The assimilation of the tragic: Hume and Lessing

Thiago Magalhães

The first and indispensable intelligence of the tragic myth is to look for its joy in an aesthetic sphere.



     May be only a coincidence that two isolated author start from the very same points to resolve problems related to aesthetics. However, the initial question brought by Hume in his essay On Tragedy (1757) and the one brought by Lessing in his Laocoonte (1766) is no less curious. They both question the intriguing problem of the aesthetic appreciation of the tragic. Hume asks how a tragedy, full of sadness, anguish and despair, may cause pleasure in the spectator. How one can watch and have pleasure with terrible stories? What allow us to represent in art those horrible ideas? On the other hand, Lessing is involved in the very same problem when criticizes Winckelmann views on the Laocoonte’s sculpture, developing then his own view. Lessing does not agree with the idea that the sculpture manifests the Greek soul, the “noble simplicity and serene greatness” that overcomes suffering and pain without despair. He demands why and how the artists can represent the tragic and make it appreciable. Both Lessing and Hume departs from that problem, respecting a “right” of the representation of tragic, horror, pain and sadness, to achieve a point of view in which form itself is the answer and the reason for that pleasure with the tragic.

     This paper aims, in a synthetic manner, identify that coincident point in order to understand how both authors thought the “assimilation of the tragic”. Hoping that this questioning may help us to enquire our contemporary tragic society.


 1. Lessing and endogenesis

     “Remember, first, the example that is the starting point to the Laocoonte: how explain that the main character of the celebrated sculpture group barely opens his mouth even in intense suffering?” (TODOROV, 1980, p. 26). As said above, Winckelmann explains that through an exterior factor, that is, the idea that the Greek soul was capable of a noble resistance of the horror. Would be that soul that the artist had represented the horror, making visible that the Greeks suffer with “great simplicity”, not screaming and not disfiguring the face. However, according to Lessing must exist another reason for the artist refuses to represent the despair scream on the marble, “because here the artist distinguish himself from his opponent, the poet, who expresses that scream with better design” (LESSING, 1980, p. 86). The reason is that the material imposes limitation to the expression. This means that different artistic genres express pain differently because the material imposes certain conditions. Music, poetry, sculpture, painting, are different supports that imply determinate rules. According to Todorov this is the great collaboration of Lessing’s thought to aesthetic: the endogenesis of work arts. The reasons that explain the moderate attitude in Laocoonte are “all taken from the nature of art, from its necessary limits and exigencies” (TODOROV, 1980, Lessing, p. 27). Under “the first law of art, the law of beauty” (LESSING, 1998, p. 92), the artist and the material that he works with get in a constrict relation, which creates limits and rules to expression.  The resolution to the problem of Laocoonte, in which the facial expression does not correspond to the real suffering of the represented moment, consists on the artist choice for beauty. He cannot “freeze” despair and anguish on a sculpture, it would be impossible to regard at once the misery and horror of the scene. The artist “was forced to smooth the scream into a sigh; not because the scream denounces an unworthy soul, but because it disposes the face in a loathsome way” (LESSING, 1998, p. 92).

     In general, the works of art, in its different genres, have immanent rules, inner rules of form itself. Therefore, there is a primacy of form in each aesthetic genre, a specific endogenesis. That is why one cannot find in visual arts the type of tragic expression that one find in poetry. Poetry develops its form in time, the images come and go, the descriptions disappear from our sight as the text goes on and the horror, the terrible, passes through us but does not stay in front of us permanently. Language, then, increases the possibility of representing pain and suffering; sculpture, as a “freeze” scene cannot represent in the same way. Deeply engendered to form and to the material that imposes rules and restrictions the content does not determine the work of art. Form “legislate” in beauty’s name.

2. Hume

     As said before, Hume starts his essay On Tragedy with the provocative paradox of have pleasure in pain:

The whole art of the poet is employed, in rousing and supporting the compassion and indignation, the anxiety and resentment of his audience. They are pleased in proportion as they are afflicted, and never so happy as when they employ tears, sobs, and cries to give vent to their sorrow” (HUME, p. 217).

     However, ‘to give vent to their sorrow’ is not the motive for such pleasure. Hume slowly proceeds his analysis giving subtle coups in two interpretations: Dubos and Fontanelle. The first, besides his importance in the history of aesthetic thought, states that ‘any passion is preferred to boredom’. There is nothing more unpleasant to the mind that the amorphous condition of not have any passion. It is the distraction, which awakes us and entertain, that gives color and intensity to the boring and idle life. Hume, on the contrary, sees a problem in this statement:

     It is certain, that the same object of distress, which pleases in a tragedy, were it really set before us, would give the most unfeigned uneasiness; though it be then the most effectual cure to languor and indolence. (HUME, p; 218)

   Right after, Hume gives us Fontanelle’s views on the solution of this paradoxical problem: “Pleasure and pain, he says, which are two sentiments so different in themselves, differ not so much in their cause. From the instance of ticking, it appears, that the movement of pleasure, pushed a little too far, becomes pain; and that the movement of pain, a little moderated, becomes pleasure” (HUME, p. 218). Fontenelle suggests that passions are in a complex play of intensities, as pain changes to pleasure regarding their moderated affection. One example is the tragic theater. Here, the tragedy pleases because the idea that it is a representation, a pretended situation, would make lighter our hearts even when there is anguish and despair. To Fontanelle, it is the idea of everything as fiction that eases our affliction.

     Again, thou, Hume will demand more. He presents some examples in which sadness is not ease by fiction. The great Cicero moved his audience describing scenes of terror (real events) and, however, pleased them. Therefore, even real events, tragic events, can cause pleasure if eloquence delivers them in such a way. Hume, then, suggests that the effect of pleasure comes from the form in which eloquence represents the tragic. The effects “proceeds from the very eloquence, with which the melancholy scene is represented” (HUME, p. 219).

     The genius required to paint objects in a lively manner, the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances, the judgment displayed in disposing them: the exercise, I say, of these noble talents, together with the force of expression, and beauty of oratorial numbers, diffuse the highest satisfaction in the audience, and excite the most delightful movements. (HUME, p 219).

     In others words, it is the form which assimilates the tragic (in expression itself) that produces pleasure, making the tragic aesthetic and offering it as an object, “and the soul, being, at the same time, roused by passion, and charmed by eloquence, feels on the whole a strong movement, which is altogether delightful” (HUME, p. 219). That is what makes possible us to enjoy the tragic, because the richness of form, the aesthetic labor, becomes predominant, easing and transforming sad passions. Finally, beauty itself determines the right dose of the tragic in different aesthetic forms.

     Well, is not that the same meaning that Lessing gives to the tragic in his Laocoonte? Aesthetic pleasure in pain is not paradoxical as it looks like. Because it is the form in which suffering is expressed that leads us to aesthetic appreciation, as a harmonious play of imagination with an easiness of sadness, transforming the tragic in something ‘without reality’.

     It is important to note here what the word ease implies. Both Lessing and Hume have this keyword in their minds. Both see form as a manner of ease terror and anguish, expressing by this, as a paradoxical harmony, beauty in pain. The point is that, giving it proportions, pain and sadness can be objects of pleasure, because the form of expression allows a sublimation or detachment of “real passions”. I suggest, based on this, that we are facing here a possibility of transcend the individual and subjective limitations towards a higher signification of the tragic.

     We could ask now if the epistemic soil in which both philosophers lived had conducted them to consider the tragic in such a similar way. What they had in common in their deeply views of human nature? I cannot answer that in this moment. Nevertheless, it is this intriguing question (how is it possible the tragic to be beauty?) that both philosophers gives to art and to aesthetic a principle that shall not stay at the shadows of philosophy. In this principle of the form as first regarding content, we may find paths and instructions to think how today we can appreciate not only horror movies or terrible stories, but also the entertainment of violence with their appeal to “real situations”, and even our appreciation on worldwide problems such as starvation and war. What are the limits in which those events can be acceptable? Inside what borders are they “sublimated” by the media form into an aesthetic phenomenon? As Hume clarifies:

     Who could ever think of it as a good expedient for comforting an afflicted parent, to exaggerate, with all the force of elocution, the irreparable loss, which he has met with by the death of a favorite child? (HUME, p. 223). Although the differences between the authors, they both states that it is the proportion on the effect of the tragic that the expression is acceptable. Genesis and reception are, then, two routes that meet together with this common principle: the assimilation of the tragic into an acceptable form.


HUME, D. Essays Moral, Political, Literacy, edited and with Foreword, Notes and Flogssary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T. H. Green and T. h. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund). 1987.

LESSING, G. E. Laocoonte ou sobre as fronteiras entre pintura e poesia. Com esclarecimentos ocasionais sobre diferentes pontos da história da arte antiga. Introdução, tradução e notas de Márcio Seligmann-Silva. São Paulo – SP. Editora Iluminuras. 1998.

NIETZSCHE, F. A Origem da Tragédia. Revisão Maria Clara de Faria. São Paulo – SP. Editora Moraes. 1984.

TODOROV, T. Os Gêneros do discurso. Tradução Elisa Angottui Kossovitch. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1 ed. 1980.


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1 Comment


    Hume locates the origins of religion in emotion, particularly fear and the desire to control the future.

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