Tragedy as Philosophy in the Reformation World: A Review

Tragedy as Philosophy in the Modern World by Russ Leo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 312 pages, £67 (Paperback).


Russ Leo’s Tragedy as Philosophy in the Reformation World (hereafter TPRW) seeks to demonstrate how the Protestant/Reformed philosophical reconfiguration of tragedy has provided the conceptual material for what would become the major debates of modern philosophy concerning causality, probability, necessity, human agency, etc. Part of Leo’s purpose is to fill in a rather large gap that Peter Szondi’s Essays on the Tragic created between Aristotle and Schelling. Leo goes about filling the gap especially by highlighting how some early modern theories of tragedy emphasize what is philosophical in tragedy rather than—sometimes in plain opposition to—what belongs on stage. This attention to the development of philosophical tragedy illustrates “how Reformation takes shape in poetic as well as theological, devotional, and political terms” (p. 9).

The scope of Leo’s project requires him to be selective, yet his selectivity yields a rich story of how an Aristotelian conception of tragedy both influenced and was modified by various writers in the “Reformation world.” Considered one way, TPRW is a history of the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics among Protestant (and Protestant-accused) scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From another angle, TPRW provides historical background for the conception of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English tragedy, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Either of those perspectives would be reductive by itself, yet together they provide a broad selection of insights which could benefit many different disciplines.

Leo arranges TPRW after the fashion of a tragedy with sections titled “Prologus,” “Protasis,” “Epitasis,” and “Catastrophe.” This arrangement suggests that the development of tragedy in the Reformation world is itself “tragic.”

In the “Prologus,” Leo introduces the main cast of characters and some important backgrounds, such as the scholarship of Erasmus and Melanchthon. Of most value here is an account of Bucer’s incorporation of tragic terminology in the service of theology, especially in De Regno Christi (1550).

In the “Protasis,” Leo first discusses how Reformed theologians drew from tragedy to understand various contemporary crises throughout Europe, particularly by means of a tragic interpretation of the biblical book of Revelation. Leo is interested both in examples of tragoedia sacra—such as Naogeorgus’s Pammachius (1538), Negri’s Tragedia intitolata Libero Arbitrio (1546), and Foxe’s Christus Triumphans (1556)—and in David Pareus’s controversial commentary on Revelation (1618). Pareus especially used the terminology of tragedy to connect a typology of Revelation to the actual events of the Church’s history, including the contemporary events of the Reformation.

The“Protasis” then shifts to discuss Lodovico Castelvetro’s Poetica D’Aristotele Vulgarizzata, Et Sposta (1570). This translation and commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics—in its original, unredacted form—was also a treatise to advance the cause of Reformation. Castelvetro drew especially from the scholarship of Erasmus and Melanchthon—having anonymously translated the latter’s Loci Communes into Italian—to critique Roman Catholic practices. Castelvetro, who promoted edifying tragedy on stage, also portrayed the performance of tragedy as a kind of accommodation in the transmission of divine truths to the laity.

Following this, Leo discusses the poetics of John Rainolds, whose treatise on Th’overthrow of stage-playes (1599) opposed histrionic performance, though not all recital, of tragedy. Leo demonstrates that Rainolds’s opposition to stage-playing was not just a function of his “Puritanism” but also—or maybe, more so—a function of an alternative conception of tragedy closely aligned with Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric. Noteworthy in this chapter, at its end, is Leo’s suggestion that the character Reynaldo in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the bard’s response to Rainolds’s anti-theatrical theses.

In the “Epitasis”, Leo discusses Daniel Heinsius’s De Tragoediae Constitutione (1611), a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics that locates it within a broader Aristotelian philosophy. Leo’s reading of Heinsius draws attention to the limits of human knowledge about causality and necessity and the bearing that these limitations might have on the Remonstrant controversy, which rocked the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. Leo construes Heinsius’s work as “a substantive alternative to the divisive technical arguments concerning God’s providence, election, and reprobation that threatened the future of the [Dutch] Republic” (p. 167)—even though Heinsius himself was a staunch Contra-Remonstrant and supporter of the Synod of Dordt. There is an unresolved tension here; Leo fails sufficiently to explain how Heinsius coordinates divine sovereignty and sub-divine causality.

The “Epitasis” also considers Milton’s Paradise Regain’d (1671), often in conversation with Samson Agonistes, which was jointly published, appended in the same volume. While so much of TPRW has shown the reception and reworking of Aristotle’s Poetics, in Milton the Aristotelian and philosophical conception of tragedy reaches its limits, even as Milton’s Jesus in Paradise Regain’d shifts the origin of poetics away from the Greeks to the ancient Hebrews.

In the concluding “Catastrophe”, Leo continues his discussion of Milton’s Samson Agonistes, with Peter Sterry’s Discourse on the Freedom of the Will (1675) tacked on as a counterpoint. Leo highlights the difficulty of reading Samson Agonistes according to the (Aristotelian) canons of tragedy developed by the other figures in TPRW, for in Samson Agonistes the concept of God explodes the distinction between what is and is not necessary to the unity of the plot, the distinction between the strict causality and the dei ex machinis that supposedly interrupt causality.

A shortcoming of TPRW relates to its arrangement: the volume fits together much less tightly than the section titles suggest. Leo has not persuaded me that, for example, Milton’s Samson Agonistes (in the “Catastrophe”) has untied the knots that were supposedly introduced by Pareus, Castelvetro, Rainolds, Heinsius, and the rest. Leo portrays Milton’s contribution less as a “Catastrophe” and more as another complication in an unfinished plot, less as the tragedian giving the closing speech and more as an obscurantist who bridges the Reformation to the Enlightenment. The result is that TRPW ends with a cliff-hanger, or a head-scratcher, and not a tragic denouement.

To sum up, Leo’s TPRW offers a selection of insightful analyses that could interest a range of scholars in different fields, including reception history of the Bible and of Aristotle, historical theology, history of philosophy, history of the Protestant Reformation, literary criticism, and hermeneutics, and it may even help a tragedian or two. There is so much of value here. Oxford University Press’s small font, narrow margins, and very abbreviated citation style together contribute to a high information density; the page count could be doubled if this volume were from a different publisher. In other words, TPRW is not a minor monograph. Leo’s research is thorough, and his presentation is mostly straightforward. Even if Leo does not pull off the tragedy-like structure for the volume as a whole, still he has done tremendous work to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the “Reformation world” and has illuminated how the development of poetics contributed, and continues to contribute, to the shaping of the post-Reformation world.


Philip Thomas Mohr is a full-time PhD student at the Catholic University of America, a licentiate in the Northeast Presbytery of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a sexton at Bethesda United Methodist Church, and an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @ptmohr.

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