein, Philosophy and the Mind, Cambridge MA 1991.
Geuss R., Thucydides, Nietzsche and Williams, [in:] R. Geuss, Outside Ethics, Princeton, N.J. 2005, pp. 219-233; also [in:] Nietzsche on Time and History, ed. M. Dries, Berlin 2008, pp. 35–50.
Geuss R., Philosophy and Real Politics, Princeton, NJ 2008.
Habermas J., The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights. “Metaphilosophy” 2010, vol. 41, No.4, pp. 464-480.
Hacker P.M.S., Insight and Illusion: Themes in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, Oxford 1986.
Leiter B., Nietzsche on Morality, Oxford 2002/2014.
Meier C., The Greek Discovery of Politics, Cambridge, MA 1990.
Meier C., The Political Art of Greek Tragedy, Cambridge 1993.
Nietzsche F., Daybreak, Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. M. Clark and B. Leiter, Cambridge 1997
Nozick R., Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York 1974.
Rawls J., The Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA 1971.
Rawls J., Political Liberalism, New York 1993.
Rawls J., Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Cambridge, MA 2001.
Shapiro G., Nietzsche’s Earth: Great Events, Great Politics, Chicago 2016.
Shklar J., The Liberalism of Fear, [in:] Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. N. Rosenblum, Cambridge, MA: 1989, pp. 21-39.
Williams B., Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA 1985.
Williams B., Shame and Necessity. (Sather Classical Lectures, Volume 57), Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 1993, pp. 75-102.
Williams B., The Liberalism of Fear, [in:] In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. G. Hawthorn, Princeton 2005, pp. 52-61.
Wittgenstein L., Philosophical Investigations, transl. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford 1953.
Wittgenstein L., On Certainty, transl. D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, Oxford 1969.