Serious Comedy

The Philosophical and Theological Significance of Tragic and Comic Writing in the Western Tradition

BY Patrick Downey
FOreword by Colin Redemer
About this book

Is reality a tragedy or a comedy?

The question of how seriously to take literature has vexed philosophers throughout the centuries. Are the stories we write merely noble lies told to hold society together? A means of comic detachment from a tragic world? Mimicry of transcendent truths? Potent acts of self-realization? From the Socratics to the Romantics, all of these opinions and more have been offered. In a pop-culture age in which we live out of the stories we tell, our culture needs a clear answer.

In this masterful overview of the Western literary tradition, Patrick Downey traces how seriously philosophers and writers across the centuries, from Plato to Kierkegaard, have taken humanity’s attempts at self-authorship in tragedy and comedy. These attempts, Downey argues, only find resolution in history’s most significant work of literature: the Bible. Setting all other literature in its right place, the Bible and the gospel it proclaims take us beyond literature to the true story of reality, providing what the philosophers and poets have sought for all along: a serious comedy.

Paperback | 424 pages | 6×9 | Published June 28, 2022 | ISBN 978-1-949716-11-5

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“The crucial question facing late-modernity remains whether or not it can truly take itself seriously, so all the attempts to regain a second naïveté or “re-enchant” the world revolve around the question of taking seriously its own tragedy. Yet because modernity is a quarrel or a question with the ancients rather than a resolution or answer, the possibility still remains of siding with the comedy of the Bible and Plato rather than succumbing to the ferocious comedy of the moderns. If this is to be a live option, however, it requires us to distinguish again between life and writing, and ask whether one can indeed live a serious life while writing comically, as seems to be the case in Plato; or, in the case of the Christian faith, actually live one’s life in terms of the serious comedy of the Bible. The questions remain open for us; the point of this investigation is merely to focus these questions a bit by tracking why comedy and tragedy reappear again and again in accounting for why and what we must decide between.”

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Foreword to the Second Edition

Preface to the Second Edition

I: Introduction

Part One: Comedy and tragedy at the foundation of political Philosophy

II: Tragedy and the Truth: Aristotle’s Account of Catharsis

III: Plato’s Republic on Comedy and Tragedy

IV: Playful and Serious Writing in Plato’s Phaedrus

V: The Symposium’s Erotic Striving in Life and Writing

VI: Violence and the Tragic Plot as Scapegoat

VII: Tragedy

VIII: Comedy

Part Two: The Bible and its comic narrator

IX: The Comic Unity of the Biblical Narrative

X: Reading the Bible

XI: Reading the Bible as Comedy

XII: The Theology of a Comic Bible

Part Three: Modern comedy and tragic nostalgia

XIII: Dante, Machiavelli, and the Technological Comedy of Modernity

XIV: Hegel’s Tragic Theater

XV: Nietzsche: From Tragedy to Comedy

XVI: Kierkegaard: Tragic Existence and Christian Comedy




Praise for this work

“Patrick Downey has added a seminal chapter to the ongoing dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem that is as bold and original as it is humble and traditional. By positioning himself within a host of pre-Christian (Plato and Aristotle), Christian (Dante and Girard), and post-Christian (Hegel and Nietzsche) poets and philosophers who both complement compete with one another, Downey traces a line from pagan tragedy to Christian comedy that all Christians living in the modern world need to wrestle with. His overall thesis left me intrigued, chastened, and grateful.”

– DR. Louis Markos

Professor in English and scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; author of From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith and From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics

“What is the greatest story ever told? It must, argues Patrick Downey, be the greatest ever written, as its author can only be God Himself. In such a supremely life-giving tale there is no escape from our own lived part—bracing news for poets and philosophers, perhaps, but good news, the best news, for us human beings. In a digital age when the totality of information threatens to blind us to the Gospel, Downey’s call to remember how to read who we are resounds even as it returns us more quietly to yet deeper affirmations: of the stillness and the silence beyond all writing, reading, and laughter, within which our invisible ears might begin truly to hear the Word of God.”

– James Poulos

Executive Editor of The American Mind; Author of Human Forever: The Digital Politics of Spiritual War

“A wide-ranging, interesting, and deeply challenging work of enduring relevance that critically engages with central questions of political philosophy and theology and is therefore worthy of its republication. The book considers and offers interpretations of a broad swath of Western poetics: Greek comedy and tragedy; their treatment by Plato, Aristotle, and René Girard; the Bible; and subsequent authors, including Dante, Machiavelli, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. At root, the book is a work of poetic iconoclasm.”


The Ancient Language Institute

About the Author

Dr. Patrick Downey

Dr. Patrick Downey is a professor in the Philosophy Department at St. Mary’s College of California. He is a graduate of Pitzer College B.A.; Harvard University, M.T.S; and Boston College, PhD. He is the author of two books; Serious Comedy: The Philosophical and Theological Significance of Tragic and Comic Writing in the Western Tradition, and Desperately Wicked: Philosophy, Christianity and the Human Heart. He lives in Danville, California with his wife and four daughters.


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