Joshua Billings’ Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2014) shows how a closely knit group of German idealist thinkers around Friedrich Schiller in Jena developed the category of the tragic as distinct from the actual literary works, underlying them as an ideal concept. He does so by rethinking the 18th century reception of ancient tragedy, and embeds it in a shift away from the paradigms in which that century tried to understand the impact of antiquity on the present. Billings demonstrates how this rethinking, stimulated by the revolutionary climate of the times, intertwined “the tragic” and modernity in a way that has become constitutive for our own thinking about fifth century Athenian tragedy; besides the many theoretical texts of the epoch and informed by them, Hölderlin’s encounter with Sophocles is assigned its key role in the modern reception of Athenian tragedy.
The great merit of Billings’ book is to contextualize the history of the modern reception of Greek tragedy in the wider background of the almost tectonic shift that marks the transition from the 18th century to a modernity that still profoundly informs our approach to the ancient plays. A demanding and deeply researched study, Billings’ book is a model of what reception studies can and should be – a path to help us to understand better how we have arrived at our way of dealing with a given Greek or Roman cultural phenomenon. This work does not simply reconstruct an area in the history of our discipline in an almost antiquarian way, but opens up new avenues of research by making us understand how our approach to a central area of classical studies has been determined by a specific historical constellation. The SCS is proud to award the Charles Goodwin Award of Merit to Joshua Billings in recognition of the learning and sophisticated grace that inform his Genealogy of the Tragic.
Barbara Weiden Boyd, Chair