Sunday, July 28, 2013

Of Tragedy by David Hume / Chasing Sophie

David Hume

David Hume

Born in 1711, David Hume wrote one of his most influential works, A Treatise of Human Nature, at the age of 28. Rather than tackle this 300 page monster, we're going to talk about his 8 page essay "Of Tragedy" which was published in 1757. (For 1757, think The Seven Years War and the conquest of India by England.) For further background, see David Hume.

Of Tragedy

First off, Hume is not talking about the genre of tragedy. What's really bothering him is why we enjoy seeing staged pain. He starts by turning to a couple of French art critics- l'Abbe Dubos and Fontenelle. Dubos says that we enjoy pain at the theater because we prefer pain to boredom. Hume admits that this is a good start, but we can only say this about theater. Personally, I'd rather be bored than break my arm.

Fontenelle took Dubos's thoughts one step further. He says that pleasure is really a milder form of pain. Those of you who are ticklish understand this. In the theater, we experience pain, but we experience pain at a distance because we know it's not real. Because it's a diluted pain, we experience tragic theater as pleasurable. But this doesn't satisfy Hume. When Cicero talked about real but awful events, his audience still enjoyed his speech. So what's going on?

Borrowing from his Treatise, Hume says that when two strong emotions collide, the stronger emotion absorbs the weaker, even if they're not really connected. "Parents commonly love that child most whose sickly infirm frame of body has occasioned them the greatest pains, trouble, and anxiety, in rearing him." Because imitation brings pleasure (see Aristotle's Poetics), the passion of tragedy is brought into the service of imagination. "The impulse... arising from sorrow... receives a new direction from the sentiments of beauty."


In this essay, Hume seems more concerned with the psychology of art (how we react to art) than about art itself. Hume seems to draw two conclusions at the end of this essay-
  1. We like pain at the theater because it's in the service of pleasure.
  2. If the pain shown is greater than the pleasure (what he calls "shocking images"), then we don't like it (or shouldn't).
Unfortunately for Hume, the example he uses of "shocking images" is taken from a popular play, The Ambitious Step-Mother, where an old man runs into a pillar and "besmears it all over with mingled brains and gore." Basically, this image makes Hume uneasy, but a lot of people actually seem to like it. He'd probably defend himself because he has good taste, but while Hume spends a good portion of his time on pain, I don't think he spends enough time on pleasure. If he had a better explanation of pleasure, then I think his essay would be more helpful.


Hume's argument struggles, but some of his observations are good. Pleasure comes from more than just imitation (You could say he mistranslates Aristotle). It's a start, but not an end. An excruciatingly detailed torture scene might bring pleasure to some, but unthinkingly accepting that pleasure is very dangerous. Hume doesn't provide many answers, but he provides several excellent questions. Why do I enjoy watching this? And should I be enjoying this?


I used Oxford's Selected Essays by David Hume. I'm indebted to Ted Gracyk's article, "Hume's Aesthetics", at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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