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Philosophy in Ancient Greek Theatre

Lecturer: Steven Churchill

Originally Taught: Summer School 2012

This course seeks to engage with philosophical themes presented in ancient Greek tragedy and comedy, as well as to consider the way in which the significance and value of ancient Greek theatre has been interpreted and critiqued by philosophers. Initially, the historical context of dramatic performance in ancient Greece will be addressed. We will consider the evolution of the theatre-space from its roots in initiation rituals associated with the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, excess, and creative subversion. We will ultimately arrive at the advent of the dramatic chorus, and its position as a crucial cultural institution. We will then reflect upon how philosophical issues may be situated in this historical context of performance and ritual; we will then consider two philosophical perspectives on the origins, meaning and value of Attic drama, from two philosophers - Aristotle (Poetics) and then Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy). Whereas Aristotle argued that tragic theatre provided the possibility of catharsis (the "permission" to discharge and contend with our deepest fears, desires concerns and so on in response to the tragic plight of the characters involved), Nietzsche argued that tragic theatre offered the possibility of ecstatic life-affirmation in the face of tragedy.  Their contrasting accounts will provide us with a critical/evaluative (though never absolutely definitive) lense through which to address the philosophical themes at issue in the works we will consider. Specifically, we will engage with Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, Euripides' Helen (both tragedies) and Aristophanes' Clouds (a comedy). Nietzsche's perspective on Euripides' works in particular will be pertinent here, given his disdain for what he viewed as the usurping of the exquisite sublimation of the Apollonian and Dionysian impulse inherent in the "old" tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, by the explicitly philosophical rationality of Euripides' works.

We will employ Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes in examining the philosophical dichotomies he establishes between justice and injustice, the sacred and the profane, foreigner and citizen and so on. The cultural significance of these themes will be assessed in relation to the links able to be drawn between Aeschylus' implementation of them and their position in ancient Greek philosophy generally, with particular reference to Plato's dialogues, especially The Republic. Next, we will consider Euripides' Helen, paying particular attention to its occupation with the philosophical debate surrounding "Seeming" and "Being" that was a major feature of the intellectual landscape in Athens at the time of its release. This will also enable us to more fully consider Nietzsche's claim that the encroachment of explicit philosophical ideas and themes (such as the debate over "Seeming" and "Being", for instance) led to the "death" of tragedy in its grandest form, given that we will have compared an example of "old" tragedy from Aeschylus, with Euripides' "rational" style.  Finally, we will consider Aristophanes'Clouds. In particular, we will examine its portrayal (and parody) of philosophy and the figure of Socrates in particular, and we will evaluate Aristophanes' "distinction" between philosophy and sophistry and the implications this has for our understanding and practice of philosophy.

Course Schedule:

  • Course Outline, Aims, Texts
  • The Historical context
  • The position of philosophy in tragedy and comedy
  • Aristotle and Nietzsche
Section 1: Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes
  • Aeschylus' life and works
  • Philosophical themes in Seven Against Thebes
  • Commonalities between these themes in Aeschylus and in Plato 
  • Reading the play through Nietzsche and Aristotle's perspectives
Section 2: Euripides' Helen
  • Euripides' life and works
  • Philosophical themes in Helen
  • Comparing Helen with Seven Against Thebes in light of Nietzsche's perspective
Section 3: Aristophanes' Clouds
  • Aristophanes' life and works
  • The figure of Socrates
  • Philosophy and Sophistry


  • Aeschylus, Suppliants and Other Dramas: Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, Fragments With Prometheus Bound Traditionally Ascribed to Aeschylus (trans., & ed., Michael Ewans, The Guernsey Press Co. Ltd, 1996.)
  • Euripides, Helen. (trans., Bella Zweig) New York: Routledge, 1999
  • Aristophanes, The Clouds (trans., Marie C. Marianetti) Maryland: University of America Press, 1997
  • Plato The Republic (trans., & ed., I.A Richards) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972
  • Plato Gorgias (trans., James A.  Arietti) Focus Publishing, 2006
  • Nietzsche,The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings (trans., Raymond Guess & Ronald Spears) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999
  • Aristotle Poetics (trans., S.H Butcher) New York: Cosimo, 2008

Course Difficulty Level: Beginner/Intermediate level