Sophocles and the Politics of Tragedy
Cities and Transcendence
Routledge – 2012 – 252 pages
Sophocles and the Politics of Tragedy is an inquiry into a fundamental political problem made visible through the tragic poetry of Sophocles. In part I Badger offers a detailed exegesis of three plays: Ajax, Antigone, and Philoctetes. These plays share a common theme, illuminating a persistent feature of political life, namely the antagonism between the heroic commitment to the beautiful and the transcendent on the one hand, and the community’s need for bodily safety and material security on the other. This conceptual structure not only helps us understand these plays but also establishes a distinctive vision of the tragic dimension of political life—a vision that can be applied fruitfully to examinations of political projects quite distant from the world of fifth-century Athens. Such an application is the aim of part II, in which Badger coordinates the results of the inquiries of part I and applies them to a consideration of the competing claims of three strands of medieval and early modern political philosophy: ecclesiastical rule, scientific domination, and liberal government. Badger identifies the last of these—early modern liberalism—as a "tragic politics" that seeks to sustain and contain the tension between transcendent longing and material need.
"Jonathan Badger has turned to Sophocles not only because his plays are beautiful and deep, but also because Sophocles is a wise teacher who can still illuminate for us, his potential students, the deepest aspects of our complex human nature and the enduring predicaments of political life. Badger’s book, then, is more than an interpretation of a great tragic poet; it is a far-reaching and penetrating study in political philosophy. Badger brings Sophocles to life by showing that he still speaks to our questions, concerns, and dilemmas, and by placing him in dialogue with some of the seminal thinkers of medieval and early modern political philosophy."
— Devin Stauffer, The University of Texas at Austin
"Sophocles and the Politics of Tragedy reveals two primordial sources of human action equally necessary but permanently at odds. Jonathan Badger beautifully articulates the tension within the human soul between longing for the material and for the transcendent, first as the tragic contest between the good and the beautiful and then, by way of thinkers like Aquinas, Jaspers, and, most importantly, Locke, as the defining feature of political life. This is a book that both in its scholarship and in its contemporary pertinence cuts very deep."
—Michael Davis, Sarah Lawrence College
"Badger provides beautiful and original analyses of Sophocles’ plays in terms of the tragic tension between the human need for both transcendence and security. Sophocles’ insights give Badger a window to the history of Western thought that allows him to defend Lockean liberalism as a tragic politics, against medieval, early modern, and contemporary attempts to overcome tragedy. His argument is compelling, sure to be controversial, and will deepen our conversation about ourselves and our politics, while establishing Badger as a major voice in that conversation."
—Mary P. Nichols, Baylor University
Introduction. 1. Tragic Insights Part I 2. Parallax and Politics in Ajax 3. Death and Desire in Antigone 4. Friendship and Necessity in Philoctetes Part II 5. Medieval Visions and the Early Modern Project 6. The Tragic Politics of John Locke 7. Karl Jaspers and the End of Tragedy Conclusion.
Jonathan N. Badger is Associate Professor at St. John's College, Annapolis.