Autonomy and Unhappy Consciousness

Ethical Perspectives 5 (4):253-262 (1998)
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Abstract

Perhaps even more radically than under the criticism of the ‘Maîtres du soupçon’, a whole world goes down in Greek comedy. Not only traditional religion, but also ethical life and finally even reason itself seem to be affected by the all-destroying power of laughter.The title of Aristophanes’ famous play ‘The Clouds’ has a symbolic meaning: in the comedy, Greek ethical life dissolves into a vanishing mist. Behind the player’s mask hides the principle of this total decomposition: the autonomous, selfconfident individual. This event does not only have a theatrical meaning. It does not only exist in the artist’s imagination. It concerns a whole nation, a whole culture. The comedy is an expression of the way society understands itself. It represents in an aesthetic way the fact that the individual human being sees himself as ‘principium essendi et cognoscendi’ of everything. The comedy voices a new truth, namely that all truth begins and ends with man. The gods — symbols of truth and actuality- have dissolved in the shamelessness of a laughter, which does not halt for anything anymore. Formulated in modern terms: the comedy voices the philosophical principle that from now on the subject will be the reference point of all reality. Long before Descartes’s Cogito, a metaphysics of subjectivity here finds one of its remarkable expressions.At least, that is how Hegel interprets the comedy in his Phenomenology of Spirit. According to him, the destruction of the Greek world announces itself in the comedy. It signals the experience that a certain culture has grown old, that something new is coming. This new actuality will get its first, symbolic expression in the Christian religion. However, this transition is only possible if consciousness undergoes new experiences, by which the self-sufficient and frivolous cheerfulness of the comedy gets lost. In these new experiences the implications of the principle of the autonomous subjectivity, which is decisive for the comedy, come to light. Hegel defines this principle as following: “das Selbst ist das absolute Wesen; das Wesen, das Substanz und an dem das Selbst die Akzidentalität war, ist zum Prädikate herunter gesunken ...”.These new experiences are indicated by a term which is already familiar to the readers of the Phenomenology, namely ‘the unhappy consciousness’. Hegel writes: “We see that this Unhappy Consciousness constitutes the counterpart and the completion of the comic consciousness that is perfectly happy within itself”. The text is clear: the unhappy consciousness is not only that into which the comic consciousness turns. It is at the same time a change in which this consciousness accomplishes itself.The “Self which is for itself the absolute being” could not durably maintain itself in its position. Its “Leichtsinn” makes it “light”, too light to be the substance of everything. Very quickly, it loses its uncomplicated enjoyment of itself and becomes unhappy, even more: it has to become unhappy. I will return to the reason for this “having to” later on. But first, how does Hegel typify this historical experience, which is connected with the origin of Christianity? What does the bitter fruit of Greek comedy consist of?

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