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Fire from Heaven in Elemental Tragedy: From Hölderlin’s Death of Empedocles to Nietzsche’s Dying Socrates

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image of Research in Phenomenology

The paper considers the legacy of Empedocles as it bears upon the difficulty confronted by Hölderlin in his Death of Empedocles: how are we to understand Hölderlin’s failure to complete this ‘mourning play’ despite his continued and repeated efforts? This difficulty is elaborated through a reading of Hölderlin’s own understanding of “elemental tragedy” as it is presented and developed in the three dense so-called Homburg essays on tragedy. It is evident that the understanding of tragedy that emerges here entails a dramatic poetry that would break with the prevailing tradition and its determination of poetry according to a mimetic operation. Aristotle’s own account of Empedocles and his apparent refusal to consider Empedocles as a poet is considered alongside other ancient accounts of Empedoclean poetry, notably those provided by Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, and Lucretius. In this context, Nietzsche’s account of the end of tragedy through his interpretation of another philosophical death, that of Socrates, is introduced as a counterpoint to help elucidate the difficulties faced by Hölderlin. This Nietzschean account of ‘the image of the dying Socrates’ also proves to be related to Nietzsche’s own brief but provocative statements concerning what is eclipsed with the loss of Empedoclean tragic philosophy and emergence of Socratism. The paper concludes by returning to Hölderlin’s letters to Böhlendorff as these letters make thematic an ‘elemental’ difference in the impossible recovery of the tragic in our time.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon Eugene, OR 97403-1295USA


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