Hume and the theory of tragedy, by j. frederick doering


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Hume and the theory of tragedy, by j. frederick doering

  1. 1. Hume and the Theory of TragedyAuthor(s): J. Frederick DoeringReviewed work(s):Source: PMLA, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Dec., 1937), pp. 1130-1134Published by: Modern Language AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 23/09/2012 13:30Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Modern Language Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to PMLA.
  2. 2. LXXIV HUME AND THE THEORY OF TRAGEDYBEHIND nearly all English literary criticism, particularly that re- lating to the Neo-classic drama, lies the Poetics of Aristotle. Somewriters have been greatly affected by this epochal work; others havecome under its sphere of influence to a lesser degree. However, there arefew authors of importance upon whom the Poetics has failed to makesome profound and enduring impression. Despite the fact that its influ-ence permeates all English literature, excessive emphasis is laid some-times upon the effect of Aristotles teachings, to the detriment of suchprominent critics as Horace, Vida, Trissino, Giraldi, Boileau, and Fon-tenelle. This applies especially to commentators on Hume. Indeed, theScottish philosopher, historian, and critic subscribed to the majority ofAristotles tenets, but the doctrines of Tully, Horace, Boileau, and Cor-neille made an equally impressive and indelible imprint upon his mind. Although Hume deals with tragedy rather thoroughly, his treatmentis eclipsed by the work of Corneille and of the immortal Greek masterboth in minuteness and depth. Moreover, he does not adhere to theAristotelian criteria as closely as would generally be imagined, butrather takes Aristotle as he is interpreted by the French classical drama-tists and critics, for in scarcely any of Humes works is the influence ofthe literary men across the Channel more pronounced than in "OfTragedy." Consequently, it is not difficult to comprehend the reasonwhy Hume, despite his great admiration for Aristotle, did not view himas being impeccable. This is aptly demonstrated by his utterances onthe transitory nature of the fame of philosophers. Thus:The fame of CICERO flourishes at present; but that of ARISTOTLE utterly de- iscayed. LA BRUYERE passes the seas, and still maintains his reputation; Butthe glory of MALEBRANCHEconfined to his own nation, and to his own age. isAnd ADDISON, perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when LOCKE1 shall be en-tirely forgotten.2 In the Poetics, Aristotle states as his first principle, "Epic poetry andTragedy, also Comedy, Dithyrambic poetry, and most flute-playing andlyre playing, are all, viewed as a whole, modes of imitation."3 To himall kinds of poetry were forms of imitation of human action. Tragedywas dramatic imitation of great action, serious and complete, with 1 Humeis carefulto point out that this is no disparagement Lockes ability as a phi- oflosopheror writer. 2 David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose(London, 1898), II, 5. ed. W. D. Ross (Oxford, 8 "De Poetica,"tr. IngramBywater, The Works Aristotle, of1924), xI, 1447.No pagination. 1130
  3. 3. J. Frederick Doering 1131proper elaboration and embellishment. Hume recognizes these facts,but for him imitation has a far more extensive connotation; conse-quently, he advocates not only the copying of human actions, but alsothe imitation of such outstanding models of antiquity as Homer, Vergil,Ovid, Lucretius, and Cicero. This was also advised not only by otherEnglish critics of the eighteenth century, such as Pope,4 Blackwell,5 andJohnson,6 but by a host of other admirers of earlier Mediterraneanculture and art, including Bruni, Minturno, Scaliger, and Jonson.7 But Humes regard for the classical drama of France surpasses evenhis admiration for the productions of Greece and Rome. In "Of CivilLiberty," after he has expounded his hypothesis that the arts flourishbest under a popular form of government, he states:But the most eminentinstanceof the flourishing learningin absolutegovern- ofments, is that of FRANCE, which scarcelyever enjoyed any establishedliberty,and yet has carriedthe arts and sciencesas nearperfectionas any othernation.The ENGLISH are, perhaps, greater philosophers, the ITALIANS better paintersand musicians; the ROMANS were greater orators: But the FRENCH the only arepeople,except the GREEKS, have been at once philosophers, who poets, orators,historians,painters, architects, sculptors,and musicians.With regard to thestage, they have excelled even the GREEKS, who have far excelled the ENGLISH.And in commonlife, they have, in a great measure,perfected that art, themost useful and agreeableof any, IArt de Vivre,the art of society and con-versation.8 Dryden found it expedient to imitate the French in many respects,particularly in his dramatic productions, because he knew that they hadadhered more stringently to the rules expounded by Aristotle than hadthe English, with the possible exceptions of Daniel and Greville. Thefact that he was obliged to admit certain excellences in French playsmust have irked. Dryden considerably for, in "An Essay of DramaticPoesy," he has Neander depreciate the work of Corneille:Corneillehimself,their arch-poet,what has he producedexcept The Liar?andyou know how it cried up in France;but whenit came upon the Englishstage,though well translated,and that part of Dorant acted to so much advantageas I am confidentit never receivedin its own country,the most favourabletoit would not put it in competitionwith many of Fletchersor Ben Jonsons.9 4 Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 118-140. 11. 5 Blackwells commentson Trissinoreveal,nevertheless, that he deploredservileimita-tion of the ancients. See Thomas Blackwell,An Enquiryinto the Life and WritingsofHomer(London,1735), p. 32 ff. 6 In spite of the fact that Johnsonsremarks sometimesidentify him with the cult oforiginalgenius,his own practiceis sufficientto prove that he endorsedthe imitationofancientwriters,his versesatiresbeingimitationsof Juvenal. 7 H. L. Snuggs, ClassicalTheoryand Practicein the Comedies Ben Jonson (Duke ofUniversityMastersthesis; Durham,N. C., 1928), p. 35. 8 Hume, Essays, I, 159. 9 The Works John Dryden,ed. John Mitford(New York, 1854),II, 237-239. See also of
  4. 4. 1132 Hlume and the Theory of Tragedy Turning to a direct analysis of Humes theory of tragedy, we findHume expressing astonishment at the pleasure an audience derivesfrom the disagreeable passions in a well-written tragedy.0 As do Aris-totle11 and Corneille,l2 Hume reminds his readers that tragedy is animitation; hence, it is very agreeable. He also states emphatically that amixture of sentiments has a greater tendency to delight the spectatorsthan those of a particular type: "The more they (spectators) are touchedand affected, the more they are delighted with the spectacle."3 This naturally brings Hume to the point where a consideration ofthe Aristotelian catharsis is requisite. Milton believed in purging themind of pity and fear;l4 "that is, to temper and reduce them to a justmeasure with a kind of delight." Corneille maintained that the theoryof the purgation of pity and fear together with admiration was the mosttenable;15 whereas Lessing and Winckelmann believed in the puri-fication of the tragedy.6 Hume evidently inclines toward the purgationtheory, which several eminent modern scholars and critics favour,17butle grand philosophe of Scotland goes one step farther, after the fashionof Lord Kames,l8 and includes all disagreeable passions. In this he mayhave been partially influenced by Corneille, but this conjecture cannotbe proven. Hume says, however, that as soon as the uneasy passionscease to operate, the piece is ended, and that "one scene full of joy andcontentment and security is the utmost that any composition of thiskind can bear; and it is sure always to be the concluding one."9 Thusour critic disposes of this annoying problem. Hume next attacks the problem, which LAbbe Dubos and Fontenellehad endeavored to solve, of the elimination of lethargy and indolencefrom the tragedy. Hume apparently agrees with Dubos that this mayP. Corneille,(Euvres (Paris, 1862),I: "Au Lecteur,""LesTrois Unites," "Discoursde la andTrag6die," "Discoursde lutilit6et des partiesdu poemedramatique." Drydenmusthave been cognizantof the difficulties arisingfrom the judgingof a workfrom a transla-tion, even thoughit resemblesclosely the original;yet he condemnedCorneillewithouthavingwitnessedthe dramaon the Frenchstage. 10Hume, Essays, I, 258. n See AristotlesPoetics,caput. 1447-49. 12 Corneille,(Euvres, 15. I, 13 Hume,op. cit., I, 258. Hume seems,however,to agreewith Scaliger that realtragedyis always concerned solely with the serious.See J. C. Scaliger,"PoeticesLibri Septem,"in BibliopolioCommeliano (1617),I, 6. 14 "Preface Samson to in Agonistes," EnglishPoemsby John Milton,ed. R. C. Browne(Oxford, 1877),n, 204. For anotherangleof the pity andfearquestion,see G. G. Trissino,Tutte le Opere (Verona, 1729), II, 95. 15 Corneille, (Euvres, I, 53. 18See G. E. Lessing,Laokoon (London,1914)or WalterPater,Renaissance. 17See Allan H. Gilbert,"The AristotelianCatharsis,"in Philosophical Review,xxxv(July, 1926), 301 ff. s1 Lord Kames (Henry Home) claims that Aristotlewould confinetragedytoo much.See An Abridgement Elements Criticism, John Frost (N. Y., 1850), pp. 248-249. of of ed. 19 Hume, Essays, I, 258.
  5. 5. J. Frederick Doering 1133be accomplished to some extent by arousing the passions with any-thing from gaming to an execution;20 and with Fontenelle that bothpleasure and pain should be excited. The critic would add to both ofthese panaceas, nevertheless. He would have both the tragedy and theoration swell the hearts of the listener with sympathy-sympathy, thekeynote of Humes moral philosophy.21 Hume strikes a "juste milieu" in the matter of the passions. Eachemotion has its place in his system. By experience and observation, thetwo chief weapons of the philosopher, Hume learned that "Too muchjealousy extinguishes love: Too much difficulty renders us indifferent:Too much sickness and infirmity disgusts a selfish and unkind parent."Of course he was aware of the fact that the fiction of the tragedy servesto mollify the passions, still he admonished the dramatist to exerciseextreme caution in the use of jealousy, difficulty, sickness, and the like,lest the audience react unfavorably. All the passions, the philosopherasserts, are heightened by the force of imagination, the energy of ex-pression, the power of numbers, and the charm of imitation; each initself delightful to the mind.22The philosophers comments on jealousyand absence, which are especially illuminating, are quoted in supportof the contention that he did follow the "via media" very consistently.23Jealousyis a painfulpassion;yet without some shareof it, the agreeableaffec-tion of love has difficultyto subsist with its full force and violence.Absenceisalso a great source of complaintamong lovers, and gives them the greatestuneasiness:Yet nothingis more favourableto their mutual passionthan shortintervalsof that kind. And if long intervalsoften provefatal, it is only because,throughtime, men are accustomedto them, and they cease to give uneasiness.Jealousyand absencein love composethe dolcepeccante the ITALIANS, of whichthey supposeso essentialto all pleasure.24By means of this, too, he points out that "the pleasure, which poets,orators, and musicians give us, by exciting grief, sorrow, indignation,compassion, is not so extraordinary or paradoxical, as it may at firstsight appear."25 In his Discours de la Tragedie, Corneille stated, "Le but du poete est deplaire selon les regles de son art."26This was quite satisfactory to Hume,but both he and the Frenchman went a step farther and added that itwas the business of the poet to teach. That is why Hume exalted Pope 20 Hume, nevertheless, seems to agreewith Giraldithat only illustriousactionshave aplace in tragedy. See G. B. GiraldiCinthio,ScrittiEstetici:DeRomazi, delleComedie,edelleTragedie, (Milano,1864), II,6. ecc. 21Hume, Essays, i, 261. 22 Ibid., I, 263-264. 23 Ibid., II, 209. 24Hume, Essays, I, 263. Hume points out that the half-finishedproductionsof theancientsgive pleasure.Cf. K. Jex-Blake,TheElderPlinys Chapters theHistoryof Art on(London,1896),lib. xxxv, cap. 11. 26Hume, Essays,I, 263. 26Corneille,(Euvres,xcv, 16-17.
  6. 6. 1134 Hume and the Theory of Tragedyabove the rest of his contemporaries, for each line, each word, in Popesworks, is carved and framed with the distinct purpose of having it con-vey some moral precept to the reader. Hume and Corneille were not someticulous in this respect; but both demanded that the virtuous berewarded and the wicked punished. Now Aristotle had stated thatpoetry should please the spectators,27 but, beyond intimating that itwas possible to gain knowledge from the contemplation of a work ofart,28had done no more than infer that literature should have a didacticpurpose.29This caused Hume and the French classicists great consterna-tion, but they finally interpreted the Poetics in practically the samemanner as had Dryden and Pope. Of course Hume believed in strict recognition of the unities. TheElizabethan dramatists led by Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, had ig-nored the unities whenever they wished to do so. Dryden had acceptedto some extent the dictum of Corneille that the "Iron Rule" of Aris-totle should be observed, but that there should be some liberality inthe interpretation of it.30It was this view that Hume adopted as his own.It proved to be one of the strongest bonds between Hume and theFrench classical school. The essay "Of Tragedy" is really too brief to be a compendium of allthe rules governing tragedy; therefore, the writer found it necessary tolimit himself to certain aspects which interested him most, and whichhad not been dealt with completely by Aristotle and other prominentcritics. One finds Hume, accordingly, dealing with various devices whicharouse the curiosity and attention of the audience, such as novelty,31the beauties allied with strangeness, and suspense.32The latter artificehe considers to have been employed to perfection in Othello. However,Hume does not include in any of his treatises such matters as plot,peripety, spectacle, or the discovery; all of which Aristotle expoundsadequately. Incidentally, the Scottish philosopher and critic is carefulto indicate his acceptance of the "five act rule" and other tenets of theSenecan group; but he protests against excessively bloody and horriblescenes on the stage, as in Rowes The Ambitious Stepmother.33 J. FREDERICKDOERING Anderson College and TheologicalSeminary 27Lane Cooper,An Aristotelian Theory Comedy of (New York, 1922), p. 174. 28See Aristotle,op. cit., cap. 1448. 29Compare A with the attitude of Piccolomini; J. E. Spingarn, Historyof Literary seeCriticism theRenaissance in (New York, 1908), p. 12. 80 Hume, Essays,n, 21-22. 81 Cf. Kames,Elements Criticism, 68 ff. of p. 3 Hume, Essays, I, 262. 83David Hume, Essays and Treatises Several on (London,1772),I, 233. Subjects