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Tragedy, Pluralism, Agonism: Ancient Greek Tragedy as a foundation for pluralist theory, with an application to pluralist agonism

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posted on 2021-12-08, 11:50 authored by Forde, Xavier Lloyd

In Fifth Century B.C. Athens, the tragic playwrights took upon themselves the traditional mantle of poet-sage and responded to the cultural crisis of their time: the rupture within the Athenian mindset between on the one hand, an emergent Enlightenment-style discourse based on the juridico-political rationality of the democratic polis and on a confident assessment of the human condition, and on the other, the archaic discourse of myth and its “pessimism of strength”.  Their plays held the two in an uneasy yet creative tension, projecting a pluralist ethos grounded in the assertion of the ambiguity and limits of the human condition. The thesis seeks to elaborate on the nature of this pre-philosophical ethos through the exploration of ancient Greek history and thought and the plays themselves. It delineates the expression in this ethos of a dual movement of problematisation and renewal: a critical, problematising, attitude towards both “rational” and “mythic” discourses, and in the space of thought created by this self-questioning, the elaboration of a minimalist platform for claim-making compatible with both the tragic onto-epistemology of limits and moderation and life in the democratic polis.  This reading of the plays recognizes the problematisation of monistic claim-making in terms of truth, identity, values and politics. For instance, the playwrights call into question the archaic code of honour of the hero or the instrumental rationality adopted by some of their contemporary Athenian politicians: both systems of value are deemed too rigid and too simplistic to accord with the ambiguity and diversity of life in the city. It also outlines the values of moderation, reciprocity, and public-interestedness that are put forward by the tragedians as palliatives to the antagonism generated by monistic claim-making. These form a pluralist platform on which the democratic contest can be played out without reifying any singular and substantive account of politics, and with a lesser likelihood of dividing the city into factions that seek power at the expense of the city’s survival.  The thesis then concludes with an application of the pluralist ethos of classical tragedy to a contemporary pluralist theory. By maintaining the tension between rationalist and mythic discourses, classical tragedy presents to Athenians a “constructive deconstruction” of their worldview. Tragedy’s pre-philosophical and pluralist ethos can underpin the democratic theory of “pluralist agonism”, helping it to navigate a course between modern foundationalist and anti-foundationalist philosophical ethos and their expressions in democratic theory: the liberal reification of constitutionalism and the democratic privileging of popular sovereignty.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Political Science

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Marquez, Xavier; Deuchars, Robert