Origins of Tragedy Roundtable discussion with Joseph LeDoux, Gregory Nagy, Alexander Nehamas, Stephen Scully, Gareth Williams (moderator)

The etymology of the word tragedy, which in ancient Greek means “goat-song,” may point to the form’s origin as a means of reconciling animal drives and human consciousness. Throughout recorded history, philosophers have repeatedly tried to formulate theories of tragedy in response to art and life. In his Poetics, Aristotle introduced the concept of catharsis in an effort to define tragedy, and his theories went on to influence the work of Lessing, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Croce, and Adorno. Albert Camus and Miguel de Unamuno revisit the themes of catharsis and mimesis in an existentialist context. This panel will address the advent of tragedy as an evolutionary event in the development of culture, while at the same time examining tragedy’s psychological importance with respect to understanding affect and emotion.

Joseph LeDoux is University Professor and Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science in the Center for Neural Science and the Department of Psychology at New York University. He is Director of the NMH Conte Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety and the author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life and Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. He is editor of The Self: From Soul to Brain (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences) and co-editor of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Basic Science and Clinical Practice. His lab’s research is aimed at understanding the biological mechanisms of emotional memory, particularly how the brain learns and stores information about danger.

Gregory Nagy is the author of The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry; Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens; Homer’s Text and Language; Homer the Classic; and Homer the Preclassic. He co-edited with Stephen A. Mitchell the 40th anniversary second edition of Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales. Since 2000, he has been the Director of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, while continuing to teach at the Harvard campus in Cambridge as the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature.

Alexander Nehamas is Carpenter Professor in the Humanities, and Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He is the author of Nietzsche: Life as Literature, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates, and Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. He has also translated, with Paul Woodruff, Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment in the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, and in 2001 he received a Mellon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities.

Stephen Scully has taught at Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins University, and has been a Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University since 1981. He has written on Sophocles and Euripides, and for the Oxford New Translations Series he translated Euripides’ Suppliant Women with Rosanna Warren. His books include Homer and the Sacred City and the forthcoming Hesiod’s Theogony, from the Akkadian Creation Myths to Paradise Lost. He has also published on Vergil, Lucretius, George Chapman, and Freud, and he translated Plato’s Phaedrus.

Gareth Williams is Professor of Classics at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1992. He is a specialist in Latin literature of the late Roman Republican and Early Imperial eras, spanning the first centuries BCE and CE. He has written extensively on the Roman poets of the age of Augustus, including two books on Ovid. In later work, he has shifted focus to the philosophical and poetic/tragic writings of the younger Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and statesman who served as young Nero’s intimate adviser until he fell into imperial disfavor in the early 60s CE. Williams is currently completing a study of Seneca’s important writings on natural science, and, more specifically, on the correlation drawn in Greco-Roman antiquity between the physical workings of the world and the human moral condition.



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